Mikhail Lermontov: Major Poetical Works
Narrative Poems by Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov
Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841) came into the world at the same time as Byron’s Lara, whose brow could turn “almost to blackness in its demon hue.” His career was suitably Byronic—what the journalist in Howell’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham would have called “regulation thing.” A lonely and difficult childhood; parents at odds with each other; his mother’s death when he was two and a half. Moreover, a maternal grandmother, from the old and highly placed Stolypin family, took over and ensured that his father, the descendant of a Scottish soldier of fortune, should see the boy very seldom in the fourteen years of life that remained to him.
Lermontov, like so many of his generation, grew up in helpless captivity to Byron. The most trifling resemblance seemed to him proof of a shared destiny. His Scottish blood was immensely important: Byron’s mother had been a Gordon. But the Learmonths of Ercildoune provided Lermontov with an even better poetic lineage. One of them had fought with Duncan against Macbeth; another was Thomas the Rhymer, who kissed the Queen of Elfland under the Eildon Tree, according to the ballad. It seemed legitimate also to claim one more kinsman in the Duke of Lerma from Schiller’s Don Carlos; and for a while Lermontov signed his poems “Lerma.”
At fourteen he was already a poet. This activity he pursued with the intense commitment of other Romantics, while his outward life was wholly conventional for one of his class and time. From private tutors he went on for two years to a boarding school for young aristocrats; then for two more to the University of Moscow, suddenly throwing up his course to proceed from the School of Military Cadets to a commission at twenty in a fashionable hussar regiment. By that time he had already written, as Anatoly Liberman records, “some prose, about three hundred lyrics, three dramas, and eighteen narrative poems.”
Those who knew nothing of these would have found it hard to distinguish his life from that of other young cavalrymen—the messroom, masked balls in high society, love affairs, and some active service. But he had gone to the theater of war, the Caucasus, under a cloud. In 1837 Pushkin was killed in a duel. Lermontov saw him as the victim of court circles, which had been indiscreet in showing their pleasure in his removal. A ringing poem of anger and denunciation earned Lermontov the lasting hostility of Nicholas I. Three years later a duel of his own sent him back to the Caucasus, this time in a much less illustrious regiment. But the poem on Pushkin’s death had made him famous, and he was now lionized as Pushkin’s successor.
Turgenev (four years his junior) was able to study him at a masquerade on the last day of 1839. Lermontov sat on a low stool beside a reigning beauty; he was sullen and morose, with “something ominous and tragic in his appearance,” his eyes dark and disdainful. Turgenev was surprised to note that the consciously Byronic manner went with an inappropriate physique: he was “stocky, bowlegged, with a big head on round, broad shoulders.” In the spring of 1841, filled with foreboding, Lermontov went back to the Caucasus. A few months later he was killed in a meaningless duel. Not for him the redeeming glory of death at Missolonghi.
Anna Akhmatova puts very clearly the contradiction in Lermontov’s art. Sometimes the reader will find him “difficult to get at” because, being all too prone to graphomania, he wrote much lyric poetry that is imprecise both in its form and in what it says. The hundred-odd lyrics and four major narrative poems translated and commented on by Professor Liberman are no more than the peaks, of varying altitude, in a crowded, irregular landscape. “One thing,” Akhmatova remarks, “for no particular reason leads to another.” Liberman has noted how many poetic formulas and ready-made lines he will use, transferring them from poem to poem. Fluency, of course, was the occupational disease of most Romantic poets, as Byron knew well. He thought his own early verse tales, such as The Bride of Abydos and The Corsair, “strangely over-rated.”
Yet Lermontov is seldom the slack writer that Byron when not at his best often became. Much of his adolescent verse fails to rise above effusions in the manner of Byron or Pushkin, imitative though not wholly negligible. But Liberman can claim without exaggeration that “The Cup of Life,” written when Lermontov was between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, is “practically perfect,” and “The Mermaid,” written at eighteen, “one of Lermontov’s most mature poems.” In the last four years of his life after the poem on Pushkin’s death—perhaps because there was now a vacancy for him to fill—he did indeed produce, as Akhmatova concedes, “a whole string of master-pieces,” including that very accomplished and epoch-making prose novel, A Hero of Our Time.
Liberman, in his introduction, “Lermontov as a Poet,” quotes another remark of Akhmatova’s, which he supports by one from Roman Jakobson to the same effect. Lermontov’s task was to free himself from a dependence on Pushkin and in so doing, as Akhmatova puts it, to “manifest his own genius.” He had been born fifteen years later, and grew up encountering the full blaze of Pushkin’s maturity. How was a younger contemporary to assert himself in the neighborhood of a poet so exquisite, versatile, and open to every opportunity of the imagination as Pushkin? This presented a problem no less formidable than the assault of Byron.
