Mikhail Lermontov Biography

Biography

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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.

Early Life

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 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 journal Atheneum 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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2362 words.)