The Bookshelf: A Dream
John Weir (Ivan Fedorovych Viv’yurskiy), a Canadian of the Ukrainian lineage, was a talented English-speaking translator of the second half of the 19ih century. During his life he translated 29 Shevchenko’s poetic works.
Shevchenko called the poem below (which, by the way, was the one which sent the tsar into the greatest rage) a Comedy, that is, a farce. It is one of the most devastating political satires ever penned.
Even the spirit of truth, whom
the world cannot receive because
it seeth him not, neither knoweth him.
John, Chapter 14, Verse 17.
Each man on earth has his own fate,
Each one his highway wide:
This one builds up, that one lays waste,
And that casts greedy eyes
O’er all the globe, to find somewhere
A land not yet enslaved,
Which he could conquer and then bear
With him into the grave.
This fellow in his neighbour’s home
His host cleans out at cards,
While that one in a corner hones
A blade for brother’s heart.
Then there’s the solid citizen,
The worthy, pious kind,
Who’ll creep up like a cat and then
Bide patiently his time
Until hard luck hits your affairs,
Then pounce! — Don’t plead your cause:
Your wife’s appeals and children’s tears
Won’t save you from his claws.
And that one, generous and grand,
The fervent patriot,
So deeply loves his native land,
So worries o’er its lot,
As from his country’s heart he sucks
The blood as though it was water!…
The brethren meanwhile sit and look,
Their eyes agape like saucers!
And bleat like lambs: “Perhaps it was
Thus ordained from on high.”
That’s how it’s meant to be! Because
There’s no God in the sky!
You pull your yoke until your breath
Gives out and you are done,
Yet pray for heaven after death?
In vain! There’s none! There’s none!
Your labour’s lost. Come to! Come to!
In this world every one —
The princes, and the beggars, too,
They all are Adam’s sons.
Both he… and he… What’s this I prate?
What is it all about?
I banquet every single day,
Carouse day in, day out,
While you with envy burn and hate!
Don’t scold: ‘Twill do no good –
I’m deaf to you! I drink my own,
Not other people’s blood!
Such thoughts went flitting through my head
As tipsy from a merry feast
In dead of night, on reeling feet,
I made my way to home and bed.
No bawling child or nagging spouse
Have I to spoil my rest —
With perfect peace I’m blest
Both in my mind and in my house.
I climbed into my bed
And soon slept like the dead.
And when a man has had a few,
Though cannon roar he still will snore,
He’ll sleep whate’er you do.
Oh, what a vision rare I saw
In sleep that night:
A staunch abstainer would get iight,
A tightwad would a coin bestow,
If they could only get a glance.
But not a chance!
I dreamed: high in the air’s expanse
It was as though an owl was flying
Over meadows, over valleys,
Over river banks and gulleys,
Over steppes and over forests.
And in the owl’s wake I flew, too,
And flying, bid the earth adieu:
“Goodbye, O world, O earth, farewell,
Unfriendly land, goodbye!
My searing pain, my tortures cruel
Above the clouds I’ll hide.
And as for you, my dear Ukraine,
I’ll leave the clouds behind
And fall with dew to talk with you,
Poor widow-country mine.
I’ll come at midnight when the dew
Falls heavy on the fields;
And softly-sadly we will talk
Of what the future yields.
Until the rising of the sun
We’ll talk about your woes,
Until your infant sons are grown
And rise against the foes.
Goodbye, my lovely, poor Ukraine,
0 widow-land of mine!
Your children teach the living truth –
That justice is divine!”
We fly… I look — the dawn has come,
The sky’s edge bursts ablaze;
In shady glades the nightingales
Sing out the new sun’s praise.
The breezes softly, lightly wake
The steppelands from their dreams;
About the coulees, by the lakes
The willows shimmer green.
The orchards, heavy laden, bow;
The poplars stand at ease
Like watchmen who, their duty done,
Hold gossip with the fields.
And all about, the whole land gleams
With nature’s warmest hues,
Bedecked with blossoms, dressed in greens,
And bathed in drops of dew.
Since time began it bathes in dew
And greets the morning sun…
There’s no beginning to all this,
Of ending, too, there’s none!
There’s no-one on the earth can raze
And ruin this beauty-land…
And all of this… My aching heart,
My soul, why are you sad?
My poor, my desolated soul,
Why do your useless weep?
For whom is your pity? Alas, can’t you see?
And cannot you hear how the multitudes cry?
So go, take a good look! And meantime I’ll fly
Into the blue sky, above the grey clouds;
Up there are no rulers, no prisons or knouts,
No jeers of contempt and no people’s lament.
