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Lesya Ukrayinka, a romantic poet — a “frail girl of ill health and probably the only ‘man’ in the Ukrainian literature.”
There is a great many scholarly and popular works written and published about Lesya Ukrayinka, her life and her literary legacy; there are many documents that one can go to to get at first-hand facts about Lesya Ukrayinka; there are many photographs that captured her image and images of those who mattered in her life; there are many sources, like memoirs, to expand one’s knowledge of Lesya Ukrayinka’s private life; there is her poetry and other literary works that one can turn to in search for answers to questions about Lesya Ukrayinka’s place in literature. But even given this wealth of material, can we say we know enough to answer the most important question, What kind of person was she in reality? Can her literary creations, like Mavka, for example, in which we can glimpse the light of pure feeling through the thin haze of half-forgotten legends of the land she lived in, be a better guide to the poetess than all the documentary, photographic and factual evidence? Do we, each of us, draw our own conclusions proceeding from our own views, emotional makeup, and ethics? Thus, for some, she is a rebel; for others — just a poetess; for still others — a powerful personality. And many, I’m sure, see her as a crystal image of pure and tender emotions.
Lesya Hryhoryiva presents her personal view of Lesya Ukrayinka, one of the most remarkable Ukrainian poets
An ordinary secondary school in a little town in the vicinity of Kyiv; a small classroom, bathed in the subdued autumnal sunlight; posters and children’s pictures on the walls; a pile of schoolchildren’s bags in the corner; the desks are pulled close together; mounds of flowers on the desks; the six-graders are busy with putting flowers into vases and pots, arranging them in a fancy manner. Every autumn the school marks the Day of Flowers. The names of the arrangements have been invented beforehand; the greetings and little speeches appropriate for the occasion have already been written. Everything is set and ready for celebrating the event, soviet style. But in all this flurry of well-arranged activity there is a discordant note that draws the teacher’s attention. It is a girl who quietly and carefully arranges tiny chrysanthemums and violets around a drawing in which the teacher sees a figure of a young, slender girl with long, fair braids. The teacher decides to patiently wait until this arrangement, which contradicts the set standard, is finished, but at one point her patience wears thin and she asks,
“Lesya, what is it that you are doing?”
“It’s going to be Mavka, Madam. Mavka from The Forest Song by Lesya Ukrayinka, remember?“
The teacher is at a loss and for a second or two ponders what to say.
“Why did you decide to devote your arrangement to Mavka?”
“Because she was so nice, so tender. And she knew how to love.”
“To love? Whom or what?” The teacher’s confusion grows — she is not accustomed to hear six-graders talk about love.
“I don’t know,” says the girl sincerely. “To love everything… to love everybody.”
“You, Lesya, are probably like Mavka yourself… or even like Lesya Ukrayinka,” adds the teacher quickly, evidently somewhat surprised at her own words. “All the manuals and reference books mention only that Lesya Ukrayinka was strong in spirit, courageous in the face of misfortunes and suffering. And no one seems to mention that she had a great capacity for love… So, maybe you are right, and Mavka is a manifestation of Lesya’s love.”
Lesya Ukrayinka is a penname of Larysa Kosach. Her mother was a Ukrainian writer, Olena Pchilka, rather well-known in her time, and her father, Petro Kosach, was a lawyer. Her parents traced their lineage for many generations back into the past centuries. Among their ancestors were a duke from Bosnia, a tramp from Greece, an aristocrat from Poland, and a Cossack officer.
“Out of the six children in our family, it was Lesya who resembled our father most, both in beauty and character. From what Mother told me, and from Father’s photographs, taken when he was young, it was clear that Lesya’s facial features, eyes, the colour of the hair were inherited from our Father, as well as the height, bearing and slenderness. Their temper and character were also were similar — both were very gentle and endlessly kind — but both could boil over if their feelings were wounded. At the same time they showed much patience, perseverance and reserve, both possessed very strong willpower. There was one more, particularly precious feature that Father and Lesya shared — they respected other people’s dignity, no matter who it was, a little child or a grown-up, and behaved in such a way so as not to offend or infringe upon that dignity,” wrote Lesya’s sister Olha Kosach-Kryvynyuk in her memoirs.
Lesya Ukrayinka was born on February 13 (according to the “old style” Julian calendar, or February 26 in the “new” Gregorian calendar) in the town of Novhorod-Volynsky in the Land of Volyn, Ukraine. Her parents did not send their children to school, preferring to educate them at home. Lesya’s mother was afraid that attending school which was thoroughly Russified, would be detrimental to her children culturally. She wanted to raise them speaking Ukrainian, appreciating Ukrainian culture and their Ukrainian roots, and being oriented toward creative work.
