The Kobzar of Ukraine
Category: Verse
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Kobzar (Ukrainian: Кобзар, "The bard"), is a book of poems by Ukrainian poet and painter Taras Shevchenko, first published by him in 1840 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Taras Shevchenko was nicknamed The Kobzar after the publishing of this book. From that time on this title has been applied to Shevchenko's poetry in general and acquired a symbolic meaning of the Ukrainian national and literary revival.

The Kobzar of Ukraine

Being Select Poems of Taras Shevchenko

Done into English Verse with Biographical
Fragments by
Alexander Jardine Hunter

Taras ShevchenkoTaras Shevchenko


Nearly twenty years ago the translator of these poems was sent by the Presbyterian church as a medical missionary to a newly settled district in Manitoba. A very large proportion of the incoming settlers in this district were Ukrainians, indeed it was largely owing to the interest taken in these newcomers that the writer was sent there.

It was Mr. John Bodrug who first introduced him to the study of the poems of Shevchenko and with his help translations of three or four of the poems were made a dozen years ago. Press of other work prevented the following up of this study till last summer when with the help of Mr. Sigmund Bychinsky translations were made of the other poems here given, and considerable time spent in arriving at an understanding of the spirit of the poems and the nature of the situations described. Then the more formidable task was approached of trying to carry over not only the thought but something of the style, spirit and music of the original into the English tongue.

The spirit of Shevchenko was too independent to suffer him to be much bound by narrow rules of metre and rhyme. The translator has found the same attitude convenient, for when the versification may be varied as desired it is much easier to preserve the original thoughts intact.

The writer’s thanks are due for help and advice to Messrs. Arsenych, Woicenko, Rudacheck, Ferley, Sluzar and Stechyshyn and especially to Mrs. Bychinsky and for help with the manuscript to Miss Sara Livingstone.

A. J. H.

The Kobzar of Ukraine

Who Was Taras Shevchenko?

How many English-speaking people have heard of Taras Shevchenko?

What “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ did for the negroes of the United States of America the poems of Shevchenko did for the serfs of Russia. They aroused the conscience of the Russian people, and the persecutions suffered by the poet at the hands of the autocracy awakened their sympathy.

It was two days after the death of Shevchenko that the czar’s ukase appeared granting freedom to the serfs. Possibly the dying poet knew it was coming and died the happier on that account.

But in still another way does this man’s figure stand out. In the country called the Ukraine is a nation of between thirty and forty millions of people, having a language of their own — the language in which these poems were composed.

This has been, as it were, a nation lost, buried alive one might say, beneath the power of surrounding empires.

They have a terrible history of oppression, alternating with desperate revolts against Polish and Muscovite tyranny.

In these poems speaks the struggling soul of a downtrodden people. To our western folk, reared in happier surroundings there is a bitter tang about some of them, somewhat like the taste of olives, to which one must grow accustomed. The Slavonic temperament, too, is given to melancholy and seems to dwell congenially in an atmosphere misty with tears. But he gravely misreads their literature who fails to perceive the grim resolve beneath the sorrow.

In the struggle of the Ukrainians for freedom the spirit of this poet, who was born a serf, remains ever their guiding star.

The Kobzar of Ukraine


The Monk

It happened sometimes, when a cossack warrior found his energies failing and his joints growing stiff from much campaigning, he would bethink him of his sins and deeds of blood.

These things weighing on his mind, he would decide to spend the remainder of his life in a monastery, but before taking this irrevocable step, he would hold a time of high revel with his old comrades. This poem pictures such an event.

The Kobzar of Ukraine

At Kyiv, in the low countrie,
Things happened once that you’ll never see.
For evermore, ’twas done;
Nevermore, ’twill come.
Yet I, my brother,
Will with hope foregather,
That this again I’ll see,
Though grief it brings to me.

To Kyiv in the low countrie
Came our brotherhood so free.
Nor slave nor lord have they,
But all in noble garb so gay
Came splashing forth in mood full glad
With velvet coats the streets are clad.
They swagger in silken garments pride
And they for no one turn aside.

In Kyiv, in the low countrie,
All the cossacks dance in glee,
Just like water in pails and tubs
Wine pours out ’mid great hubbubs.
Wine cellars and bars
with all the barmaids
The cossacks have bought
with their wines and meads.
With their heels they stamp
And dancing tramp,
While the music roars
And joyously soars.

The people gaze
with gladsome eyes,
While scholars of the cloister schools
All in silence bred by rules,
Look on with wondering surprise.
Unhappy scholars! Were they free,
They would cossacks dancing be.
Who is this by musicians surrounded
To whom the people give fame unbounded?
In trousers of velvet red,
With a coat that sweeps the road
A cossack comes. Let’s weep o’er his years
For what they’ve done is cause for tears.
But there’s life in the old man yet I trust,
For with dancing kicks
he spurns the dust.
In his short time left with men to mingle
The cossack sings,
this tipsy jingle.

“On the road is a crab, crab, crab.
Let us catch it grab, grab, grab.
Girls are sewing jab, jab, jab.
Let’s dance on trouble,
Dance on it double
Then on we’ll bubble
Already this trouble
We-ve danced on double
So let’s dance on trouble,
Dance on it double,
Then on we’ll bubble.”

To the Cloister of our Saviour
Old gray-hair dancing goes.
After him his joyous crowd
And all the folk of Kyiv so proud.
Dances he up to the doors —
“Hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo!” he roars.
Ye holy monks give greeting
A comrade from the prairie meeting.

