"The servant-gerl" poem of Taras Shevchenko (Ukrainian-to-English translation by Vera Rich)

Taras Shevchenko 


("Naimychkal" / "Наймичка")


Early morning, on a Sunday,
All the field with mist was flooded,
In the mist, upon a gravemound,
Like a poplar leaning forward,
A young woman stood. She pressed 
Something close against her breast,
She was talking with the mist.
“ O mist, I implore you,
My patched, shabby fortune!  
Why not conceal me, then,
Here in the cornfield?
Choke me and stifle me,
Under the earth drive me?
Snatch me from evil fate,
Shorten my life for me?
Not that!—but hide me, mist,
Here in the plain,
That none see or know 
My misfortune, my shame!
I am not alone, I have
Father and mother...
And I have too,— dear mist,
Mist, dearest brother...
My child ! My small son!
Unbaptized still!
I shall not christen you,
Boding you ill;
Strangers will christen you,—
I’ll not know which
Name they call you... My child! 
I was once rich...
Curse me not! I shall pray 
Heaven itself,
Weep down and send to you 
Fortune and health!”
Sobbing, she went across the field,
Hiding in the mist,
And through her tears she quietly sang 
The song of that distressed 
Widow, who in the Danube’s flood 
Laid her sons to rest:
“There a grave lies in the plain,
To this spot a widow came,
Here she came and wandered round,
Seeking for a poison-flower,
Gould not find this poison-herb,
Then twin sons she brought to birth, 
Wrapped them in a silken shawl,
Brought them to the Danube’s shore:
’Gentle, gentle Danube,
Make my children happy!
You, bright sand, all golden,
Feed my little children,
Feed them, wrap them over,
Be for them a cover!’”


There lived an old couple,
Long year after year, in their little holding,
At the pondside, by a wood,
Like two children the pair were 
Always together.
They’d pastured sheep together in childhood, 
Later married and settled,
They purchased some cattle,
Bought their holding, a mill with a pond,
Made an orchard in the wood 
With many hives of bees,—
They had all for their needs.
But no children came; and now 
Death Drew close to them with shouldered scythe.
Who would be a child to them?
Who brighten and console
Their old age? Mourn and bury them?
And who pray for their souls ?
Who’d manage all their property,
As is fit and right.
Remembering them gratefully,
As would their own child?
Hard it is to rear your children 
Among roofless walls,
But it is worse, far worse, to grow 
Old in splendid halls,
To grow old and die alone,
Leave all one has gained 
To strangers and their children to 
Amuse themselves and waste.


And then it happened the old couple 
Were sitting on the bench one Sunday, 
Fine and smart in shirts of white;
High above, the sun shone bright,
Not the smallest cloud—all quiet 
And tranquil as in heaven,
Like a beast in a dark wood,
Grief in their hearts was hidden.
In such a heaven, what is it 
Makes the old couple mourn?
Has some long-ago misfortune 
Woken in their home?
Is it a grief, crushed yesterday,
That once again is stirring?
Or just this moment taken root,
And set this heaven burning?
I do not know why the old pair 
Were sorrowing so. Perhaps, already, 
To go to God they would prepare,
And for that long road, who’d be there 
To harness up their horses for them?
—“ Who’ll bury us, Nastya, when we go 
Out of this world?”
“Well, I don’t know! 
I have thought it over well,
Till it made me grieve;
We have grown old all alone... 
And who is there to leave 
Our goods to?”
“Hush a moment! There! 
D’you hear? There’s something weeping, 
Like a child, outside the gate!
Quickly! Do you see?
I’ve felt that something’s going to happen! ”
Together, up they jump,
Off to the gate! They reach it and 
Stop short, struck quite dumb:
Just outside the very stile 
A swaddled baby lay,
Well-wrapped-round, but not too tightly, 
With a new mantle swathed;
For its mother swaddled it,
Wrapped it (it was summer),
In her last remaining mantle!
They stand there, our old couple,
They look, they pray. Then, poor mite,
As if it would implore them,
The baby raised its little hands,
Stretching out towards them
Its tiny fingers... It grew quiet,
As if it would not weep,
Only whimpered softly.
Nastya? I said so! See!
It is fortune! It is fate!
We’ll be alone no more!
Well, pick him up and swaddle him!... 
Look at him ! Bless his soul!
Take him indoors. To Horodyshche 
I shall ride. We need 
God-parents for him.”
Strange the way 
Things chance with us, indeed.
One man curses his own son,
Drives him from the house;
Another earns a candle with 
The sweat of weary brows,
Sets it up before the ikons, 
Sobs and humbly pleads:
He has no children... 
Strange the way 
Things chance with us, indeed.