The solution came from the fact that Lermontov’s was a new generation, whose perspectives could no longer be the same. Pasternak once wrote to his translator Eugene Kayden that whereas Pushkin had “erected the house of our spiritual life, the edifice of Russia’s historical awareness,” it was Lermontov who would become “its first tenant.” The world he looked out on was “changed, changed utterly” from that of Pushkin’s young manhood, before the Decembrist rising of 1825 and the grim political realities that were then revealed. Speaking directly to his own generation, Lermontov seemed, in a way that Pushkin with his optimism and joy in life could never seem, a modern poet.
And a modern in Russia he remained until well into this century. Tolstoy greatly admired his treatment of war as it really is, in the verse narrative Valerik (which Liberman has translated). When Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, and Army Tales appeared, Chernyshevsky in a famous review compared his psychological insight with Lermontov’s: the relationship is that of the very apt pupil who surpasses his one-time master (as, along with Sterne, Lermontov had been for Tolstoy). Dostoevsky, too, in Liberman’s words, “owed as much to Lermontov as did his great antagonist Tolstoy.” Andrey Sinyavsky remarks that Lermontov in his late verse tale The Demon has already entered upon Dostoevsky’s ground, as he explores human suffering and expiation. For Sinyavsky the protagonist of this poem is “typically Russian” in the inconstancy both of his pursuit of evil and of his repentance. The symbolist painter Vrubel was obsessed with the image of Lermontov’s Demon, returning to it again and again, and Blok stated that it had become, in Vrubel’s interpretation, a symbol of their time. A few years after this, Pasternak dedicated to Lermontov the collection of poems that brought him to the forefront of his own generation, My Sister Life.
It has been all too easy, from Belinsky in the 1840s until the present, to confuse Lermontov with the creatures of his imagination—the Demon, for instance, or Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time. Liberman protests that few studies have attended to the question “whether Lermontov was a great poet and whether his fame is deserved.” He lists the notable exceptions; his book is an excellent guide to the state of Lermontov scholarship. Too much of this in Russia, where Liberman himself was born and educated, has been concerned with the details of his life, and, overwhelmingly, with his ideological position, his significance for the radical movement and as a forerunner of the October revolution. Liberman’s very detailed and trenchant commentary, by giving first place to poetic technique, makes good such deficiencies. His notes have moments of excess: I doubt very much whether the reprinting of thirteen versions of “The Sail” by other hands—five further ones were providentially made unavailable by copyright—will do more for the reader than lower his spirits.
However, the emphasis of the commentary falls where it should. Liberman tends a little to overstress—and, in view of what he has escaped from, it is not surprising—the formalist idea of the arts as constituting “self-contained and self-governing systems.” If stretched too far, this can introduce a new determinism of its own in place of the social and ideological determinism which he rightly distrusts. All the same, it is profitable to examine Lermontov’s art along the lines suggested by Liberman when he states that Byron’s influence upon him amounted to a matter of “intonation,” which meant that Byron suggested to Lermontov an “entire poetic system.”
Byron’s strength and his weakness lay in declamation. His headmaster had foreseen a career for him as an orator; the prophecy was fulfilled with some success in the House of Lords, but patently more in Childe Harold. Later, in Beppo and Don Juan, the manner of address becomes informal, deliberately negligent; but he was always aware of an audience to which, even at his most sincere, he had to play up. Lermontov too can be a master of declamation: “The Poet’s Death,” his indignant response to the destruction of Pushkin, is one very effective example.
And you, so arrogant and
Whose fathers’ villainy has carried far and wide….
You, greedy, hungry pack, corrup- ters of the palace,
You, murderers of Freedom, Genius, Fame! The laws you write have made you bold and callous, Both truth and justice are for you a game!
But God will judge you all for every crime committed,
Yes, He will judge: He
But he could not have appealed so strongly to the Russian Symbolists at the beginning of this century if he had not also been a consciously musical poet. (His lyrics have attracted composers to a remarkable degree: Liberman totals more than thirty settings for “The Angel,” sixty-odd for “The Cliff,” more than eighty for “A Prayer,” and perhaps one hundred for “A Cossack Lullaby.”) Byron is musical only in a few brief lyrics, or in certain other passages where he has been strongly moved; Swinburne was not alone in questioning his ear.
Liberman endorses the distinction made by an earlier Russian critic between Pushkin’s style and Lermontov’s, in which the unit is “not the line of verse, and within the line not the word…but the movement of speech.” He explains that the effect of Lermontov’s verse should be called impressionistic.