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."