Mikhail Lermontov Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

Stikhotvoreninya 1840

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

Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh. 4 vols. (poetry, novels, prose, and drama) 1979-81

*This work includes the dramas Ispantsy, Menschen und Leidenschaften, Strannjichelovekj, and Dva brata.

B. M. Eikhenbaum (essay date 1924)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 essayoriginally published in Germany in 1924Eikhenbaum 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...

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Henry Lanz (essay date 1943)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Vladimir Nabokov (essay date 1945)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Janko Lavrin (essay date 1954)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Mersereau, Jr. (essay date 1962)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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William H. Hopkins (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Michael R. Katz (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Garrard (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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's Legacy

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...

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Nina Diakonova (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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.


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