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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Ukrainian spiritual elite

History of a friendship between Ivan Ohiienko and Bohdan-Ihor Antonych.<BR>Towards Bohdan-Ihor Antonych birth centennial
3 February, 2009 - 00:00

For beginning, see The Day No. 2)

Bohdan-Ihor Antonych’s poems were published along with overtly anti-Soviet works of Spyrydon Cherkasenko and Borys Lysiansky. Ohiienko was creating the world of true Ukrainian culture which the repressive Stalinist system failed to break.

Antonych’s above-mentioned poem Excerpt was a successful “supplement” to the earlier-published poem The Sun of Ukraine by Cherkasenko whom Ohiienko respected equally well. Here, too, there is an image of the sun, which dominates Antonych’s work:

I welcome sunrise every morning,/ I am waiting for it through the night’s veil... / I am rising and crying out: “Are you from there, / From my far-away Ukraine, / Where a red blizzard is still howling out / Its wild infernal ‘October tunes?’”

It was too early for Marxist-oriented Soviet critics to glee over the emigration of Ohiienko who they claimed represented “old” culture. “Not only in the fire of revolution was Ukrainian culture reduced to ashes, not only with such as Ohiienko did it go abroad. It died of Mother Ukraine’s senility. This also caused the death of the old Ukrainian art and, therefore, literature,” V. Korniak noted.

The method of continuity and heredity – an important cornerstone in a national literary and esthetic process – is central to the creative activities of Ohiienko as a man of letters and a critic. This is further proved by the oeuvre of Antonych, where social and esthetic criteria are successfully combined in the approach to literary issues, which was typical of true pre-Soviet-era science.

In the times when one-dimensional Marxist ideological approach was finally installed in the literary life of Sovietized Ukraine by way of destroying all the schools and streams, when “the free unbiased thought is to obey party orders and critique turns into an overt party gendarme,” Ohiienko’s oeuvre showed that unbiased artistic thinking was only possible in the conditions of free development.

So it is strange that neither his life-time critics, except for O. I. Biletsky, nor those in the revived Ukraine turn to Ohiienko’s critical legacy when they characterize the literary and esthetic thought of the early-to-mid-20th century.

Antonych died on July 5, 1937, at the age of 27, because of a complication after appendicitis surgery. He seems to have foreseen his demise:

I am setting off on a long journey, / And nobody will give me any, / And I wish nothing from anybody, / And nothing scares me any more.

As was mentioned above, there were also “Green Gospel” (the poet focused all his attention on it, even when he was ill) and “Rotations,” a small collections of urban poems, both of which were published posthumously in 1937.

Years were passing by. They were not so easy for Ivan Ohiienko: the unemployed Directory ex-minister roams over Poland and settles in the German-occupied Kholm region, where he, a prominent scholar, conducts extensive religious and enlightening work first as archbishop (1940) and then as Metropolitan of Kholm and Podlachia (1944). Then came another stage of emigration wanderings: Slovenia, Poland, Vienna, Lausanne). Invited by the parish of Saint Mary the Protectress, Ohiienko arrives in Winnipeg, Canada, on September 19, 1947, to become head priest of the St. Mary the Protectress Cathedral. He fruitfully works in this office until August 8, 1951, when he was elected head of the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of Canada. At last Metropolitan Ilarion (Ivan Ohiienko) receives an opportunity to work without troubles, conduct research, and preach. He founds the publishing house Nasha kultura and the monthlies Slovo istyny (1947—1951), Nasha kultura (1951—1953) and Vira i kultura (1953—1967).

The latter revives the name of Antonych and focuses on publishing his poems. What actually renewed “friendship” was a letter from Antonych’s former fiancee Olha Ksiezopolska (now Oliinyk in marriage) published in the journal Vira i kultura (1957, Part 2). It consisted of three parts.

In the first part Ksiezopolska (“Olechka,” as the poet endearingly called her) addresses herself to Metropolitan Ilarion:

“To Prof. I. Ohiienko and B. Antonych.

