Article abstract: Lermontov left an impressive legacy as a poet during the Russian Romantic period, writing both lyric and narrative verse of lasting significance. He was also a dramatist and a novelist whose major work, A Hero of Our Time, presaged the great realistic psychological novels of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski.
Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov’s father was a poor army officer, the descendant of a Scottish mercenary who had come to Russia in the early seventeenth century. He claimed relation to the twelfth century Scottish bard known as Thomas the Rhymer. A major success in his life was his marriage to seventeen-year-old Marya Arsenieva, the only daughter of the widowed Elizaveta Arsenieva, a member of the rich and powerful Stolypin family and the owner of a large estate, Tarkhany, in central Russia.
The death of Marya Lermontova in 1817, when the future poet was only three years of age, caused a one-sided power struggle for his custody between his grandmother and his father. Elizaveta Arsenieva desperately wanted to keep her young grandson in her household. She threatened to disinherit the child should he be removed from her and promised his disfavored father both money and the forgiveness of a previous debt if he would leave young Mikhail with her. Yury Lermontov therefore surrendered his son’s custody and had only sporadic or indirect contact with him thereafter.
Lermontov’s grandmother showered attention on the precocious boy. She hired foreign tutors, who taught him French and gave him the rudiments of Greek and Latin. He was given music lessons so that he was later able to compose tunes to accompany his own lyrics and was able to impress his contemporaries with his ability on the piano and on the violin. He was encouraged to draw and to paint, taking lessons from the artists A. S. Solonitsky and P. E. Zabolotsky, and his talent was so developed that his graphic oeuvre, consisting of more than four hundred oil paintings, aquarelles, sketches, and caricatures, is roundly praised by modern critics. It was Lermontov’s early love of poetry, however, that was most thoroughly indulged. Having read Vasily Zhukovsky’s translations of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s verse, he desired to learn English so that he could read Byron’s work in the original. Thus, when Lermontov was in his teens, a special tutor was engaged to impart this knowledge to him.
In addition to a remarkable home education, young Mikhail Lermontov received the benefit of three exciting journeys, made at ages three, five, and ten, to the Caucasus Mountains in the extreme south of Russia. The reasons for these journeys were both to avoid imminent visits at the Tarkhany estate by his father and to bolster his precarious health. Rheumatic fever and measles left him very frail, and he developed a stoop-shouldered posture and sickly pallor, which later caused him considerable ridicule from his schoolmates, who nicknamed him “the frog.”
The spectacular scenery and the unsubjugated tribes of the Caucasus Mountains made a lasting impression on Lermontov, an impression of adventure and romance in an exotic locale which found its way into many of his later works, both poetry and prose. He gained there an appreciation for freedom as an ideal apart from that of civilization, which he came to regard as corrupt.
In 1827, Arsenieva moved with Mikhail to Moscow. The next year, she enrolled him in an elite preparatory school attached to Moscow State University, the Nobles’ Pensionate, which employed a number of prominent university professors as faculty. There, Lermontov read and discussed the works of such contemporary Russian poets as Zhukovsky, Konstantin Batyushkov, and...
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especially Alexander Pushkin, whose work Lermontov zealously admired. During this period, Lermontov began his own literary activity, having one of his poems accepted for publication by the journalAtheneum in 1830. Thereafter, he wrote almost continually, entering into his notebooks epigrams, commentary, drafts of a drama, and a number of lyrics on nature, death, and love.
In 1830, Lermontov enrolled in Moscow University’s department of ethics and politics, from which he soon transferred to the department of literature. His classmates in the university included a constellation of later luminaries of Russian social and political dissidence: Vissarion Belinsky, the social literary critic; Aleksandr Herzen, the seminal socialist thinker and editor of radical émigré publications; Nikolai Stankevich, the social philosopher and organizer of radical salons; and Ivan Goncharov, the prominent novelist. Lermontov, however, held himself aloof from these future stars, regarding himself as superior not only to them but to the faculty as well. He took part in one major scandal, in which an unpopular professor was driven out of the classroom, and he quarreled with one of his examination committees severely enough that, in 1832, he left the university, intending to move to the capital and to enroll at St. Petersburg University. The paperwork required by such a transfer was more than Lermontov’s patience could endure, however, and he instead enlisted in the army—a move unpleasantly surprising to his grandmother, who used her influence to have him enrolled in the School of Ensigns of the Guards and Cavalry Cadets.
