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"A COSSACK POET" by William Morfill 
Biographie de T. Chevtchenko (1886) 
By PanDoktor Posted in Lettres, Sources on 5 août 2017 25 min read
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La première biographie de Taras Chevtchenko jamais publiée en anglais date de 1886, soit un quart de siècle après la mort du poète national ukrainien. Elle est de William Morfill, professeur d'Oxford et premier slaviste du monde anglophone à avoir reconnu l'Ukraine comme entité culturelle distincte de la Russie. En voici la version originale telle que publiée dans le Macmillan Magazine.

Source : William Richard Morfill, A Cossack Poet. Macmillan Magazine, T. 53, N. 318 (avril 1886), pp. 458-464. Remarque importante : Morfill utilise principalement la phonétique russe pour transcrire les mots ukrainiens. Ainsi de Setch, la Sitch zaporogue, et de Malo-Russians, Petits-Russiens (nom des Ukrainiens dans l’empire tsariste). La première biographie de T. Chevtchenko en français avait paru dix ans plus tôt. Le texte original annoté par Pan Doktor est ici.


"A COSSACK POET" by William Morfill 

I propose in the following pages to introduce to the notice of my readers a poet whose name has hardly been heard in the western parts of Europe. This is the Cossack Taras Shevchenko, whose funeral in 1861 was followed by so many thousands of his country-men, and whose grave a tumulus surmounted by a large iron cross, near Kaniov on the Dnieper has been called the Mecca of the South Russian revolutionists. Schevchenko has become the national poet of the Malo-Russians, a large division of the Slavonic family amounting to ten millions, and speaking what has been called a Russian dialect, but is more justly styled by Micklosich and other eminent Slavists an independent language. The object of my little sketch is not philological, so that I shall only dwell upon such points so far as to enable my readers to form a correct idea what the Malo-Russian language is, and where it is spoken.

I shall give a notion of its area if I say that drawing a straight line from Sandech, near Cracow, to the Asiatic frontier of Russia, we shall find this language the dominant tongue of Galicia and all the southern parts of Russia, till we come to the Caucasus. It is even spoken in a thin strip of territory in the north of Hungary. It has a rich collection of legendary poems, tales and folk-songs, but its written and artificial literature only dates from the end of last century. When we look at the part of Europe where the language is spoken, we might reasonably expect to find in the surroundings a great deal to stimulate a national poet. These broad steppes form one of the cockpits of Europe. Here Turk, Russian, Pole, Tartar, and Rouman have met in many a deadly contest. On the islands of the Dnieper were the settlements of the strange Cossack Republic, the Setch, which cost Peter the Great and Catherine the Second so much trouble to break up ; here were the battlegrounds of the celebrated Bogdan Khmelnitzki in his long struggles against the Polish pans. Over these steppes the Tartars used to drive their numerous herds of prisoners of all ages and both sexes to the slave-markets. Such a country is sure not to want its vates sacer ; but if he will sing of it as a real son of his country, he will not tell of delicate-handed dealings ; he will talk more of the shedding of blood than the sprinkling of rose-water. Schevchenko has left us an auto-biography, though but a meagre one ; and it is from this, which is included in the editions of his works published at Lemberg and Prague, that I shall chiefly take my sketch. To the two handsome volumes which appeared at Prague in 1876 is prefixed the portrait of the poet, with his Cossack cap. It is a manly, expressive face, though somewhat rough, and with care deeply stamped upon it ; but we shall not be surprised at this when we make a closer acquaintance with his fortunes. Tourgueniev tells us that he had a heavy look till he became animated; and one of his friends humorously styled him « a wild boar with a lark in his throat. »

Shevchenko was born on the ninth of March, 1814, in the village of Mornitza, near Kerelivka, in the government of Kiev. His parents were serfs on the estate of a Russian nobleman of German extraction named Engelhardt. His troubles began in earliest childhood. In 1823 he lost his mother, and on his father’s marrying again he was doomed to experience the cruelties of a stepmother. Tarras wandered about the village, a neglected bare-footed urchin, with his little sister Irene for his sole companion. The elder Shevchenko only survived his second marriage two years, and then the orphan was sent to be instructed by a drunken priest named Buhorski, who treated him with great brutality.