Your Beatitude,

I came across, quite accidentally, Vilne slovo dated June 29, 1957, in which I saw your photograph. I was very glad of this, and such a strange sensation came over me that I could hear nothing but the beat of my heart. If I add to this that I am the former fiancee of Bohdan-Ihor Antonych, whom you value so much as a poet, then it will be quite clear why I am so overjoyed to know that you, Your Beatitude, are still living!

I would like to remind you that I had the privilege of meeting you personally. It was a long time ago, in the village of Teriatyn, Hrubiezsow district. There was a major religious ceremony there, for which you came from Kholm and there was a modest but cordial reception in your honor at Father Shyrotsky’s residence. Do you remember?

It was there that I had the pleasure of sitting next to you at the table, and we spoke about Bohdan-Ihor Antonych and his poetry. I will not forget this conversation until I die, for I have never had a similar one with anybody else either before or after.

Poland. O. K.”

The second part shows the chronological sequence of the poet’s life story.

The third part includes texts (excerpts from Antonych’s poems written after Three Rings) dated 1935: “Excerpt” (as mentioned above, it was published in Warsaw’s Nasha kultura. No. 2, 1935), “Forgotten Land,” “The Wind of Centuries,” “A Wedding Song” (subtitled “To Olechka”), and “He Lived and Died Forgotten.” It is not known who did this selection, but the result was surprisingly integral and eloquent. The clear leitmotif is a patriotic idea which Ivan Ohiienko bore and propagated in all his lifetime, including the Canadian period. Antonych’s word is a song to the forgotten native land (“To the heart, this song is like a stone, but I must still sing it...”), the tragedy-stricken Ukraine (association with Greater Ukraine tormented with the 1932—1933 Holodomor). The organically-imbedded image of a “wind of freedom” only reinforces the idea:

And the centuries-old wind – / Winged, free and never-ending, – / Is blowing to teach us to be free / And to grieve over something unknown and uninhibited. / And it keeps saying to us, murdered and executed innocently, / That life cannot be stopped and life is not a barrack.

Civic motifs give way to lyrical and touchingly tender notes permeated with the exalted feeling of love (“A Wedding Song for Olechka”):

Listen: a wedding tambourine is beating, / And maple-trees are bowing like peacocks. / And a curly moon has braided itself into your hair, my sweetheart. / Why is the fiddle suddenly quiet? / Why is your hand trembling? / The night is wrapping horseshoes with a silvery light, / As if it were a woe.

The collection concludes with the poem “Lived and Died Forgotten,” weirdly irrational and full of a premonition of the poet’s eternal rest:

And you are, as always, / in a desolate wilderness of the world. / And they will assess you vainly, tersely, exactly and soberly. / And you will be, as always, alone / Under a sharp blade of the sun. / And they will write on your gravestone: / ‘Lived and died forgotten.’

The next issue of Vira i kultura (1957, Part 3 (51)) includes Oliinyk-Ksiezopolska’s large article “’The Prince of a Sung Spring,’ Poet Ihor Antonych and Prof. Dr. Ivan Ohiienko” published, above all, to mark Ohiienko’s 75th birthday which was widely celebrated by Ukrainian communities in Canada. Ms. Olha weaves the following words into the jubilee wreath: “Fate decreed that the 20th anniversary of the death of Bohdan Ihor Antonych, a poet of spring, life and nature, in 1937, should coincide with the 75th birthday in the life of Prof. Ohiienko. Therefore, I beg you, dear and highly-respected jubilarian, to allow the poet’s former fiancee to quote some of his words: ‘My house is not hear. It must be behind the skyline.’ He would have been here ‘a casual guest,’ as all of us are. Poland. – Dec.17, 1957.” This was the subject of the article’s preamble. The article presents evidence, previously unknown in Antonych studies, of the great influence that Ohiienko exerted on the poet in his creative endeavor. Also mentioned are their private conversations (this means they saw each other) and correspondence. There are several points in what can be called Ohienko’s influence on Antonych.

