"The owl" - poem of T. Shevchenko (Translated from Ukrainian by С.H. Andrusyshen and Watson Kirkconnell)

The owl


In a green wooded valley
A mother bore a son;
She gave him eyes most beautiful,
Brows like a benison.
And all the saints the dame besought
That he with luck might live:
“May God's own Mother grant all grace
That mothers cannot give!"
His bath at dead of night she drew
With periwinkles prim;
Till midnight he was cradled soft,
Till dawn she sang to him:
“Sweetest baby, rock-a-bye!
I bade the cuckoo prophesy;
The cuckoo spoke with words of sooth,
The cuckoo told this precious truth:
I am to live a hundred year,
To take good care of you, my dear;
I shall be wealthy, rich of gown,
And have a pleasant life in town.
You will grow up, the cuckoo swore,
In three brief years, or maybe four;
You will look like a prince's child,
Like a tall ash-tree growing wild,
Slender and sturdy, firm of gait,
And happy in your noble fate;
And not alone will you remain,
A splendid bride I shall obtain -
Though I should seek beyond the water
A merchant's or a captain's daughter,
A fine young lady she'll be seen,
In bright red shoes and mantle green,
Who'll pace your parlour, proud and tall,
With gracious converse for you all.
Your home will be a paradise
While I, my son, by my device,
Will sit there in my cosy niche
And feast my eyes on costumes rich.
My dearest child, O son of mine,
Is there on earth a son more fine,
In all Ukraine? Good people, gaze,
And sate your eyes in sweet amaze!
There is none prettier!... Success
Will surely come his life to bless!
O cuckoo, canting cuckoo,
Why did you prophesy?
Why promise her a hundred years -
And manifestly lie?
Can there be found in all the world
A destiny so true
That mothers could from distant lands
Evoke the weal they woo,
Could summon for their children
Fortune and freedom fair?
To what avail!...
For sad mischance
Can meet one anywhere -
Wherever people gather.
She gloried in her son
As in a flower of the grove;
Her joy was never done.
But then the father died, and she,
A widow, still but young
And with a child, now found her life
By want and sorrow wrung.
And so she sought the neighbours out
Their counsel to bespeak...
And they advised by one consent
That she for work should seek.
Wasted and faded, off she went
And worked, hard times to evade.
And day and night she slaved and toiled
To get her head-tax paid...
And with the little that she saved
She bought her son a jacket:
The' widow's son must go to school
And surely must not lack it.
Ah, what a heavy lot in life
A widow must endure!
Her fortune like a gypsy roves
In ragged bands obscure.
For a rich man the water flows
Up to his house serene;
While every poor man has to dig,
Even in a ravine.
The rich have many children fair,
For willows they might pass;
The widow has an only child,
A lonely blade of grass.
At last the widow saw with joy
Her son was fully grown:
Could read and write, was fair of face,
And like a flower full-blown!
Behind God's door she seemed to live,
So joyful was her mood,
When the young women ogled him
And stored up trousseaux good.
A maiden rich would fall in love
But somehow failed to woo him;
She stitched a kerchief fine with silk -
But did not give it to him.
Then bad times from beyond the sea
Crept to the widow's hut...
Young men they now impress with chains,
To army service put;(1)
They marched them to the muster-point;
By beaten paths they came.
The widow, weeping, hung about
With many another dame.
On conscripts, where they pass the night,
A guard most strict they clamp;
The widow had no chance at all
To come into the camp.
They marched them to the muster-point
To shave away their hair;
And many small and puny lads
And rich men's sons were there;
One had a stutter, one was lame,
One could not stand erect,
One had a hump, and one was rich,
Four from one home were checked.
Something was wrong with all of them,
Back home the draft was sent -
Fortune has shown a mothers love
In their predicament.
Alas, the widows only son
Was just the army's kind,
And so they took the lad away
And she was left behind.
Again the widow left her home -
