A Marxist Reading of ‘The Plundered Grave’, by Taras Shevchenko

With particular attention to the uses of metaphor, analyse ‘The Plundered Grave’, by Taras Shevchenko, from a Marxist perspective

Taras Shevchenko is seen as a symbol for the people of Ukraine and few poets can claim to have been the figurehead for a nationalist and social revolutionary spirit in the same way. Testament to this is Elisée Reclus’ observation, in the late 19th century, that the pilgrims to Shevchenko’s grave greatly outnumbered those at the grave of Voltaire, the most renowned French poet, despite the fact that France far surpassed Ukraine in terms of cultural development[i]. It is therefore impossible, in any analysis of Shevchenko’s work, to divorce his poetry from his socio-economic and cultural background.

In ‘The Plundered Grave’, Shevchenko uses the metaphor of Ukraine as a mother, who speaks for the majority of the poem between an exposition and a concluding second stanza of seven lines, mourning the loss of her freedom and that of her children, the people of Ukraine. He presents ‘the Muscovite’ as a grave robber ‘plundering utterly’ the graves of Ukraine, which shows the loss of freedom and extreme degradation faced by the Ukrainian people at the hands of the Russian empire. ‘Plundered’ is a very apt choice of wording in this context, as it holds connotations of the looting of a captured settlement, following a military victory, and implies that the oppressors take the best parts of Ukraine’s belongings, while leaving the rest. Clearly then, it is easy to see that the poem is an angry and mournful portrayal of social class and oppression, from the perspective of the oppressed. An analyst seeking evidence of Shevchenko’s Romantic nationalism needs look no further than the poem’s first couplet-

‘Peaceful land, beloved country,

O my dear Ukraine!’[ii]

This second line, with it’s anguished ‘O’ and its exclamation mark, exudes the patriotic pathos for which he is renowned. Shevchenko sustains this anguished tone throughout the poem, particularly in the lines in which the mother accuses Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav with the Russians, for her downfall-

‘… O Bohdan,

O my foolish son!’

An overuse of impassioned ‘O’s and exclamation marks, the least subtle of all punctuation marks and one often avoided in poetry, can very easily slip into the ridiculous and give the impression of over-exaggerated emotion, much like an overly enthusiastic thespian. However, Shevchenko successfully retains a tone of dignified melancholy. The familial relationship with the people of Ukraine and its landscape created through the metaphor of ‘my mother’ and ‘My Brother, Dnipro’, again shows how strong the connection Shevchenko felt with the country which was his natural home and which he only saw for a short period of his difficult life. This metaphor also allows Shevchenko to emphasise his regret for the loss of Ukraine’s freedom, due to Khmelnytsky’s mistake, in the lines-

‘Bohdan, O my little Bohdan!

Had I known, in the cradle

I’d have choked you, in my sleep,

I’d have overlain you.’

This plays on our expectations of women and their nurturing qualities, as the thought of a mother wishing that she had killed her child in the cradle is shocking and unnatural to us and therefore shows how strongly Shevchenko felt about Ukrainian freedom. The repetition of ‘I’d’ personalizes the sentiment and shows us that these extreme feelings are in fact Shevchenko’s. He emphasises the feeling of oppression through his repetition of ‘and’ in the lines-

And my sons at foreign toil,

Far in foreign lands;

My brother, Dnipro, now runs dry,

And is deserting me;

And my dear graves the Muscovite

Is plundering utterly.’

Much like the Romantic German nationalists, Shevchenko took a great deal of influence for his poetry from Ukrainian folklore and folk poetry, as another act of defiance against the oppressive Russian regime, whose systematic process of Russification threatened Ukrainian culture, eventually leading to the Ems Ukaz of 1876, forty three years after the poem was written, which restricted the printing of books in the Ukrainian language. This influence can be seen in the poem’s metre, which is known in Ukraine as ‘kolomayka’ verse and uses couplets with a line of trochaic tetrameter, followed by a line of trochaic trimeter, as well as it’s rhyme scheme, which follows an ABCB pattern, with either rhymes or pararhymes on the second and fourth line ending. This Romantic nationalist nostalgia for past glory days can also be seen when the mother (Ukraine) tells us-

‘And there was a time, indeed,

When in this world I ruled.’

