THE PIONEERS

This poem is a manifesto of the social program which Franko conceived as a result of his experiences of imprisonment for sympathizing with socialist ideals. It is usually said that he drew his inspiration from a legend about a tribe transported by Alexander and settled in a barren plain locked in by inaccessible mountains out of which they managed to break into the world again. This may be partly true, but one of Franko's friends records that in 1878 the young poet was living on a street in Lviv which was being paved for the first time. Throughout the summer the sound of the stonebreakers hammers and the thud of the pavers rammers never ceased. "It was doubtless from seeing and hearing this day after day that Franko got the idea for the Pioneers," wrote the friend. In any case, the twin ideas of liberation from an oppressive past and the laying down of a highway for future progress form the content of this poem which presents a program of sacrificial consecration on behalf of an enslaved humanity.

 

THE PIONEERS

I saw a vision strange. Stretched out before me lay
A measureless but barren, open plain. And I,
With iron chains on hands and feet, stood in array
Before a granite mount which rose up, towering high,
With other thousands—captives, fettered the
    same way.

 

Deep lines of pain and grief were etched on every

Yet in the eyes of all the flame of love still burned.
The fetters clung to each with serpent-like embrace,
And every back was bent, each face was downwards

    turned,
For all seemed bowed beneath a burden of disgrace.

 

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.

 

Like roaring cataract or battle's bloody din,
Our sledges kept on thudding with exhaustless

    might.

New footholds every moment we never failed to win.
Though many a one of us fell crippled in the fight,
We onward pressed, for naught could shake our
    discipline.

 

Yet each of us well knew he should no glory reap,
Nor would man's memory requite our toilsome pain,
That long before our seed along that road would

    sweep,
Ere we could break a path and make it smooth and

    plain,

Our bleaching bones would lie beside it in a heap.
    face,

 

We had no thirst of glory in our hearts to slake,
For we were neither knights nor heroes seeking

    fame.

Mere slaves we were, but such as freely, gladly take
Their bonds as self-made slaves in freedom's,

    glorious name
The pioneers who toil a new highway to break.

 

And all held firm belief that by our strength

    unfurled

We'd rend the prisoning rock, the granite wall defy;
That by our mortal strength, though we to death

    were buried,

Yet after, with our bones, we'd pave a road whereby
New life and hope might come into this sorry world.

 

And every one knew too, that in the world we'd left
Behind us for these chains and sweat and toil forlorn,
Were mothers, sweethearts, weeping wives and

    little ones bereft,

And friends and enemies, who, pitying or in scorn,
Cursed us and our emprise and feared the dreadful
    cleft.

 

We knew it and at times, bowed down in sore

    distress,
Our hearts would almost fail as sweet remembrance

    came.

Yet neither tears nor pity nor great weariness
Nor curses ever made us falter in our aims—
No sledge dropped from our hands beneath the
    awful stress.

 

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'er
    our bones!

 

1878