From joy they asked no less than six 
God-parents for the baby,
They christened him that evening; Marko 
Was the name they gave him.
Marko grew. And our old couple
Couldn’t find a thing
Good enough, forever fussing,
Coddling, pampering him.
A year went by. Our Marko grew,
And for his sake the milch-cow 
Was steeped in luxury. And then 
There arrived a dark-browed 
Young woman at the house one day,
She was young and pretty,
And to that blessed home she came 
To seek a maid’s position.
“Well, then,” he says, “Let’s have her, Nastya!” 
“Yes, Trokhym, let’s take her,
For we are old and ailing, too,
And then there is the baby,
He’s grown a lot already, true,
But all the same, he needs 
Quite a lot of looking after.”
“Yes, he does, indeed!
For I’ve already lived, thank God,
My span of years away,
I’m no longer young. Now lass,
What are you asking, say?
Yearly, or how?”
“Whatever you give...”
“No! You have to know,
My girl, you have to count the cash,
The cash you’ve earned; for so 
It’s said: Who doesn’t count his money,
Doesn’t own much, either.
Let’s put it this way, lass: we don’t 
Know you, nor you us, neither; 
You’ll live in with us, see what sort
Of work it is, while we
See how you manage. Then we’ll talk
Of wages. How’d that be
For you, my girl?”
“That suits me, Sir!” 
“Then let’s go in, and see!”
They settled on a wage for her.
The girl was happy, gay,
As if she’d married a fine lord,
Or purchased broad estates.
In the house and in the farmyard,
By the cattle-byre,
Dawn and evening she was busy;
And as for that dear child,
She would tend him like a mother! 
Common-days alike 
And Sundays, washed his curly hair, 
And dressed him up in white 
Blouses every single day;
Played with him, sang him rhymes, 
Made him little carts, and feast-days 
Nursed him all the time.
The old couple were astonished, 
Thanking God, they prayed.
But every single night, poor lass,
The watchful servant-maid 
Cursed her fate and shed salt tears 
Weeping bitterly;
And there was none to hear her weep, 
None to know or see,
Only little Marko sees it,
And he cannot know
Why the servant-girl with bitter
Tear-drops bathes him so.
Marko does not know why she 
Kisses him so dearly,
Hardly stops to eat or drink—
Only cares to feed him.
Marko knows not how at night,
Often, in his cradle
He rouses, stirs the slightest bit—
At once she’s up and wakeful, 
Tucks him in and blesses him, 
Rocks him quietly,
For from the other room she hears 
How the child is breathing.
In the morning, Marko holds 
His little arms towards Hanna, 
Hails the watchful servant-girl 
With the name of “Mama”,
Marko does not know; he grows, 
Growing towards manhood.


Many seasons passed away,
There flowed past many waters,
And to the homestead sorrow came,
250 And many tears were falling.
They laid old Nastya to her rest,
And hardly could revive again
Old Trokhym. Sorrow passed, and went
Away again, and once more slept.
Back to the homestead, happiness
Out from behind the dark grove crept.
At home with the old man to rest.
Marko was a carter now,
And in the autumn evenings, too,
He at home would never tarry,—
It was time for him to marry.
“But who is there?” the old man thought, 
And he asked advice 
Of the servant. To an emperor’s 
Daughter she’d have liked
To send matchmakers: “You must get 
Marko himself, and ask him.”
“Right, my girl! We’ll ask the boy,
Then have the wedding-party.”
They asked him, talked the matter over, 
Marko at once went out For matchmakers. 
They soon returned Bearing betrothal towels,
Blessed bread exchanged. And she was a
Young lady, fine arrayed in 
Furs, and then so pretty, too,
This bride, that such a maiden 
Would be a fit match for a Hetman.
Yes, they’d found a treasure!
“Thank you, friends,” the old man said.
“Now, we have to settle 
Everything, so that you can know,
When and where shall we 
Have the wedding and the feast.
And then again, who’ll be
Mother for us? My Nastya did not 
Live to see this day!...”
His tears welled up. But in the doorway 
Stood the servant-maid,
She clenched her hands against the jamb, 
And swooned. And not another 
Sound was heard—only the servant 
Whispered : “Mother... Mother!”