Number one: Antonych thoroughly studies every issue of Ridna mova which Ohiienko published in Warsaw. He collects and keeps all the journal’s materials even after he has mastered the literary language. “He said more than once, pointing to the journal: ‘This is the memory of my first steps’,” Olha says.

Number two: a personal relationship with Ohiienko, which Antonych was very proud of. “It was very moving that the highly-respected and fear jubilarian was so much attached to Antonych, not yet even a debutante in poetry at the time. The poet always remembered this, and Prof. Ohiienko’s word was very important for him, when his first collection Welcoming Life was published in 1931.

And this word did come from the very bottom of his heart. ‘Write on, you have a talent! And you have wonderfully mastered the language’.”

Olha also mentions Ohiienko’s letter to Antonych, in which he tanks the poet for sending him the collection Three Rings in 1934. This may presumably have prompted the professor to write a review in Nasha kultura (1936, – Book 3). The letter is dated April 12, 1935, Warsaw. Here is a fragment of it: “I have drunk the collection, which you courteously sent me, as if it were the finest honey! A springtime fairy tale which only the sun can perhaps weave out of the anxious earth. Are you really a Lemko? Not a Kyivan? ‘The sun will suddenly jump off the grass, like a startled foal.’ A Lemko can make a true Dnipro-region man!”

Glory deservedly finds the “boy with the sun on his shoulders.” The poet works very much, as if foreboding his early death, and tries to make full use of every day. He is sending his poems to the Lviv journals My, Nazustrich, and the Warsaw-based Nasha kultura edited by Ohiienko. As was mentioned above, the latter printed 15 of them. The vast majority of them are national-oriented and highly-patriotic poems, the purely Antonych-style “sincere lyrical little pearl,” as Ohiienko would write later in the obituary. Among them are “Roofs” (“a guelder-rose-grown cliff”), “A Bird Cherry Poem” (“wisdom of the plants,” “hundred-leafed books”), “Harvest” (“words of sweet-tuned scythes”), “Motherland” (“Motherland is calling on her son,” “yellow sword lilies bloom on wet meadows”), “A Turn” (“I was born here, in the curly grass, under alder-trees and the sun”), “Bird Cherries” (“My country in the mountains, I’ll never forget your bird cherry trees”), “The Country of Annunciation” (“Green blizzards, green flames, and clouds of flowers, and sobs of nightingales;” “Shevchenko is coming – a fire, a man, a storm – and looking into the depth of centuries”), etc. The peak of this good relationship was Ohiienko’s review of the collection Three Rings (1936, – Book 3/12). He notifies Antonych of it in a letter of March 2, 1936: “To honor your outstanding lyrical talent and draw a greater public attention to this, Nasha kultura will carry my article in Book 3 this year. I have sent you the proofs of this article, and you must have read it. Please accept it as a token of my respect for your so non-conventional poetic talent!”

What a culture of relationship! A model of respectful attitude to a talent! A 54-year-old professor, a renowned national movement figure, and a young poet! This is a symptomatic feature of Ohiienko, a person who adhered to and taught Christian virtues.

Number three. I would like to assume that what united the two men was not only a literary relationship but also some exalted and awesome aura which only they, brilliant and extraordinary personalities, could feel. This can be proved by Olha Oliinyk’s reminiscences about the prospects of publishing The Green Gospel. The poet, who was ailing after surgery, was anxious to see it published as soon as possible, so this raised the question of a sponsor (the collection came out after the poet’s death). “’Olechka, remember,’ he said to me, smiling a cordial smile of his, ‘I am saying this in the presence of witnesses: if you find it difficult to have The Green Gospel published, turn to Liasovsky (a painter and thinker, fried of the deceased – Ed.) or to Pelensky (he helped later to publish – Ed.), and if they refuse to help, then to Prof. Ohiienko. He is sure not to refuse’.” What a high degree of trust in and the manifestation of a true, almost filial, love and respect for Ohiienko! We can assume that Ohiienko’s extensive quotation of Oliinyk-Ksiezopolska’s reminiscences was, at the same time, the manifestation of his respect and love for the poet’s serene figure.

