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The poem My Pipe by Francisak Bahusevic contains the following lines:

Like fish from the river,
On the ice a-flapping,
Just so I, it happened,
Forty years flapped, yearning,
Yet knew no returning,
Nor found, when I sought, a
Single drop of water...

... Like my eyes, weep over
The ill-fate of our people
Ever, ever weeping,
To the end weep ever

What period or event is this poem referring to? And what is the significance of the forty years?

Edit: Here's the whole poem:

I a pipe shall fashion,
Play on it so clearly,
That through the wide world scattered
Everyone shall hear me.
Ah, I'll play so sweetly,
Like a joyous greeting,
Like a wedding, truly -
But not long enduring.
I'll cease playing quickly,
Ere the pipe start splitting,
Ere the folk are deafened,
Breast grown parched and heavy,
And all the strength decaying
From the joyful playing,
And tears fall and spill so,
On the arid willows...
In mist will soul flow out, like
Rolling smoke, all cloud-like,
In haze on the river,
Fall where dewdrops quiver,
Bedew the grain with lustre,
That ripe ears thickly cluster,
But men shall eat that harvest,
And tears once more be smarting.
Well then, pipe, play clearly,
So that all may hear ye,
So that ears be aching,
Such a music making
That the earth start quaking!
Play so glad that round ye
One and all come bounding,
With their arms akimbo,
Start to dance so nimbly,
Like a whirlwind wheeling,
Till pain sets them squealing,
Till they rick with laughter,
And again dance after...
That the very hills go
Dance like oceans billows
As lords at a ball dance
So let one and all dance!
Set the dust-smoke wheeling,
Till the world starts heeling,
And all stagger, reeling!
(Our brother's home doth spin so,
For he loves the inn so!)

Why do ye not play, then?
Know ye not the way, then?
Have ye learned not, ever?
Like a fish from the river,
on the ice a-flapping,
Just so I, it happened,
Forty years flapped, yearning,
Yet I knew no returning,
Nor found, when I sought,
A single drop of water,
Water that springs, mounting
Up in such a fountain
That if your thirst you slake ye,
A free man 'twill make ye
Play then, gladly play!
Otherwise, make way!
...........
Uselessly complaining,
Sense there's none remaining!
With this pipe I'll not bother,
I shall make another.
Now a pipe I'll fashion
From grief and bitter passion,
Yes, I'll make another,
with woe brimming over.
It shall play with moaning,
Till the earth start groaning,
It shall play so doleful,
That the tears come rolling,
Awesome play, and fearful,
Thus my pipe all tearful!...
'Twas made, as I did say it,
Now to try and play it!
Play then, play so dearly!
Recalling all so nearly...
Day and night-time ever,
Like my eyes, weep over
The ill-fate of our people,
Ever, ever weeping,
To the end weep ever,
Wailing like a mother
Who her babies must bury;
One day, two, three carry
Still your lays of anguish
For folk who, dying, languish!
May you play so clearly
That sharp pangs press nearly
. When the tears cease falling,
Pipe shall cease its calling -
But look around you, mounting
From the blood's own fountain
Tears will rise and flow then,
All things you know then,
Only when blood is failing,
Pipe shall cease its wailing.

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  • 1
    Do you have any links to the whole poem? I’ve searched high and low online, but possibly due to translation issues and pen names, I can find out a lot about the dude but not see his works.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 5 at 8:19
  • @Spagirl I'll try to transcribe it later today if I can't find it online. Sep 5 at 13:48
  • @Spagirl Sorry for the delay - I edited. Sep 15 at 1:56
  • That’s a lot of typing! I look forward to reading it when I get a bit of time.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 15 at 7:03
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I'll caveat this answer with the obvious statement that this what I concluded from searching and reading online in response to the question and not from any deeper or preexisting knowledge of the subject.

Taking a starting point of assuming the character speaking in the poem to be, or to represent, Francisak Bahusevic, I began with an assumption that he may be referring to the first forty years of his own life and that there may be some instance relevant to the emergence of Belarussian nationalism which he regarded as dividing his life into periods that could be roughly defined as before and after the awakening of his own interest in the promotion of a Belarussian language and identity.

Therefore I began looking for events around 1880 which might be relevant. This led me to 'The Kupala-Kolas Century 1882-1982' by Antony Adamovic. Kupala and Kolas were significant Belarusian writers, both of whom were influenced by

the really decisive impetus to the Byelorussian movement... given by the publication in Cracow in 1891 of Maciej Buracok's (Francisak Bahusevic's) Byelorussian work Dudkabielaruskaja' [Byelorussian Pipe].

