Homer, Shakespeare, Byron, and Heine were among the influences who started her writing. Her mother, Olha Drahomanova-Kosach, better known to Ukrainian readers as the poet Olena Pchilka, had a massive influence on the future poet’s life, educating her kids at home – and in Ukrainian. It was Olena Pchilka who even proposed the pen name Lesya Ukrainka, after her own brother, the eminent Ukrainian nationalist and cultural activist Mykhailo Drahomanov, who took the surname Ukrainets, or ‘Ukrainian’. But if being Ukrainian was an important part of her upbringing, Lesya Ukrainka was hardly provincial. She also knew Polish, German, English, French, Greek, Latin, Italian, Russian, and Bulgarian, and had read deeply in the literature of each language.
One of her first poems was written when she was nine. It was called ‘Hope’:
No freedom have I, my good fortune has flown,
A lone hope is left, the one thing that I own,
The hope of returning once more to Ukraine,
To feast longing eyes on my homeland again,
To feast longing eyes on the Dnipro’s rich blues,
Add there live or perish, whatever ensues;
Feast my eyes on the steppe and the grave mounds I love,
Recall ardent thoughts and the dreams I once wove.
No freedom have I, my good fortune has flown, A lone hope is left, the one thing that I own.
In her mature work, Ukrainka had a thing for historical and Biblical references. Her ‘In the Catacombs’ references the early Christian martyrs, while ‘On the Field of Blood’ is informed by medieval literature. Her historical drama ‘Boyarynya’ deals with the problems of a Ukrainian family in the 17th century and is based on local folklore. She was extremely prolific, her books of poetry including ‘On the Wings of Songs’, ‘Echoes’, a poetry collection called ‘The Stone Commander’ based on the Don Juan story, and ‘Cassandra’, which references the Greek myth of the same name. Ukrainian literature, of course, is relatively unknown in the West. A bit of research shows that Polish, French, and English editions of her work were all published before the 1970s, mostly by Ukrainian Diaspora publishers and organisations in the West. The Lesya Ukrainka Library in Kyiv carries only a couple of her books in other languages than Ukrainian. Things are different when it comes to monuments to the great writer, which indicates that a lot of people like to pay tribute to great writers more than they like to read them. Forget Kyiv, where there’s a boulevard named after her and a monument to her near the Pechersk metro station, and forget that the 200 hryvnya note carries her portrait. Even Cleveland, Ohio has a Lesya Ukrainka monument (mentioned by eminent contemporary writer Oksana Zabuzhko in her book ‘Notre Dame d’Ukraine’), and there’s at least one in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where the Ukrainian Diaspora people from New York City and New Jersey hang out during the summer. In Ukrainian-rich Canada, monuments to her are scattered all over the country. So you can see her strong, iconic face depicted everywhere, but you won’t necessarily find her work unless you’re in Ukraine and you read Ukrainian. If you did grow up in Ukraine, you were exposed to Lesya. As schoolkids, we all had to read her youthful poetry and especially her ‘Forest Song’. Still, the masses don’t have a very deep understanding of her work. ‘Forest Song’, which isn’t her most brilliant poem but rather the one that fit best into the Soviet curriculum, is the one that you find today in the bookshops. Ukraine has been an independent country for 16 years, but publishing the work of one of the nation’s literary giants still isn’t going to make anyone rich.
What are popular are some of the more interesting facts in Ukrainka’s biography. The yellow press loves repeating these pieces of information. For example, she had an interesting love life, which somehow you never learned about in the prim Soviet school system. The poet was very discreet in her correspondence and a lot of it was lost, but still, in
‘Forest Song’, not her most brilliant poem but the one that fits best into the Soviet curriculum, is the work that’s in the bookshops
her Ukrainka book, Oksana Zabuzhko offers a verified list of the great woman’s involvements. Her first love was Nestor Gambarashvilli, who as a student at Kyiv University lived in her sister’s house. Ukrainka gave Nestor French lessons; he taught her some Georgian. Maxim Slavinsky was older than Lesya and eventually became a diplomat for the Ukrainian National Republic. Serhiy Merzhynsky was her biggest love; they met in a sanatorium, where both were being treated for TB. She was married to a man named Klement Kvitka and carried on an emotional correspondence with Olga Kobylyanska, a writer from Bukovyna. Did she have a lesbian affair? The letters are very tender, but apparently it was just a friendship.
Taking the Cure
About that tuberculosis – Ukrainka caught it when she was still a child and it killed her in 1913. In her brilliant ‘Contra Spem Spero’, she writes, “Yes! Through my tears I would burst out laughing, sing a song when grief is my lot. Against hope, I keep on hoping – I will live! Away, gloomy thought!” Read enough of her verse, and it occurs to you how much of a big role the theme of physical suffering plays in it. Like many TB patients she had to travel a lot to find climates that were easy on her lungs, and so spent time in Egypt, Greece, Germany, Austria, and Crimea and other places where she would find cool, dry, pure air. As far as I’m concerned, Lesya Ukrainka was, first, a very talented poet; second she was a significant Ukrainian critic and intellectual; third she was an appealing and attractive women who fell in love easily and graced the lives of a lot of different people. She died on 1 August, 1913 in the city of Suramy, Georgia at the age of 42. She did her best to ennoble Ukrainian culture and literature in a late tsarist period when her national culture was under threat. She planted vivid flowers in the frost, so to speak, and watered them with her tears every day of her life.