Go, closer look: in that same Eden which you flee
His tattered shirt from off a cripple’s back they tear
With skin and all — because his hide they need
To shoe their princelings with. And over there
A widow’s crucified for taxes, while they drive
Her only son — her only hope! — in chains
Into the army. And there — more dead than ‘live,
A starving babe beside a hedge awaits
Its mother from the feudal lord’s estate.
And there, d’you see? My eyes! my eyes!
While I was yet a child
Why did you not along with tears
Flow out and leave me blind?
An unwed mother with her babe
Is shuffIing down the lane –
Her parents drove her from the house,
And none will take her in!
E’en beggars chase her from their midst!
Young master pays no mind:
He’s had some twenty lasses since,
To while away the time!
Does God look from behind a cloud
And see our woes and ills?
Perhaps He does, but helps as much
As do these ancient hills
Which mute and motionless endure
While washed with human gore!
My soul! My miserable soul!
I cannot suffer more.
Let us drink down a poison draught
And sink into the snow,
And send a thought right up to God
And ask of Him to tell
How long will hangmen longer rule
And turn earth into hell?
Then leave me, my thoughts, my torment, my pain,
And take away with you all evils, all woes —
Your constant companions! Together you’ve grown
And clung to each other; by woe were you trained
From earliest childhood. So take thern and fly,
Unleash angry riot all over the sky.
Let it turn black, let it turn red,
Let conflagration spread,
Let once again the dragon’s breath
Pile mound on mound of dead.
And meanwhile, I will hide my heart
And go far, far away
To seek and find somewhere a place
Where Eden still holds sway.
Again I tell the earth good-bye.
Again above the earth I fly.
It’s hard to leave your mother dear,
No roof above her head,
But harder yet to watch her tears,
Her rags, her lack of bread.
I fly, I fly, the north winds blow;
Before lie endless miles of snow,
Muskeg and woods, a fog-bound land,
A wilderness untouched by man.
No human sound, not e’en a track
Is seen of fearful human feet.
To foe and friend alike I speak:
Farewell! I’m never coming back!
Carouse, make merry all you like!
I’ll never hear you now —
All by myself I’ll sink to sleep
Forever in the snow.
And till the day comes when you find
There is a corner yet
That’s not been drenched in blood and tears
I’ll take a little rest…
I’ll rest a bit… What’s this I hear? —
The clanging sound of chains
Beneath the earth… I’ll take a look…
Oh, evil human race!
Where have you come from? And what for?
What is it that you seek
Beneath the earth? No! I’m afraid
There’ll be no rest for me
In heaven too!… What have I done?
What way am I to blame?
To whom and how have I done wrong?
Whose heavy hands have chained
My soul within this searing breast
And set my heart on fire?
And who let loose these carrion crows —
These rebel thoughts of mine?
I don’t know why I suffer so,
Why I’m tormented so!
Oh, when will I my sins atone
And pay the debt I owe? —
I am afraid, I must confess,
I neither see nor know!
Then suddenly the wasteland shook.
As though their coffins they forsook
On that, the final Judgment Day,
The dead arise to justice claim.
No, these are not the dead at all,
And not to judgement claim!
They’re people — living, breathing men
In heavy irons chained.
Deep from the bowels of the earth
The gold they daily bring
To fill his hollow coffers with!…
They’re convicts!… Why in chains?
Go ask the tsar… And even he,
Perhaps, cannot explain.
See, there a branded bandit drags
His ball and chain behind;
And there, fresh from the torture rack,
His teeth an outlaw grinds —
To kill his barely-breathing pal
Is topmost in his mind!
And there, amid those wretched dregs,
In iron chains he stands:
The king of freedom! World-wide king,
Crowned with a convict’s brand!
In prison dread he does not groan,
He does not quail or weep!
A heart that once with worth was warmed
Will warm forever keep!
And where are the thoughts you so lovingly nurtured,
Your lofty ideals, boId plans for the future —
To whom did you pass them, my friend, oh to whom?
Or will they lie buried with you in the tomb?
Don’t bury them, brother! Scatter them wideIy!
They’ll sprout and they’ll grow — in time they will ripen!
Enough? Or must I undergo
Still more of this? Enough, it’s coId
And I must flee these snows.
Again I fly. The land turns dark.
My mind is drowsing, faint my heart.
Big towns I see as I look down,
A hundred churches in each town,
With men their squares and streets are filled —
They’re soldiers busy at their drills;
Supplied with boots and clothes and food,
And given heavy chains to boot,
They’re training… But what’s that ahead?
A swampy, boggy lowland spreads,
And in that slough a city stands;
A heavy cloud above it hangs,
A cloud of fog… Up close I fly —
The city’s of enormous size.
