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Literary and spiritual legacy of Ivan Franko, a writer and thinker of tragic fate


Mykola Zhulynsky, director of the Shevchenko Institute of Literature, ponders the phenomenon of the Ukrainian writer and thinker Ivan Franko, the 150th anniversary of whose birthday was marked in Ukraine on August 27 2006.


Ivan Franko, whose father a village blacksmith and mother from the stock of petty nobles, was educated at the universities of Lviv, of Chernivtsy and of Vienna; Franko was awarded the doctorate by the University of Vienna in 1893; he was also an honorary professor of the University of Kharkiv. Franko is considered to be the first Ukrainian author who earned his living by his writings. He authored over 4,000 books, essays, articles and scholarly papers. His literary legacy includes poems, novels and dramas.

Franko edited newspapers and magazines and took an active part in the public and political life. In 1878, he was arrested for his socialist views expressed publicly. Later, he conducted socialist propaganda among the workers of Lviv, Drohobych, Boryslav and among peasants in the countryside, for which he was arrested several times. In the early twentieth century his political activity slackened for several reasons, one of them being his involvement in the work of the Scientific Society named after Taras Shevchenko. He experienced an unrequited love which he described in his poetry, and his family life did not seem to be too happy.

His political and social views went through several changes in the course of his life; finally, he came to be an ardent supporter of independence of Ukraine, political and cultural. Starting from 1908, Franko was suffering from debilitating diseases. Franko died in May 1916.


Lonely and miserable

In the fall of 1914, the soldiers of the Russian army that occupied the Land of Halychyna in western Ukraine, who often saw an oddly looking man, wearing a dark hat, a long black overcoat with packets containing food products, books and newspapers hanging attached to the buttons of his coat, trudging through the streets of Lviv, must have wondered who this strange character was. The man, his eyes downcast, his hands in the coat’s pockets, his whole stooping figure a spectacle of fatigue and suffering, kept whispering something to himself.

Little did they know that the forlorn and evidently ailing man, always deep in thought who they sneered at, was a doctor of philosophy at the University of Vienna, a remarkable writer and poet of deep insights into the destiny of man, an accomplished translator, a historian of culture and of literature. His name was Ivan Franko.

No one will ever know what he was whispering plodding through the streets of Lviv then — verses from his recent translations? His own poetry?

Franko must have felt very lonely and abandoned. His eldest son, Andriy, died a year before; his other two sons were at the front — Taras, a school teacher, had been drafted into the Austrian army and was sent to fight at the Italian front; Petro, a Polytechnic student, was also at the front (later, he joined voluntarily the Ukrayinsky Sichovi Striltsi — Ukrainian Detachments of Sich Riflemen — a military force established in 1917 to defend Ukraine’s independence). His daughter Anna lived with her aunt in Kyiv; his wife who used to be a wise and supportive woman, had slipped into insanity (mental disorder ran in her family), and his home had turned into hell in which it was impossible to work or rest. He had been forced, after much hesitation and with bitter anguish, to put her into an asylum. He was living in misery and loneliness, his hands paralyzed, his sight progressively failing, but his desire to work, to do whatever he could for his nation never leaving him.

Franko, tortured by physical pains and insomnia, had two more years to live. “My main torment is not the physical pain that I continuously suffer from — my torment lies in my inability to finish the work I have begun. There are so many ideas and projects that have accumulated in my head — and they do not want to go with me into my grave.”

Franko, broken down physically, unable to take care of himself, badly ill, spent his last months in a nursing home. He shared the room there with Vasylko, a sixteen-year-old son of Franko’s brother Zakhar, who joined Franko to provide whatever help he could. Better food and therapy began to improve not only Franko’s health but bolstered his spirit. Franko began writing poems again; among them were his poetic interpretations of some events from the history of Ancient Rome. He edited a collection of his translations from the ancient Greek poets. The collection — Stare Zoloto, or Old Gold — contained 232 poems with over 7,000 verses in them.


Manuscripts and books

The Institute of Literature named after Taras Shevchenko at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine has in safekeeping almost all the manuscripts of Ivan Franko, practically all the books from his library which number over twelve thousand volumes, among which there are 410 incunabula.

The manuscript titled Istoriya moyei khvoroby (History of My Illness) is only thirteen pages long, but the amount of pain expressed in it speaks volumes. It is in the hand of Franko’s son Andriy who wrote down what his father told him about his illness which struck him down in the year 1908, “the most terrible year in my life so far.” “For fourteen days in March I could not sit upright but I never stopped working, battling against terrible pain.” This manuscript can be found in Fund # 3, File 185, of the Shevchenko Institute of Literature.

