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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

On receipt of this letter I wrote that I would not come by the opening time of the exhibition but probably by the Holy Week, and would go direct to his quarters like Sternberg did on arrival. I wrote him for the sole reason that he get rid of the obsessive midshipman. To tell you the truth, I was afraid of his still unformed young character. Who knows, but he might turn into the midshipman’s double. Farewell to everything then – genius, art, glory, and all the charming things in life. All of that would settle on the bottom of the all-consuming vodka glass like in a grave. Examples of such a finale, unfortunately, are hardly rare, especially in Russia. What can be the reason behind it? Can a company of drunkards really nip in the bud everything that is good in a young man? Or is there something else we do not understand? Incidentally, popular wisdom concludes: “A man is known by the company he keeps.” Gogol, too, must have had good reasons to note that if a Russian is a good craftsman, he is invariably a drunkard as well.

What should it mean? Nothing more than our lack of overall civilization, I suppose. Thus, for instance, a scribe in the country or anywhere else is to the decent illiterate muzhiks about the same as Socrates to the Athenians. But when you look at him, you see the most immoral, drink-sodden animal for the simple reason that he is a master in his trade and the one and only literate man among hundreds of simple-hearted muzhiks, at the expense of which he gets drunk and leads a dissolute life. The muzhiks only marvel at his idle ways, without finding an explanation why such a clever man is a drunkard. It never occurs to these simpletons that among them he is the only master in the scribe’s or any other trade, because he has no competitors. His customers will always remain true to him, because they have no one else to turn to. And so he does his job in a slipshod manner and squanders his earnings on drink.

As I see it, this is the sole reason why with us a master in his trade is by all means a hopeless drunkard to boot. It has been observed, by the way, that among the civilized nations, too, those of its citizens who stand out among ordinary people and are endowed with the highest spiritual qualities have always and everywhere more or less honoured and more often than not zealously worshipped the merry god Bacchus. So it must be an essential quality of unusual people.

I was personally well acquainted with our mathematician of genius Ostrogradsky (on the whole, mathematicians are a clearheaded lot), and happened to dine with him on several occasions. During his meals he did not drink anything but water. Once I asked him: “Don’t you really ever drink wine?” To which he replied simply: “Once in Kharkov long ago I downed the contents of two wine cellars, after which I tied up.”

Only a few, however, stop at two cellars, invariably continuing to the third. Frequently they get to the fourth, and in this fateful fourth they end their sad careers, and quite often their very lives.

But he, that is my artist, belonged to the category of people who were passionate, enthusiastic, and possessed a burning imagination. (And this is the most cruel enemy of an independent, positive life. Although I am far from being an admirer of monotonous, sober-minded thoroughness and of a tedious day-to-day ox-like activity, I cannot say that I am an outright enemy of positive thoroughness. Generally in life, the middle way is the best. But in art, science, and in intellectual activity generally, the middle way will lead to nothing but an unmarked grave.) In my artist I wanted to see the greatest, unusual master, who in his domestic life would simultaneously be just an ordinary man. But these two qualities rarely coexist under one roof. I sincerely wished to foresee and ward off everything that has a harmful effect on the youthful imagination of my protégé, but did not know how to go about it. I am simply fearful of the midshipman. Nothing good can be expected from his neighbours’ girl either – it is as clear as noonday. Now, it could end in parting and tears, as the first passionate love usually ends. But with the aid of the aunt, to which he has taken such a liking from the first meeting, his infatuation might end in Hymen’s torch and, I wish to God I were wrong, in dissipation and poverty.

He does not tell me straight off that he is over head and ears in love with his pupil. What young man will disclose such a sacred secret openly? At a single word from his adored one he will jump into fire and water before he utters words of tender feeling to her. Such is a young man sincerely in love. Are there young people who love differently? To divert him a little from his female neighbours, I intentionally did not mention them by a single word and advised that he visit Schmidt, Fitztum and Joachim as frequently as possible, for he needed them for his cultural education; also, to call on old Kohlmann whose kindly advice on landscape painting he needed; to visit Karl Pavlovich’s studio every single day as a temple and source of illumination of the finest of arts; and make for me a watercolour copy of The Bakhchisarai Fountain during these visits. In conclusion, I explained to him the importance of the forthcoming program work, for which he must devote himself completely with all his days and nights up to the very day of the examination, that is, until October – such a schedule and sort of activity, I believed, would be enough to dampen the ardour of his first love at least a little – and if I failed to stay in the capital for the entire summer, I would come again by all means to have a look at his program work by autumn.

