It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature. - Henry James
Michael Lermontov (1814 - 1841)
In Russian poetry there are two names which are usually spoken
one after the other: Pushkin and Lermontov. Only fifteen years
divide Pushkin, born in 1799, from Lermontov, born in 1814. Here, however,
fifteen years stood not so much for a difference in age as in epoch and
indicated a difference not in the fate of individuals but of generations.
Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov was born in Moscow
on the night of the 2/3 October, 1814, of a marriage between an
heiress of rich estates and a poor army officer. A family drama was
initiated over his very cradle, the results of which for the child were
to be long-lasting and unpleasant.His mother died when he was only
two years old, and the future poet was educated by a despotic grand-
mother. A strong personality herself, the grandmother adored the
child but detested his father and would allow him no part in the
upbringing of his own son. To this the father submitted as not to do
so would have been to deprive his son of his grandmother's inheritance.
The child became the plaything of grown-up passions and his earliest
days were darkened by family disputes. Sorrowful echoes of this
drama sound in Lermontov's poetry.
At the age of fourteen he entered a boarding
school for the sons of noble families attached to Moscow University
where two years later he became a student. In 1832, Lermontov left
the university and transferred to an officer's school, choosing to
enter military service as was usual for young men of his milieu.
The School of Ensigns of the Guard and Cavalry Cadets (such was
its official designation) was situated in Petersburg, and it was
in his years there that Lermontov began to move amongst the high
society of the imperial capital, that high society which he so abhorred
and which, in return, was to declare war on him, war to the
death. In 1834, at the age of twenty, Lermontov graduated from the
military school with the lowest officer's rank of cornet and was
seconded to a Hussar Regiment of the Imperial Guards.
Lermontov's first attempts at poetry date to 1828 and, by 1832,he was
already the author of two hundred lyric poems, ten long
poems and three plays. This was a genuine boiling over of creative
vigour and in its youthful seething and bubbling we can already
catch hints of the future power of his mature poetry.
From a very early age, Lermontov thought of himself as a poet
and could not imagine his future otherwise than in poetry. He even
imbued his stern and eminently practical grandmother with this
thought-such was the power of his conviction. His student's and
later his officer-cadet's and officer's uniforms were to him merely the
outward form of his connection with the official order; his inner
ties with society were formed in spite of university and regiment -
The officer's school and service in the Hussars did not estrange
the young poet from his vocation. These years gave him a rich store
of observation on which to draw, and much food for thought on
the mores of society. His creative horizons broadened and, without
abandoning poetry, he now turned also to prose and drama: stories
such as Vadim and Princess Ligovskaya and the dramatic masterpiece
Masquerade were written at this time.
In 1837, shattered by Pushkin's death, Lermontov wrote a poem on the
occasion, a poem which rang out like an answering shot not aimed
his action. The poem provoked an enthusiastic reaction amongst the
enlightened society of the time. It was copied and recopied, passed
from hand to hand, from mouth to mouth. The name of Lermontov
which up till this time had been known only in the narrow circle
of the poet's friends, became famous and men repeated it with hope
and gratitude in all corners of Russia. This reaction was profoundly
disturbing to Nicholas I; the flame which had just been trampled
out by the jack-boots of autocracy flared up again with burning
intensity. Lermontov, for composing "impermissible" verse, was
transferred from his Hussar Regiment in St. Petersburg to active
service in the Caucasus. This was the poet's first exile.
His exile to the Caucasus where he came to know the life of
the ordinary soldiers and of the mountain folk brought him sharply
up against reality. Having escaped the moribund atmosphere of
high society he perceived how tittle the life of the people had in
common with the conceptions of that life then current in the drawing-
rooms of St. Petersburg. He absorbed the poetry of this life and
felt himself at one with it. His work gained in humanity and this
has become, in our eyes, an inalienable part of his genius.
Valerik is a remarkable poem, but it is but one in a whole cycle
of magnificent works written by Lermontov over these years. He
completed and rewrote Mtsyri and The Demon, both begun almost
in boyhood, finished The Lay of the Merchant Kaiashnikov..., and
wrote a quantity of exquisite lyric verse which has passed into the
classic tradition of Russian literature.
All-pervading in Lermontov's poetry is the lyrical note which
is sounded, now sadly, now joyfully, now in anger, now with
tenderness, in all his works.