If You But Knew
Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), Ukrainian poet, had first to be purchased out of serfdom before his artistic career could flourish in painting and poetry. At twelve years of age he had been orphaned. Later forced into ten-plus years of military service by a Russian Czar angry at his writings. An infirm bachelor, dead at age forty-seven. Feel the atmosphere of anger in the following poem:
Young gentlemen, if you but knew
Where people weep their whole life through
You'd not compose your rhapsodies
And God for nothing you'd not praise -
And mock our tears and twit the truth.
The tranquil cottage in the grove
You call a paradise, I know.
In such a cottage once I dwelt
And there my first hot tears were spilt,
My early tears! I know no vice,
No wrong or evil anywhere
That's not within that cottage fair ...
And yet they call it paradise!
I do not speak of that wee house
Beside the village, by the copse,
As though 'twere paradise on earth.
'Twas there my mother gave me birth
And, singing as her child she nursed,
She passed her pain to me ... 'Twas there,
In that wee house, that Eden fair,
That I saw hell ... There people slave
Without a let-up night and day,
Not even given time to pray.
In that same village to her grave
My gentle mother, young in years,
Was laid by toil and want and cares-
There father, weeping with his brood
(And we were tiny, tattered tots),
Could not withstand his bitter lot
And died at work in servitude! . . .
And we — we scattered where we could
Like little field mice. I to school —
To carry water for the class.
My brothers slaved on the estate
And then, conscripted, marched away!
And you, my sisters! Fortune has
Reserved for you the cruellest fate!
What is the purpose of your life?
Your youth in service slipped away,
Your locks in servitude turn grey,
In service, sisters, you will die!
My blood runs cold when I recall
That cottage in the village fair!
Such deeds, 0 God. do we do there
Where piety rules over all
And all in paradise should dwell!
Of heaven we have made a hell,
Yet for another heaven call.
We with our brothers live in peace,
We with our brothers plow the fields
And water them with brothers' tears.
And also, maybe . . . Nay, I fear,
But so it seems . . . perhaps, 0 God
(Because without Thy will divine
We'd not in nakedness repine
In paradise), perhaps You mock
Us also, Father, from the sky
And with the masters You conspire
On how to rule us here below.
For look: there smiles a verdant grove,
And from behind the grove a pool
Peeps shyly out, behind it stands
A row of willows washing hands,
Their branches, in the waters cool ...
Is this not truly paradise?
Look once again until your eyes
See what has made this heaven cruel!
You'll see rejoicing, songs of praise
To Him, our God above, alone
For all the marvels He has made!
No, not a bit! There's praise for none!
Just blasphemy and blood and wails -
All things are cursed, all is blasphemed!
There's nothing sacred left on earth ...
And even Thee, it seems to me,
The people have already cursed!