My letter, as I had expected, had a good effect, although my expectations were met only halfway: he was successful with his program work, but not with the neighbours’ girl – alas! But why should I lift the curtain of mysterious fate prematurely? Let us read one more letter, which is his last.

“Whether willingly or unwillingly – that I do not know, but the only thing I know is that you deceived me cruelly, my unforgettable benefactor. I was expecting you like the dearest guest, while you – God be your judge… So why did you have to promise? What a fuss there was with my lodgers whom I got rid of with great difficulty. Mikhailov, to tell the truth, agreed to leave right away, but the irrepressible midshipman stayed on until spring, that is, up to the Holy Week, and on parting we almost quarrelled. He wanted to stay for the Holy Week by all means, but I told him flatly that this was impossible, since I was expecting you.

“Your relative is not so important! He could as well put up in a tavern!” he said, twirling his silly mustache. This made me so angry I was prepared for God knows what rudeness, but Mikhailov, thanks be to him, stopped me.

I do not know what the midshipman likes so much about our quarters, the only explanation probably being his stay in it free of charge. In winter Mikhailov used to be away for several nights in a row and would rarely drop in during the daytime and then disappear right away. The midshipman, however, only went out to have his meals and get drunk, after which he would again lie on the sofa, either sleeping or smoking his pipe. Lately he even brought a suitcase with his underclothes. After 1 had denied him lodging, he still arrived several times to stay for the night. He is simply shameless.

There was one more strange thing. Right to the last day before his departure to Nikolayev (he was transferred to the Black Sea Fleet) I met him either in the corridor, on the stairway, or by the gate every evening when I returned from classes. I do not know whom he paid his evening visits. But never mind, I thank God I got rid of him. You should have seen what successes my pupil achieved during the winter! It’s simply marvellous! If she were to be taught from childhood, she could have become an educated person. She has turned into such a modest and humble girl it’s simply fascinating to look at her. Her childish frolics and naïveté have disappeared without leaving a trace. To tell the truth, I even feel sorry that her literacy – if it is really literacy – has destroyed the charming childish liveliness in her. I am glad that at least a shade of that endearing naïveté has remained in my painting. The little painting came out rather well, although I had to put in some effort to convey the candlelight successfully. Prevost offered me one hundred rubles in silver for the painting, to which I agreed eagerly, but only after the painting is displayed at the exhibition. I want to present my charming pupil to the verdict of the public by all means. I would be unutterably happy if you did not deceive me again and came for the exhibition in the end. This year it will be especially interesting. Many of the artists – both ours and those from abroad – have promised to send their works, the entrants including Horace Vernet, Gudin and Steuben. For the sake of Apollo and his nine beautiful sisters, do come. Work on my program is progressing slowly; I do not know how it will go afterward. Karl Pavlovich is pleased with the composition, and there is nothing else I can inform you about. I will get down to work on it in real earnest next week. So far I seem to be running away from it. I don’t know the reason why. At this point even my pupil is already beginning to goad me. Oh, if I could tell you how I like this simple kindly family! I am like a dear son to them. It goes without saying that the aunt is constantly kind and merry. Oh yes, the gloomy and closemouthed uncle, too, occasionally leaves his papers, joins us around the hissing samovar, and stealthily cracks jokes, of the simplest kind, of course.

Sometimes I afford myself the luxury, when I have an extra kopeck jingling in my pocket, of course, and treat them to tickets in a box of the third circle at the Alexandrinsky Theatre. Then their general pleasure is boundless, especially if the play is made up of vaudevilles. For several days after that my pupil and model keeps on singing the vaudeville couplets even in her sleep, I suppose.

I love or, it would be better to say, adore everything beautiful in a human being as such, beginning with his beautiful outward appearance, and I adore just as much if not more the sublime, refined creation of the mind and hands of a human being as well. I am delighted by worldly educated women and men also. Everything about them, from expression to movement, has been brought to such an even, consonant harmony. And the pulse in every one of them seems to be beating in one time. Fools, clever persons, phlegmatic and sanguine persons are a rarity among them and hardly exist in their midst at all, which I like immensely; not for long, however. It is probably because I was born and reared not among them, while the education I gained on my meagre means makes it all the more impossible for me to be their equal. That is why, for all the charm of their beautiful life, I like the domestic life of common people more, as that of my neighbours, for instance.