Lesya learnt to read when she was four. Among the authors whose books she enjoyed reading in her later childhood were Pavlo Chubynsky (Ukrainian writer who retold folk stories), Taras Shevchenko (his Kobzar collection of poems in particular), Jules Verne, Daniel Defoe. The games she played were based on the books she read — she engaged her brother Mykhailo in acting out episodes from the life of Jeanne D’Ark, from the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Among the friends of Lesya’s family were remarkable cultural figures — the prominent cultural and public figure and historian Mykhailo Drahomanov (Lesya’s maternal uncle); the writer Mykhailo Starytsky, and the composer Mykola Lysenko. It was Lysenko who spotted Lesya’s musical talent. She easily picked folk songs, wrote them down, learnt them, and sang them. The family staged plays at home and Lesya was an actress, director and scenographer, all rolled into one.
Lesya wanted to learn and experience and understand as much as she could. She, for example, wanted to experience how it felt to be all alone in the forest at night — and once she did steal from the house at night and went to the forest, fearing and hoping at the same time she’d meet Mavka or Rusalka (Mavka is a forest nymph and Rusalka is a water nymph of Ukrainian folklore). The Lutsk Castle fed her imagination and was a place where she played her games of damsels, wicked magicians and knights in white armour. Such an active involvement in the imaginary world and in folklore could not fail to kindle her own creativity — at the age of nine she began writing poetry. Some of these early poems are extant and they show maturity, both of feeling and expression surprising for a person so young:
“Neither happy destiny nor perfect freedom
Are awaiting me along the road
Through this miserable and fabulous kingdom,
Only hope, like a pensive, ugly toad.”
Visits to fairs, attending religious feasts and weddings were a great joy to Lesya. In the winter of 1881, on Vodokhreshcha (the Christian Orthodox feast of Epiphany and Baptism of Christ, usually celebrated at a river or a lake) she went to the river to watch this colourful celebration. But she got her feet wet soon after she had come there. Instead of leaving, she stayed until the end of the ceremony. The temperature was way below zero and the cold seeped into her body through her wet and freezing feet. The consequences were tragic — she developed the tuberculosis of bones which until her death thirty two years later was a source of constant pain and ill health. She went through several operations but they gave only a temporary respite. One of her hands was crippled with tuberculosis and her ambition to become a musician remained but a shattered dream. “I think I would make a much better musician than a poet but, alas, nature has played a bad trick on me,” she wrote in a letter. Lesya’s illness prevented her from getting a formal education but thanks to her mother and her uncle, Mykhailo Drahomanov, she grew up to be a highly and widely educated person. She could read and speak a dozen languages, she was well versed in Ukrainian and world literature, history and philosophy.
When Lesya was thirteen, her mother began to encourage her to publish some of her poems. They invented a penname for her — Ukrayinka (literally: a Ukrainian woman), and sent several of Lesya’s poems to the Zorya (Dawn) literary magazine which was published in Lviv. Two of her poems (“Lily of the valley” and “Sappho”) were accepted for publication.
The choice of the penname was, no doubt, not accidental. Lesya wanted to emphasize her Ukrainian roots, her Ukrainian leanings, her “Ukrainianness.” It was the time when following the order of the tsarist minister of internal affairs Valuyev, no books, except for fiction, were allowed to be published in Ukrainian; no plays in Ukrainian were allowed to be staged; no books in Ukrainian were allowed to be brought from abroad. And Lesya rebelled, in her own way, against this massive onslaught on the Ukrainian language and culture.
“I’m not sure whether Lesya and Mykhailo would have become Ukrainian literati, had it not been for me. In fact, it was me who did all that should have been done to make Ukrainian a language of their heart and soul, to encourage them to learn as much as possible from their early childhood on. Their life with me and in the Land of Volyn among the Ukrainian people has contributed to their becoming writers,” wrote Lesya’s mother, Olena Pchilka, in a letter.
The first two published poems became an auspicious start. She kept writing and publishing poetry and essays and her talent was spotted by such major figures in the Ukrainian literature and culture of that time as Ivan Franko, Mykhailo Drahomanov and Mykhailo Pavlyk. They urged her to go on writing and perfecting her creative skills. “When I read those soft and enfeebled or cold and mealy-mouthed works written by Ukrainian male authors and compare them to the highly spirited, courageous and at the same time so sincere writings of Lesya Ukrayinka, I can’t help thinking that this frail girl of ill health is probably the only ‘man’ in Ukrainian literature!” wrote Ivan Franko.
“Who told you that I’m weak,
That I succumb to fate?
My voice is strong when I speak,
My thoughts and songs vibrate.”
Lesya’s rise to the heights of creative writing was steady and unstoppable. In her poetry one finds two recurring words “kryla” and “pisnya” (wings and song) — she must have had a subconscious desire to soar on imaginary wings like a song, freeing herself from the fetters of her frail, ailing body. But her poetry, no matter where she was, either under the hot sun of Egypt, or under the grey, rainy clouds of Germany, or on the Greek coast of the Mediterranean, was always permeated with soft and wistful melodies of her native land.