The literary production of Lermontov’s university years is highlighted by the remarkable poem “Angel,” which evokes the blissful prenatal memories of an earthbound soul. Prominent also is “Parus” (“The Sail”), in which Lermontov gives a symbolic portrait of a revolutionary. It is at this time too that Lermontov began his ten years of work on the romantic narrative poem “Demon,” which remained unpublished in his lifetime as the result of censorship. A fallen angel’s love for a mortal woman is related amid sparkling descriptions of Caucasian natural splendor. The university years also produced a cycle of poems connected with Lermontov’s unreturned love for a young woman.
In the army, Lermontov tried to find acceptance among his fellow cadets by posturing as a daredevil and a womanizer. The highly affected social life of St. Petersburg increased his cynicism and his bitterness at his intellectual estrangement from his compatriots. He did pen some ribald songs and some bawdy verse but for the most part turned his attention to drama and prose. The best of his five plays, Maskarad (1842; Masquerade, 1973), reflects, through his moody villain Arbenin, his disillusionment with St. Petersburg society. Influenced by the popular prose of Sir Walter Scott, he explored the genre of historical novel by beginning the unfinished Vadim (1832-1834; English translation, 1982), a contorted tale of unrequited love intertwined with the historical events of Russia’s Pugachov Rebellion of 1773-1774. This work signaled the beginnings of Lermontov’s work in prose, which continued through the unfinished society novel Knyaginya Ligovskaya (1836; Princess Ligovskaya, 1965) to the maturity of his masterpiece, Geroy nashego vremeni (1839; A Hero of Our Time, 1854). Before he was commissioned an officer in Czar Nicholas I’s Life Guard Hussars in 1834, Lermontov began a lifelong attachment to Varvara Lophukhina, the attractive daughter of family friends. Although Lermontov never married, his attachment to Lophukhina survived even her marriage to a man much her senior, of whom Lermontov disapproved. The relationship with her caused him considerable despair, which infused his verse thereafter with a note of brooding melancholy over the impossibility of love and happiness.
Lermontov’s poetic response to the death by duel of Pushkin in 1837 earned for him instant fame. His poem “Smert poeta” (“The Death of a Poet”) was circulated throughout the St. Petersburg literary salons. It blamed the capital society and its authorities for inciting Pushkin to the duel which caused his death. Largely as a result of this poem, Lermontov was arrested, tried, and sentenced to serve among the frontline troops fighting wild tribesmen in the Caucasus. The intercession of his grandmother and the publication of his patriotic poem about the victory over Napoleon I at Borodino softened the czar’s attitude, however, and he was allowed to return to the capital.
The years 1838-1841 found Lermontov at the height of his popularity. His verse frequently appeared in the leading literary journals. It was during this time that his poems “Kazachia kolybelnaia pesnia” (“Cossack Lullaby”) and “Vykhozhu odin ya na dorogu . . .” (“I Walk Out Alone onto the Road . . .”) were published, providing the lyrics to well-known Russian songs. His Byronesque narrative poem “Mtsyri” (“The Novice”) extolls the freedom experienced just before death by a native child pledged as a novice monk by his captors.
In 1840, A Hero of Our Time was published in book form. The protagonist, Pechorin, epitomizes the emotional isolation and intellectual frustration of his generation. Pechorin is the archetypical superfluous man later to be found in many Russian literary portrayals. His intellect tells him that he brings others only hardship and tragedy, but he lacks the moral certitude to change his ways. There is much autobiography in Lermontov’s depiction of Pechorin, and it is a depiction in which every succeeding generation has found relevance.
A duel with the son of the French ambassador, in which only Lermontov was lightly wounded, caused him to he reassigned by the czar to frontline duty in the Caucasus. Lermontov so distinguished himself in battle that he was recommended for citation. He wrote a poem about the Battle of Valerik. On a self-granted furlough to the spa city of Pyatigorsk, he tormented a former cadet schoolmate, Nikolai Martynov, who challenged him to a duel. Outside the city, at the foot of Mount Mashuk, the duel took place. Martynov shot first, killing Lermontov outright. Thus, before the age of twenty-seven, Lermontov had inherited both Pushkin’s literary fame and his personal fate.