Such tasks her age abuse -
And laboured for a crust of bread
As menial to the Jews, -
Since Christian folk would take her not:
She's grown too old, they said,
“Too weak to work... Although at times
They'd give her scraps of bread
For charity...
God grant that none
Such hardship might endure,
Where even water for a drink
May be begrudged the poor!
Copeck by copeck she laid by
Till sixty she had saved,
Then sent a letter to her son
Where with the troops he slaved.
She felt relief. A year passed by,
' And then a second year;
The fourth year and the tenth have gone
And still she does not hear.
No news at all. What could she do?
A bag she must implore
And go the rounds, barked at by dogs,
Begging from door to door.
She took the bag; the village left,
And sought the meadow flat
And did not wander home again
But day and night she sat
Inert beside the village gate.
Summer passed summer by.
Her person in that wasted form
No one could now descry,
And who would care to recognize
A crippled, poor, old dame
Who sat and gazed along the road
By which all travellers came.
Again it dawns, again the dark
Cloaks heaven’s lofty dome
And still the widows soldier son
Comes never, never home...
Beside the pond, by evening light,
The willows are a-sway;
In vain the dame awaits her son,
From supper still away.
Above the pond, by evening light,
The sedge is whispering low;
In the dark grove a maid awaits
Her Cossack, pale with woe.
Across the pond, the breezes blow;
The willows all are swayed;
Lone in her hut the mother weeps, -
And in the grove the maid.
The black-browed beauty wept her fill,
And then began to sing;
The aged mother wept her fill,
Then wailings loud did fling.
She prayed to Heaven, lamented, loud,
Cursed everything, God wot.
How hard it is when mothers bear
Their children’s hapless lot!
Her gnarled old hands, she raised in prayer
To God; her soul undone,
She sadly cursed her sorry fate
And called out to her son;
Then in a simple daze she falls,
As griefs her brain corrode;
And through her tears intently gazed
Upon the nearby road.
By day and night she looked at it
And pled with passers-by:
“Among the far-off Russian troops
Did you a lad espy,
My son?.. But none had heard of him
And none had ever seen him.
And so she sits, asks no one now,
And does not weep to keen him.
She has gone mad!... A piece of brick
She tends, now scolding wild,
Now calling it her little son;
She feeds it like a child;
Now in seclusion, shedding tears,
She sings in accents mild:
“The viper set the house on fire
To cook some gruel; edging nigher,
He wrinkled up his leggings gay...
And then the Moskals (2) flew away,
Like grey geese to a warmer clime
By fours, by fours, in 'perfect time,
They flew away with cackling sound! -
The eagle sits upon a mound
And in the middle of the night
Pecks out the Cossack’s eyes so bright,
While in a grove a maiden stays
Till he return from wars dark ways...”
By day she prowled the refuse piles
And gathered up the shards -
A gift they were for her son's son,
The little lad's rewards.
And oft by night, dishevelled quite
And bare of head she goes
Through all the village, singing loud
Or wailing out her woes.
The people scolded her... you see,
She kept them from their sleep,
And all along their hedges prim
She trampled grasses deep.
By day, the children, armed with sticks,
After the widow howl
Along the street, and mockingly
They call her - “Owl! Owl! Owl!”

(1) In those days military service was hard and long, often lasting as many as twelve years, at times more.
(2) Soldiers serving in the Russian army.

Taras Shevchenko
1844, S.- Petersburg, (C. - Петербург)

Translated by С.H. Andrusyshen and Watson Kirkconnell

Original publication: Тарас Шевченко. Зібрання творів: У 6 т. — К., 2003. — Т. 1: Поезія 1837-1847. — С. 257-262; С. 697-698

Source: The Poetical Works of Taras Shevchenko. The Kobzar. Translated from the Ukrainian by С.H. Andrusyshen and Watson Kirkconnell. Published for the Ukrainian Canadian Committee by University of Toronto Press, 1964. Toronto and Buffalo. Printed in Canada, Reprinted 1977, p. 154 - 160.

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