A week went by, and the young women 
Knead the bridal loaf
At the homestead. The old father, 
Summoning his strength,
Dances, too, with the young women, 
Sweeps the courtyard clean,
And all who pass or journey by 
He invites within.
Offering them honey-brandy,
Invites them for the wedding,
Scurrying around, although 
His legs will hardly bear him.
In the house and out, is noise,
Laughter all about,
From the store, last barrel-loads 
Of flour they’re dragging out.
All around is bustle,—baking,
Boiling, washing, cleaning...
All done by strangers. Where’s the maid? 
On pilgrimage to Kyiv 
Hanna has gone. The old man pleaded, 
Marko was weeping quite,
Begging her to act as mother.
“No, Marko ! It’s not right
For me to take your mother’s place:
You are wealthy folk,
And I’m a servant-girl; that way 
You’d be a laughing stock.
May God bless and help you both!
I shall go to pray
To all the holy saints at Kyiv,
Then I’ll return again
To your home, if you’ll have me back.
As long as I have strength 
I shall work for you.”
From her heart, she blessed
Her Marko, and, all bathed in tears,
Went beyond the stile.
The wedding celebrations started.
There was work, meanwhile,
For musicians and for shoes.
Tables and benches ran
With brandy. But the servant trudged,
To Kyiv hurried on.
To Kyiv came, but did not rest,
Found a place to stay,
Hired herself out to carry water,
For no cash remained
To have St. Barbara’s Litany sung.
She carried back and forth,
Earned some eight fifty-copeck pieces, 
And for Marko bought 
A blessed cap in the catacombs 
Of the great St. John,
That Marko ever should be free 
From headache, henceforth on.
And then a St. Barbara ring 
For the bride she earned,
Payed her respects to all the saints,
Then homeward she returned.

She returned home. Kateryna 
And Marko ran and met her 
Outside the gate, led her within 
And at the table set her;
Spread before her food and drink,
Asked her countless questions
Of Kyiv, while Kateryna spread 
A bed for her to rest on.
“Why so dearly do they love me?
Why respect me so?
God of goodness and of mercy,
Do they, maybe, know?
Have they guessed the secret, maybe?... 
No, they have not guessed.
It’s because they’re good...”
And bitter
Tears the servant shed.


Thrice the river banks were frozen,
Thrice they thawed again,—
Three times Katrya saw the servant 
Off upon her way
To Kyiv, as she would her mother.
And for the fourth time walked 
With her right to the field, the mound, 
Praying to the Lord
That she’d come quickly home again,
For without her, the home
Was somehow sad, as though the mother
Were away from home.

After Our Lady’s feast, one Sunday,
After Assumption Day, old 
Trokhym Was sitting in a fine white shirt 
And straw hat, on the bench. 
Before him With the dog his grandson played,
And his grand-daughter, all dressed up 
In mother’s bodice, played she’d come 
To visit grandpa. The old man gave 
A laugh, then solemnly he greeted 
His grandchild, like a grown-up lady.
“But what’s become, say, of your pasty? 
They’ve robbed you in the woods, maybe? 
Or did you just forget to take it?
Or, maybe, you’ve not yet baked it?
What a fine mother! Shame, indeed! 
”But look! Into the courtyard came 
The maid. The old man ran to meet 
His Hanna, and the children too.
“Is Marko on the road?”
Hanna asked the old man. “Yes,
Still out on the road.”
“And I could hardly hobble back,
Come back to your home,
I did not wish in foreign parts 
To perish all alone!
If I could only wait for Marko...
I feel so weary, somehow...”
And for the grandchildren, she drew 
Out presents from her bundle :
Little crosses and medallions,
And for Yarynochka 
A string of corals, and red foil
Made into a holy picture;
For Karpo, she’d a nightingale,
And a pair of horses;
And for Kateryna, now 
Already for the fourth time,
A St. Barbara ring; and three 
Tapers of hallowed wax 
For old grandpa; but for Marko 
And herself, she lacked 
A present: she could not buy more,
There was no money left,
She had grown too ill to earn.
“But look ! I’ve still got left 
Half a doughnut!”
And to the children 
Gave a bite to each.


