Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich
Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov 1814–1841
(Also transliterated as Yurevich, Yurievich, Yur'evich; also Lermontoff) Russian poet, novelist, and dramatist.
Lermontov wrote during an important transitional period in Russian literature when the novel began to eclipse poetry as the prevalent mode of literary expression. This movement is reflected in the development of his writings, in which he perfected then exhausted many poetic themes, styles, and forms before experimenting with the novel form. Despite the brevity of his life, Lermontov made extraordinary contributions to Russian letters. His prose works are considered among the finest in Russian literature, especially the innovative novel Geroi nashego vremeni (1840; A Hero of Our Time), which is regarded as the first Russian psychological novel and a forerunner of the novels of Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevski. Lermontov also distinguished himself as a writer of richly Romantic poems which have been appreciated by Russians for over a century, ranked second only to those of Alexander Pushkin. Most notable among these narrative poems are Mtsyri (1840; The Novice) and Demon (1856; The Demon). Strongly influenced by the romanticism of George Gordon, Lord Byron, Lermontov wrote lyrics, longer narrative poems, and verse dramas on themes ranging from personal freedom and frustrated idealism to revolt and the conflict between the poet and the mob. "The active heroic spirit of his poetry, its lyricism, the depth of thought, subtlety of psychological analysis, the simplicity, combined with a sublime perfection of form and, finally, the amazing melodiousness of his poetry and prose," remarked Irakli Andronikov, "all put Mikhail Lermontov among the world's greatest writers."
Born October 2, 1814, in Moscow, Lermontov was the son of a poor army officer of Scottish descent and a young woman from a wealthy Russian family. When his mother died in 1817, he was adopted by his maternal grandmother, who tried to alienate the boy from his father but provided an excellent secondary education and trips to the Caucasus region for her grandson's health. Admitted to the Moscow University in 1830, Lermontov distanced himself from other students and began to write poetry in imitation of Byron, and emulated Friedrich Schiller's style in the melodramatic plays Ispantsy and Menschen und Leidenschaften. In 1832 he entered the elite Guards Cadet Academy at St. Petersburg, where he wrote the scurrilous "Hussar Poems." In both his role as an officer in the Life Guard Hussars and in society circles, Lermontov cultivated
a gloomy, incurably Romantic pose in the manner of a Byronic hero. He became enraged when the narrative poem Khadzi Abrek was published without his permission in 1835, the same year he also completed his finest play, Maskarad (Masquerade). After Pushkin was killed in a duel in 1837, Lermontov wrote Na smert' Pushkina (The Death of Pushkin), an angry poem that implicated the government in the poet's death. The poem circulated in thousands of manuscript copies, and eventually government officials arrested and exiled him to the Caucasus. During this period he began the composition and endless revisions of the narrative poems The Demon and The Novice. Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1838 he found that The Death of Pushkin had made him a celebrity. After receiving a pardon and rejoining the Hussars, Lermontov further enhanced his reputation with the publication of his masterpiece, A Hero of Our Time, and Stikhotvoreninya (1840), the only collection of his poetry published in his lifetime. Exasperated by fame and bored by literary society, he engaged in a duel with Ernest de Barante, son of a French ambassador, and again was transferred to the Caucasus. Assigned to a front-line regiment, where his life would be at greatest risk, Lermontov instead was cited for bravery twice, but denied offical recognition by Tsar Nikolas I. He became increasingly irritated with his treatment by the authorities, but he eventually obtained a two-months' furlough at St. Petersburg in early 1841, hoping to retire soon and devote his life to literature. While on leave at the spas of Pyatigorsk the next summer, Lermontov provoked Nikolay Martynov, a former classmate at the Academy and retired major, to a duel on July 15, 1841. Martynov killed Lermontov with his first shot.