« This was the first despot I ever had to deal with, » says Taras in his autobiography, « and he instilled in me for the rest of my life a loathing for every act of oppression which one man can commit against another. » He has tales to tell us about two other preceptors of the same sort, from whom he also learned something of the art of painting ; for, in addition to the instruction of children both of his masters were engaged in the trade of preparing sacred icons, or representations of saints for churches. Thus an inclination for art was produced in him besides his inborn propensity for poetry.

In this way Shevchenko spent a considerable part of his early youth ; but in 1829 his master Engelhardt died, and his son-and-heir took the youngster as a page. This new post, although it seemed at first to abridge his liberty, was in the end advantageous to him. His duty was to remain in his master’s ante-chamber and answer his call. He began to amuse himself by copying the pictures hanging on the walls, a practice, however, which on one occasion led to very unpleasant results.

He had accompanied his master to Vilna, on the occasion of a festival in honour of the Tzar. A grand ball was given at which most of the Engelhardt family were present. While the rest of the household slept, the young artist rose secretly, lit a candle, and began copying a portrait of Platov, the well-known hetman of the Cossacks, who visited England with the Allied Sovereigns in 1814. Shevchenko became so engrossed in this occupation that he did not perceive the return of his master, till he was rudely awakened from his artistic studies by having his ears pulled by the angry nobleman, who reminded his careless serf that by sitting with a candle among the papers he had almost set the house on fire. He received a beating at the time, and on the following day a severer castigation by his masters’ orders.

Better days, however, were in store for him. M. Engelhardt, seeing in what direction his talents lay, resolved to send him to a house-painter and decorator, with a view to employing him in those capacities on his own estate. To a painter of this sort he was accordingly sent, and luckily found a kind-hearted man, who, seeing how superior his apprentice was to such work, recommended his master to put him under a certain Lampi, at that time a portrait-painter of some reputation at Warsaw. Consent was given to this step, but the youth remained unhappy and restless, and, according to one of his biographers, was on the point of committing suicide. In the year 1832 the Engelhardts removed permanently to St. Petersburg, and the poet followed with the rest of the servants. He was now eighteen years of age, and at his earnest request was put under the care of another painter, who was, however, little better than a house-decorator. But his mind developed in the capital. On holidays he used to visit the picture galleries, and a longing seized him to imitate the great masters whose works he saw exhibited there. By good luck he made the acquaintance of the artist Soshenko, who felt especial sympathy with him, as being a native of the same part of Russia. By the advice of his new friend he began to work in water-colours. His success in this branch of art was so great that his master used to employ him to paint the portraits of his friends, and rewarded him for so doing.

Soshenko assisted him in his work, and laboured also for his moral and intellectual progress, introducing him to the Malo-Russian novelist Grebenka. These worthy men between them succeeded in purchasing the freedom of the poor artist. The celebrated Broulov painted a portrait of the poet Zhoukovski, then one of the most popular men in Russia. The picture was sold for twenty-five hundred roubles at a lottery and for this sum his master Engelhardt gave him his freedom.

This was in April, 1838, and Shevchenko at once became a member of the Academy of Arts. A successful career seemed now to lie open before him. A fondness for poetry had developed itself in him as early as his love of art. His surviving friends still speak of his enthusiasm for the songs of his country, and the tenderness and pathos with which he was in the habit of singing them. In 1840 appeared his ‘Kobzar,’ 1 containing a collection of lyrical pieces in the Little or Malo-Russian language. In the following year were published the ‘Haidamaks‘ and ‘Hamalia.’ These poems were received with great enthusiasm by the South Russians, and made the name of the poet deservedly celebrated among his countrymen. The Ukraine and the surrounding lands have always been the most poetic region of Russia, and have been celebrated not only by the authors who have used the national language, but also by the so-called Ukraine school of Polish poets, including Zaleski, Malczewski, Goszcrynski, Padura, Slowacki, and others. Soon after the poet visited his native province, and there made the acquaintance of Koulish and Kostomarov. The former of these writers was well known throughout Russia for his sympathies with the language and literature of the Ukraine. He is the author of some excellent works on the subject, but from a recent publication his opinions seem to have undergone a great change. Kostomarov died in the earlier part of the present year, having left a considerable reputation as a worker in the field of history and the author of many valuable monographs on Russian celebrities. But these friendships led to some serious troubles. The three men were of advanced political opinions, and were so indiscreet as to give utterance to them. At some meetings in the house of Artemovski Koulak, a Malo-Russian author, their unguarded utterances were heard by a student of the University of Kiev, who undertook the degrading office of an informer. 2