She went within. And Kateryna
Washed and bathed her feet,
Sat her down to take a meal. 
She could not drink or eat,
Poor old Hanna.
When will Sunday be?”
“The day after tomorrow.” “Then 
We must have them sing 
St. Nicholas’s Litany,
And make an offering,
For Marko’s somehow been delayed, 
Maybe out on the road 
He was taken ill, may God
Protect him! ”And tears flowed 
From her old and weary eyes.
Hardly could she stand,
Rise from table.
I no longer am
What I was, too weak to stand,
Useless I have grown.
Katrya, it’s hard to die within 
A stranger’s cosy home!”
The poor old soul grew weak and ill, 
Already they have sent 
To bring Communion to her and The Last Sacrament,—
It did not help! Old Trokhym roams 
The yard with death-like face; 
Kateryna from poor Hanna 
Cannot shift her gaze,—
Kateryna at her side 
Days and nights would spend,
While in the night, owls on the barn 
Boded no good end.
Every day and every hour 
The invalid entreats her,
With her voice the merest whisper,
“Daughter Kateryna,
Hasn’t Marko come back yet?
Ah, if I knew for sure
That I could last until I see him,
Then I could endure!” 

Marko journeys with the carters, 
Singing as he’s walking,
Does not hurry to the homestead, 
Stops to graze his oxen.
Marko brings for Kateryna
Fabrics, costly, rich;
For his father, there’s a girdle 
Woven from red silk;
For the servant, gold brocade 
To make herself a bonnet,
And a kerchief of good crimson 
With white fringe upon it;
And for the children, little shoes,
Figs and grapes; and then 
From Constantinople, red 
Wine for all of them,
Three good caskfuls in the barrel, 
Caviar from the Don,—
He brings it all, but does not know 
What’s happening at home.
Marko journeys, does not worry,
He arrives, thank God!
Pushes the gate open wide,
Says a prayer to God.
“Do you hear him, Kateryna?
Run and welcome him!
He is here at last! Run quicker, 
Quickly bring him in!
Thanks be to Thee, holy Saviou!
He is here at last!”
And softly she repeats“ Our Father ”, 
As if from a trance.
The old man unyokes the oxen, 
Stows the brightly trimmed 
Yoke-stays, and Katrusya turns 
To Marko, watching him.
“But where is Hanna, Kateryna? 
I’ve not cared a bit!
She’s not dead, surely?” 
But she’s very sick.
Let’s go into the smaller room,
Father will unharness
The oxen; Marko, it’s for you
She’s waiting, always asking.”
Marko went to the smaller room,
But on the threshold stopped...
For he was frightened. Hanna whispered: 
“Glory be to God !
Come over here, don’t be afraid!... 
Katrya, please go away!
There’s something that 
I have to ask him, 
Something I must say.”
Kateryna left the room,
Marko by the head
Of the old servant-maid bent down.
“Marko, look!” she said.
“Look upon me ! Do you see 
How wasted I’ve become?
I’m not Hanna, nor a servant,
And she grew dumb.
Marko wept and wondered deeply.
Once more her eyes were open,
She gazed at him with all her strength,— 
And tears started flowing.
“Forgive me. All my life here in 
A stranger’s home I’ve suffered... 
Forgive me, then, my little son!
I... I am your mother!”
And she grew silent...
Marko swooned,
The ground shook with a tremor.
His sense returned ... he looked at her  — 
His mother slept forever.


Taras Shevchenko's poem
1845, Pereyaslav, (Переяслав)


Translated by Vera Rich


Source of the original poem in Ukrainian: Taras Shevchenko. Zibrannia tvoriv: U 6 t. — K., 2003. — T. 1: Poeziia 1837-1847. — S. 329 - 342; S. 730-733.


Source of English translation of the poem: Taras Shevchenko."Song out of Darkness". Selected poems translated from the Ukrainian by Vera Rich. London, 1961, p. 55 - 68.


Here you can find Ukrainian text of the Taras Shevchenko's poem:

Original poem in Ukrainian

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