Mikhail Lermontov
Mikhail Lermontov; drawing by David Levine

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.

When in a field of grain the wheat and rye wave yellow,
And to a passing wind the tranquil woods respond,
When on a bending tree a purple plum turns mellow
And hides itself, of the protecting branches fond;

When bathed in dew and from its fragrance tender
At early golden dawn or late at sunset red,
Serene and silvery in every tendril,
A lily of the valley bows its head….

The “musical” tradition in Russian poetry had begun to show before Lermontov, and it comes to its most subtly evocative in the poetry of Blok.

Another Leningrad scholar now in the West, Efim Etkind, has revealed the consummate skill of Lermontov at contriving the interplay of genres. On the one hand Lermontov uses a high classical manner, following Pushkin (not that this style is invariable with him); on the other, he turns away from the customary “pseudometaphors,” such as “the torch has been extinguished,” “the garland withered,” in favor of a plain precision in the naming of things. Lermontov, so Etkind maintains, gave in his poetry “the formula of two romanticisms.” “The first represents a retreat from reality into a dream of reminiscences, the second a contest with hideous reality by means of art made into a weapon.” A poem of 1840 (no. 55 in Liberman’s selection, “How very often at a fashionable ball”) contrasts the two as “sacred sounds” and “iron verse.” This opposition between what is almost trance and a harsh disillusionment would appear later in Blok.

Lermontov is torn perpetually between longing for a transcendental music (with far-off memories of his mother singing) and the sense of a hostile world that holds no place for him. The novice in his narrative poem Mtsyri (the Georgian word for an anchorite) escapes from the monastery to enjoy a visionary experience of being at one with nature. Lermontov has expressed the same idea elsewhere, and it rings utterly true as Childe Harold’s declamation does not when he insists that “Lake Leman woos me with its crystal face.” Lermontov’s heroes long for a fullness of life to be realized in some other form, as bird, wave, or cloud, and to reconcile heaven and earth in some state between life and death. Yet nowhere, as Liberman points out, does he seek death as an end in itself. The master image for him, the Demon familiar to many Romantics, receives its final embodiment in the narrative tale of that name first drafted when he was fifteen and completed in his last years.

The Demon, cast out from heaven and wandering over the earth in desolation, is moved by the sight of a young Georgian princess, Tamara. Her bridegroom on his way to the wedding feast is fatally wounded in an ambush. The mysterious voice of the Demon is heard by Tamara promising to visit and console her. Deeply troubled, she leaves the world for a remote convent. But the Demon persists with the temptation; her good angel cannot protect her. In an impassioned exchange with Tamara the Demon confesses who he is:

But at your feet I am a slave.
I’ve brought my love for ages dormant,
My prayer, for you alone to hear,
My first, my piercing earthly torment,
My first, my scalding earthly tear.

He protests that this love will restore him to goodness and make her empress of the world:

Alas! He won the wretched maid.
His kiss, the poison of creation,
Deep through his victim’s bosom went;
Her shriek, by which the night was rent,
Was full of utter desperation,
Of pain and love, and desolation;
A last reproach, a bitter plea,
A shriek of final separation
From things that she would never see.

The angel is able to snatch her soul from the Demon, who once more is hurled down from heaven:

He lost the love for which he thirsted,
And, crushed but arrogant, he cursed it—
Cursed love, and men, and all the world.

The Demon would continue his flight through Russian literature as far as Blok’s Retribution, in which the poet’s own father appears under this guise. Verse this powerful could only come from a work of the strongest conviction.

To render this poetry into English abounds in difficulties, and Liberman is well aware of them. Like Sir Charles Johnston he has explained his procedure. Before emigrating, Liberman had already published verse translations from English and Icelandic poetry into Russian. Russian translators almost invariably use the canonical forms of verse with regular meter and rhyme scheme. The method has been immeasurably more successful than it usually is in English and American verse translation obeying the same rules. Liberman is very positive in his advocacy of it, and strict to preserve the rhyme scheme masculine and feminine. Johnston does the same, but a little more freely. With narrative poems it can work reasonably well, at least when the meter is manageable in English. Fortunately The Deserter, Valerik, Mtsyri, and, The Demon are all in four-foot iambics. Mtsyri has the advantage for the translator of being confined to masculine rhymes: feminine ones cannot easily shake off a suggestion of the jingle. These poems were modeled on similar verse tales by Byron such as The Giaour. The problem is that the prototypes are facile and of limited interest today. The translator must not allow Lermontov’s mature and carefully controlled poems to read like early Byron or Walter Scott. Such poems can be sustained by the impetus of their story and the translator’s own competence. For example, in Liberman’s translation of Mtsyri:

The vines were thick; I madly tore,
Until my hands and arms were sore,
But thorn and ivy made a fence
Across the forest dark and dense.
I saw it stretch and sway and rise:
A million of the blackest eyes
Among the boughs of every tree
Intently watched and followed me.
My head, I felt, began to swim.
I climbed a pine, but, black and grim,
The wood stretched like a massive wall;
It had no end, it covered all.
In vain a path in it I sought:
I fell, bewildered and distraught,
I fell to weep, to gnaw and bite
The breast of earth with all my might.
My tears gushed forth, like scalding dew….

