Last updated: April 24, 2019
Topic: ArtPoetry
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“The Master of Our Toil”

Two Poems by Ivan Franko: A Study in Social Nationalism

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Abstract: This paper is an analysis of the social content of two poems by Ivan Franko, “The Hired Hand” and “The Pioneers.” Both concern thankless labor, whether of an economic or a political kind. Both poems speak of self sacrifice for a better future, which exists, as these were written (1876 and 1878 respectively) solely in the dreams of the laboring classes. Franko wants to use these poems to raise of consciousness of the workers in Ukraine.


Ivan Franko (d. 1916) is one of Ukraine’s most celebrated poets, after the national poet himself, Taras Shevchenko. The two poems that will be dealt with here are very different, but on the same theme: the relation of poetry to nationalism and social reform, the central concerns of Ukrainian writers at the turn of the century (Stech, 2007).

The first is a powerful plea for social justice as well as a manifestation of the agrarian life of Ukraine. As a son of the soil, Franko was capable of dealing with the life of the Ukrainian peasant at the end of the 19th century, and in this 1876 poem, “The Hired Hand,” the agrarian and socialist nature of Franko becomes very clear.

The poem begins on a very depressing note: the hired hand, that is a worker that does not own land, or very little, not sufficient to meet his needs, is described “For from the cradle he has lived ‘neath fortune’s frown/His life but labor bleak.” The hired hand is an oppressed person from an oppressed class. But then the tone changes radically:

Where’er his ploughshare passes, it turns the fertile earth

Upon the rolling field,
Which speedily will bring the waving rye to birth,

The soil its fruit will yield.


Suddenly, without warning, Franko shows us the virtues of the hired hand. He is a husbandman, he is responsible for feeding the population. He takes the earth and makes it fertile, he is, so to speak, a co-creator with God. The rolling field is certainly not depressing, but showing the love of the unique and beautiful Ukrainian landscape. He brings the crops “to birth.” he is not just a worker, but a midwife, a man who can make the landscape bloom. But this ejaculation is then again met by depression:

Why doth he like a beggar wear a tattered vest?

He’s but a hired hand!
Born as a serving man, once magnified as free

By heroes of his folk,
In wretchedness with no escape, in misery,

He bows beneath the yoke.
To live, his life, his liberty, his strength he sells

Just for a crust of bread,
Which adds naught to his strength and scarce his hunger quells


This is the center of the poem. First, Franko takes note of the older Ukrainian national idea of Ukrainians being the “free individuals” of the Slavic peoples. That story exists no more given the life of the hired hand. While a nationalist, Franko is also a socialist, as the end of this passage makes clear. His life is based on pure exploitation. He rents himself out for the sake of eating. He is the least free of all peoples. He owns nothing except his own labor. From the free and proud Ukrainian people, the modern economy has forced the hired hand into a life that is no different from slavery. But even in slavery the master needed to care for his slaves, let they be of no use to him. In the modern world, even this modicum of respect is gone, and “free labor” has been reduced to wage slaves, earning not enough to even quell his hunger. And again:

Let him but see the earth which his hands cultivate

A harvest bring to birth, Though ’twill not be his hands that shall appropriate
God’s blessing on the earth.


Only the master benefits from the misery of the “free worker.” Serfdom had been abolished for over 10 years when this poem was written, but the vaunted reforms of the Tsar Alexander II just substituted one form of misery for another. The free labor is just as much a slave as the serf, making the mockery of the term “hired hand,” which implies that the job taken was taken freely. Of course, starvation forces such men to take these jobs. But again, there is a shift in mood, and this trampled and loathed hired hand becomes the vanguard of a new future:

A better lot it waits throughout long centuries,

And still it waits in vain,
Surviving devastation, Tatar miseries,

And serfdom’s toil and pain.
For in that heart, howe’er a bitter fate may mock,

Eternal hope still dwells,
As oftentimes from out a cliff of granite rock

A living fountain wells;
As in a golden haze, a magic fairy tale,t sees its future gleam,

And day by day endures its gloomy, sore travail
Through one unending dream.


The hired (that is, landless) laboring class in the fields is the last beneficiary of freedom. The peasant has suffered through foreign occupation, unremitting labor, famine and now, a proletarian-style existence. Though he feeds the entire country, he receives no respect. But the future can be seen. Apparently, Franko sees, in 1876, a bright future for the agricultural classes. A dream can be seen not too far away. The daily grind is something to be fought though for the sake of a better future, as the poem ends:

Plough on, plough on, O giant, though in chains

Of ignorance and toil!
Thy chains shall some day fall, the evil that remains

No more shall thee despoil!
E’en when by foes o’erwhelmed. not vainly hast thou sung

The spirit’s moral power;
Not vain have been the tales told in thy people’s tongue

Of victory’s coming hour.Thou shalt o’ercome in time the crusted ills of yore—

Then on thine own freed soil.
Thou shalt as owner plough, and so shalt be once more

The master of thy toil.


