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Bohdan Lepky (1872-1941)


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Bohdan Lepky (1872-1941)

Born in the region of Podolia, Galicia, into a priest’s family, Lepky completed his gymnasium course in the town of Berezhany (where he later taught), and pursued university studies in Vienna, Lviv, and Cracow. As an Austrian officer, Lepky spent the years of World War I in various concentration camps giving academic lecture courses to Ukrainian prisoners of war from the Russian armies. After the armistice, he settled for a time in Berlin, where he devoted himself to literature and journalism and then moved to Poland to become professor of Ukrainian literature at the University of Cracow. Influenced by the natural beauty of his native Podolia, Lepky wrote his early lyrics in a mood reflecting its rural peace amid a clear atmosphere, sun-bathed fields, dreamy woods, and the pleasing rusticity of the manners and customs of its people. In his later poetry, his worship of Nature continued, but in a minor, elegiac key. As a result of the ravages of war, her aspects, to his view, became gloomy and tragic, inspiring him to voice a painful longing for the peaceful past and raise a lament for his own and his people’s lost hopes and aspirations. As a whole, Lepky’s verses seem to sound like a prolonged dirge of yellowed leaves, a melancholy feature which he appears to have enjoyed cultivating. The struggle for the liberation of Ukraine and the preservation of her independence (1917-1921) evoked in him a surge of patriotic feeling which he poured out in songs and lyrics that are truly inspired. As a writer of fiction Lepky was prolific in regional novels and novelettes, full of local colour and interesting ethnographic details. His tetralogy Mazeppa, a monumental work in which he fictionized the history of the times of that great Hetman, established him as one of the more significant Ukrainian prose writers of recent decades.

THE TRAVELLER A stupor dull and spiritless Surprised the earth. The flowers die. The fields await the snow’s reply. Clouds hang in stony gloominess. At times, the wind comes rushing past And blows grey mist across the lands; The village like an idol stands And in a drunken dream is cast.

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The light goes out. Against the cold The door is closed. The faithful hound Up to the ears in straw is found, And only ghosts the field enfold. But down the path along the hedge Moves Hunger, here an annual guest: A bone is in his hands unblest And thrcatenings dire his looks allege. **** The village comes from days long lost And in a vision greets me plain. The cots are there, with pines embossed, And flowers magnificent the frost Has sketched upon the window-pane. There, through the flowers, my eyes restore A table white ... a family sitting . . . A sheaf is bending near the door; Straw of a didukh1 strews the floor; Men raise a song the times befitting. An ancient song! Of frays indeed In lands unknown and bygone times, Of furs and gold and heady mead, And quests for glory one must heed To eastward or in southern climes. An ancient song! It seems a bell From some forgotten cemetery. And hark! What rides its echoes tell, And forays that the Don compel And sword-blades swift and sanguinary. Laughter of joy, and scorn of fate, And boisterous hopes are heard within it – Do you not hear the swords’ debate, Echoes of immemorial hate, And broken dreams that could not win it? All of the visions that were strown In our proud dreams of martial glory But vanished in the dark unknown And were forgotten, lying prone – The song recaptures all the story. 1

A sheaf of straw brought into the house on Christmas Eve and placed in a corner to symbolize the souls of the departed.

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That mighty song of days of yore Is like a bell-peal from the grave; It echoes swords our grandsires wore; In it their moans and shouts outpour: “Summon your hoarded strength, we crave! “Summon your strength! God only knows How near or distant is the day When judgement will of wrongs dispose And wicked men will sink in woes And justice will our cause display.” The village comes from days long lost And in a vision greets me plain. The cots are there, with pines embossed, And flowers magnificent the frost Has sketched upon the window-pane.

THE CRANES

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Do you behold, my brother bold, My comrade dear, I pray, In a grey string to warmer climes The crane-flock flies away. One hears them calling: caw! caw! caw! Abroad I’ll die, past doubt. Before I cross the ocean wide, I’ll wear my pinions out. Still faintly glimmering in my eyes Their endless path remains; Smaller and smaller in the clouds Are traced the migrant cranes. * * * * Hark, someone calls me from my cozy home; Someone would urge me out, afar to roam. From the still cottage, in my own despite, I’m driven to strange fields, in murky night. Someone keeps whispering: “Yonder lies the wood! Where is your sabre, where your musket good?” Upon the ancestral sabre rust-stains dwell; The grandson takes it to the town to sell. 2

A song in which the cranes symbolize the Ukrainian volunteers going out to defend the freedom of their land. It was given further popularity by the composer M.Haivoronsky, who set its words to music.