This, we must remember, occurred under the iron rule of the Emperor Nicholas ; but there is also a story that the poet composed some biting epigrams on members of the Imperial family. The companions of his indiscretion were hurried off to imprisonment and exile in separate places. Shevchenko was sentenced to serve as a common soldier, at Orenburg on the Asiatic frontier of the empire. This banishment he endured for ten years, from 1847 to 1857. He has told us of his sufferings in many of his lyrical pieces. From Orenburg he was removed to Siberia, and afterwards to the Fort of Novopetrovsk on the Asiatic coast of the Caspian Sea. His punishment was rendered more severe because he was forbidden to draw or paint. He continued, however, to secrete materials for the exercise of his favourite art, even carrying a pencil in his shoe ; and the good-natured officer in command winked at these breaches of discipline. The following story is told by Tourgueniev in the interesting recollections which he has furnished to the Prague edition of the poet’s works :

  • « One general, an out-an-out martinet, having heard that Shevchenko, in spite of the prohibition, had made two or three sketches, thought it his duty to report the matter to Perovski (the commander-in-chief of the district) on one of his days of reception ; but the latter, looking sternly on the overzealous informer, said in a marked tone, ‘ General, I am deaf in this ear ; be so good as to repeat to me on the other side what you have said.’ The general took the hint, and going to the other ear told him something which in no way concerned Shevchenko. »

The poor poet lamented his captivity in many pathetic poems. In one, addressed to his friend Kozachovski, he speaks of « often bedewing his couch with tears of blood. » But a day of deliverance was at hand. In 1855 the Emperor Nicholas died. Up to that time the only alleviation of Shevchenko’s treatment had been when he was allowed to Accompany as draftsman through part of Siberia the expedition under Lieutenant Boutakov. A year or so before the end of his captivity his treatment became more gentle ; and at last came his release, owing to the efforts of Count Feodore Tolstoi and his wife, whom Shevchenko ever afterwards reckoned among his greatest benefactors. There was some delay, however, before he received his freedom.

He was detained several months at Nizhni-Novgorod, and sold a few drawings there for his maintenance. He did not return to St. Petersburg till April, 1858. In the summer of 1859 he paid a visit to the Ukraine, and saw his sister Irene in his native village ; but he was so poor that he was only able to give her a rouble. At that time all the surviving members of his family were serfs; but in 1860 they received their freedom to the number of eleven souls, owing to the efforts of a society established to assist poor authors and their families. The emancipation of the serfs throughout Russia by the oukaze of Alexander the Second was to follow in the next year. The poverty of Shevchenko, indeed, continued till the end of his days, but in truth he was, as is popularly supposed to be the way of poets, remarkably careless of his money. We are told that when he had taken lodgings with a friend he would frequently hand over his purse to him, leaving him to make all arrangements for their common wants. Taras had now a fixed plan of settling in the Ukraine. He wished to purchase a cottage and a little piece of land within sight of the Dnieper, but he was not destined to have his wishes fulfilled. Towards the middle of July he again made his appearance at St. Petersburg, and a new edition of his ‘ Kobzar ‘ was published, which was very favourably received. At this time he had chambers in the Academy buildings, and occupied himself with engraving. He now resolved to marry, and his choice fell upon a peasant girl, in spite of the remonstrances of his friends, who reminded him that he was a man of talent and culture. His answer was characteristic : « In body and in soul I am a son and brother of our despised common people. How, then, can I unite myself to one of aristocratic blood ? And what would a proud, luxurious lady do in my humble cottage ? » In pursuance of this plan he successively endeavoured to gain the affections of two women in humble life, named Charita and Glukeria, but in neither case was he successful : preparations were indeed made for his marriage with the latter, but the girl herself broke off the engagement.

According to the testimony of his friends, Shevchenko rarely visited the houses of those who were in a social station superior to his own. He had a natural dread of being patronised, and conducted himself in a reserved and haughty manner. In the appreciative circles of a few private friends he appeared in his native strength, told amusing anecdotes, and sang some of the songs of the Ukraine in a pathetic and impressive manner. After the failure of his second attempt at marriage, he became more than ever anxious to get away from his lonely life in St. Petersburg, and purchased a piece of land on the right bank of the Dnieper near Kaniov.

