Star in heart

Lesia Ukrainka’s Forest Song as a model of Ukrainian Universe: towards the centenary of creation

The laws of creativity may be even a more wonderful (and often absolutely misunderstood) thing than the laws of the Universe. Indeed, why have so many brilliant oeuvres about the life and nature of the native land been written abroad, thousands of miles away from home? Why are masterpieces so often born in what seems to be unbearable conditions – in the prison of loneliness (sometimes in the literal meaning of the word), in the stuffy atmosphere of misunderstanding, indifference, false contempt, and stupid complacency? Of course, time has already allowed us to “polish” the commonly used (but quite satisfying?) answers: separation from the native land allows seeing the beloved, but physically remote, pictures, and you can only overcome a distance by concentrating your memory, imagination and fantasies, in the pure shine of nature, kindness, and beauty. And tragic circumstances only convince strong hearts that it is now the point of no return and bridges have already been burned (as the Ukrainians say, “you can’t cross the river under fire”). This is right, but there still remains a stunning sensation of the mystery of creative inspiration: where does this wonder, a virtual “otherworldly wonder,” come from?

And when you begin to reflect on this, you involuntarily recall Lesia Ukrainka’s masterpieces, which were created under the circumstances that seem to have made it just physically impossible to create them. They were written contrary to pain, anguish (only elementary school manuals can allege that Larysa Kosach, a fervent “revolutionary democrat,” had never known any doubts, hesitations and reflections), humiliating material hardships, and, what is more, contrary to the gross apathy and national disappointment of the vast majority of society. Besides, we should not forget that Lesia’s creative acme – The Forest Song, a fairy drama in three acts – saw the light of day exactly 100 years ago, in the summer of 1911, in the faraway Kutaisi.

Yet it is not only the oeuvre’s “jubilee” that makes it imperative for us to mentally turn to The Forest Song. The point is that it is now absolutely necessary to drop the archaic, primitive schoolroom-like interpretation of this drama. It used to be presented as a sickly sweet, extremely soppy, or a children’s (if not infantile), fairy tale, a free flight of abstract, albeit very beautiful, fantasy, the authoress’ intellectual play (which was absolutely unacceptable for Lesia Ukrainka: she wrote not a single line for the sake of this “play”), and nothing more.

In reality, we can see a perfect (and, at the same time, philosophically profound) model of the Ukrainian Universe without even the slightest drop of melodramatic sugariness – it is an example of wisdom, courage, and beauty. Why is it the model of a Universe – the Ukrainian one at that? Lesia presents a boundless forest-covered space in Ukraine’s Volyn region the way one usually imagines the Universe as a whole, as something that embraces all the existing things on earth. We can add that the drama’s overall plot fully reproduces the outlines of every individual’s life circle (including, of course, the Ukrainian): the springtime riot of a sunrise (“The spring has not yet sung like this!”), the late summer of maturity and inevitable bitter disappointments, and the autumn of loneliness, catastrophes, and trials. The drama ends with a striking scene in a wintertime forest: “Lukas is sitting alone, leaning against the birch, with the pipe in his hands, his eyes closed and his lips set in a happy smile. He sits motionless. The snow falls over him like a thickening robe until his form becomes indistinguishable, and keeps falling, falling endlessly…” But his life circle (which feeds off the natural circle) is endless by definition: what will follow are the future and the spring which nature will reproduce over and over again.

The only artist who can immortalize the national spiritual world is one who is capable of elevating the life realities of his own people to the exalted sense of life in general, thus overcoming constraints in time and space (in time because he conveys his cherished behest to the descendants of his native ethnic community; in space because he captures the minds and hearts of his brothers and sisters in various parts of the globe). Such was Larysa Kosach and her oeuvre.

The Forest Song surprises one with its aphoristic nature: Lesia lavishes clear-cut and brilliant formulas of such a basic, fundamental, category of human life as freedom and love on the reader.

“Well, can freedom really vanish? Then the wind, too, will vanish one day,” Mavka says.

Or take this: “Stay clear of people’s paths, my child, for freedom does not walk on them. Only sorrow bears its burden there…” the Forest Elf says to Mavka.

On love: “You are a world that is better and dearer to me than the one I have known before, but even that one has become better since we got together,” Mavka says to Lukash.

On the sense of life: “Do not scorn the blossom of your soul, for it gave birth to our love! That blossom of a fern is more charming – it creates, not just opens, treasures. I seem to have had another heart now since I came to know it,” Mavka says.

And, finally, so wonderful and mysterious words of the heroine to Lukash:

“Your voice is clear like a stream, but your eyes are opaque.”

(You think sometimes, involuntarily, that this applies to the “opaque-eyed” Ukraine of today.)


A penetrating reader will perhaps ask: how, under what circumstances did Lesia work on this fairy drama? (Incidentally, she was not satisfied with this official definition of the genre – she sought an adequate translation for the German word Maerchendrama.) We will not go on telling The Forest Song’s plot, for it is quite well known, but we will try to answer this question. We will only note that the realities of the everyday life of Larysa Kosach – not as prominent personality but as member of a certain geographical and temporal community – are also interesting. They confirm that a literary genius, too, stands on Earth on his/her two feet, but one should judge him or her by their highest achievements. So let us read Lesia’s own words.

