Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

A glimpse into Eastern European history through Lord Byron’s poem Mazeppa

Date posted: Thu, Jun. 18, 2020

In 1819, a prominent English poet of the Romantic period Lord George Byron (1788-1824) wrote a narrative poem about a Ukrainian historical figure Ivan Mazepa (1639-1709), who was little known to Western Europeans at the time. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Byron’s poem Mazeppaof which the Fisher library holds the first edition, inspired many other artists to create literary, visual and musical masterpieces about him.

Ivan Mazepa (this is a more common spelling of his name as opposed to Mazeppa - he's pictured immediately below) was a military and political leader, or hetmanof the Ukrainian Cossack Hetmanate, an autonomous state within Russia at the time. He was a nobleman, a skilled and highly educated diplomat, polyglot, patron of the arts, and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Mazepa is known for his role in the Battle of Poltava in 1709 during the Great Northern war (1700-1721), when his Cossack troops sided with the Swedish army of King Charles XII against Russia, in a secret exchange for Sweden’s support of Ukrainian independence. The battle, and later the war, resulted in Russia’s victory, which made it a powerful state and changed the course of history in Eastern Europe. 

Lord Byron’s poem was based on a legendary episode from Mazepa’s early life in Poland, where he served as a page in the court of John II Casimir Vasa. The young man fell in love with a count’s wife, and when her husband found out about the affair, he had Mazepa tied naked to a wild horse and set it loose. (The scene is depicted in a painting, Mazeppa, by Théodore Géricault, seen below.) The horse went eastwards and brought him back to the Cossack state, where Mazepa later became a hetman.

As most Romantic poems, Mazeppa focuses on the emotional experience and the inner world of the hero which are vividly expressed through the depiction of landscapes that the young man passes. The deep symbolism of the work contributes to unveiling of Mazepa’s image. The long and grueling journey on the back of the horse, through the wilderness of Ukrainian steppes, forests and rapid flows of the river are a colourful metaphor to Mazepa’s determined and passionate nature. As in his real life, Mazepa lived through obstacles and danger, which are embodied in wolves and crows that he encountered. The enduring wild horse that rushes the young man to his homeland alludes to aspiration to freedom:

Away, away, my steed and I,
Upon the pinions of the wind,
All human dwellings left behind;
We sped like meteors through the sky,
When with its cracking sound the night
Is chequer’d with the northern light.

A horse in Romantic literature stands out as a symbol of luck and fate. The portrayal of the wild horse carrying Mazepa through forests and steppes from Poland to Ukraine illustrates perseverance through the hard journey between life and death. 

Byron wrote his poem Mazeppa while travelling in Italy, which was amidst its liberation movement against Austria. An avid supporter of European nations’ fight for independence, particularly, Italy and Greece, the poet may have become motivated for this reason to write about the leader of the Cossack State which was similarly struggling to be free from the imperial rule. 

Lord Byron (seen below) was not the only artist whose imagination was captured by the extraordinary destiny of Ivan Mazepa.  In fact, Byron himself got inspired to write his poem about the dramatic incident from the young hetman’s life after learning about it from Voltaire’s The history of Charles XII, King of Sweden (1731) . After Byron, Victor Hugo in his collection Les orientales (1828) included his own poem Mazeppa as his poetic interpretation of the episode. The legend about the horse set adrift with the future hetman fascinated many French Romantic painters - Géricault, Eugène Delacroix, Horace Vernet, Nathaniel Currier, Théodore Chassériau, Louis Boulanger. The story also found its place in musical works such as a symphonic poem Mazeppa by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, as well as in theatre plays (a drama Mazepa by the Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki, for example). This list is far from exhaustive. 

The narrative poem Mazeppa demonstrates the power of poetry, a concise yet an eloquent art that allows us to go back in history and explore the geopolitical conjuncture of the time, major developments and personalities of nation leaders, in only a few thousand words. Through symbolic comparisons, rhythmic verse and bright presentation of characters and ambiance, one can easily be drawn into learning more about the history and nation-building of the states that exist today. When the Fisher library re-opens to serve patrons in its premises, we encourage you to visit us to page through the first edition of Mazeppa to find out the rest of the story, and to explore many other works by Lord Byron.

- Natalia Mykhaylychenko, Acquisitions Specialist