A few years later, a new Olha Oliynyk’s article, “The Poet Bohdan-Ihor Antonych in the Eyes of his Pen Mates,” appears on the pages of Vira i kultura (1960. – Part 9 (81). – pp. 12—16), which emphasizes again the “decisive influence” of Ohiienko on Antonych’s growth as a poet: “Actually, his (Ohiienko’s – Ed.) valuable linguistic instructions, friendly advice, and personal interest in a young unknown poet had by far the greatest effect on the further literary pursuit of Antonych. The journals Ridna mova and Nasha kultura edited by I. Ohiienko in Warsaw were, as Antonych himself admitted, his first school of the Ukrainian language.”

The years of Khrushchev’s thaw in Soviet Ukraine also touched upon Antonych. An apolitical and unneeded (rejected by the totalitarian ideology, to be more exact) poet gradually “penetrates” the atmosphere of Ukrainian cultural life. Sensitive to significant events in mainland Ukraine, Ohiienko comments on them in his journal. It is written in the headline “Chronicle of Ukrainian Cultural Life:” “Literaturna Ukraina reports that a literary soiree dedicated to the memory of Bohdan-Ihor Antonych was held at Lviv’s House of the Actor. The writer Iryna Vilde spoke, sharing her reminiscences. Actors recited the poems Motherland, The Ballads of Lemko, and A Carpenter of the Word. Flowers were laid at the poet’s tomb the next day.” It was 1964. Iryna Vilde made a famous speech. For, still in Antonych’s lifetime, she revered him, was his ardent admirer, and invited him to the Kolomyia-based World of Youth, to which she contributed. “The news of Bohdan’s death made an all the more awful impression on me,” she wrote, “because I came to know about this painful event as late as three weeks after the disaster. I still cannot forgive myself that I could walk around the world with such an easy heart and have such nonchalant sunny days at a time when the grave of ‘my’ poet was still fresh.” As Antonych was awarded a second literary prize by a Catholic organization for the collection The Book of the Lion (1936), Vilde wrote in a letter to the poet on March 9, 1937: “I am very pleased that a second decoration of this kind has been conferred on you. I am awfully in love with your poems and I know ‘very much of you’ by heart. And as for your metaphors, no, they have no match in our literature. My sincerest congratulations to you, Comrade!”

Ohiienko publishes Antonovych’s poems not only in his Warsaw-based Nasha kultura (1935—1937) but also in Vira i kultura (Canada). These are “Cuckoo” and “My Trade.”The former is a love of nature, so typical of Antonych (“a silver dew glistened on raspberries, their clusters praying to the spring”), the latter was about the secrets of the poet’s creative inspirations (“An ax and a sharp chisel of songs shape the clay of words and the tree of music. This word is the canvas of a drunk song: it is too narrow for an artist but too wide for a carpenter”). The poem “Cuckoo” was published in Vira i kultura in 1959 and “My Trade” in 1960. Both of them belong to Antonych’s posthumous collection The Green Gospel (1937). They were not published in Nasha kultura, for Ohiienko never betrayed an important journalistic maxim: do not repeat yourself but strike with newness.

We can therefore conclude that is the systemic, not sporadic, interest of Ohiienko in the oeuvre of Antonych helped establish the poet as a symbol of national renaissance. For Ohiienko himself passionately served this cause, too:

I have never spared my hands to work hard, / I have been sowing the Word of God everywhere. / So may the generously sown words / Yield a crop for the happiness of people!

October 27, 1959.

Indeed, “To each his own for his own.” This well-known slogan of Ukrainian unity is very much needed in the present day. May adoration and rapture, not animosity and envy, as is often the case, serves to unite great people. This will effectively guarantee the stability of a civil society.

Yevhenia Sokhatska is a professor at the Department of the History of Ukrainian Literature and Comparative Studies of Kamianets-Podilsky National Ivan Ohiienko University and the chairperson of the Ivan Ohiienko All-Ukrainian Society