It is clear that Shevchenko saw Ukraine and its people as a once glorious and powerful nation, which had begun to ‘wane’ due to Russian oppression. This idea of the ‘fall from power’ enhances the misery of the poem. In the exposition section, he asks the mother-

‘Did you to your unsure babes

Neglect to teach the way?’

To which she replies-

‘I watched over my small children,

Teaching them the way,

And my flowers throve and grew,

My children true and good’

The metaphor of the flowers thriving and growing gives the impression of a prosperous and honourable people and when combined with the image of digging and excavating emphasizes the brutality of the Russian oppressors.

‘Let him dig and excavate’ is a polysemic metaphor, however. A second meaning could refer to the ploughing and tilling of the land. Ukraine is famous for it’s richly fertile soil, and has been referred to in the past as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’. In this meaning, Shevchenko could be referencing the fact that the Russians took the crops and resources from Ukraine for their own use and sale. This idea of the wastage of the land is reinforced by the lines-

‘And from their mother her old smock,

Patched and worn, to tear!’

This is a highly emotive metaphor and refers to those Ukrainians of a higher social class who helped the Russians and did well out of this oppressive system (‘let the renegades wax in strength and grow’). The mother’s old smock would be a very nostalgic and sentimental item, so the idea of tearing it implies treachery against one’s closest relation, the person who gives birth to you. Shevchenko shows clearly that these people are as much to blame for Ukraine’s suffering as the Russians, by linking the two through the twinned lexis, ‘wane’ and ‘wax’. These words are commonly associated with the moon, which was often used symbolically by Shakespeare, who greatly influenced Shevchenko, to imply fickleness and unreliability. Shevchenko shows his contempt for these people through hyperbolic language such as ‘renegades’ and ‘you brutes’. The fact that the smock is already ‘patched and worn’ shows the brutality and lack of mercy.

Although Shevchenko has been seen primarily as a Ukrainian nationalist, he was also a social revolutionary, a side to his poetry that was emphasised by the Soviets in the early years after the 1917 revolution. Shevchenko was, unusually for a poet, born a serf, and he aligns himself with the lowest classes in most of his poetry. With this in mind, if we return to the metaphor of digging and excavating, we can see that it bears connotations of hard labour, specifically the forced labour imposed on the Ukrainian people by their Russian oppressors. Marxist theory tells us that the exploitation of labourers leads to the alienation of the workforce from their labour[iv]. This alienation is intensified, for Shevchenko, by the fact that the bourgeoisie in this system are foreign and the land being laboured on is not Ukrainian land. He emphasises this alienation through the repetition of ‘foreign’ in the lines-

‘And my sons at foreign toil,

Far in foreign lands’

Although he is speaking through the mother, it is clear that, by saying ‘my sons’, Shevchenko is associating himself with these serfs, who, like him, had to serve foreign masters, far from their homes. Likewise, when the mother says-

‘Now my steppes have all been sold,

In Jews’ and Germans’ hands’

it is in fact Shevchenko who feels that he has been robbed of his own possessions, by foreign oppressors. The idea of taking what is not one’s own is a key concept in the poem, shown particularly by the line-

‘He does not seek his own…’

which is emphasised by its ellipsis.

The final meaning of the digging and excavating metaphor is that of the struggle for freedom. In the concluding stanza, Shevchenko asks the question-

‘What have they been seeking there,

What was buried under

It by the old fathers?’

The idea that freedom can be found in the tomb of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, once it has been excavated is a recurring one in Shevchenko’s works, notably in ‘The Great Vault’. It is clear that the search for freedom is the key theme of the poem for a number of reasons. Central to the mother’s soliloquy is the line-

‘Looking out for freedom!…’

It’s central positioning in the poem, along with the exclamation mark and the ellipsis, emphasises the importance of this line. Like wise, the final two lines break from the metrical scheme, becoming essentially the same metrical couplets, diminuted into single lines.-

‘If they had but found what lay hidden there beneath it,

Then the children would not weep, the mother cease her grieving.’

This gives the effect of a concluding moral message and given that we know the answer to be freedom, we see that the struggle for freedom is that moral.

 

Word count: 1580


[i] Taras Shevchenko – Song Out Of Darkness, from the introduction by V. Swoboda

[ii] Taras Shevchenko – ‘The Plundered Grave’, Song Out Of Darkness, translated by Vera Rich

[iv] AQA Critical Anthology

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