But the lyric, a form more intensely and delicately organized, calls for a less obvious fidelity than Johnston’s or Liberman’s attention to outward form. Liberman censures a statement of mine that the translator of Tyutchev must aim “to preserve not the meter, but the movement of each poem: its flight, or track through the mind.” He objects to a definition I risked: “Translation is resurrection, but not of the body.” Here Pasternak, the most successful perhaps of all Russian translators, may be invoked. He considered the matching of the text to give “too weak a bond.” A translation should convey the force of the original. (It is the inner tensions, inseparable from the ordering of events, that really matter.) Pasternak wanted the translation to “stand on a level with the original and in itself be unrepeatable.” Two examples of a recasting that preserves the precious metal are Pushkin’s version of “The Twa Corbies” and Lermontov’s of “Über allen Gipfeln” by Goethe. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation Charles Tomlinson ably expounds the principle I have only sketched here.

Ideally it demands a poet-translator. Johnston and Liberman are something less that that, which does not imply that their versions lack conviction. Liberman’s Valerik—the account of a bloody skirmish in the Caucasus at which Lermontov was present and performed valiantly—maintains a lively pace. It is exciting to read; it conveys the terseness and objectivity of Lermontov. And yet there are weaknesses that undermine the translation:

He looks for someone really brave.
Who’ll meet him for a mortal fight?
His manly call is not a trifle!…
He’s wounded!…—Lightly!—Stop your hooting!

Here Liberman has added the third line, needing as he did a rhyme for “rifle.” The bizarre command “Stop your hooting!” is imposed for a similar reason, when “It’s nothing serious” comes closer to what the wounded Cossack has said. The search for rhymes, particularly feminine ones, will fatigue any translator. It can result in oddities like “The high-mettled stallion would whinny and bounce,” or in a distortion of idiom (though this is untypical) like “the vales of Georgia’s,” to rhyme with “gorges,” followed by the importation of “smoking forges”; or in so cluttered a couplet as

He stayed resentful, dry and bitter,
Impassive, arrogant and dark.

Johnston has the benefit of writing in his native language. (It should be acknowledged that Liberman has made himself very familiar with the vocabulary of Byron’s day and is scholarly in handling it.) For his translation of Pushkin’s diverting verse-tale Count Nulin Johnston says he has “deliberately used an idiom which includes reminiscences of P.G. Wodehouse (‘the housewife’s optic’) and of the bar-room talk in James Joyce’s Dubliners (‘strengthened by a tincture’).” His version of a similar tale by Lermontov, The Tambov Lady, in Pushkin’s Onegin meter and in a bantering tone like his, could hardly be bettered. When Johnston improvises, as in the following bracketed lines, he does so with verve and restraint:

There, after loading
pistols with ball, [this prototype
of calm] sat down—and lit a pipe.

Johnston observes that “light relief” is “refreshing to a translator.” This is not to be found in Mtsyri (which he entitled The Novice) or in The Demon. The ironic tone Johnston catches so well in Pushkin, notably in his translation of Onegin,* prevails only in a few passages of The Bronze Horseman, where his achievement, as he confesses, falls short. In Pushkin’s “little tragedy” Mozart and Salieri (almost insuperable for any translator) his verse is flat and prosaic. But wherever light verse is permissible, Johnston is in his element:

shall I inform you who he is?
Graf Nulin, coming in a whizz
from foreign countries, where with passion
he’s blued his rents on fun and fashion.
To Petropol he’s rushing now,
Like some strange beast, to make his bow,
with fracs and waistcoats in profusion,
hats, buckles, fans and a confusion
of corsets, pins, lorgnettes and smocking
and every kind of see-through stocking, with Guizot’s latest work—quite shocking—
a sheaf of sharp cartoons he’s got
and the new book by Walter Scott….

Liberman recognizes that his Lermontov will remain “a Russian poet on English soil” (his “English,” he writes, “is oriented toward the British norm”) and that the terms “foreign,” “artificial,” perhaps even “stylized” are not inappropriate to his renderings. He writes that he will be satisfied if his translation “has retained at least a part of Lermontov’s charm.” It is a modest claim, and a fair one. Take for example his version of the early lyric that he singles out for praise, “The Cup of Life”:


When we are born, a cup appears: It is the cup of being.
We wet its golden edge with tears And drink from it unseeing.


But when the great delusion fails And Father Death is calling,
When from our eyes—at last—the scales Once and for all are falling;


We note that someone else’s cup Distracted us and tempted;
All was a dream, the game is up—The cup of life is empty.

This has the movement, the exact weight and intonation of Lermontov’s poem.

This Issue

May 31, 1984