Letter to mother, Olha Kosach (Olena Pchilka); July 3, 1911, Kutaisi:

“I live the way I did in Kyiv, taking some ‘education’ little by little, without too many consequences, though. Klenia (Klyment Kvitka, the authoress’ husband. – Author) has got down to business, and I am looking forward to the ‘vacation’ – it will start on July 7. I am still hesitating whether we should go to the mountains, for we have too little money and, besides, we must prepare for the winter, to be on the safe side. And I am afraid to ride the horse very far (you can’t get to the mountains otherwise), and my teeth may give in – I have just begun to get them filled because I can no longer put this off. I have got down to a new ‘opus,’ this time a fantasy – voila” (it is the first time The Forest Song was mentioned).

Letter to Fedir Petrunenko (an acquaintance), July 10, 1911, Kutaisi:

“I haven’t done much until now because I first relaxed after the journey and I also had to do some house chores, then, as heavy rainfalls came, and I felt not so well and could not do anything. Yet I have finished some of the old things and even begun some new ones – quite good for a worker like me.” (Another reference to the drama.)

Letter to sister Olha Kosach, July 29, 1911, Kutaisi:

“I hope to give the manuscript a good going-over by October if the journeys, health or something else do not stand in the way. I could not do this until now due to some house work, but recently I got into a good poetic shape and finished some of the old things and, besides, wrote a poem, in fact a drama in three acts in ten days’ time (The Forest Song. – Author) with such inspiration that I could not even sleep at night and eat at The Daytime. Klenia even feared for me and even forced me to drink bromide. As I finished it, I fell a bit ill – I ran a 38°C fever and felt rather weak; this distressed me a little, but now I am quite well. Maybe, this fever was due to the rains that poured throughout July and there were almost no sunny days. It was more pleasant to think that the rains, not the drama, were to blame, for will I really have to abridge my works because of some kidney problems? I could once write intensively for three weeks in a row, then, quite recently, for two, and am I really going to slide to one week now? My health, i.e. the way I look and feel, is the same that you saw in Kyiv, and my temperature is 37.4 almost daily (it falls below 37 very seldom). But all this is totally objective, and nothing subjective troubles me, except for a few – very few indeed – days when kidney pain attacked me again.

“I am sending you a home photo. Don’t think it is our own furniture and all that – we are living in somebody else’s house, and only two folding chairs with my embroidery are ours.”

Letter to mother Olena Pchilka, December 20, 1911, Khoni, Georgia:

“I consider the success of The Forest Song among you (relatives. – Author) a big triumph to myself, all the more so that I did not expect it too much. It seemed to me you did not approve of this style. But I am not indifferent to this piece because it gave me, like no other one, so many dearest minutes of ecstasy. As for an impulse from N. Gogol, I still don’t think it was there. It seems to me I just recalled and longed for our forests. I had been keeping that nymph in mind since you once told me something about nymphs in Zhaborytsia, when we walked through some woods with small but very thick trees. Indeed, I was to write it sooner or later, and now it is a very suitable time – I can’t understand why. This image has spellbound me for all my lifetime.

“I went through The Forest Song in such a way that I was afraid that the winter story (aggravation of the disease that caused Lesia to die 18 months later. – Author), while other things caused a lesser suffering, but still all this has left an imprint – nobody will ever say that I win my laurels ‘without burning or being ill’ because I am burning in the literal sense of the word and fall ill each and every time. Besides, as if on purpose, once I begin to do some quiet work, a certain invincible and despotic dream ‘sweeps over me,’ haunts me at night, and drinks my blood, to tell the truth. Sometimes I am really afraid of this – what sort of a mania is this?”

Letter to Ahatanhel Krymsky, October 14, 1911, Khoni, Georgia:

“On second thoughts, I have never had a turning point, although I probably did have an evolution. Life would only break my surroundings (as well as my bones), but my early-established disposition has never changed and will hardly ever do so. I am an elastic but stubborn person (there are lots of them among women), skeptically-minded, and fanatical in feelings. Besides, I embraced a ‘tragic world outlook’ long ago, which is so good a thing for developing tenacity.

“I can’t understand even now what kept us from seeing each other more often. Is it the scorn that some of you former friends poured on our affection? (You told me something about this in Tiflis.) All I can say is I have never cared about that gallant gentleman, qu’en dira-t-on (French: “Whatever one may say. – Author), the more so that he never rewards one for the sacrifices made to him.

“Why think about disasters, my comrade? They are hanging over all of us, and, luckily, we never know when they will crash down on us. I am inviting you to visit me, but is there enough lifetime in store for me to see that feast? Incidentally, a Berlin ‘luminary’ has measured off 15-20 years for me, but five years have already passed since then, and the last five years will perhaps look like no life at all – therefore, there are 5-10 more or less good years are left (Lesia was destined to live for one more year and nine months. – Author), but if we go on seeing each other the way we have done up to now, ‘three hours in five years,’ you can well count the result by yourself. Meanwhile, I can live as long as Pobedonostsev did (80 years. – Author) to spite all luminaries – I told you I am stubborn as hell.”


 “No, I am living! I will be living forever!

“I have in my heart something that will never die.”

These are the words that Mavka says, challenging Maryshch (He Who Dwells in Rock), a capacious symbol (i.e., a focused vision) of death, oblivion, and darkness. Lesia Ukrainka was issuing a challenge to this Maryshch all he lifetime. Moreover, to survive spiritually (and, maybe, physically) and overcome the present-day Maryshchdom, every nation (especially ours) should find “what will never die” in its heart, mind, and history. Lesia was perfectly aware of this. We will be seeking it. And let us say bluntly: it is not only about “Beer Obolon is the pride of your Fatherland” (from a cynical advertisement) and not even about – holy terror! – Euro-2012. It is about something incomparably more exalted.