Doctors warned Franko who was suffering from various illnesses, splitting headaches and mental anguish, that he must stop writing and even reading — but he never heeded their warning.

In that “terrible year” (1908), he published some works of early Ukrainian writings, his translations from Sappho and Menander, his translations of old Icelandic sagas, some of his scholarly papers; he began writing a new scholarly paper dealing with the newest Biblical studies, and new short stories; he went on working on his monumental Studies of the Ukrainian Folk Songs and on his History of Ukrainian Literature which he presented as history of the spiritual development of the Ukrainian people; he was editing for publication his three-volumed Halytsko-rus’kykh narodnykh prypovidok (Galician Folk Sayings); he published some of his earlier works with new prefaces — and he finished working on a five-volume edition of Apokryfy i lehendy z ukrayinskykh rukopysiv (Apocrypha and Legends from Ukrainian Manuscripts) which, according to the prominent scholar M. Murka was “the first systematic collection of this kind in the Slavic studies.”

Franko’s assiduity and capacity for work amazed and fascinated his contemporaries, particularly those who knew about his health and other problems. His encyclopedic knowledge and his thirst for more knowledge were universally admired.

Indeed, it was not only his health that caused Franko pain — surprising as it may seem, he was tormented by doubts as to his true calling as an author who had taken upon himself to express aspirations, anxieties and strivings of his nation. His poem Moses, written in 1905, is considered to be a symbolic autobiography of Franko himself, a reflection of the inner struggle that went on in his soul. Some of his earlier writings (Ziv’yale lystya, Pokhoron, Smert Kayina, Ivan Vyshensky and others) already bore the imprint of his soul-searching, but they came to be fully and forcefully expressed only in Moses. Moses and his cause, “a prophet who was not accepted by his own people,” who was punished by death by Yahweh shortly before the people he led reached the promised Land, had a special significance for Franko .

Franko, suffering from the failing sight, progressive paralysis of his hands and other ailments but inspired by his faith in the prophetic role of poet in society, and aided by his son Andriy, traveled across Halychyna with recitals of his poem Moses. His words were eagerly hearkened to by his audiences who wanted personal freedom and independence of Ukraine as much as Franko did. The people who heard or read his poem must have associated the Moses in it with Franko himself. When Franko’s Moses says,

“You are my clan, you are my children,

You are my pride and my glory,

In you lies my spirit, my future,

And the beauty and the state.


All my life I have been giving you

all my labors

With irrepressible vigor —

And you will go on your journey

through the centuries

With the stamp of my spirit on you,”

it must have been taken as Franko’s own words addressed to the Ukrainian people hankering for the independent Ukrainian statehood, for a new life in a new land. Franko was giving the Ukrainian people a prophecy, a hope that their dreams would one day come true, and they would eventually come to their own promised land.


Writer’s calling

Franko believed that the calling of a writer is to sacrifice himself for the cause of spiritual enlightenment of his nation, to stir up the national awareness, and to reveal the unique features of culture of his people. The poet may be alone in his struggle, may be even rejected by his people; his is the road to the calvary, among “cynicism and ridicule.”

“Your gift of prophecy is given to you

Only to show the way to others,

But you yourself is denied

the entrance to the sacred place…”

At the same time, the poet who is conscious of his prophetic mission, must not succumb to despair, disillusionment and loss of faith — he must “listen to the Thunderous Voice from Heaven,” commit himself to the Power given to him from Above and accept the Divine guidance. Franko thought of himself as of a spiritual guide of his nation and was prepared to face any hardship in his serving this cause.

At the same time Franko did not believe he was “a fortune’s favorite,” “a genius” who knew the ultimate truth; he called himself “one of those writers who are workers and laborers, who take part in building the edifice of civilization but whose names will not be carved on its facade.”

When he was twenty two, Franko presented himself in the symbolic image of a stone mason in one his poems. This stone mason thinks of himself as an ascetic builder of a new world who is to sacrifice himself for the cause of national development. The road to happiness for humanity lies over the bones of millions who have sacrificed himself as “slaves of freedom,” “stone masons of progress.” In 1898, Franko called himself “a servant of his nation” that made it possible for him, a son of a peasant, to become an intellectual who must now devote himself to the service of the peasants.


Born in the countryside

Ivan Franko was born into the family of a land tiller and blacksmith in the village of Nahuyevychy in western Ukraine which at that time was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Since the early medieval times, the Ukrainians of that land called themselves “rusyny.” When referring to his ethnic background, Franko called himself both “a rusyn” and “a Ukrainian” but preferred being called Ukrainian, as he believed in the unity of all people of Ukrainian descent.