His health, once so vigorous, now began to show signs of breaking up, owing to his long sufferings both in early youth and in his Siberian exile, and, it must also be added, to an unfortunate habit of drinking But even in the last days of his life he was labouring for his country, being busy in writing books to assist popular education in the Little-Russian language ; of these, one, a grammar, was published during his life; the others, works on arithmetic, geography, and history, were never finished. In January, 1861, Shevchenko wrote to his brother Bartholomew : « I have begun this year very badly ; for two weeks I have not stirred out of the house. I feel debilitated and cough continually.« 

A fortnight afterwards he said : « I feel so ill that I can hardly hold the pen in my hand. » On his birthday, although very weak, he was cheered by telegrams from his countrymen in the Ukraine, who regarded him with enthusiastic affection. He received their messages on the ninth of March, and encouraged by their warm expressions of sympathy he talked cheerfully with his companions, and expressed a hope that he might get to the south, where he felt sure that his health would be restored. On the following day, March the tenth, he rose at five o’clock in the morning and went to his studio, but suddenly fell down and in about an hour breathed his last. Two days afterwards he was buried in the Smolensk cemetery at St. Petersburg, where every Sunday his grave was visited by the Southern Russians residing in that city. But this was only to be the temporary resting-place of the poet. In one of his poems he had expressed a wish to be buried in the Ukraine :

« When I am dead
Bury me in a grave,
Amidst the broad steppe
In my beloved Ukraine !
That I may see the wide-extending meadows
And the Dnieper and its bank,
And hear the roaring river
As it eddies onward. »

This wish was to be granted. His body was disinterred and conveyed south. It was received everywhere with all possible honour and, carried through the city of Kiev by the students of the university, was laid at last in a picturesque spot on the banks of the Dnieper in the presence of a great concourse of people. A vast mound of earth was piled on the grave, surmounted by an iron cross. In a recent number of the Russian magazine, ‘Historical Messenger,’ an account is given of the present condition of the « Hill of Taras » (Tarasova Gora) as it is called. The grave has been inclosed with iron railings ; at the basement of the cross is a medallion of the poet, with his name and the date of his birth and death.

Shevchenko is pre-eminently the national poet of the Southern Russians, a title he has well earned by his intense national feeling. I can only hope in a short sketch like the present to give a general idea of the characteristics of his genius. His verse loses much of its native simplicity in translation, and if a version be attempted it ought to be made in Lowland Scotch. He loves to describe the wild lives of the Cossacks in their old independent days, before the setch had been gradually reduced to insignificance by Peter the Great and Catherine ; and in the stirring poem known as ‘The Haidamaks,’ 3 their revolt in 1768 under Gonta and Zelezniak against their Polish masters is described at length.

Another fine poem, too, is that devoted to the celebrated hetman 4 Ivan Podkova, or in the Malo-Russian form pidkova, lit., a horseshoe a name which this redoubtable chief is said to have gained from his skill in crumpling up a horseshoe by a mere twist of the hand. Having broken out into rebellion he was executed by order of Stephen Batory.

But it is not only in these longer pieces, devoted to deeds of the Cossack heroes, that Shevchenko shines. He has many short lyrical pieces of great pathos and elegance which almost defy translation. It would be merely du clair du lune empaillée, as, quoting the words of Gerald de Nerval, M. Durand says in his valuable article on the poet contributed to the ‘Revue des deux Mondes’ (1876, vol. III. p. 919). This, by the way, and a longer sketch in German published by Obrist at Czernowitz, are the only attempts which have been hitherto made to introduce this interesting poet to Western readers.

Shevchenko has, in a clever way, interwoven with his poems the popular superstitions and customs of his countrymen; and this probably explains the great charm which they have for all Southern Russians, by whom his memory is regarded with idolatry. Moreover no poet was ever more autobiographical ; he is always giving us details of his sad but interesting life. He writes for the most part in short unrhymed metres ; the well-marked accent of the Little-Russian language amply supplying the place of rhyme, which, however, he sometimes employs, though more frequently contenting himself with a mere assonance. There is a wonderful spontaneity in his verse ; and despite his careless, unfettered style, there is always the truest agreement between the language and meaning, while in the most graphic passages the lines seem to rush on headlong. Sometimes we have the strangest and most powerful onomatopoeia, as in the poem ‘Outoplena‘ (the drowned woman), where we seem to hear the wind howling among the reeds, and asking, as it were, what melancholy figure sits upon the bank. In the ‘Night of Taras‘ (Tarasova Nich) the poet sings a fine elegy on the past glories of his country.