Perhaps in Turkey,
Or in Germany,
Or, maybe, even Muscovy:
With churches, palaces galore,
Big-bellied masters score on score,
And not a solitary home!
It was growing dark… Then fires were lit —
With torchlights all about
The people press upon all sides…
“Hurrah! Hurrah!” they shout.
“Come to your senses, you poor fools!
What do you celebrate?
Why all the fuss?” “What a khokhol,
Can’t see it’s a parade!
His Majesty himself has deigned
This day to promenade!”
“So where’s that marvel to be seen?”
“There — through the palace gate.”
I push my way; a countryman
With buttons made of brass
Elected to acknowledge me:
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from Ukraine.” “How comes it that
You do not even know
To talk the way they do up here?”
I answered, “That’s not so —
I know, but do not choose to.” “Queer!
Well, I’m in service here,
I know the ins and outs, and so
I’ll lead you, if you care,
Into the palace. But, you know,
We’re educated folk
So don’t be stingy with the tip…”
Oh loathsome inkpot, go
Away from me… I made myself
And to the chambers made my way.
Oh God, what I saw then!
Now there is heaven! In those halls
The very cuspidors
Are gold-encrusted! Scowling, tall,
Here comes himself, the tsar,
To stretch his legs; and at his side
His empress struts and preens,
All wrinkled like a dried-up prune
And like a beanpole lean,
While every time she steps, her head
Goes jiggling on her neck.
Is this the beauty rare they praise?!
Poor thing, you are a wreck!
And silly I, not having seen
You once with my own eyes,
Accepted what your scribblers wrote,
Believed your poets’ lies.
Oh, what a fool! I took for cash
A Moscow pledge to pay.
How can I after this believe
The things they write again!
Behind the gods come gentlefolk
In gold and silver dressed,
With heavy jowl and portly paunch —
Of well-fed hogs the best!…
They sweat, but closer, closer press
Around the august thing:
Perhaps he’ll deign to slap a face
Or show a royal fig,
Or even half a fig to show,
Or maybe tweak a nose —
If but with his own hand.
Then all line up in one long row
And “at attention” stand.
The tsar-god jabbers; and his spouse,
That royal marvel rare,
Just like a heron among birds
Hops briskly here and there.
They walked about a goodly while,
A pair of puffed-up owls,
And talked in whispers all the time —
We couldn’t hear at all —
About the fatherland, I think,
The officers’ new pips,
And still more drills for army men!…
And then the empress sits
In silence on a tabouret.
I watch: the tsar comes close
To him who is of highest rank
And whops him on the nose!…
Poor fellow, he just licked his lips
And poked right in the pot
The next in line!… Then that one gave
A smaller ace a clout;
That one punched still a smaller fish,
And he — still smaller fry,
Until the smallest at the end
Got theirs and opened wide
The palace gates, and poured outside
Into the city streets
To put the boots to common folks;
Then those began to screech
And holler fit to wake the dead:
“Our little father deigns to play!
“Hooray, hooray, hooray, ‘ray, ‘ray!”
I laughed out loud, and that was all;
I own, in the melee
I too got banged. It was nearing dawn,
The city was asleep;
Just here and there some orthodox
Lay groaning on the street,
And moaning, begged the Lord their tsar
In best of health to keep.
Laughter and tears! I sauntered forth
The city’s sights to see.
There night is bright as day. I look:
Beside the silent stream
Rich mansions, palaces abound,
The river banks are seamed —
Shored up with stone. I look around
As though I were entranced!
What magic wrought such marvels rare
Where once was a morass?…
What quantities of human blood
Upon this spot were shed —
Without a knife! Across the way
There looms a fortress dread,
Its steeple rising like an awl —
A comic sight to see.
The tower clock ticks off the time.
I turn — I see a steed
A-gallop and his flying hooves
The granite seem to cleave!
The rider, bareback on the horse,
In something like a cloak,
Is hatless. His bare head’s adorned
With leaves, perhaps of oak.
The steed rears up as though it means
To leap across the sea,
And he extends his arm as though
He coveted to seize
The whole, whole world. Who is that man?
I read the message terse
Inscribed upon the mound of stone:
“The Second to the First.”
I understand right well what’s meant
By those laconic words:
The First was he who crucified
The Second — she who finished off
Whatever yet remained.
Oh, butchers! butchers! cannibals!
And did you gorge and loot
Enough when ‘live? And when you died
What did you take with you?
A heavy weight pressed on my heart.
It was as though engraved
Upon that granite I could read
The story of Ukraine.