Western evaluations of Mikhail Lermontov’s impact on world literature are often confined to discussing the influence of A Hero of Our Time on subsequent novels by Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Leo Tolstoy, and on the stories of Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, authors whose own influence is better established and more familiar. This discussion focuses on the addition of psychological examination, an inner dialogue of thought, to the realistic portrayal of the characters’ actions. Questions of good and evil are left unresolved, at least in surface interpretations, much as Lermontov left unresolved in the minds of his readers the question of whether his main protagonist, Pechorin, is to be positively or negatively regarded, that is, is he seriously, or only ironically, to be considered a hero of our time? In literature of the previous Romantic period, good characters and evil characters were clearly delineated. In this, Lermontov’s work is transitional and therefore important.
Russian evaluators of Lermontov’s significance invariably foreground his contributions as a poet. His verse is well woven into the fabric of Russian society. Mothers sing his lullaby to their children. Children sing the words of his patriotic “Borodino” to Modest Mussorgsky’s music in school. In a nation of poetry lovers, Lermontov’s popularity is unmatched by any poet except Pushkin. Subsequent poets, such as Boris Pasternak, have dedicated works to Lermontov as if he were still alive. The permanence of his poetic legacy stems from the musicality of his verse—the sound of which so pleases the ear that memorization is effortless—and its direct appeal to primary emotions, feelings of love, freedom, and patriotism.
In sum, Lermontov was a person with severe problems relating to others. Early bereft of his parents, spoiled by his guardian, failed in academic credentials, restricted and hampered by authorities, he died before he was truly mature. Yet his desire to find a soul mate, a confidant, became literary in method and, in the power and excellence of his still-developing talent, resulted in lasting achievement.
Eikhenbaum, Boris M. Lermontov. Translated by Ray Parrot and Harry Weber. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1981. A seminal study by the renowned Soviet scholar on Lermontov’s poetic method, focusing on the literary precedents of his figures of speech. Includes a multitude of citations of poetry from Lermontov’s Russian predecessors and contemporaries. A last chapter is included which examines Lermontov’s prose in the light of the development of Russian as a literary language.
Kelly, Laurence. Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus. New York: George Braziller, 1977. A biography of Lermontov which delves thoroughly into the influence on Lermontov’s work of his time spent in the Caucasus Mountains. Both the childhood trips and the adult military sojourns are well treated. Appendices include treatments of the relationship of Byron and Lermontov, an essay on Lermontov’s poetry, and “The Official Report on the Death of Lieutenant Lermontov.”
L’Ami, C. E., and Alexander Welikotny. Michael Lermontov: Biography and Translation. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 1967. An older-style biography, replete with the reminiscences of Lermontov’s contemporaries as to his character. A general outline of Russian history forms a significant part of this treatment. The second part of the book contains more than one hundred of Lermontov’s poems in rhymed English translation as well as a small sample of prose.
Lavrin, Janko. Lermontov. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1959. The first widely available biographical treatment of Lermontov in English, introducing the reader not only to the personage of Lermontov but also to Russian history and Russian society of the early nineteenth century. Lermontov is seen as a key link in the historical development of Russian literature between the imitative eighteenth century and the world-leading literature of Russia’s nineteenth century. Alexander Pushkin’s influence is thoroughly treated.
Lermontov, Mikhail. Major Poetical Works. Translated with a biographical sketch, commentary, and an introduction by Anatoly Liberman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. A thorough detailing of Lermontov’s life which takes good advantage of the previous works together with translations of more than one hundred of Lermontov’s poems, not all of which have appeared in English previously. The translations have won much professional praise for their surprising poeticality which does not compromise accuracy. The text includes more than fifty illustrations and is wonderfully annotated and indexed.
Mersereau, John, Jr. Mikhail Lermontov. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. A very concise biography which manages to include much valuable detail. The focus is distinctly on Lermontov’s development of a prose style, with more than half of the book devoted to an examination of A Hero of Our Time.