Lermontov wrote about three hundred lyrics and eighteen narrative poems of varying length, but only one book of poetry and a handful of individual poems were published during his lifetime. Many survive as folk songs in the popular culture of Russia. His early lyrics reflect his feelings of isolation and melancholy that arose from his divisive family situation. Much of his early poetry shows the influence of Pushkin, Schiller, and especially Byron, on whom he modeled his own brooding, rebellious poetic persona. Lermontov mastered Byron's confessional poetic technique, most notably in the lyrics "The Angel" (1831) and "The Confession" (1831), while many of his early narrative poems, particularly Izmail-Bey (1832), Khadzhi Abrek, and Bojarin Orsha (1836) are essentially imitations of Byron's youthful verse. In his later years Lermontov composed more reflective and philosophical lyrics and several longer narrative poems that represent the zenith of Russian Romanticism. The lyrical poems concern themes of freedom, solitude, the depravity of society, and the conflict between the poet and the crowd, yet not all of his later poems are accusatory or pessimistic—some express instead the poet's love of Caucasian folklore and natural beauty. Later narrative poems include Pesnya pro tsarya Ivan Vasilievicha, molodogo oprichnika i udalogo kuptsa Kalashnikova (1838; The Song of Tzar Ivan Vasiljevich, His Young Life-Guardsman, and the Valiant Merchant Kalashnikov), which is based on a traditional Russian folk-song and presents the story of the revenge of the merchant Kalashnikov who murders the tsar's bodyguard for dishonoring the merchant's wife, and Tambovshaya kaznacheysha (1838; The Tambov Treasurer's Wife), which relates the pursuit of a provincial lady by a dashing officer, who eventually wins his beloved at a card game. The Novice and The Demon, perhaps the finest of Lermontov's poems, are passionate statements of romantic eloquence. The former depicts the romantic ideal of the fusion of nature and the human ego in a Caucasian orphan who wanders from a Russian monastery, and The Demon, which Lermontov revised eight times, recounts the story of a fallen angel's love for a woman set in the Caucasian countryside. Incidentally, the word "demon" entered the Russian vocabulary via the poem's title.
Even though Lermontov is recognized as a writer of the first order, little has been published about him in English. For much of the twentieth century, critical debate in Russia centered on whether Lermontov moved from Romanticism to Realism or remained a Romantic throughout his life. John Mesereau, Jr., observed that Lermontov's "mature work reveals him as Janus-faced: his poetry and prose embody features typical of Russian romanticism, but they also establish patterns that were to become canonical for Russian realism." Comparative studies traditionally have likened him Pushkin and Byron for similarities in style, tone, and theme, but recent scholarship has found sources of and parallels to Lermontov's works in such disciplines as geography, theology, linguistics, and physiognomy. Although most of the details of Lermontov's life are well known, his poems usually lack a definitive text, particularly in the case of The Demon. Nonetheless, most critics have viewed Lermontov's poetry as the quintessence of Russian Romanticism, and in Russia Lermontov's work is considered classic. Even his juvenile "Hussar" poems have enjoyed something of a rehabilitation. Such poets as Aleksandr Blok and Boris Pasternak emulated his innovative use of language and meter. Pasternak called Lerm ontov "a passionate and personal" poet, commenting that "whereas Pushkin is realistic and exalted in poetic activity, Lermontov is its living personal testimony." In his assessment of Lermontov's life and writings John Garrard concluded: "Perhaps the metaphor of the comet best captures the impression he made upon his contemporaries and on later generations: brilliant but alarming, fleeting but unforgettable."
Khadzi Abrek 1835
Na smert'Pushkina ["The Death of Pushkin"] 1837
Pesnya pro tsarya Ivana Vasilievicha, molodogo oprichnika i udalogo kuptsa Kalashnikova [The Song of Tzar Ivan Vasiljevich, His Young Life-Guardsman, and the Valiant Merchant Kalashnikov] 1838
Tambovskaya kaznacheysha [The Tambov Treasurer's Wife] 1838
Skazka dlja detej [A Fairy Tale for Children] 1842
Demon [The Demon] 1856
Demon. Angelj. Rusalka. Pisnia pro Kalashnikova. Mtsyri. Borodino. Duma. 1874
Poems of Michael Lermontov 1917
The Demon, and Other Poems 1965
A Lermontov Reader 1965
Mikhail Lermontov: Major Poetical Works 1984
Other Major Works
Geroi nashego vremeni [A Hero of Our Time] (novel) 1840
Sochineniya. 2 vols. (poetry, prose, and drama) 1847
Vadim [Vadim] (novel) 1873
*Ionsekia drama M. O. Lermontova (drama) 1880
Maskarad [The Masquerade] (drama) 1891
Selected Works (poetry, novel, and drama) 1976
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SOURCE: An introduction to Lermontov: A Study in Literary Historical Evaluation, translated by Ray Parrott and Harry Weber, Ardis, 1981, pp. 9-20.
