In his native Russia, Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov is widely considered the greatest poet after Alexander Pushkin and Russia’s only true Romantic poet; he also distinguished himself as a playwright and novelist. “The Novice” is one of the finest examples of Romantic poetry in Russian literature. It encompasses a theme that Lermontov explored in lyric poems such as “The Sail” and “The Angel” and was to reexamine in “The Demon” and the novel Geroy nashego vremeni (1839; A Hero of Our Time, 1854): the displaced soul, misunderstood and rebellious in nature, which seeks the storm as if calm could be found in storms.
“The Novice” is the impassioned story of an imprisoned soul and its bid for freedom in the form of a lyric monologue. Lermontov found the subject matter for this narrative poem while visiting a monastery in the former Georgian capital Mtskheti on his way to exile in the Caucasus. One of the monks told him how he came to live there. The story provided the substance of “The Novice,” although Lermontov made a significant change in his source material. After the monk was recaptured, he lived on in the monastery in resignation, whereas Lermontov’s novice dies defiant, asserting his preference for an hour among his childhood haunts over the heaven and eternity espoused by the monks.
The poem thus embodied a spirited bid for freedom at a time when the very word “freedom” was banned in Russia. Contemporaries saw the poem as a political allegory commenting on the repressive regime of Czar Nicholas I. However, it is far more than this. It is a vision of the romantic ideal of the unity of nature and the human spirit. It is this aspect of the poem that gives it a timeless significance beyond the transitory realities of politics.
The imagery of the poem reinforces the contrast between the two opposing worlds: the cold, dark, narrow confines of the monastery and the bright, vivid, and sensually stimulating natural landscape that surrounds it. The novice identifies himself with the natural world in a number of striking and even extravagant images: the novice embracing his brother the storm that helps him escape, the novice catching lightning in his hand, a snake—hiding from human eyes—with which the novice feels a kinship, the strange whisperings that fill the air and seem to reveal to the novice...
(The entire section is 971 words.)