Because of her crippling illness, she had to seek treatment moving from place to place in warmer climes. In 1897, when in Yalta in the Crimea, she met and befriended Serhiy Merzhynsky, a writer, who suffered from the tuberculosis of the lungs. Meeting this pale, emaciated man gave the poetess a new sense of life and inspired an upsurge in creative writing.
“Your letters, my pallid, withered flower, always smell of wilted roses — the faint smell as light as the memory of a faded dream. Nothing affects my heart as strongly as this smell does, it touches my heart lightly and gently, reminding me forcefully and undeniably of something that my heart is prophesying, something that I can’t believe in, something I cannot make myself believe in…” wrote Lesya in a poem in prose.
In 1901, when she learnt that Merzhynsky’s condition had worsened, she, despite her own health problems, went to Minsk where Merzhynsky lived then, to be at his side, hoping that her optimism would rekindle his lust for life. But despite of all her optimistic energy Merzhynsky died, with Lesya by his side to his very last breath. She was thrown into such a deep dolour that it would have probably ended her life, had not her creative impulse come to her rescue — she wrote a lyrical drama in verse, Oderzhymaya (Possessed) during one night. “I admit that I wrote it during one night, a night which either could kill me or give strength to live. I survived the terrible loss by creating a drama out of it,” wrote Lesya later. In the years 1898–1900 she wrote a series of lyrical poems devoted to Merzhynsky but they were published only after her death and reading them today, so many years later, I cannot help being deeply moved by the intensity of her loving feeling.
In 1903, when Lesya was having a treatment in the Caucauses, the fate delivered another heavy blow — her brother Mykhailo, professor of the Kharkiv University, suddenly died. “I hope there is something of Mykhailo in my eyes as there are strings tuned to him in my heart… Like him I can’t sacrifice anything for anybody — except myself, my life…” Lesya wrote in a letter to her mother.
Dolefulness and sorrow permeate Lesya’s later poetry, but even during her most woeful moments, she never gave up on her motto, Contra spem spero! (Hope against all the odds). She believed that misfortunes only made her inured to even greater ones, and that her poetry was the best remedy against the anguish in her heart.
Her last ten years Lesya spent mostly abroad — the Caucauses, the Crimea, Italy and Egypt, with only occasional visits to Ukraine, but the state of her health remained as precarious as it was for many years.
Her grief over the death of Merzhynsky subsided over the years and in 1907 she married Klyment Kvitka, a music critic and folklorist whom she had known for a long time and who had given her support in many instances when she did need help. He took care of everyday chores and worries, escorted his wife in her travels to the places where she underwent treatment. Folk songs were a common interest that bound them spiritually. It seemed that Lesya was on her way to feeling more or less settled in life but her illness, her nostalgia, her vague anxiety never gave her serenity and peace of heart. The memories of her childhood, of her parent’s house, of the land of Volyn, became ever more poignant and disturbing. “I recalled our forests and felt such a strong and painful nostalgic twinge. I recalled your stories about Mavka which you told when we were in Zhaborytsi and took a walk in the forest — most of the trees there were quite young but they grew very close to each other and it was a dense forest… I recalled as once I went to the forest all alone at night, in the moonlight, hoping I’d meet Mavka there… Do you remember that on another occasion, when we were in Kolodyazhne, visiting with Uncle Lev, I had a dream about Mavka and told you about it? I think I should have written something about Mavka long ago, but somehow it never got written and I can’t understand why. Mavka, her image has enchanted me…” wrote Lesya in a letter to her mother.
Finally, Lesya became sufficiently inspired to write what she wanted to and wrote a drama in verse, Lisova pisnya (The Forest Song) in eleven days. It turned out to be arguably her best work, a reflection of her very soul, lit by the star of her heart. The language is rich, flowing and elegant, the images are powerful and vivid, the emotions and images portrayed are profound and intense. Later, describing her work at the drama in verse, she said that she “could not sleep at night and could not eat anything during the day. I wrote very fast, I could not help writing, I gave myself completely to what I was doing. But after I finished writing, I fell ill and was ill for quite a long time. I ran a high fever and was very weak.”
The image of Mavka was created by Lesya as she tapped the rich emotional resources of her heart. Mavka’s sincere, overwhelming love turns the world around her into a fairy tale, full of mysteries and beauty. But Mavka’s love is tragic because the man she, a fairy-tale creature, has fallen in love with is an earthbound human being who is well-intentioned and even pure at heart but unimaginative, wimpy, indecisive, lacking in lofty aspirations, and who fails to perceive the magic of Mavka’s heart. But Mavka, understanding all of it, nevertheless gives herself totally to this love. Lesya must have put all of herself too into these words uttered by Mavka:
“Yes, I’m alive, I’ll live forever,
What’s in my heart can never die!”