[In the following essay—originally published in Germany in 1924—Eikhenbaum analyzes Lermontov's poetry as an expression of his "historical individuality" rather than his "natural (psycho-physical) individuality."]
To date Lermontov's creative work rarely has been interpreted as a literary historical fact. The traditional history of literature has regarded him only as a "reflection" of social moods, as a "confession of a member of the intelligentsia of the 30s and 40s"; other studies possess the character of impressionistic interpretations of a religio-philosophical or psychological type. Despite his extraordinary popularity, the revival of literary science begun some fifteen years ago in Russia has barely touched Lermontov. Apparently, this is explained by the fact that Lermontov does not stand in the rank of poets whose artistic influence has been clearly felt by the new generation and which once more has attracted the attention of critics and researchers. In the make-up of the literary traditions which formed Russian Symbolism, the name of Lermontov cannot stand alongside the names of Tyutchev and Fet, despite individual poet's attraction to him (especially Blok's).
Lermontov proved useful during the period of fascination...
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SOURCE: "Demon-Prometheus," in Slavic Studies, edited by Alexander Kaun and Ernest J. Simmons, Cornell University Press, 1943, pp. 64-74.
[In the essay below, Lanz considers the similarities between the classical myth of Prometheus and The Demon, noting that "the Demon is the Russian Prometheus."]
It may seem strange to say that Lermontov, perhaps more than any other Russian poet or novelist, is entitled to a place in world literature. If we agree to understand under the term "world literature" an interrelated system of themes and dramatic situations that influence each other and are in the relation of parents and children with respect to one another; if we think of world literature as a great circle, every point of which is organically connected with every other point by the same central law of evolution—then the Russian contributions, Russian novels and dramas, however great in themselves, too often go off on a tangent. They do not belong to the great circle, even though they may take their origin in it.
But Lermontov does belong to the great circle. By temperament and underlying philosophy he belongs to the great undercurrent of European tradition—that tradition which is paradoxically concerned not with the glorification of the Good, but with the justification of the Evil. This tradition, which is so repugnant to the heart of the orthodox, and so incomprehensible to the...
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SOURCE: "The Lermontov Mirage," in Russian Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1945, pp. 31-9.
[In the following excerpt, Nabokov reviews Lermontov's contributions to Russian poetry.]
Michael Lermontov was born when Pushkin was a lad of fifteen and he died four years after Pushkin's death, that is, at the quite ridiculous age of twenty-seven. Like Pushkin he was killed in a duel, but his duel was not the inevitable sequel of a tangled tragedy as in Pushkin's case. It belonged rather to that trivial type which in the eighteen-thirties and forties so often turned hot friendship into cold murder—a phenomenon of temperature rather than of ethics.
You must imagine him as a sturdy, shortish, rather shabbylooking Russian army officer with a singularly pale and smooth forehead, queer velvety eyes that "seemed to absorb light instead of emitting it," and a jerky manner in his demeanor and speech. Following both a Byronic fashion and his own disposition, he took pleasure in offending people, but there can hardly be any doubt that the bully in him was the shell and not the core, and that in many cases his attitude was that of a morbidly self-conscious, tender-hearted, somewhat childish young man building himself a sentiment-proof defense. He spent the best years of his short life in the Caucasus, taking part in dangerous expeditions against mountain tribes that kept rebelling against imperial...
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SOURCE: "Lermontov," in Russian Writers, Their Lives and Literature, D. Van Nostrand Company, 1954, pp. 80-99.
[In the excerpt below, Lavrin discusses the literary influences in Lermontov's writings, providing an overview of his life and career.]
The romantic movement, for various reasons, affected Russia less many-sidedly than was the case with other European countries. The influence of Byronism itself was limited only to some of its aspects, and even those were partly conditioned by a regime under the pressure of which the few liberties still left seemed to be going from bad to worse. In Pushkin's day there was at least the atmosphere of the pléiade, the members of which firmly believed in literary culture and were able to stimulate one another. The growing vigilance of the Nicholas' police made fellowships on such a scale impossible even in matters of culture, let alone politics. As there was no outlet for any independent initiative and ambition of one's own, a number of gifted young men were bound to turn into "superfluous" Childe Harolds of the peculiar Russian brand, so conspicuous in the literature of that country. But the danger of maladjustment loomed large from another quarter also. There were signs that the patriarchal-feudal system, based on serfdom, would have to yield, before long, to the advent of a capitalist era, demanding an economic as well as psychological change which could...