He began his education at a village school (in his native village there was no school and he attended classes at the school in a neighbouring village, living there with his relatives). Among the subjects were the Polish and German languages. Franko continued his studies in the town of Drohobych; he began writing when still a student whose interests included European literature.

Upon completing his secondary education, he went on to study at the University of Lviv. It was then that he began writing his “first lyrical poems (I was not yet into the subject of patriotism yet), dramas and versified stories,” and translating from the works of ancient Greek literature, from the Bible, and from the German epic poem Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs). His interests expanded to include the classic literature, mythology, history, Ukrainian folklore, plus a lot more. It was at that time that he discovered the cultural chasm that separated the countryside dwellers from the intelligentsia. He was pained to see the moral and spiritual backwardness of the lower classes, lack of social and cultural prospects for them. The political life in Halychyna at that time was underdeveloped and sluggish. There seemed to be no traces of any national liberation movement of the kind that had such a great impact on life in Italy, Ireland, Bulgaria, Poland and other European countries.

Franko and other young people of politically romantic inclinations eagerly absorbed new political ideas and social theories, particularly those of socialism and positivism, that came from Europe. Franko began writing essays and articles of a political character in which he tried to develop ideas of economic and social equality, justice, civil rights and individual initiative. At the same time, Franko rejected the Marxist ideas of “a people’s state,” “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and of “the class revolution.” He wrote that the Marxist political “programme of state socialism reeks of state despotism and uniformity which, if carried out, could become a great hindrance to further development, or become a source of new revolutions.”

Franko’s ideal was “social justice resting upon the foundation of humanity.” In 1890, Franko, jointly with those who shared his ideas, founded The Ukrainian-Ruska Radical Party whose programme was based on the moderate principles of the European Social-Democrats. Later, he left this party to join the more radical National Democratic Party which championed the creation of a modern Ukrainian nation.


Ukrainian nationalism

Franko wanted to imbue Ukrainian patriotism and nationalism with the European culture and spirit expressed through art and literature. As a translator, he devoted himself to rendering into Ukrainian the best achievements of European and world literature, and his solid knowledge of several languages made it possible. His writings and translations were a bridge between the rest of Europe and Ukraine. His works, published in German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian and other languages, brought his ideas of cultural unity known outside Ukraine. Franko was part of the cultural and literary process taking place in Austria, Germany, Poland and Russia, and he made sure that the plight of the Ukrainian nation, Ukrainian culture, and Ukrainian traditions become known to the European community. Franko was prepared “to endure all the torments, all the suffering and humiliation” that would be his lot in his sacrificial commitment to the cause of justice and enlightenment.

His poetic legacy deserves a separate discussion. Here it will suffice to say that his poems, on the one hand, deal with a great many issues, and on the other, his lyrical poetry reveals such a great concentration of emotions that one cannot help wondering how his heart had not broken long before it actually did. His probably most dramatic collection of poems, Zivyale lystya (Wilted Leaves) is filled with volcanic emotions provoked by despair, anxiety, failing hope, longing for love and a gnawing feeling of alienation. The very names of some of his other collections of poetry — Autumnal Moods; Nocturnal Moods; Woeful Songs; Gail Sonnets — suggest the mental anguish and the aching heart of the poet who wrote them.

Franko was convinced that it was only the soul itself that could deal with the pain which lived in it; this pain should be put into words and revealed to the world — only in this manner can the pain be alleviated.

Echoing the age-old adage, Franko who believed in the inexhaustible power of the artist and poet, says in one of his poems, “Life is short but art is eternal/ And the creative potential is boundless.”

Franko did experience several severe blows of fate — in love and in social standing. In 1890, for example, the council of the University of Lviv refused to allow him to present his doctoral dissertation for public defense. He did earn his doctoral degree three years later — at the University of Vienna. He was snubbed again by the University of Lviv in 1895 when he, by that time a well known author, historian, art critic and scholar, was refused the post of associate professor at that university. There were other humiliating circumstances in his life which he bore with dignity.


Acutely aware of the hardships his nation was living through, suffering because of the subjugated state his nation was in, Franko did not want tranquility for his aching soul. “Do not leave me, searing pain,” he said, never losing hope for a better life for his people. He sacrificed himself on the altar of this hope. He knew the power of the word, the strength of the spirit that can overcome any adversity, and he wrote inspired, fiery poems, “Calling on the millions/ to follow along the road to salvation”. He blessed his nation for “the trip into the future” by his firm belief in the redeeming quality of culture, science and education that would awaken the spirituality of the Ukrainian people to whom he bequeathed his “trust in the strength of the Spirit.”


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