Shevchenko later summed up his childhood and his feelings in the following words:
I don't describe that little cottage
Beside the pond, beyond the village,
A paradise right here on earth.
That's where my mother gave me birth,
And singing, as her child she nursed,
She passed her pain to me. T'was there,
In that wee house, that heaven fair,
That I saw hell... There people slave
from morn till night... There to her grave
My gentle mother, young in years,
Was sent by want and toil and cares.
There father, weeping with his brood
(And we were tiny, tattered tots),
Could not withstand his evil lot
And died at work in servitude.
It was soon after this that Taras, fleeing the now intolerable home life as well as the constant abuse and beatings of the drunken deacon, ran away to a second one who painted and allowed the boy to mix colours. Before he left, however, Taras administered a whipping to his drunken abuser and took with him an illustrated book. Experiencing similar treatment from his second teacher, Taras ran away again to yet a third deacon who painted, but who, after examining the boy's hands, declared him unfit to be an artist. Taras returned home from these deacons around the ageof twelve or thirteen and spent some time as a shepherd, work which allowed him the opportunity to sketch.
It was around this time that Taras came to the attention of Paul Engelhardt who had just inherited the estates of his late father. Taras was now at the age when he was expected to enter formal servitude. Taras had finally found a deacon who had agreed to teach him to be an artist, but had to obtain the written permission of his master. Paul Engelhardt, not about to lose a servant, refused the permission and Taras was assigned to be his kozachok, or houseboy, performing various menial chores.
At this stage in his life, the young boy had already learned that he could not pursue his dream openly. He began stealing prints and, with a stolen pencil, made copies of them which he hid from the view of his master.
In 1829, at the age of fifteen, Taras travelled in his master's entourage. first to Kiev, and then to Vilnius in Lithuania, the Engelhardt ancestral homeland. It was in Vilnius that Taras ceased to be a boy and began entering his adult life.
One evening (in his autobiography Shevchenko gives the date as December 6, 1829), the master and his wife went out to a ball. In their absence, Taras pulled out his materials and began sketching by candle light. He was so engrossed in this that he didn't hear the Engelhardts' return. What ensued Shevchenko described in the following words:
The master savagely pulled him by the ears and slapped his face, on the pretext that not only the house, but the whole city could have burned down. The next day the master ordered the coachman Sidorko to give him a good whipping, which was properly administered.
Although this incident remained with him throughout his life, Shevchenko continued to draw surreptitiously. Finally, aware of his servant's behaviour, Paul Engelhardt relented and agreed to allow Taras to study with a professional artist, Jan Rustem, at Vilno University. It was here that Shevchenko's boyhood ends. It seemed that fate had finally smiled on the talented, but abused peasant boy. A new world opened up in front of Taras, but despite his elation at the time, it was but an opening into a world of further hardship and distress.
When I was Thirteen
By TARAS SHEVCHENKO
My thirteenth birthday soon would come.
I herded lambkins on the lea.
Was it the magic of the sun,
Or what was it affected me?
I felt with joy all overcome
As though in heaven...
The time for lunch had long passed by,
And still among the weeds I lay
And prayed to God... I know not why
It was so pleasant then to pray
For me, an orphan peasant boy,
Or why such bliss so filled me there?
The sky seemed bright, the village fair,
The very lambs seemed to rejoice!
The sun's rays warmed but did not sear!
But not for long
the sun stayed kind,
Not long in bliss I prayed...
It turned into a ball of fire
And set the world ablaze.
As though just wakened up, I gaze:
The hamlet's drab and poor,
And God's blue heavens - even they
Are glorious no more.
I look upon the lambs I tend -
Those lambs are not my own!
I eye the hut wherein I dwell -
I do not have a home!
God gave me nothing, naught at all!...
I bowed my head and wept,
Such bitter tears... And then a lass
Who had been sorting hemp
Not far from there, down by the path,
Heard my lament and came
Across the field to comfort me;
She spoke a soothing phrase
And gently kissed my tear-wet face...
It was as though the sun had smiled,
As though all things on earth were mine,
My own... The orchards, fields and groves!...
And, laughing merrily the while,
The master's lambs to drink we drove.
How nauseating!... Yet, when I
Recall those days, my heart is sore
That there my brief life's span the Lord
Did not grant me to live and die.
There, plowing, I'd have passed away,
With ignorance my life-long lot,
I'd not an outcast be today,
I'd not be cursing Man and God!...
Orsk Fortress, 1847.
Translated by Jobn Weir.