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Lesja Ukrainka

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Lesja Ukrainka

Translated by Percival Cundi

1 | 2 | 3

A dense and hoary primeval forest in Volhynia. The scene is a spacious glade in the heart of the forest, dotted with willows and one very old oak. At one end the glade turns into tussocks and reedy growths, and then into a vivid green marsh, the shore of a woodland lake formed by a stream which runs through the forest. The stream emerges from a dense thicket, empties into the lake and comes out at the end of it, only to lose itself again in the undergrowth. The lake itself is a placid sheet of calm water, covered with duckweed and water lilies except for a clean open space in the center.

The spot is wild and mysterious but not gloomy, filled with the tender, pensive beauty of Polissya, the wooded part of the province of Volhynia.

It is very early spring. Along the edge of the forest and in the glade the first green is showing and hepaticas and anemones are in bloom. The trees are still leafless, but their leaf buds are about to open. A mist hangs over the lake, at times concealing it entirely, but when moved by the wind, the mist opens up, displaying the pale blue water. A roaring is heard from the forest; the stream begins to foam and clatter. Then, together with its waters, out of the forest there comes racing “He Who Rends the Dikes.” He is a youth, very blond with blue eyes, who makes expansive motions as though he were swimming. His clothing is constantly changing in color from turbid yellow to clear blue, and at times he emits swift golden sparks. Rushing with the current into the lake, he begins to circle around on the clear, open space, agitating the somnolent water.

The mist dissolves and the water becomes bluer and bluer.

“He Who Rends the Dikes”

Down from mountain into valley,

Skipping, racing, forth I sally.

All the villages are quaking,

As the dikes and dams I’m breaking.

When folk try to dam the water

To their work I give no quarter;

For wild waters of the spring

Like wild youth, must have their fling!

(He continues to agitate the water more and more, plunging and then emerging as though seeking something).

Two Lost Babes

(Tiny pale infants in scanty white shirts, who come up to the surface among the water lilies)

1. Why do you come hither blundering?

2. Why do you disturb our slumbering?

1. Here our mother made our nest;

Laid us gently down to rest;

O’er the stones and o’er the gravel

She laid reeds to make it level,

Lily pads she gave for covering,

And we heard her softly singing:


Sleep, my darlings, mother’s nigh”.

2. Why do you come us to scare?

1. Whom is it you’re seeking here?

“He Who Rends the Dikes”

That Rusalka, blithe and kittle,

Whom I’ve loved since I was little;

For of water nymphs so queenly

There is none I love more keenly.

I have coursed all over mountains,

Valleys, ravines, springs, and fountains.

Lovelier spirit of the mere,

None there is than who dwells here.

Into foam this lake I’ll churn,

Seeking her for whom I yearn!

(He agitates the water tempestuously.)

The Lost Babes

Please, oh, please! be not so savage,

Or our home you’ll surely ravage.

One small cave – for there’s none other

Than the one found by our mother.

Humble is the place we own –

Father’s love we’ve never known…

(They seize him by the hand, beseeching him.)

We’ll dive down to depths profound

Where no light or warmth is found;

There Rusalka watch is keeping

Where a fisher drowned is sleeping.

“He Who Rends the Dikes”

Let her leave him lying there!

Straightway let her come up here!

(The Lost Babes dive down into the lake.)

Come up, love, I say!

Rusalka comes up out of the water, smiling alluringly, joyfully clapping her hands. She is wearing two chaplets: the larger one, green; the other, small, like a crown of pearls, from which there hangs a veil.


Ah! ‘tis you, my sweetheart gay.

“He Who Rends the Dikes”


Why all this delay?


(She starts to swim as though to meet him, but veers aside, avoiding him.)

All the night, dear, I’ve been yearning,

Dreaming that you were returning!

All the many tears I wept

In a silver cup I’ve kept.

Without you, the tears, my lover,

Filled the cup till it brimmed over.

(She claps her hands, darts forward as though to meet his embrace, but again swerves aside and avoids him.)

Some gold to the bottom fling,

And baptize the wedding ring!

(She laughs in bell-like tones.)

“He Who Rends the Dikes”


Ah! ‘tis gold that you desire –

You, who dwell down in the mire!

Truly, my Rusalka owns

She loves best a dead man’s bones.

Sitting there’s her dearest wish,

Guarding him from crabs and fish

Lest they further him deface.

What a lovers’ trysting place!

Rusalka swims closer, takes him by the hand and looks up into his face.


Why so angry? Say!


I know something, you reviler,

O you handsome heart-beguiler!

(She smiles knowingly and he becomes alarmed.)

While you were away

A miller’s maid seemed fair,

So you forgot me here.

Winter nights were cruel,

Dark eyes furnished fuel –

When a maid’s not cold,

Gentlemen give gold!

(She shakes her finger at him and laughs lightly.)

Well do I perceive

That you can deceive;

Yet I pardon you,

For I love you true.

(With humorous pathos)

For a lengthy second, I’ll be yours most loyal;

For a moment’s space, I’ll give a love that’s royal.

Fool me, and I’m through.

The water keeps no traces

No more than our embraces;

‘Tis transient as your living,

As fleeting as my giving.

“He Who Rends the Dikes”

(With a convulsive movement, he stretches out his hand to Rusalka.)

Anyway, ‘tis spring!