He has perfectly caught the spirit of the little Russian folk-songs, and reproduces them as faithfully as Burns did the Scottish. Their superstitions about birds, water-nymphs, magic herbs, and other weird beliefs, are freely introduced. Thus ravens, as in Serbian poetry, bring intelligence of a, disaster ; the falcon is the favourite bird with which a young man is compared ; and the cuckoo is a prophet. It is not a little curious to find tales of magic handkerchiefs, such as that which Othello gave to Desdemona :

« ….there’s magic in the web of it ;
A sibyl, that had numbered in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew’d the work. »

It has sometimes occurred to me that the superstition might have got into the Italian story upon which Shakespeare based his noble play from Slavonic sources. Close to Venice is the Dalmatian littoral, with its Slavonic population and traditions of Ragusa and the Ragusan school, which produced some of the most celebrated poets of the South Slavonic peoples.

The belief also is widely spread that human beings are changed into trees. In one lay the poet tells us a tale of two poplars, which were once sisters and enchantresses (sestri-charivnitzi), who both fell in love with the same person, a certain Ivan. There is also a belief in the existence of the evil eyes and of love potions. The favourite plant of the Little-Russians is the elder tree, which has a thousand magic virtues. The following little poem is so pathetic that, even in a prose version, it may perhaps give some idea of Shevchenko’s manner in the minor pieces :

  • « Here three broad ways cross, and here three brothers of the Ukraine parted on their several journeys. They left their aged mother. This one quitted a wife, the other a sister, and the third, the youngest, a sweetheart. The aged mother planted three ashes in a field, and the wife planted a tall poplar ; the sister three maples in the dell, and the betrothed maiden a red elder tree. The three ashes throve not, the poplar withered ; withered also the maples, and the elder faded. Never more came the brothers. The old mother is weeping, and the wife, with the children, wails in the cheerless cottage. The sister mourns and goes to seek her brothers in the far-away lands ; the young maiden is laid in her grave. The brothers come not back : they are wandering over the world ; and the three pathways, they are overgrown with thorns. »

Or let us take this pretty little idyl, which loses, perhaps, even more by translation :

  • « There is a garden of cherry-trees round the cottage, and the insects are humming near them. It is the time when the labourers are coming in with their ploughs, the maidens sing as they enter, and the mothers await them all for supper. The family take their meal about the cottage, the evening glow arises in the sky, the daughter gives the meal to each, and the mother would fain be advising her, but the nightingale hinders it by her singing. The mother has laid her little children to sleep in the cottage, and herself rests by them. All is hushed only the maiden and the nightingale do not sleep. »

And these opening stanzas of the lament of a lonely girl have not a little of the manner of Burns in them :

  • « Alas I am solitary, solitary like a patch of weeds in a field : God has given me neither happiness nor good fortune. He has only given me beauty and brown eyes, and these I have nearly wept out in my desolate maidenhood. »

National poetry, such as proceeds from the hearts of the people and lives in their mouths, is now, thanks to the spread of civilisation and cosmopolitanism, fast disappearing. The conditions of its existence are every day becoming more impossible. Had Shevchenko lived a hundred years ago his lyrics would not have been committed to the printer, but would have been handed on from singer to singer, as was the case with the Scottish ballads ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’ ‘Lord Randal,’ and many others, which are now read with astonishment and delight, but whose authors are unknown. In these days of excessive curiosity the popular minstrel is dragged from his rural solitudes, where he sang only to an audience of the surrounding villages, is brought to the great capitals and becomes an object of wonderment. The people of the Ukraine, like the modern Serbs, are not sufficiently near the great centres of Western culture to have exchanged their folk-songs for operatic airs and the conventional lyrics of the music-hall. One of the last genuine minstrels of that interesting part of Russia was Taras Shevchenko. ◊



  1. The Kobzar is a wandering minstrel among the Malo-Russians, who accompanies his song with a kind of guitar, called kobza.
  2. So Professor Partitzki, of Lemberg, tells us in his suggestive little work in the Malo-Russian language, ‘The Leading Ideas in the Writings of Taras Shevchenko,’ p. 18.
  3. This word is explained by Miklosich, ‘Die Turkischen Elemente in den Südost-und Osteuropaischen Sprachen,’ as, originally a cattle-driver, bat it has come to mean little more than a wandering Cossack ; sometimes, however, it is used with a bad signification, as a robber, or the Scotch land-louper.
  4. The word hetman is none other than the German hauptmann, which has got through Polish into Little-Russian. It has become in Russian ataman.

Morfill Shevchenko Taras Chevtchenko

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