In their midst, I am completely at ease, while among the others I seem to be afraid of something all the time. Lately I have been feeling not my own self at the Schmidts as well. I do not know the reason why. I visit them almost every Sunday, but I do not stay as long as I used to before. Probably it is because the agreeable, unforgettable Sternberg is not among us. About Sternberg, by the way. Recently I received his letter from Rome. What a fantastic crank he is! Instead of his personal impressions of the Eternal City, he refers me to – who do you think? – Dupaty and Piranesi. What a crank! He writes that at Lepri’s he saw a large gathering of artists, among them Ivanov, the painter of the future canvas John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness.

The Russian artists make fun of him behind his back, saying that he got stuck in the Pontine marshes, without having found to this day that picturesque dry stump with exposed roots he needs for the background of his painting. The Germans in general go into raptures over Ivanov. Also, in the Greco Cafe he met Gogol dressed up to the nines, who was telling the most bawdy Little Russian anecdotes over dinner. But the main thing he saw at the entrance to the Eternal City, against the background of the dome of St. Peter’s and the immortal giant Colosseum, was the cachucha. It was graceful and passionate just as it is danced among the people, and not prim and rouged as we see it on the stage. “Just imagine for yourself,” he wrote, “that the famous Taglioni is a copy from the copy of the original dancing free of charge on a street in Rome.”

But why should I quote him when I can send you his letter? In it you will find something about yourself that will be of interest to you as well. He, the poor chap, still thinks of the Tarnovsky girl. You see her frequently. Tell me, is she happy with her Aesculapius? If she is, do not tell her anything about our friend. Do not upset her unruffled family peace by barren recollections. But if she is not happy, tell her that our friend Sternberg, the noblest of creatures in this world, loves her to this day just as sincerely and tenderly as he used to. That will sweeten the sadness in her heart. However much a person would be suffering, whatever trials he has to bear, he forgets the grief that oppresses him for a short while at least, at least for an hour or a minute, when he hears a single friendly, heartfelt word, a word of sincere empathy from a distant devoted friend. He is supremely happy, and a minute of perfect happiness, it is believed, makes up for endless years of the hardest trials!

Reading these lines will make you smile, my adored friend, and who knows, you might think whether I am not bearing some trials, since I discourse on them so volubly. I swear to you that I do not undergo any trials whatsoever; it is just that I am somewhat sad. I am completely happy, what with such friends as you and the unforgettable Vilya. Few people have been blessed with such a sweet fate as mine. Had it not been for you, the blind goddess would have flown past me, but you made her stop over the poor neglected slut that I was. Oh, dear God, dear God! I am so happy, so boundlessly happy it seems I will suffocate from this abundance of happiness, suffocate and die.

I have to experience some grief, a little bit at least by all means. Just judge for yourself: whatever idea I conceive, whatever I wish, I succeed in everything. Everyone likes me, everyone cares for me, beginning with our great maestro. And his love, it seems, is enough for supreme happiness. He frequently visits me at my quarters, and sometimes even has dinner with me. Now tell me could I have dreamed of such happiness when I first saw him in these very same quarters? Many, many nobles from among the czar’s courtiers have not been granted such great happiness as I, an unknown pauper. Is there such a person in the world who would not envy me at the present time? Last week he came to me in class, glanced at my study, dropped some hasty remarks, and called me out into the corridor for a couple of words. I was expecting to hear God knows what secret from him. And what do you think he said? He proposed I go with him to the Uvarovs’ summer house for dinner. I did not want to miss classes and was about to excuse myself, but he countered my arguments by saying that they were school-boyish and occasioned by inappropriate diligence, since one missed class meant nothing. “And the main thing,” he added, “on the way I will read you such a lecture, which you will never hear from a professor of aesthetics.” What could I say against that? I put the palette and brushes away, changed, and went with him. On the way, however, there was not so much as a mention of aesthetics. During dinner we had a merry conversation as usual, and it was only after the meal that the lecture began. Here is how it proceeded.

In the sitting room, over a cup of coffee, the old Uvarov started a conversation on how the hours fly by, and how we fail to treasure these priceless hours. “It is especially so with the young,” the old man added, looking at his sons. “Here is a striking example for you,” Karl Pavlovich picked up the thought, pointing at me. “He left classes today simply to fritter away his time at a summer house.” What he said had the effect of boiling water having been poured all over me, but he, without paying heed to anything, read me such a lecture on the all-consuming transience of time that it is only now I feel and understand the symbolic statue of Saturn gobbling up his children. The entire lecture was read with such a great deal of paternal love that right then and there, in the presence of all the guests, I burst into tears like a child that had been caught in the act of an idle prank. So tell me what do I still lack? It is you. Your presence is all I lack. Oh, will I ever see the great joyous moment when I can hug you, my dear, sincere friend? If you did not write you would come on the Holy Week, I would have visited you by all means during the past winter. But the saints in heaven must have envied my earthly happiness and obstructed our joyous reunion. But for all my supreme happiness, I occasionally feel so unbearably sad that I do not know where to hide from this oppressive grief. At such horribly endless minutes it is only my charming pupil who has a beneficial effect on me. How much do I then want to open to her my suffering soul, to overflow and melt in my tears in her presence. But this might offend her virginal modesty. I would sooner dash my head against the wall than offend any woman whatsoever, let alone her, the beautiful and incorruptibly chaste girl.

