Lermontov’s Demon

Mikhail Lermontov: Major Poetical Works

translated with an introduction and commentary by Anatoly Liberman
University of Minnesota Press, 635 pp., $39.50

Narrative Poems by Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov

by Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, translated by Charles Johnston, introduction by Kyril FitzLyon
Random House, 144 pp., $5.95 (paper)

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…

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