The poem ends on a note of hope. The landless laborer is a “giant,” for they are so many. They suffer partially because of the system itself, partially because of the ignorance of the masters. The final end seems to be the concept “the master of they toil.” Since Franko did believe in private property, this could only mean that the suffering of the laborers will eventually give way to a system where they own their own land and cultivate it for their own benefit, not for the owners. He will himself be an owner, as the future social nationalist state will distribute land to all its toilers. Here, and only here, will the laborer be the master of his toil.

By 1878 Franko had already done time in prison for sympathizing with both nationalist and socialist ideas. Once released from prison, he wrote a poetic form of his social program, designed to complete the thoughts found in “The Hired Hand.” It is called “The Pioneers.” It concerns the same dichotomy between depression and hope, despair and eventual victory. To shift radically from one mood to another is the prominent feature of these poems, though their social content is why nearly even Ukrainian home contains at least one book on or by Franko. He sees, in a vision, lines of laborers, nearly identical to “the hired hand” above. But then,

A mighty iron sledge I saw in every hand,
And sudden from the sky a voice like thunder burst:
“Break through this rock! Let neither cold nor heat withstand
Your toil! In spite of danger, hunger, cold, and thirst,
Stay not, for yours it is to smash this granite band!”

At this we all as one our sledges raised on high;
A thousand thundering blows crashed down upon the rock.

On every side we saw the shards of granite fly,
The rock crack off in blocks. With ceaseless, desperate shock,

We hammered on with strength that nothing
could defy.


The revolution occurs suddenly and without warning. The line of downtrodden laborers suddenly awakens from a voice on high. The “granite” above is a mountain, a mountain of oppression that the workers are to destroy, using their own tools. Frank stresses that there is no hope for glory here, each works for the other, for their liberation, since the working class will either win or suffer as a class, not as individuals. It is “on the bones” of such labor that the new world will be born. The poem ends:

We march in close accord, for each the purpose owns
To form a brotherhood, each with a sledge in hand.
What though the world forgets, or even us disowns!

We’ll rend that prisoning rock, we’ll pave a broad new strand!

New life shall come to man, though it come o’erour bones!


There is no hope without suffering, without hard labor. Freedom comes with a heavy price, nothing less than the death of the workers of this generation to make a better future for coming generations. Each workers knows that he will not enjoy the fruits of his labor, but what of it? They do not enjoy the fruits now. For decades they have labored on private property for a tiny wage, while the owners reaped the benefits of their labor. At the same time, the work for freedom (and, as seen above, this means, in economic terms, the ability to own their own land), will also not be enjoyed by them, but only by their children or grandchildren. The revolution will come, suddenly, but the sudden convulsion that this poem predicts can only be prepared for by patient, disciplined labor. Sooner or later, this granite mountain (it is occasionally refereed to as a “wall”) will come apart, it will fall suddenly and few will expect it. But it is our thankless chipping away at it that will eventually bring it down in one huge crash that will shock all.


Franko is a wonderful example of a poetic activist. Franko was a crusader for social nationalism, or the mixture of ethnic nationalism with socialist reform. In and out of prison, the tsarist attempts to silence this giant of Slavic poetry only spurred him on more and more. In 1880, he writes this poem, “A Hymn,” a Hymn to revolt:

This living spirit of revolt,
Of progress, liberty and right,
Shall not retreat before the night,
Shall nevermore be brought to halt.
In ruins evil round us lies,
The avalanche’s rush now dies —
In all the world there is no force
That can avail to stay its course,
That can put out the vital spark
We now see glimmering in the dark.
These lines refer to the folk, Ukrainian people, an ethnic entity, largely bound to the soil as “free laborers.” But it may also refer to the Russian people as well, the common laboring folk that might speak a different language, but suffers under the same regime of “free labor.” Suffering leads to dreams, and dreams lead to movement, and movement leads to victory.  It cannot be stopped, only explained away.

These poems show a poet with substantial social activity, for poetry for Franko was not about words, but about action. To be able to reach the “folk” with these words and hence, help liberate them from their bonds (Shkandrij, 193-194). Arrested and imprisoned a grand total of three times, the prison system fed his work, as it did Dostoyevskii and Solzhenitsyn. He remained a social activist and university professor off and on throughout his career, and even, in 1897, runs for parliament in the Ukrainian section of the Austrian empire.

But these poems reflect this life. They are roller coasters, a constant up and down in terms of mood and vocabulary, showing that misery, like prison, leads to the mind thinking greater thoughts, thinking of a great and bright future.



























Primary Sources:


Franko, Ivan. (1876) “The Hired Hand.” Trans. Roman Kosarenko et al. Ukrainian Poetica. The Press of the Ivan Franko National University of Lv’iv Ukraine.

____. (1879). “The Pioneers.” Trans Roman Kosarenko et al. Ukrainian Poetica. The Press of the Ivan Franko National University of Lv’iv Ukraine

____. (1880). “Hymn” Trans Roman Kosarenko et al. Ukrainian Poetica. The Press of the Ivan Franko National University of Lv’iv Ukraine


Secondary Sources:


Shkandrij, Myroslav. (2001). Russia and Ukraine. McGill-Queens Press. (Section on Franko, pps          192-196)

Stech, Marko (2007) “Ivan Franko” The Encyclopedia of Ukraine. The Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. (