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His musket only serves the crows to chide, While enemies press in from every side. Shrieks are already heard; the knouts appear: “And are you here? Are you still lagging here?” Hark, someone calls me from my cozy home; Someone would urge me out, afar to roam. Who you may be, and whence, I do not know; But I must go, I certainly must go.

TO THE “359” 3

TO THOSE EXECUTED AT BAZAR

Sleep, my lads, sleep! Yea, lads, forever sleep, And let your dreams the theme of freedom keep, Of liberty to grace your fatherland – Can any fairer dream on earth be scanned? You for your homeland and its sacred soil Have sacrificed your years of youthful toil; Your youthful visions have been spent in strife, The cherry blossoms of the Spring of life. Like winds you rushed to battle, amid cheers. Neither your mothers’ nor your sisters’ tears Could stop you for a moment in that rush: “Be silent, Mother! Little sister, hush! “The call of God has summoned us to fight; To strive in your defense, and for the right. The fairest of all visions we exalt In Freedom, as we join in the assault ...” And so you went, devoid of hesitation, And fought like lions for vour own dear nation. Heedless of bullets and of bayonets crude. For you were gallant youths, staunch Cossack brood! And so you went. . . Good fortune as you fare! Onward you pass, no more our life to share . . . The bloody bayonet stained the path you took And now your graves the meadow overlook.

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A locality near Zhitomir where in November of 1921 a battle was fought between the Ukrainian troops under Y.Titiunnyk and the Red forces. Some 500 Ukrainian soldiers were taken prisoners by the Reds, and 359 of them were executed.

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A day will come, that day to us belongs, A day of triumph and a day of songs: And at the peal of liberty’s great hell We’ll seek your graves again to say farewell. And where the grave-mounds keep your bones as guests. We’ll press the greensward with our warm, free breasts, And on the silent hillocks where you lie We’ll let our freedom’s banners proudly fly. Sleep, my lads, sleep! Yea, lads, forever sleep. And let your dreams the theme of freedom keep, Of liberty to grace your fatherland – Can any fairer dream on earth be scanned? Translated by

C.H.Andryshysen and Watson Kirkonnell The Ukrainian Poets. 1189-1962 University of Toronto Press 1963

I THROW WORDS I have become separated from you and you have forgotten me. But life put a yoke on my neck and willed that 1 plow. I plow. The plow breaks the earth into black, deep and incredibly long furrows that cover my power, my youth, everything that is mine. This goes on day in, day out. And only during quiet nights, when the city falls asleep and my cares doze off, I open the window and look to the east. I look and listen. But while my eyes fall on the darkness of the void, my thoughts sink into the tumult of events. In this way, hours pass until my eyes and thoughts become used to the darkness and the memories it evokes. Then I hear some horrible din, a distant noise and roar resembling an approaching flood. Ring the bell, ring the bell of alarm to rouse young and old, make everyone rush to work lest rescue be late, ring the bell, ring the bell of alarm! Build a strong and high dyke lest the terrible sea floods us, lest we get stuck in the mire and grandchildren condemn their grandfathers for failing to defend their land — build a dyke, strong and high! I hear a noise, a dreadful din and roar. I, too, throw onto that dyke my share — little words. At times words are weightier than deeds, and at times a deed is not worth a good word. I throw my share onto the dyke, let it grow stronger, let it grow higher. I throw them, without knowing where these words will fall and where they will settle. Will they be like stone in the foundation, like lime binding the stone, like the earth covering the dyke? Although I do not know, I keep throwing the words from afar. Perhaps the words or stone will repel a hostile wave and make it roll back into the sea with a roar. Perhaps, just like lime binding a wall, they will bind the stone lying in the foundation. Or perhaps, just as in the earth on top of the dyke, grass will grow on these words, flowers

