A Parable About Life

A key component of the documentary is the recitation of parts of an Ivan Franko poem, “A Parable About Life.” (1898) Bill was famous for his recitation – by memory – of Franko poems at every kind of event. He was also a believer in Franko’s philosophy.

This is the entire text of that poem (translation by Percival Cundy)

In India ’twas. Across a lonely plain
A traveller toiled. Sudden, to his dismay,
A hungry lion he descried. At once,
Hearing its savage roar, though yet far off,
With terror-winged feet, he starts to flee.
But soon before him yawns a deep ravine
Which stays his headlong flight. No time to choose
Another course and nowhere can he hide—
The beast is at his heels. The poor wretch sees
That from the granite cliff which falls down sheer,
A slender birch had footing found within
A narrow cleft, and thrusting its green crown
Up towards the sun, high o’er the abyss grew there.
Without delay, in haste he sprang and clutched
The friendly tree. With desperate grip he clung
And swayed suspended o’er the awesome gulf.
Straightway, with dangling, searching feet he sought
Some foothold that he might his weight sustain.
This found, he easier breathed; his deathly fear
Began somewhat to pass. The hunted man
Then strove to look around and take account
Of where he was.

His first glance fell
Upon the spot where rooted stood the tree
Which was to him the only hope of life.
What grim mischance! There he beholds two mice,
One white, the other black; untiringly,
Laboriously, unceasingly, they gnaw
To cut the birch’s clinging roots in twain.
With frantic paws they scratch the earth away,
And toil as though possessed, to undermine
The saving tree and with it him destroy.
A second stab of anguish pierced his heart,
For now upon the brink, the lion stood.
With ravening jaws he glared upon his prey,
His roaring made the echoing chasm ring.
Although he could not reach his prey, he glared
At him below and ramped and tore the earth,
And waited for his victim to return.
The man looked down into the cavernous depths
Of the abyss, and at the bottom sees
A dragon fierce, writhing expectantly,
Its dreadful maw stretched wide, attent until
The traveller should fall into its lair.
The man’s head swam, his eyes their vision lost,
Fear gripped him at the heart, his limbs were bathed
In icy sweat profuse. And then he felt
That something stirred down where his feet were stayed.
He started, craned his neck to look and lo!
It was a serpent, coiled in sleep, that lay
Upon the ledge. Fain would he have cried out,
But horror choked the sound within his throat.
He tried to pray, but paralysing fear
Slew every pious thought. Like rigid corpse,
He hung in space, certain alone that soon
The mice would gnaw the last root through, the snake
Would strike him in the feet, his strength would fail,
And he would fall into the dragon’s maw.

But then, a marvel! Hanging on a branch
Above, the persecuted man perceived
A wild bees’ nest. There, in the tiny comb,
Were still some drops of honey stored, the bees
Were far afield in quest of further sweets.
At once he felt a keen desire to taste
That honey sweet. Exerting all his strength,
He raised himself still higher till his lips
Could touch the comb and suck the precious drops.
Straightway it seemed as though a hand had rolled
All burdens from his heart. That sovereign sweet
Brought him forgetfulness of all his care.
The lion that o’erhead still raged and roared,
The mice that still kept gnawing at the roots,
The dragon that below still menaced him,
The serpent that was hissing at his feet—
All else, with these, were by the man forgot,
Filled by those drops of honey with a joy
Unspeakable, like that of Paradise.

The traveller, brethren, pictures all of us.
Our lives are hard, nature against us wars,
A thousand perils and mischances fell
Surround us, menacing from every hand:
Like him who hung o’er the abyss are we;
The ravening lion overhead is death;
Oblivion is the dragon down below
Which lies in wait to swallow all of us;
The mice, one black, one white, are night and day
That, alternating, eat away our lives;
The serpent which lies coiled up near the tree
Is this frail mortal body we possess,
Uncertain, sickly, weak, that in the hour
Of need may fail us in its service due;
The slender tree, in desperation clutched,
Whereby one hopes self-rescue to achieve,
Is humankind’s remembrance, real but brief.
Escape we shall not find in this our plight
And no deliverance. One thing alone
Remains, one thing which neither direful fate
Nor fell mischance can ever snatch away:
It is fraternal love and brotherhood,
The saving honey, one small drop of which
Expands our human life to widest bounds,
Lifts and exalts the soul o’er all our fears,
Beyond the heritage of evils past,
Into those realms where light and freedom reign.