I seemed to have written you last autumn that I intended to paint from her a vestal virgin in addition to her portrait of a diligent pupil. But it was difficult to come by lilies or white roses in winter, and, the main thing, the unbearable midshipman interfered in my work all the time. Now these obstacles have been removed, and I think that in between my other pursuits, that is, while I am busy with my program work, I will be able to realize my cherished project. It is the more possible, because my program is not complicated – three figures in all: Joseph interpreting the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the cupbearer and the bread-provider.

The subject is old and trite, and that is why I must develop it thoroughly – I mean, compose it, for there is not much mechanical work to do on it. I have still over three months left. You write about the importance of what might be my last program work, and advise that I study it as diligently as possible or, as you put it, imbue my mind with it. All this is wonderful, and I realize completely its necessity. But, my one and only friend, I am afraid to say that the Vestal Virgin is occupying my mind more and more. My program work is part of the background for the Vestal Virgin. However much I try to place it in the foreground, nothing comes out of it. It just slips away, and I do not know the reason why. I intend to finish working on the Vestal Virgin first (I have begun work on it long ago), and after I am through with it, I will have more time for my program work. Program work! I have an unquiet presentiment about my program work. Where does it come from, I wonder? Or should I refuse to take part in it until the next year? But that would mean losing a year! What will this loss be rewarded with? With definite success! But who will guarantee this success? I am ill, am I not? I am really a little bit out of my mind and am beginning to resemble Khemnitzer’s Metaphysician. For God’s sake, do come and restore my declining spirit.

What a shameless egoist I am. On what grounds am I almost demanding your visit? For the sake of what clever idea do you have to abandon your work and duties just to see a semi-idiot? Be gone, unworthy faint-heartedness! It’s childishness, and nothing more. Thank God, I have been admitted to compete for the first gold medal. I am already a man who is ending… no, no, I am an artist who is embarking on his great career perhaps. I am ashamed with regard to you, and I am ashamed of myself. If you do not have any pressing need, so, for God’s sake, do not come to the capital at least until I have finished my program work and my cherished Vestal Virgin. But if you do come, that is for the exhibition, my joy and happiness will have no bounds.

There is one more strange and constant wish I have; I terribly want you to have a look at the model of my Vestal Virgin, that is, at my pupil, in passing at least. A strange and odd wish, isn’t it? I want to show her to you as the best and most beautiful creation of divine nature. Oh, pride! I behave as if I were instrumental in the moral adornment of this wonderful creature, that is, taught her to read and write in Russian. I am inordinately proud, am I not? But joking apart, her ability to read and write has lent her some particular charm. She has one little shortcoming, and I noticed this little imperfection not so long ago: she does not seem to be eager to read anymore. Her aunt has stopped going into raptures over her learned girl Pasha long since. After the holidays I gave her Robinson Crusoe to read. And what do you think happened? Throughout the month she barely read a half of it.

То tell the truth, I was deeply distressed by such an indifference. So distressed was I that I am already beginning to regret I had taught her to read. I did not tell her that, of course, but only thought about it. But she must have divined my thought. Next day she read the book to the end and retold to her indifferent auntie the immortal work of Defoe with such unfeigned enthusiasm and in such detail over evening tea that I was prepared to dot my clever pupil with kisses. In this respect, I find many things in common between her and myself. At times I am overcome by such stolid indifference it makes me absolutely incapable of doing anything. But with me, thank God, such fits do not last long, whereas she… There is one more strange thing. Ever since the restless midshipman left me, she has become particularly modest, pensive, and indifferent toward books. Could she really have…? I cannot believe it possible: the midshipman is a completely antipathetic, brutal character, who can hardly evoke the interest of even a rude woman. No, her having taken an interest in him is an absurd thought. She is pensive and sinks into apathy simply because of her age, as psychologists assure us. I must be getting on your nerves with my beautiful model and pupil. For all I know, you might think that I am not indifferent to her. It really looks so.

I like her immensely, but I like her as someone near and dear, as a most tender, dear sister.