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SOURCE: "Artistic Maturity: 1837-1841," in Mikhail Lermontov, Southern Illinois University Press, 1962, pp. 63-74.
[In the essay below, Mersereau treats the themes of Lermontov's mature verse.]
The choice of the year 1837 as the beginning of Lermontov's last period of creative activity has a certain logic, for that year brought about not only drastic developments in the poet's personal fate but was marked by his arrival at complete artistic maturity. Everything he wrote after that date bears the stamp of perfection, and it is upon these works that his reputation is almost exclusively founded.
In attempting to define the essence of Lermontov's mature art, scholars and commentators have come forth with a number of generalizations, most of which are true in some respects but far from sufficiently comprehensive. He has been called the poet of negation, doubt, despair, solitude, protest, and tendency, and, conversely, the poet of resignation, religiosity, and humility. The last three definitions could be substantiated by references to individual poems, but to posit them as true to the essence of his art is to ignore its dominant tenor and content.
The lyrical poems written after his first exile—there are less than seventy of them—are concerned with a number of themes, but the most recurrent are those of freedom, solitude, and the turpitude of society. These themes...
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SOURCE: "Lermontov's Hussar Poems," in Russian Literature Triquarterly, Vol. 14, Winter, 1976, pp. 36-47.
[In the following essay, Hopkins challenges a prevalent criticism of Lermontov's "Junker" or "Hussar" poems that dismisses them as juvenile "pornography," citing evidence that they may have influenced both the poet's literary reputation and subsequent writings.]
Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) entered the School of the Ensigns of the Guards and the Cavalry Cadets in 1832 and in 1834 received a commission in the Hussars of the Guards. During the two years in the school he wrote a number of poems containing a genital semantic function, his so-called "Junker" or "Hussar" poems. [In a footnote the critic adds: "The Hussar poems are described as being 'pornographic' The problem of definition of the term is complex and cannot be dealt with at length here. However, one attribute of the category 'pornography' seems to be sexual content. In a brilliant discussion of 'pornography' Morse Peckham has pointed out that it is impossible to create a tenable definition by discussing pornography as that which has sexual content, because in the post-Freudian era the term 'sex' has been subjected to semantic branching to the extent that anything can be interpreted as 'sexual.' See Morse Peckham, Art and Pornography (New York, 1969), 40-43. Nevertheless, reflection indicates that broadly speaking the attribute...
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SOURCE: "Lermontov's Literary Ballads," in his The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature, Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 166-82.
[In the following essay, Katz traces the thematic, stylistic, and linguistic sources of Lermontov's literary ballads, highlighting the poet's contributions to the genre.]
In 1838 Lermontov became acquainted with Zhukovsky in St. Petersburg and the two poets continued to meet until Lermontov's departure for the Caucasus in April 1841. Zhukovsky's influence on his poetry is evident from the very beginning of Lermontov's literary career, both in his experiments in the ballad genre and in his application of balladic techniques in his lyric poetry. As Pushkin had progressed from imitation to parody of Zhukovsky's ballads, so too did Lermontov. From 1830 Lermontov began to parody precisely those elements of Zhukovsky's style which he had previously imitated. But in his ballad cycle of 1832, and particularly in those works written between 1837 and 1841, Lermontov transformed the ballad genre into a form capable of expressing his own deeply personal inspiration.
Lermontov's earliest experiments with the literary ballad were based on German and English sources. Both his choice of models for imitation and the style of these experiments reflect the strong influence of Zhukovsky's ballads. The first of these works, Ballada ('Nad morem...
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SOURCE: "Lermontov and Posterity," in Mikhail Lermontov, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 145-50.
[In the essay below, Garrard summarizes Lermontov's literary legacy, his politics, and his contributions to Russian literature.]