While both Kupala and Kolas were born in 1882, their birth can hardly have been the Damascene moment alluded to in the poem that was so influential in creating the political and cultural space they grew up to inhabit.

Adamovic's paper goes on to reference other events though:

It is not perhaps generally known that the very concept of the cultural awakening of the Byelorussian people was first put forward in 1882, the year of their birth - was born, so to speak, along with them - so that the Kupala-Kolas century is also the century of the cultural awakening of the Byelorussian people, indeed of the Byelorussian cause as a whole, since this awakening was the first task which that cause set itself. This has come to light in certain documents discovered relatively recently (in the 1960s) in the archives of tsarist Russia.

In the earliest of these documents, dated 16 December 1882 and entitled Pis'ma o Belorussii [Letters about Byelorussia] a short introductory note by the publishers begins with the words: 'The interest aroused recently by the Byelorussian question ... ' (i.e. by the Byelorussian cause); and the 'publishers' (apparently a group of Byelorussian students in St. Petersburg) further express the hope 'that those who sympathize with the awakening of the Byelorussian intelligentsia will attempt to render all possible assistance to the newly emerged cause' i.e., again, to the Byelorussian cause. This note is followed on 16 hectographed pages by the text of the first Pis'mo o Belorussii under the heading 'Danila Borovik. Pis'mo pervoje', in which the said Danila Borovik (apparently a pseudonym but one which has so far not been uncovered), addressing 'our native land of Byelorussia', asserts that:

' ... our native land sleeps the sleep of the dead, only now and then awaking in order to see whether anyone has appeared to arouse her from sleep, to come to her aid ... And yet there was once a time when our native land also lived a life full of historical events and even had influence over ... Lithuania which used Byelorussian as its official language.'

The article continues

Towards the end of his Pis' mo Borovik sums up his excursion into the history of Byelorussia thus:

'Having traced in outline both Byelorussia's past and present fortune, we see that until now historical circumstances have not allowed her to awake and take control of her own destiny ... Who will lead our poor native land out onto the true path? Who, at last, will awaken Byelorussia's national and social forces from their long sleep?'

Returning to the images of Byelorussia's awakening from sleep which the Pis'ma o Belorussii, and in particular Borovik's 'Pis'mo pervoje', referred to at the beginning, he calls on:

' ... all the best people in Byelorussia to join together, to imbue themselves with the interests of their people, to get to know them as well as possible, in order thereafter to embark on a united effort for the welfare of their native land which for so long has suffered but which, perhaps, has a glorious future in prospect...

For the present at least we know of nobody before Danila Borovik who put forward similar views on the history of Byelorussia and, moreover, used the images of 'sleep' and 'awakening' to characterize the state of lack of national consciousness and social passivity in which the great mass of the Byelorussian people had found itself throughout history, and to point out the path to be taken in order to deliver them from that state. ... Not only that but along with Danila Borovik's Pis'mo- in the very same archives -was discovered a response to it: 'Paslannie da ziemlakou-Bielarusau u suviazi z piersym "Pismam pra Bielarus"' [Message to our fellow Byelorussians in connection with the first 'Letter about Byelorussia'], dated 1 January 1884 and signed with a pseudonym which, like Borovik's, has yet to be uncovered - 'Scyry Bielarus' [A True Byelorussian]. This is what the True Byelorussian wrote at the very beginning of his Paslannie:

Two years ago [i.e. in 1882 - A.A.] certain signs of the awakening of our native intelligentsia began to make themselves felt, i.e. a movement began among Byelorussians about which the foreign press, ever alert to unusual occurrences in the public life of its neighbours, began to write ... Following this even conservative Russian publications raised a howl of protest against separatism and poured forth a whole series of fabrications invented by the defenders of Moscow and their Byelorussian friends ... Then at the beginning of the current year, in one of the first numbers of the journal Studencestvo, there appeared a short review of the first Pis'mo pra Bielarus, and finally I managed to see Borovik's letter itself, published, as can be seen from its preface, by a group of Byelorussians. After all this it was impossible not to be convinced that among us, too, the foundation has been laid for that grateful movement whose absence has for so long been felt in our land. In the light of this awakening I send you my warmest greetings, dear fellow countrymen! Good luck! The time has long been ripe to embark on this noble and sacred task!'

So my understanding is that in 1882, there was a general 'awakening' of cultural pride a(nd possibly there was a build up to that for the necessary couple of years before that to make it the round four decades referenced in the poem) driven by the intelligentsia and capturing a certain amount of popular support, which galvanised Bahusevic, turning him from one flailing about searching for a direction or calling, to one who has a clear objective.

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