Lesia Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking
This essay was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
February 25, 2021, marks the 150th birthday of the modernist poet at the top of the Ukrainian literary canon, Lesia Ukrainka (Larysa Kosach, 1871–1913). Having chosen, at the age of 13, the pen name ‘Ukrainian woman’, she went on to reinvent what it meant both to be a Ukrainian and a woman, dismantling the patriarchal foundations of Western literature along the way. ‘I am quite well aware that this is impudence’, she admitted with a sense of delicious irony in a letter to a friend, interlarding her mock-confessional Ukrainian with German words and quotes from Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, ‘yet ’tis “has been pronounced on high” that I must mit Todesverachtung throw myself into the maze of global themes […], which my countrymen, except two or three brave souls, dare not enter’.
As a modernist, she broke with literary tradition in two significant ways. First of all, she rejected a provincializing paradigm imposed upon Ukrainian culture by the Russian Empire. During her time, the only acceptable image of the colonised people was that of ignorant peasants, and stir Ukrainka’s fancy it did not. A polyglot in command of nine European languages, she populated her poetic dramas with archetypal characters from classical mythology, Scripture, medieval legends, and Romantic poetry. Twining Ukrainian anticolonial subtext and European cultural context, Ukrainka also undermined the masculinist underpinnings of some familiar plots. A turn-of-the-century writer in a ruffled-collar blouse, she revised the key myths of Western culture from a woman’s point of view, venturing into literary territory later to be explored by second-wave feminists.
In 1982, Alicia Ostriker identified a tendency toward revisionist mythmaking in the work of North American women poets of the two preceding decades, including Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood, and Adrienne Rich:
Whenever a poet employs a figure or story previously accepted and defined by a culture, the poet is using myth, and the potential is always present that the use will be revisionist: that is, the figure or tale will be appropriated for altered ends, the old vessel filled with new wine, initially satisfying the thirst of the individual poet but ultimately making cultural change possible.
Writing her key poetic dramas between 1901 and 1913, some half a century before the poets above made their debuts, Lesia Ukrainka also appropriated grand male narratives, from the Iliad to the legend of Don Juan, ‘for altered ends’. She exposed the limitations of what was deemed universal by bringing women’s experience from the margins to the center.
Ukrainka’s poetic drama Stone Host (1912) became the first story of Don Juan in European letters written by a woman. Tirso de Molina, Molière, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Lord Byron, and Alexander Pushkin were among her predecessors. Ukrainka’s version transforms the fabled libertine, the great Romantic sinner and seducer into his supposed conquest’s plaything. Donna Anna is the unmistakable New Woman of the fin de siècle, albeit dressed in Spanish courtly garb. Confused by her rationality, Ukrainka’s Don Juan cries out, ‘You are indeed stone, without soul or heart’, only to hear in response, ‘Though not without good sense, you must admit’. Don Juan agrees to sacrifice his freedom and become Donna Anna’s sword in the fight for the throne. Donna Anna’s manipulative power compensates for her overall powerlessness within a male-dominated society, which can silence her no longer. Ukrainka’s heroines seize the right to tell their stories.
The chief war epic of the Western world, the myth of Troy, was another target of her radical revisionary impulse. Like H.D.’s later modernist masterpiece, Helen in Egypt (1961), Ukrainka’s poetic drama Cassandra (1907) lets the warlords and honor-thirsting heroes fade into the background. While H.D. singles out and gives agency to Helen, the ultimate voiceless femme fatale of the Western imagination, Ukrainka chooses to foreground a seemingly minor character, the tragic Trojan prophetess Cassandra, who is cursed by the gods always to see the future and never to be believed. Destined to be seen, to be desired, Helen is the counterpart of Ukrainka’s prophetess. At the beginning of the drama, she tells Cassandra: ‘It’s only you who fights against the gods / And that is why they punish you’, to which the priestess of Apollo replies, ‘Indeed! / Their power’s in punishment and mine’s in fight’.
Defiant and spellbound by visions of death and ruin, Cassandra alone rests her gaze on those unfit to enter the Trojan War’s heroic chronicles:
Know not the price of women’s sacrifices,
But I will tell you: of all woman kind
Far-famed Iphigeneia did not make
The greatest and the hardest sacrifice.
So many harder sacrifices, though
Unfamed, are made by women who leave not
Even a name to them! 
Cassandra, the brave, clairvoyant outsider, speaks back at patriarchy on behalf of those who remain overlooked by narratives of men in power.