I stand… And then I faintly hear
A melancholy strain,
From ghostly lips a mournful song:
“From Hlukhov-town at break of dawn
The regiments withdrew
To build abutments on the line.
I, with a Cossack crew,
As acting hetman of Ukraine
Due northward took my course —
Up to the capital. Oh God!
Oh wicked tsar, accurst!
Oh crafty, evil, grasping tsar,
Oh viper poison-fanged!
What did you with the Cossacks do?
Their noble bones you sank
In the morass and on them built
On tortured Cossack corpses built!
And me, a hetman free,
You threw into a dungeon dark
And left in chains to die
Of hunger… Tsar! We’ll never part.
We are forever tied
Together by those heavy chains.
E’en God cannot untie
Those bonds between us. Oh, it’s hard
Eternally to bide
Beside the Neva! Far Ukraine
Exists, perhaps, no more.
I’d fly to see if she’s still there,
But God won’t let me go.
It may be Moscow’s razed the land,
And emptied to the sea
Our Dnieper, and our lofty mounds
Dug up — so none may see
The relics of our former fame.
Oh God, please pity me.”
Then silence fell again. I look:
Across the leaden sky
A white cloud like a sheet is drawn
And from it comes a cry,
A dismal howl. That’s not a cloud —
A flock of snowy birds
Soar like a cloud above the tsar
And wail a mournful dirge:
“We’re chained together with you too,
Inhuman monster vile!
When Judgment Day comes we’ll screen God
From your rapacious eye.
It was you that drove us from Ukraine
A hungry, tattered lot —
Into these far-off snows to toil,
And here our throats you cut;
Our bleeding skins you used as cloth
To make your purple robe,
Our sinews served you as the thread
With which the robe to sew.
Your new throne-city thus you built:
Palaces and churches!
Rejoice then, wicked, vicious tsar!
Curses on you, curses!”
* * *
They flew away, they all dispersed.
The morning sun appeared.
I still stood fascinated there,
With awe akin to fear.
The poor were hurrying to work
Though it was early still,
And soldiers, lined up in the squares,
Were busy at their drills.
Young drowsy girls came scurrying
Along the sidewalk’s edge,
But homeward, not away from home
They bent their weary tread!…
Their mothers send them out all night
To earn a crust of bread.
I stand there with a heavy heart
And bow my aching head
And think how hard must people toil
To earn their daily bread.
The civil servants hasten next
Their office desks to man,
To scribble — and to rob the folks
Of everything they can.
Among them here and there I see
They chatter in the Russian tongue
And bitterly condemn
Their parents that when they were small
They didn’t teach them how
To jabber German — that’s the cause
They’ve no promotions now!
Oh leeches, leeches! It may be
Your father sadly sold
His last remaining cow that you
The Moscow tongue should know.
My poor Ukraine! My poor Ukraine!
These are your hapless sons,
Your youthful blossoms, splashed with ink,
In German reared salons,
On Moscow’s silly-potions fed
Until they are inane!…
Oh weep, my childless widow-land!
And now to visit once again
The royal palace hall
And see what’s doing there. I come —
The upper crust stands, all
Panting, snorting, short of breath,
Big-bellied, puffed with pride
Like turkey gobblers, and each one
Askance the doorway eyed.
And now the waited moment’s here —
The portal swings ajar
And like a grizzly from his den
He shambles out — the tsar;
All bloated and his face tinged green:
His hangover was bad.
At those who stood out front he roared,
The fattest of the fat —
And instantly they disappeared,
Just vanished into air!
With bulging eyes he looked around
And struck fear everywhere.
And then as though he’d gone berserk
At smaller fish he roared —
They disappeared. Then at the fry —
They too are there no more!
To servants next he turned — and they,
They too were whisked away.
Then to the soldiers — they dissolved
And didn’t leave a trace
Upon the earth. Oh what a sight —
A miracle for fair!
I look to see what else will be,
What next my teddy-bear
Intends to do! He just stands there
With hanging head. And lo,
What’s happened to the raging beast
He was a while ago?
Meek as a kitten now — how droll!…
I laughed to see the sight.
He heard and cast a glance at me —
I froze from sudden fright
And woke from sleep…
Such was my rare
And truly wondrous dream!
How strange it was!… This but by loons
And drunks such dreams are seen.
Don’t be astonished at this tale,
My well-beloved friends,
I did not tell you what I’d seen,
But only what I dreamt.
Taras Shevchenko. Selected poetry. Kiev, “Dnipro”, 1977, p. 123-148.
Taras Shevchenko, “A Dream”
“Son” / “U vsiakoho svoia dolia”
1844, S.- Petersburg
Translated by John Weir