The extraordinarily inventive Ukrainian poet and literary critic Bohdan Ihor Antonych (1909-1937), the son of a Catholic priest, died prematurely at the early age of 28 of pneumonia. Originally from the mountainous Lemko region in Poland, where a variant of Ukrainian is spoken, he was home-schooled for the first eleven years of his life because of frequent illness. He began to write poetry in Ukrainian after he moved to the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv to continue his studies at the University of Lviv. He published just three collections of poetry in his lifetime: A Greeting to Life (1931), Three Rings (1934), and The Book of the Lion (1936), with the latter two firmly establishing his reputation as one of the best poets of his time in Ukraine. Three additional collections, The Green Gospel (1938), Rotations (1938), and The Grand Harmony (1967), were published posthumously.
A collection of poems on religious themes written in 1932 and 1933, The Grand Harmony is a subtle and supple examination of Antonych’s intimately personal journey to faith, with all its revelatory verities as well as self-questioning and doubt. The collection marks the beginning of Antonych’s development into one of the greatest poets of his time. During Soviet times it was banned for its religious content. It was first published in its entirety in 1967 in New York.
The Grand Harmony first appeared in English translation in a bilingual edition with Litopys Publishers in 2007, which has long been sold out. The poems “Musica Noctis,” “De Morte I,” “Ars Poetica 1” and “Liber Peregrinorum 3” were reprinted in The Essential Poetry of Bohdan Ihor Antonych: Ecstasies and Elegies (Bucknell University Press, 2010). One can find additional poetic renderings of Antonych’s selected poetry in the translations of various well-known American poets under the title A Square of Angels (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1977), which was edited by Bohdan Boychuk.
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The remarkable Ukrainian poet and literary critic Bohdan Ihor Antonych lived for only a brief 28 years. In 1920 he entered the Queen Sophia State Gymnasium in Syanok, which he completed eight years later. Antonych then matriculated at Lviv University. Lviv is the cultural center of Western Ukraine, which in Antonych’s lifetime was part of Poland. During his study of Ukrainian philology at the university, Antonych adopted Ukrainian as his literary language, and he also became extremely active in the literary and intellectual life of the multi-cultural city of Lviv, a city that he grew to love dearly. Antonych served as a kind of cultural bridge between Polish and Ukrainian literary circles, which at the time did not mix to any great degree. He died in 1937 of complications from pneumonia after a successful operation for appendicitis, just a few short months before his planned wedding to Olha Oliynyk. His premature death occurred at the height of his creative talent, when he already had emerged as a poet of extraordinary maturity and erudition.
In the brief span of his life, Antonych proved to have been an exceptionally innovative poet and an accomplished essayist. As Lydia Stefanowska observes in her critical writings on the poet, Antonych was greatly influenced by Polish avant-garde poetry of the 1920s and was one of the first literary critics to note the talent of the then young future Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz. Antonych’s poetry was a breath of fresh air for Ukrainian poetry in the 1930s, and like a number great poets, he was perceived in many different ways by his reading public. He has been described as an imagist, a mystic, a symbolist, and a pantheist. While these labels may fit certain moments in his poetry, they do not individually convey the totality of his oeuvre. His relatively small corpus of published works has been extraordinarily influential on a number of Ukrainian poets for generations to come, especially during the periods of the 1960s and 1980s, which were particularly trying times for Ukrainian society under Soviet repression. Antonych’s poetry covers a number of themes from the mundane, the joy of life in little things, to the profoundly metaphysical, to nature and man’s place in it, to urban themes, to an impending sense of apocalypse, which, regrettably, came true with the Nazi invasion. As opposed to the patriotic tendencies of a number of Western Ukrainian poets in his time, Antonych’s approach was an art for art’s sake one with high-minded aesthetic principles.
Endorsements and Review Quotes
“Naydan’s latest volumes, as well as his previous translations of the same poets and other fundamental representatives of modern and contemporary Ukrainian poetry, are without doubt a strong contribution to the international dissemination of both Tychyna and Antonych, which, one hopes, will facilitate their long awaited inclusion in the canon of European modernist poetry.” Alessandro Achilli, Slavic Review
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