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will burst into bloom, and a shady linden tree will strike root or a tall poplar will shoot up. And, perhaps one day, in the shade of this linden, careless children will play like feathery clouds in the blue. Or, perhaps, one day (who knows when?), a clever boy or a beautiful girl at his side will look at the lanky poplar, and their thoughts will fly high like the branches of that poplar! And from afar will come the sound of the raging sea thrust against a rocky shore, defeated, subdued, and safe. Build a dyke — strong and high! Cracow, 1910

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ALLEGRO PATETICO On a high hill stood a town, small and beautiful. White little houses rose up the hill as if they were scaling to the top to look at the valley and the steppe below. In the windows, stood flowerpots, and in front of the gates played children much more beautiful than the flowers. When you approached the town from the barren, sun-scorched steppe, it looked from the distance like a huge enchanted castle or a luring fata morgana. Vegetation was very scarce in this place, while the feeble trees and shrubs, wresting for themselves the right to life, were covered with lime dust as with snow. A rain was an extraordinary occurrence here, and there was only one draw well for the entire town. Women from all over the town walked in a line to the well during the blue mornings and violet evenings. On their heads, they carried tall amphoras, and their thighs swayed rhythmically as they walked. At the well, they settled around it in a wreath of varicolored clothes and talked among themselves while waiting for their turn to draw the water. The waiting was long, because the water trickled slowly from a little trough of cypress wood, as if someone were reeling a thin silver thread off an invisible coil. But they had been waiting like that for generations and had become accustomed to it. When their turn came, they scooped up the water and carried it back home as if it were a healing medicine or the costliest of wines. One day, after the women had come to the well, they were struck dumb. The trough was dry, not a single drop of water trickled from it. “God punished us for our horrible sins,� the inhabitants of the town said, and went far out into the steppe to seek new homes and new waters. They left their houses and the relics of their kin and the graves of their ancestors, all of which they could not take along with them. Since their native town had denied them water, they set forth on a long and distant journey of unknown adventures and strife with strange tribes. Amid the cliffs they found a new road and hurried along it, not knowing to whose hands and to whose lips and to whose painted amphoras they would come. The town remained abandoned. I had heard about it, and driving through the steppe, I plotted my trek so as to have a look at the town. The red sun lazily rolled toward the dozy horizon, and without waiting for the steppe to become used to it, hurled its blinding and glowing heat into the eyes of the steppe like a spurt from a melting pot.

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The steppe kept silent and writhed from pain, while its cracks and fissures became ever deeper and wider, its entire appearance resembling clothes tattered from despair. On the horizon, the town looked like a giant clad in golden armor, because every rooftop was gilded by the glow of the rising sun and every stone shone like a diamond. When I entered the town, the sun had climbed higher, the houses cast long dark shadows onto the empty streets, while the roofs, walls, windows, doors, and absolutely everything else was covered with what looked like flour: the lime dust, which no one had been cleaning, had settled on everything. In the windows, stood the forgotten dry flowerpots without flowers, and no children, who had been more beautiful than the flowers, were playing in front of the gates. The creak of my boots rebounded in a clamorous echo, as if each house were passing on to the other the unexpected news of someone’s arrival, and the windows were looking at me with curiosity, believing, perhaps, that here was returning one of those who had left the town. The town was like a big architectonic mummy, needed by no one, abandoned to the destruction of time. Even the lizards, which for a long time had not seen man, were hiding in their holes, and only the snakes, curled up in spirals, were staring at the sun and reveling in its warmth. They knew man did not like them and feared them. I wandered along the streets as in a dream, and as in a dream I saw on a street corner a tall old man with a long gray beard reaching to his waist. In his hand, he held a clay vessel, to which he bent the heads of wild flowers and shook the dew into that vessel like a mother wiping a tear off her child’s eyelids. He was gray all over as if covered with dust just like the entire town, a part of which he was. His tread was so silent, so stealthy it seemed he was afraid to rouse the thronging memories quivering in every corner. He looked like a mysterious apparition that would disappear at any moment and scatter like smoke in the wind. But he did not disappear. I bowed to him, and asked what he was doing. “Gathering dew, because there’s no water. Don’t you see that yourself?” He continued doing his job, not paying any attention to me. “Isn’t it boring and fearful to be alone?” I asked. “I’m not alone. Here is my entire life, my entire life.” “Tell me about yourself.” He shook his head sadly. “My lips would lock in grief. Don’t make me open them, because even if I were to shout for the entire steppe to hear, I would fail to express what I feel. Don’t distract me from my work; I’ve absolutely no time to spare. The sun will dry the dew, so go where you came from.” He kept on bending over every plant and shook the dewdrops into his clay vessel with meticulous care. That is how this old man loved his native town. ***