The Day of Flowers was over. All the bouquets and flower arrangements had been presented, stories and poems had been recited, music had stopped playing; the schoolchildren were picking their schoolbags and leaving.
The teacher came up to the girl with a drawing of Mavka.
“You told a very beautiful story about Mavka,” she said.
“How could a story about Mavka be not beautiful?” exclaimed the girl earnestly, “Mavka is Love itself. She is Life full of Love, and can that be anything else but beautiful?”
“Well, life is not always beautiful,” said the teacher, “but basically you are right. We should believe in Mavka, in what she represents. Without Mavkas the world would have been so dull. Keep Mavka in your heart forever — and good luck to you.”
Your letters, my pallid, withered flower, always smell of wilted roses — the faint smell as light as the memory of a faded dream. Nothing affects my heart as strongly as this smell does, it touches my heart lightly and gently, reminding me forcefully and undeniably of something that my heart is prophesying, something that I can’t believe in, something I cannot make myself believe in.
My dear friend, my beloved friend, you have been created for me, how can it be that I live alone now, after I have come to know a different kind of life?
Earlier, I experienced life that was filled with painful, poignantly disturbing happiness which burned me and tormented me, and made me wring my hands and beat against the earth again and again in a wild desire to disappear from this world where happiness and woe were so intertwined…
And then both happiness and woe stopped as abruptly as the weeping of a child does — and I saw you. I had seen glimpses of you earlier too but as though in a haze, and now I have come over to you with all my soul, like a child who has been crying, runs to be embraced by someone who says, “There, there!”
It does not matter that you have never embraced me, it does not matter that we have never exchanged a kiss — Oh, I would run to you from the tightest of embraces and from the hottest of kisses. It is only with you that I am not alone, it is only with you that I am at home. It is only you who can save me from myself. Everything that makes me weary, everything that torments me will be so easily removed by your thin, trembling hand — the hand that vibrates like a string; everything that casts a shadow over my soul will be cleared by the powerful light of your shining eyes. Alas, I know that people who have a firm grasp on life do not have eyes like yours! Such eyes are from a world other than ours…
My dear friend, my dear friend, why do your letters smell of wilted roses?
My dear friend, me dear friend, knowing all this, why cannot I pour my hot tears over your hands, the hands that vibrate like strings?
My friend, my dear friend, shall I perish all alone? Oh please, take me along with you — and may wilting white roses be strewn over us.
Take me along with you!
But maybe you have another dream, a dream in which I am not present? O my dear, I shall create a new world for you, a world of a new dream. It is for you that I have begun a new dream of life — it is for you I died and it is for you that I have come back to life. Take me along with you! I fear life so much. Even if I am rejuvenated, I do not want to live. Please, take me along, and we shall take a leisurely stroll in the forest of dreams, and gradually we shall get lost in the distance. And at that place we once were in this life, rose will wilt and wither, and will smell like your letters, my dear friend….
I stretch my arms out to you through the darkness — take me, take me along with you, and it will be my salvation. O save me, my beloved friend!
And then let the white and pink and red and azure roses wilt.
July 11 1900
“Cast flowers, more flowers, and still more flowers
And the white gauze on the face
Of what is called illusion…” My God!
So often these words sound in my ears
In the dead of night, “Flowers, more flowers,
I loved the beauty so much!...”
My poor friend,
I brought you all the flowers which
The sparing spring of your sparing land
Could produce and which I collected and put into the coffin,
I buried that pathetic spring in all its misery.
You are sleeping in the ground among the dead flowers,
And I’m horrified to think about them,
And about your slumber;
I’d better cover
Your sleep again with the gauze
In order not to stir the frightening mysteries of death;
I’ve heard enough of its preludes,
They chilled my blood,
They turned me into stone;
I still cannot utter what
The songs of death have taught me.
Sleep, my dear friend, sleep, may nothing disturb you,
I will not say the secret words
to anyone again.
You asked for flowers? I’ll give you more flowers
Than that hostile spring managed
That cruel spring which took you away.
I’ll give you flowers in full bloom, I’ll water them with my blood,
And the drops on them will glitter like rubies —
O they will be so different from those pallid, anemic flowers
That inclement spring produced — and they will not wilt,
They will not return to earth,
they will not die,
And you will come back to life
in a wreath
Of living flowers, the gauze of illusions,
The gauze of those dreams of mine will envelop you,
But will not hide you — you will shine
Like a sunray in a light haze
That spreads over the golden field.
Let the years pass, one after another,
Let my life flow away with the stream,
You’ll live in the beauty of flowers,
And I shall live in the tears of songs.
July 6 1904