Opens the sacred door,
The Cossack enters in.
Again the portal closes
To open no more for him.
What a man was there
this old gray-hair,
Who said to the world farewell?
’Twas Semon Palee,
a cossack free
Whom trouble could not quell.

Oh in the East the sun climbs high
And sets again in the western sky.
In narrow cell in monkish gown
Tramps an old man up and down,
Then climbs the highest turret there
To feast his eyes on Kyiv so fair,
And sitting on the parapet
He yields a while to fond regret.
Anon he goes to the woodland spring,
The belfry near, where sweet bells ring.
The cooling draught to his mind recalls
How hard was life without the walls
Again the monk his cell floor paces
’Mid the silent walls his life retraces.
The sacred book he holds in hand
And loudly reads,
The old man’s mind to Cossack land
Swiftly speeds.
Now holy words do fade away,
The monkish cell turns Cossack den,
The glorious brotherhood lives again.
The gray old captain, like an owl
Peers beneath the monkish cowl
Music, dances, the city’s calls,
Rattling fetter, Moscow’s walls,
O’er woods and snows
his eyes can see
The banks of distant Yenisee.
Upon his soul deep gloom has crept
And thus the monk in sadness wept.

Down, Down! Bow thy head;
On thy fleshly cravings tread.
In the sacred writing’s read.
Read, read, to the bell give heed,
Thy heart too long has ruled thee,
All thy life it’s fooled thee.
Thy heart to exile led thee,
Now let it silent be.
As all things pass away,
So thou shalt pass away.
Thus may’st thou know thy lot,
Mankind remembers not.

Though groans the old man’s sadness tell,
Upon his book he quickly fell,
And tramped and tramped about his cell,
He sits again in mood forlorn
Wonders why he e’er was born.
One thing alone he fain would tell,
He loves his Ukraina well.
For Matins now
the great bell booms,
The aged monk
his cowl resumes.
For Ukraina now to pray
My good old Palee limps away.

The Kobzar of Ukraine

The Cossacks

Back somewhere in the middle distance of European history — when the Ukraine was under Polish rule, though ever harassed by the devastating raids of Turks and Tartars — there developed bands of guerilla fighters in the wild border-land beyond the rapids of the Dnieper.

Sometimes fighting against the Tartars, sometimes in alliance with them, they became known by the name ‘Kazak,’ a word of uncertain origin.

Fierce banditti they were, many of them serfs who had run away from their Polish masters. But they often developed great military power. At times the Poles succeeded in securing numbers of them as fighters in their army, but when the tyranny of the Polish landlords became intolerable the so-called “Registered Cossacks” would sometimes join with the “Free Cossacks” of the “border land” — which is the meaning of the word “Ukraine,” and exact terrible vengeance on the Poles.

The story of these warlike deeds of the Cossacks has the same significance to the Ukrainian people that the tales of Wallace and Bruce have for Scotsmen.

Cossacks Dictating a Saucy Letter to the Turkish Sultan.Cossacks Dictating a Saucy Letter to the Turkish Sultan.


Hamaleia is an historical romance. The poet represents one of the excursions of the Zaparoggian Cossacks under the leadership of Hamaleia on Skutari, the Turkish city on the Bosphorus. The Cossacks saved western Europe from the Tartar and Turkish invasions, by fighting the invaders in the land of the barbarian. The poem describes one of these excursions where the Cossacks animated by the desire of revenging themselves on the Turks and freeing their brothers who were lying as captives in Turkish prisons, undertake a perilous trip in small wooden boats over the stormy Black Sea to Skutari, open the prisons, burn the city, and return home with rich spoils and their freed brethren.

The Kobzar of Ukraine

Oh breeze there is none,
Nor do the waters run
From our Ukraina’s land.
Perhaps, in council there they stand,
To march against the Turk demand.
We hear not in this foreign land.
Blow winds, blow across the sea,
Bring tidings of our land so free,
Come from Dnieper’s Delta low,
Dry our tears and chase away our woe.

Roar in play thou sea so blue,
In yon boats are Cossacks true
Their caps above are dimly seen.
Rescue for us this may mean.
Once more we’ll hear Ukraina’s story,
Once more the ancient Cossack glory
We’ll hear before we die.”

So in Skutari the Cossacks sang,
Their tears rolled down, their wailing rang
Bosphorus groaned at the Cossack cry,
And then he raised his waves on high,
And shivering like a great grey bull,
His waters roaring far and full
Into the Black Sea’s ribs were hurled.
The sea sent on great Bosphorus’ cry,
To where the sands of the Delta lie,
And then the waters of Dnieper pale
In turn took up the mournful tale.

The father Dnieper rears his crest,
Shakes the foam from off his breast
With laughter now aloud he calls
To spirits of the forest walls.
“Hortessa sister river, deep,
Time it is to wake from sleep.
Brother forest, sister river.
Come our children to deliver.”
And now the Dnieper is clad with boats,
The Cossack song o’er the water floats.

“In Turkey over there,
Are wealth and riches rare.
Hey, hey, blue sea play.
Then roar upon the shore,
Bringing with you guests so gay.

“This Turkey has in her pockets
Dollars and ducats.
We don’t come pockets to pick,
Fire and sword will do the trick,
We mean to free our brothers.

“There the janissary crouches,
There are pashas on soft couches.
Hey-ho, foemen ware,
For nothing do we care,
Ours are liberty and glory.”

On they sail a-singing
The sea to the wind gives heed,
In foremost boat the helm a-guiding,
Brave Hamaleia takes the lead.

“Oh, Hamaleia, our hearts are fainting,
Behold the sea in madness raving.”
“Don’t fear,” he says, “these spurting
We’ll hide behind the water mountains.”

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