AT LONG LAST The he moment the sun peeped into the window, Mikola Mikolishyn woke up. He wanted to jump out of bed and run into the farmyard, because he had overslept. But then he remembered that he had been sick for several weeks, that God Almighty alone knew when he would recover, and that he didn’t have to worry about the farm. Let the children worry about it now. He sighed and shut his eyelids. They dropped like heavy shutters toward evening and 8


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remained motionless. They’re tired and want to rest; wait a bit and we’ll rest until you get bored of it, he thought. The next moment, he shouted in a sprightly voice: “Maria!” The wife of his eldest son came running into the front room. “What’s the matter, Father?” she asked, alarmed, rubbing her sleepy eyes. “Take my new clothes out of the trunk and tell Petro to hitch the wagon with the steel axle. Let him pad a high seat in the middle of the wagon to make my trip less jolty.” Maria looked at her father-in-law as if she wanted to know why such a sick man would need a wagon. But she did not dare ask because the moment she had crossed the threshold of the Mikolishyns she had become used to father being obeyed by everyone without distinction. Without wasting time, she produced the finest shirt from the trunk, took a new sheepskin coat off a clothes peg, chose a beautiful belt and ran to her husband who was busying himself around the horses in the stable. “Petro, Father said that you should hitch the wagon with the steel axle and pad him a high seat to make his trip less jolty. Do you know by chance why he needs a wagon today?” “Stay with the horses till they eat the oats, while I’ll go and find out.” When Petro entered the room, Father was already sitting on his bed, fastening the buttons of the shirt as he moaned now and then from the effort. “Help me fasten the buttons, son, because my fingers do not obey me anymore.” The son helped his father get dressed and gave him some water to drink. “You asked to have the wagon ready, didn’t you?” “Yes.” “Where are we going?” “To the elections.” “You, a sick man, going such a distance?” “Yes, me. I’d crawl on all fours and you’d carry me on a carpet, but I have to vote. I’ve been waiting thirty years for this election, understand?” He spoke with effort, and with every word he uttered something seemed to rumble deep in his chest. “I rejoice to have lived to this day, and here he asks me how I’ll go there. Get the wagon ready and don’t talk too much. Call Dmytro and Simon, because they have the right to vote too: we’re going together. Mind you hurry, because it’s to begin at eight and Mikolishin has always been the first when it came to standing up for a public cause. As I’ve been in the beginning, let me remain so to the end. Go!” Half an hour later, the high gate opened with a creak, the dogs began to bark as if imploring to be taken along, wheels clattered, and the new wagon rolled out of Mikolishin’s farmyard into the street. In the middle of the wagon, on a well-arranged seat covered with a little kilim his daughter-inlaw had woven, sat Mikola Mikolishyn dressed in a new white sheepskin coat and a tall Astrakhan cap. He looked more like the memory of the former Mikola than the living man. At his side sat his eldest son, Petro, who supported his father like a strong oak trunk holding up a dilapidated building. Two of the younger sons rode up front. The horses were driven by his eldest grandson, a ten-year-old boy whom no money in the world could have kept away from seeing an election for the first time in his life. They drove on quietly lest the sick man be jolted too much. On the way, they met villagers dressed in their holiday best, heading in the same direction. The men exchanged greetings, while the younger peasants respectfully took off their caps before Mikolishin for whom they had much to be grateful. For many years, he had fought the old establishment in the village and county, the village

