Symbolism. A poetic movement of the second half of the 19th century that originated in France, where it attained its greatest flowering between 1885 and 1895, and exerted strong influence throughout Europe. French symbolism represented a reaction against naturalism and realism in favor of subjective and esthetic experience. Seeking analogies in music, armed with a sense of the magical power of the word, predisposed toward esoteric symbols, metaphors, and synesthesia, symbolist poets created a highly evocative, personal, and transcendental poetry.
Symbolism in Ukraine was influenced by both the French and the Russian movements (in Galicia, Polish influence was also pronounced), but it never attained the stature it did in France or Russia. Symbolist trends rather than a self-conscious organized movement existed in Ukraine, although there were periods during which symbolist or quasi-symbolist groupings were active.
The first symbolist tendencies manifested themselves during the late 1890s in a noticeable de-emphasis on civic themes, the abandonment of realist poetics, the rejection of ‘utilitarian’ literature, and the revival of poetry (including prose poems). In 1901 Ivan Franko noted that young writers were placing emphasis on psychology and mood. Pursuit of the beautiful and defense of the autonomy of poetry (‘art for art's sake’) became prominent leitmotivs in the literary community. Writers betraying any of those inclinations were variously referred to as symbolists, decadents, or modernists. Alarmed reactions to the new literary vogue on the part of populist and realist figures (Ivan Nechui-Levytsky, Serhii Yefremov, Franko), a conservative reading public, and the unenviable political status of Ukraine no doubt restrained poets from moving away more decisively from their social obligations into private and personal spheres.
Mykola Vorony was the first major exponent of modernist sentiments in Ukraine. The guidelines he set for contributors to the almanac Z nad khmar i dolyn (From Above the Clouds and Valleys, 1903) testify to a distinct symbolist orientation, and in his correspondence with Ukrainian writers he speaks explicitly of ‘taking from symbolism’ its best virtues. Vorony spoke out in defense of ‘pure art,’ a refined estheticism, and urged writers to embrace a philosophical attitude (whether pantheistic, metaphysical, or mystical) that would depict the ideal, the beautiful, and the mysterious. His own poetry fulfilled those requisites with considerable formal merit, although like a majority of his generation he never completely rejected engagé verse. Vorony's symbolist poetry was not designed to supplant the poet's civic responsibility; it was designed to serve as its complement, which would reinvigorate the poet for the challenges of the ‘real’ world.
Ukrainian literary criticism of the 1900s and 1910s linked (not always appropriately) a number of names to the symbolist or decadent trend. Among them were Olha Kobylianska, Nataliia Kobrynska, Oleksii Pliushch, Hnat Khotkevych, and Ahatanhel Krymsky. It is a testament to the uncrystallized nature of early Ukrainian modernism that many writers expressed indignation at those labels and renounced them.
A far more self-conscious modernist attitude, with definite symbolist overtones, was evinced by the group Moloda Muza, founded in Lviv in 1906. Its theoretical positions (as expressed by Ostap Lutsky) were nearly identical to those promoted by Mykola Vorony, but the actual extent of the symbolist or decadent presence in the members' works varied considerably from author to author (Vasyl Pachovsky, Petro Karmansky, Mykhailo Yatskiv, Bohdan Lepky, Stepan Charnetsky, Sydir Tverdokhlib, Volodymyr Birchak). Those Western Ukrainian writers found kindred spirits in the celebrated poets Oleksander Oles and Mykola Filiansky, whose works reached them from Kyiv, where Ukrains’ka khata promoted modernist tendencies (most notably through the critical writings of Mykola Yevshan and the poetry of Hrytsko Chuprynka), although the journal's shift away from ‘estheticism’ and ‘pure art’ in the direction of ideological and political commitment is noticeable.
‘Symbolism’ acquired wide currency in Kyiv during 1918–19, when a loosely organized but coherent group of poets became associated with the name. Their identity was derived less from explicit self-definition than from opposition to the futurists and the older generation of realist writers. In their circle Pavlo Tychyna was the outstanding poet; others included Yakiv Savchenko, Oleksa Slisarenko, Dmytro Zahul, Volodymyr M. Yaroshenko, Volodymyr Kobyliansky, and Klym Polishchuk. In 1918 those writers created an ephemeral association, Bila Studiia, and collaborated on Literaturno-krytychnyi al’manakh. In May 1919 (with the participation of Mykhailo Zhuk, Pavlo Fylypovych, Halyna Zhurba, and others) they published Muzahet, which, however, officially declared itself a nonpartisan publication. As an organized literary coterie the poets remained elusive; their literary credo was poorly articulated, yet their collections and periodic publications gave them a distinctive presence in the literary world. Symbolist influence extended beyond that identifiable group, to touch such diverse writers as Maksym Rylsky and Hnat Mykhailychenko (his Blakytnyi roman [The Blue Novel, 1921]). The consolidation of Soviet power in Ukraine undermined the ideological and material foundations of the movement, and it quickly declined. Some poets, such as Slisarenko and Savchenko, became active later in futurist organizations. For all its limitations and vagaries, symbolism played an important revitalizing role in Ukrainian literature during the first two decades of the 20th century.
Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj
[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5 (1993).]