But enough about her. Apart from her, however, there is nothing else to write about. And there is nothing to write about the program work either, because I have barely touched it. I will not write to you about it on finishing it either. I want you to read about it in the newspapers. But what I most want is you to see it yourself. I speak of it with such self-confidence as if it were already finished and the only thing left is to take the medal out of the hands of the president and listen to the horns playing the flourish.

Do come, my unforgettable, sincere friend. Without you the triumph will be incomplete. It will be incomplete, because you and you alone are responsible for my happiness today and tomorrow.

Farewell, my unforgettable benefactor. I do not promise to write you soon. Farewell!

P. S. Poor Demski did not live to see the ice breaking on the Neva: he died, and did it like a genuinely righteous man, quietly and serenely as if he had fallen asleep. At the St. Mary Magdalene Hospital I often had the chance of observing the last minutes of man’s fading life. But I have not seen such a serene, indifferent parting with life. Several hours before his death I was sitting at his bedside and reading aloud a booklet of slight content. He listened, his eyes closed, and at times the corners of his mouth rose imperceptibly, making it look like a smile. I did not read for long.

Не opened his eyes and turning to me, said in a faint whisper:

“What makes you spend precious time on such trifles?” Getting his breath back, he added: “It would have been better to draw something. From me at least.” As usual, I had with me a book, or what you call an album, and a pencil. I began sketching in outline his wizened, sharp profile. He glanced at me again, and said with a sad smile: “I am a quiet model, am I not?” I continued to draw. The door opened quietly, and in it, the grimy face of the landlady, wrapped up in something dirty, caught my eye, but at the sight of me she hid behind the door and closed it. His eyes shut, Demski smiled and gestured that I bend toward him. I complied. After a lengthy silence he uttered in a barely distinct, quivering voice at last: “For God’s sake, pay her the rent. God willing, I’ll be quits with you.” I had no money about me, and so left for my quarters right away. I don’t remember exactly what delayed me at home, either the auntie’s coffee or something of the sort. I just don’t remember. I returned to Demski shortly before sunset. His little room was illuminated by the bright orange light of the setting sun. It was so bright I had to close my eyes for several minutes. When I opened my eyes and went up to his bed, I saw under the blanket but the corpse of Demski in exactly the same position I had left him when he was still alive. The folds in the blanket had not shifted, the smile had not changed by half a line, and his eyes were shut like with a sleeping man. Only righteous people die that peacefully, and Demski belonged to the assembly of the righteous. I folded his half-cold hands on his chest, kissed his cold brow, and covered him with the blanket. Then I went to look for the landlady, gave her the debt of the deceased, asked her to make arrangements for the funeral at my expense, and went to the undertaker. On the third day I invited a priest from the Church of St. Stanisław, hired a drayman, and with the assistance of the janitor carried the modest coffin outdoors, placed it on the wagon, and set off with Demski on the long journey. The coffin was followed by myself, pastor Posiada, and a small reader. There was not a single beggar accompanying us, although we came across quite a few of them.

Those poor spongers sense alms like hungry curs. They did not expect any handouts from us, and rightfully so. I abhor those abominable cadgers who profit by the name of Christ. From the cemetery I invited the pastor to the home of the deceased not for a funeral feast, but to show him Demski’s modest library. His entire collection of books was contained in a barely knocked together box and consisted of some 50 odd volumes, most of them on history and law in Greek, Latin, German and French. The learned pastor leafed through the rather modest editions of the Greek and Roman classics with a far from indifferent air, while I put aside only the books in French. Strange as it may seem, but apart from Lelewel, there was in Polish only a tiny volume of Mickiewicz of the cheapest Poznań edition, and nothing else. Did he really not like his native fiction? That could not be. When the library was sorted out, I took the books in French and offered the rest to the learned pastor. The conscientious pastor would in no way agree to acquire such a treasure absolutely for nothing and proposed to pay for a granite gravestone on Demski’s remains. I, for my part, proposed to foot a half of the expenses. Right then and there we agreed upon the size and shape of the gravestone and composed the inscription. It was the simplest of its kind: “Leonard Demski, mort. anno 18…” When all this was finished and we took each his part of the inheritance, we parted like old friends.

It was strange, however. Did the deceased Demski really never befriend anyone and make friends with any other man except me? In his quarters I never met any visitors. But on the street we often came across his acquaintances who greeted him in a friendly way, some even shaking hands with him. All of them were respectable people. But on the other hand, does a so-called respectable person visit a poor toiler in his gloomy hovel? It’s a sad realization! What a poor lot such respectable people are!

Farewell again. Do not forget me, my unforgettable benefactor.”