O’er the lake let’s take a fling!


(Seizing his hand, she circles around swiftly.)

By the little lakelet,

O’er its yellow sands,

With my pearly chaplet

I fly in the dance!

They whoop and splash and dash the water about. The water surges and beats against the shore till the weeds and reeds begin to thrash about, and the startled birds in swarms rise up out of them in fright.

Water Goblin

(He rides up from the middle of the lake. He is a very ancient gray old man with long hair and a long white beard. He is covered with a mass of weeds hanging down to his girdle. His garments are the color of mud and on his head is a crown of shells. His voice is hollow but robust.)

Who’s this who dares disturb our tranquil lake?

Rusalka and her partner stop, then flee asunder in haste.

For shame, my daughter! Should the water’s queen

Be romping with a stranger? Shame on you!


He’s not a stranger, father. Don’t you see?

‘Tis “He Who Rends the Dikes.”

Water Goblin

I know, I know.

He’s not our kin although of watery birth.

Deceitful and malicious are his ways:

In spring he raves, he agitates, despoils,

Rips from the lake its glorious crown of green –

The year-long husbandry of water nymphs,

Affrights our guards, the wise and watchful birds,

The roots of widowed willows undermines,

Upon the poor Lost Babes he flings and pours

A stunning mass of dreadful deluges,

Destroys the smoothness of my level sands,

And wrecks the tranquil peace of my old age.

But where is he in summer? Where is he

When the insatiate sun the water drinks

From out my cup like gryphon mad with thirst;

When reeds and rushes faint for lack of drink,

And, withering, die on my arid banks;

When lilies, perishing, bend low their heads

Towards the warm water to relieve their thirst,

Where is he then?

During this harangue “He Who Rends the Dikes” stealthily nods at Rusalka, inviting her to flee with him down the stream.

“He Who Rends the Dikes”

(With covert mockery)

Why, father – in the sea.

‘Tis then that Ocean calls me to his aid,

So that the sun may not drink his cup dry.

And when the Sea King calls, one must obey.

It is my duty – that you know right well.

Water Goblin

Ah, so! You’re in the sea… But as for me,

If ‘t were not for the help that I receive

From my old trusty friend, the Autumn Rain,

I’d die, evaporate in mist.


But, sir,

The mist can never die, for out of mist

The water comes again.

Water Goblin

How wise you are!

Back down below! Enough of chattering!


At once, dear father. Lo, he’s disappeared!

Well, now I’ll comb these tangled water plants.

(Taking out of her girdle a comb made of shell, she begins to comb out and smooth the growths along the shore.)

Water Goblin

Yes, comb them out. I like to see things neat.

Stick to your combing. Meanwhile I’ll stay here

Until you get it done. And tidy up

The water lilies so they spread out flat,

And patch the duckweed carpet that’s been torn

By that bold vagabond.


Yes, father, yes.

Water Goblin settles down comfortably in the reeds, following Rusalka’s work with his eyes until they gradually close in sleep.

“He Who Rends the Dikes”

(Stealthily emerging, to Rusalka)

Hide behind the willow tree!

(After looking round at Water Goblin, Rusalka does so.)

Let us fly! Come, fly with me,

If you’re not afraid;

Where the mill race runs so gay,

There we’ll tear the dam away

And we’ll drown the miller’s maid!

(He seizes Rusalka by the hand and speeds with her across the lake. Not far from the other side, Rusalka stops).


Good grief! I’ve caught upon that ancient oak!

This awakens Water Goblin, who rushes after Rusalka and seizes her.

Water Goblin

What’s doing here? You cursed rogue, you’ll learn

The cost of leading water sylphs astray!

I’ll lay complaint about you to your dam,

The Mountain Snowstorm, so beware, you’ll pay!

“He Who Rends the Dikes”

(Bursting into loud laughter)

Until that happens I’ll just take my fling!

Good bye, Rusalka, fill your silver cup.

(He rushes into the stream and disappears).

Water Goblin

(To Rusalka)

Go down below! Don’t dare to rise again

Above the surface for three moonlit nights!



How long is it since all the water nymphs

Have been your slaves in this same lake? I’m free!

I’m free as water is!

Water Goblin

In my domain

All waters must their limits recognize.

Go down below!


I won’t!

Water Goblin

So, so! You won’t?

Then give me back that pearly chaplet!



The Sea King’s son gave me this pearly crown.

Water Goblin

You don’t deserve to wear a crown like that;

And for your disobedience, you’ll go

To “Him Who Dwells in Rock”.



Oh, father, no!

I’ll be obedient.

Water Goblin

Then go below.


(Slowly sinking in the water.)

I’ll go, I’ll go… I may amuse myself

With that dead fisher lad?

Water Goblin

For all I care.

Rusalka reluctantly sinks in the water up to her shoulders and, mournfully smiling, gazes up at him.

How strange you are! I do this for your sake.

That vagabond would simply ruin you.

He’d drag you all along the bristling bed

Of some fierce woodland stream and mutilate

Your fair white body, then abandon you

In parts unknown.


But he was beautiful!

Water Goblin

You’re at your tricks again?


No, no, I go!

(She dives under).

Water Goblin

(Looking up at the sky)

The young spring sun already grows quite hot…

It’s stifling here! I must cool off a bit.

(He also dives down under the water).