Lermontov left a remarkable legacy for one who died so young. Scholars have traced echoes of his poetry in the works of later Russian poets, and such men as Alexander Blok and Boris Pasternak greatly admired him as a poet. He made his greatest impact on Russian literature as a prose writer, however. Gogol was perceptive when he told his friend Sergey Aksakov that Lermontov would be a greater novelist than a poet. Had Lermontov lived longer, that might easily have been the case.
Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov were all influenced by Lermontov's prose. Tolstoy's descriptions of the Caucasus, his battle scenes, his satire against high society, all go back to Lermontov. Dostoevsky developed Lermontov's antihero and his interest in metaphysical questions. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky carried the psychological novel initiated by Lermontov to perfection. For Chekhov Lermontov was the great stylist, the writer of perfect stories.
Vladimir Fisher argues that toward the end of his life Lermontov had worked out his own style, the "best in Russian literature." "In comparison," he says, "Pushkin is archaic, Turgenev...
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SOURCE: "Lermontov as a Poet," in Mikhail Lermontov, Major Poetical Works, University of Minneapolis Press, 1983, pp. 8-22.
[In the following essay, Lieberman studies Lermontov's poetics, demonstrating that the poet "became the first impressionist in the history of Russian letters."]
Lermontov was confronted with the most difficult poetic task—to overcome the Pushkin canon (Eikhenbaum). To be so dependent on Pushkin, so totally, so completely, so slavishly; and to shake off this dependence—this is where Lermontov's genius manifested itself
(Anna Akhmatova, as reported by Lidia Chukovskaya).
The enormous literature on Lermontov falls roughly into six groups.
In 1841 Lermontov's readers knew nothing at all about his life. Even several decades later, the political scandal associated with his name sealed many mouths. His letters were destroyed, and his friends kept their recollections to themselves. At the same time his enemies spoke often and readily. Thanks to the toil of scholars, we now know Lermontov's biography rather well (including a lot of details that he would rather not have divulged). However, Lermontov's last duel is partly wrapped in mystery, and the dates of his works often remain unclear. The life of no other Russian author has given such impetus to...
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SOURCE: "Byron and the Evolution of Lermontov's Poetry 1814-1841," in Renaissance and Modern Studies, Vol. 32, 1988, pp. 80-95.
[Below, Diakonova shows how Byronism affected Lermontov's artistic development.]
As an influence in the artistic development of Lermontov, Byron comes second only to Pushkin. This is a point that has been taken for granted by scholars both old (N. Storozhenko, V. Spasovich, A. Veselovskij, E. Djushen, M. Rozanov, S. Shuvalov, N. Dashkevich) and new (B. Ejkhenbaum, V. Zhirmunskij, L. Grosman, N. Brodskij, B. Tomashevskij, A. Fedorov, M. Nol'man, K. Chernyj). The latter have convincingly proved that the Russian poet's Byronism was part of the Byron-worship characteristic of Russian letters and culture in the days of reaction preceding and following the defeat of the Decembrists' attempt, in 1825, to break down the autocracy of the crown and liberalise its policy.
In the period before the beginning of a wider and more democratic opposition to the rulers of the Russian Empire, Byronism came to be the embodiment both of tragic disappointment with the prospects of immediate liberation and of heroic stoicism—of staunch refusal to submit to official ideology and to accept defeat as final.
It was precisely the blend of 'titanic despair' (Belinskij) with violent protest against oppression and active participation in the world's battles for freedom...
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Garrard, John. Mikhail Lermontov. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982, 173 p.
Appraises Lermontov's works in a biographical and cultural context.
Lavrin, Janko. Lermontov. London: Bowes & Bowes, 1959, 111 p.
Bio-critical study of Lermontov's writing career.
Bowra, Sir Maurice. "Lermontov." In Oxford Slavonic Papers, edited by S. Konovalov, pp. 1-20. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1952.
Thematic and stylistic study of Lermontov's poetry.
Freeborn, Richard. "A Hero of Our Time." The Rise of the Russian Novel, pp. 38-73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Discusses Lermontov's novel in the context of the genre's evolution in nineteenthcentury Russia.
Gascilo, Helena. "Lermontov's Debt to Lavater and Gall." Stovonic and East European Review 59, No. 4 (October 1981): 500-15.
Examines the influence of Lavater's theories about physiognomy and Gall's theories about phrenology on Lermontov's fiction.
Jones, Lawrence G. "Distinctive Features and Sound Tropes in Russian Verse." In...
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