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Monument to Kotlyarevsky
in Poltava.
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“Does a nation have anything more precious than the language it has inherited from its forefathers? The language is an embodiment of all the nation’s thoughts, its traditions, its religion, its history; the language is the foundation on which the life of a nation rests, the language is its heart and soul. To deprive a nation of its language is tantamount to depriving it of its most valuable possession.”

Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744—1803),
German philosopher and man of letters.

The Ukrainian language in the 18th century was used mostly by peasants and petty bourgeois and though it was in no danger of extinction, to become a language of belle-lettres, philosophy and science, it had to be hoisted from the level of the everyday to the level of the sublime. There was also an increasing pressure on the part of the Imperial authorities to do away with the Ukrainian language altogether. Naturally enough, for quite a while there was no one who would risk to use the language of the lower classes for expressing refined feelings of polite literature (scholarly works were written either in Old Slavonic or Latin). It was only at the end of the 18th century that a breakthrough came. Ivan Kotlyarevsky who for his own diversion, wrote an epic poem, a burlesque in Ukrainian, based on Vergil’s Aeneid, was prevailed upon by his friends to whom he read his poem, to publish it. He was reluctant to do it but when finally its shortened version was released in print in 1794, it was an immediate success. The book, Eneyida, turned out to be the first literary work published in the vernacular Ukrainian, becoming an undying classic of Ukrainian literature.

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The first edition of Kotlyarevsky’s Eneyida.

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Kotlyarevsky memorial
house in Poltava.
Ivan P. Kotlyarevsky was born into the family of a small landowner of noble extraction, in the town of Poltava, in 1769. His primary education was provided by a local sexton and psalm-reader. Later he studied at the Poltava seminary. Upon graduation, he had a succession of jobs which included teaching, and later he went into military service. In 1806, he even took part in a military expedition against Turkey, and two years later he retired from the army in the rank of staff-captain. His retirement from the army did not mean his retirement from a civilian career. He was a warden and administrator of an establishment for educating children of impoverished noblemen, of a charity hospital, a member of Societies of lovers and promoters of belles-lettres. He was known to have joined a Freemasons’ lodge. And he never stopped writing. His plays, among them Natalka-Poltavka, another classic of Ukrainian literature, were at the start of the Ukrainian national theatre.
Kotlyarevsky died in Poltava in 1838. The full version of Eneyida was published posthumously, in 1842.
Kotlyarevsky’s Eneyida has been called “an encyclopaedia of Ukrainian life” of the 18th century by recent historians of Ukrainian literature. Basically, it is a satirical work which through the adventures of Enei (Aeneas) who is portrayed as a daring and venturesome Cossack, and of his Cossack comrades, presents a wide panorama of everyday life, aspirations, beliefs of the 18th century. As Vergil’s Aeneas was the prototype of the Roman life, Kotlyarevsky’s Enei was the prototype of the Ukrainian life of the 18th century. The Ukrainian upper classes were well-versed in classical Roman and Greek literature and their education allowed them to read the classics in the original Latin and Greek. The story of Aeneas as told by Vergil was well known and the images of gods and goddesses, kings and queens, Trojans and inhabitants of Latium were skilfully used by Kotlyarevsky to satirically depict various walks of Ukrainian society. Kotlyarevsky’s language is very rich and juicy, full of Ukrainian idioms, expressions and words which have been preserved thanks to their having been used in the poem. The publishers of the first edition of the poem supplemented it with a short glossary of words and expressions and the third edition of 1842 already had a glossary which had been compiled by Kotlyarevsky himself and included more than fifteen hundred words and expressions. Sparkling humour of the poem has its roots in the folk humour of the times when it was written but it has hardly lost any of its witty potential to make people laugh two centuries later. Kotlyarevsky’s Eneyida is not a dead classic on a dusty shelf but a piece of writing which is very much alive and enjoyed.
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Photographs show scenes from Eneyida,
staged at the Franko National Drama Theatre.
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Drawings by A. Bazylevych.

Eneyida has inspired adaptations: animated cartoons have been made, plays and musicals have been staged. One of such musicals has been staged at the Franko National Drama Theatre in Kyiv, the theatre of long and glorious traditions which does its best to maintain the cultural continuity and establish links between the classical drama and literature and the audiences of today.

Reported by Vira Sulyma,
writer, head of a department of Ukraine’s Literature Museum
Photos by Yuri Buslenko

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