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magistrate who squandered public money, the council that followed the magistrate like a calf with a rope around its neck. He had all the dark forces obstructing progress and enlightenment. He had suffered greatly in his pursuit, but he stood his ground and did not retreat a single step. He was like a lonely oak tree rising from a barren mountain slope which rain and deluge wore away, wasting the natural power of the earth. And although thunder crashed and storms raged around the oak, in summer, lo and behold, new oaklets grew up in the shade of its branches, and the slope became verdant, giving refuge to flowers and birds and promising to be of benefit to people. Thus, before Mikola Mikolishin’s eyes there grew up a younger generation which rebuilt the village that had once been ignorant and poor, but now was literate and prosperous. His last effort was the convocation of the common council to fight for new suffrage. Although old and weak, he drove around all the villages in the county and gathered ten thousand people for the council, ten thousand conscious heads demanding extensive civil rights. This action brought troops to the village. For two weeks, Romanian dragoons galloped around the quiet village streets, frightening children and especially the women who were afraid to visit their neighbors. For two weeks, bugles resounded in the nocturnal silence over the village-as in a military camp, followed by quite a few curses and quite a few other sins! The troops were recalled and the village returned to its former life. With the arrival of spring, the fields turned green, the orchards became white, and new hopes burst into bloom. Today he was going to vote in the first universal, direct, secret, though still unequal suffrage — he was going there with a sense of happiness for having contributed his bit to achieve this end. The sun was climbing higher but it did not burn — it rather warmed up the air. Truth was, clouds were charging the sun now and then to enshroud its bright rays. However, a westward wind scattered them in all directions of the world, swiping the sky clean like a housewife her front room before a holiday. “There’ll be good weather, children,” the old man said. “We’ll see spring.” “May God grant it, because the people haven’t finished their field work yet,” the sons replied. “Lean on me, Father; the ride is difficult for you,” the eldest son said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get there and back for sure,” the old man responded, although he knew that his son wished him well. With his strength spent, he had only a firm resolve to reach his destination. They were driving through fields sown with winter and spring wheat. The narrow strips of the peasants’ plots sparkled in the sun like bleached cloth. Flowers peeped out in between the strips, over which birds were flying, and an old cross was dozing by a ridge between two fields. “Under that cross the landlord’s footmen killed my father, your grandfather,” the old man said, taking off his cap. “You, children, will be beaten perhaps only by your own blunders and sins. Remember my words! And over there, a little further on near the ridge, my mother bore me into this world and brought me home in the hem of her skirt. Those were difficult times. God forbid they ever return.” He would have said more, but could not. Every word brought pain to his chest, as if the words he uttered were made of steel. He fell silent, only his eyes scanning the scenery. He wanted to take in as much of those fields, meadows and forests as he could for a journey to a place where he would not see them anymore perhaps. His faded eyes drifted from field to field as if parting with every single furrow and every single clod of earth. Far ahead near a forest they saw what looked like a camp — those were the voters who had come at dawn and were now resting by the forest. When some of the peasants overtook the wagon, they exchanged greetings and walked abreast. Though exhausted and aware that they were losing a workday, they walked happily along with raised heads. The younger men took up a song, some cracked jokes. Mikola Mikolishin regretted that he could not get down the wagon and walk beside them. He would have walked with them for years toward a better and happier future.

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In front of the common council house, where the voting had to take place, stood the gendarmes. But the people behaved as if they did not see them, and only the children were looking with curiosity from behind the gates at the new helmets and shining weapons of the troops. The wagon stopped in the street, and the sons wanted to take down their father. “Don’t, I’ll get down myself,” Mikolishin said, ashamed of his weakness which he could not make himself show to others. He leaned on the young strong shoulders of his sons who rather carried than led him to the council house. “Make way!” people shouted in the crowd. “See, they’re bringing a sick man to vote.” “Mikola, you could have safely stayed at home. See how many of us have come. There’ll be enough votes!” “Enough or not enough no one knows. But I wouldn’t find any peace in my coffin if I did not exercise my right,” Mikolishin replied, crossing the threshold. “And now make haste,” he said, as he settled back in the wagon. “Make haste to bring me home alive.” The grandson slapped the horses with the reins and the wagon rolled down the hill. When they rode past their family field, Mikolishin raised his heavy eyelids and stretched out his hand as if he were bestowing a blessing upon his sons. Translated by Anatole Bilenko

Ukraine illustrated monthly. No.11, 1990

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Bohdan Lepky (1872-1941)  

Bohdan Lepky (1872-1941)

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