In Ukraine, Lesia Ukrainka’s best-known work is the neo-Romantic fairy-tale drama Forest Song (1911). Even within the Soviet school system, it remained eminently teachable: the rural setting and folklore motifs allowed it to be explained away as a primitive love story and bundled with the ideologically permissible products of an agrarian society. The interlocking of Ukrainian folk tradition and foundational European myths, as well as the redefinition of the male-centred narrative of Orpheus, escaped the attention of Soviet ideologues.
The central character of Ukrainka’s fairy tale is a forest nymph called Mavka who falls in love with a human, the peasant boy Lukash. What enchants Mavka is the boy’s musical gift: his song brings the forest to life in a scene reminiscent of the powerful retelling of the myth of Orpheus in Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Like Orpheus, whose art triumphs over inanimate matter, Lukash awakens the spirits of the forest as well as Mavka’s soul. And yet, the peasant boy cannot live up to the promise of his art or the ‘fiery miracle’ of Mavka’s love. Betrayed by him, Mavka-Eurydice seeks forgetfulness in the Underworld. By contrast to Orpheus, Lukash does not trouble himself with the idea of seeking her among the ghosts and, for this treachery, is turned into a savage wolf by the spirits of the forest. In a striking reversal of gender roles, it is Mavka who, on hearing Lukash’s wolfish howl, breaks free from hell to rescue both herself and her beloved:
Like subterranean fire
My ardent pity split the granite vault,
And I broke out again into the light.
The magic word gave life to my dumb lips —
I wrought a miracle … I only knew
I was not destined to forgetfulness.
Lesia Ukrainka is not alone in her attempt to issue a feminist corrective to the bedrock myth of tragic love and art that wins over death. Famously, the Orpheus of myth could not help but disobey the only condition for Eurydice’s return to the realm of the living: the poet was warned against glancing back while he led his bride out of the Underworld. Ovid allowed one comment regarding Eurydice’s misfortune: ‘Dying a second time, now, there was no complaint to her husband (what, then, could she complain of, except that she had been loved?)’. In 1917, H.D. published an indignant reply to this question. The usually silent object of Orpheus’ love flagellates the poet with her bitter words:
so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash.
But in this deadliest of places, H.D.’s Eurydice rejects the numbness and obedience that Ovid grants her:
I have the fervor of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;
and my spirit with its loss
hell must break before I am lost.
In Margaret Atwood’s poetic cycle on Orpheus and Eurydice, the rage subsides. Buried among the shadows, Atwood’s Eurydice realizes that although her love for the poet persists even in the Underworld, he is not the one who will give her freedom. Like the heroines of these other feminist revisions of the myth, Mavka must find her voice and liberate herself without the help of her lover. By breaking into the light, she loses her immortality and becomes a disembodied spirit, yet one powerful enough to perform ‘a miracle’ and undo the forest spell. Power over nature is Eurydice’s at last.
To the sorrowful Lukash who laments the destruction of her body — Orpheus always needs a bodily presence to exercise his love — Mavka replies without resentment: ‘Ah, for that body do not sigh! / ’Tis now infused and glows with fire divine’. After her transcendental feat, Mavka imagines the dust of her flesh mingling with the soil from which a new life will grow:
My end [shall] give life to something more robust.
And to me here shall many seek,
Both rich and poor, the joyful and the sad.
Their griefs I’ll mourn, their joys shall make me glad —
To every one my soul shall gently speak.
In her transformation, Mavka anticipates the final message Atwood leaves for Orpheus:
Yet he will go on
Singing, and in praise.
To sing is either praise
or defiance. Praise is defiance.
At the end of Ukrainka’s version of the myth, Mavka envisions the many to whom her spirit will sing: ‘I’ll give them back in mystic speech / All those dear tender songs you used to sing’. The musical, poetic gift is transferred from Lukash to Mavka, from Orpheus to Eurydice. The Roman author of Metamorphoses who fashioned himself after the godlike poet Orpheus owns neither metamorphoses nor poetry in Lesia Ukrainka’s revision of the tale.
The women of her oeuvre are not defined by a hapless poet’s backward glance. It is Donna Anna who defines the destiny of Don Juan, the legendary conqueror of womankind. It is Cassandra who sees the heroism of men for what it is and redefines our view of the sacrifices it requires. It is Mavka who goes to hell and back for love, finding her transcendental voice along the way. Lesia Ukrainka’s heroines sing their own song, sit with their own pain, and bear witness to the pain of others. Above all, they are ‘not destined to forgetfulness’ or to oblivion, a fate that Ukrainka herself deserves to escape.