Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov (1814-1841) was a Russian poet and prose writer. Fearless, impulsive, and passionate, he was the embodiment of Russian romanticism.
The contributions of Mikhail Lermontov to Russian literature are remarkable in view of his short life. Absorbing the romanticism of his European predecessors and contemporaries and, in his mature writing, disciplining it by realism and restrained language, he chastened early romantic impulses and language without losing the color and personal lyricism that first inspired his writings. Anton Chekhov said, "I know of no language better than that of Lermontov," and recommended it as a model for young writers.
Lermontov was born in Moscow Oct. 2/3, 1814. His mother died when he was 3, and his grandmother and father struggled for control of the child. The grandmother eventually won, but not before emotional scars were inflicted on the young boy. His health was poor, so his grandmother took him on several trips to the Caucasus, a region that left him with strong, affectionate impressions.
After an excellent secondary education, Lermontov entered the University of Moscow in 1830, where many schoolmates—among them Vissarion Belinsky, Aleksandr Herzen, Konstantin Aksakov, and Nicholas Stankevich— were destined to become, as he was, famous men of letters. Lermontov did not mix well with his fellow students and by nature stood aloof. In June 1832 he withdrew and entered the elite Guards School in St. Petersburg.
Early Period (to 1832)
By the summer of 1832 Lermontov had written more than 300 lyric poems, 3 plays, and some narrative poems, many unfinished. Romantic extravagances and themes about betrayed love, incest, and murder characterize the narrative poems, as in The Corsair (1828) and Two Odalisques (1830). Many early works show the marked influence of Lord Byron, although that of Friedrich von Schiller and Victor Hugo, among others, is also discernible. Dramas, such as The Spaniards and The Strange Man, usually have the theme of a sensitive youth and the tragic circumstances that ensue from that sensitivity. Many early poems are immature and extravagant, but some are remarkably good, for example, "The Angel" (1831), an anthology piece.
Middle Period (1832-1837)
Serving in the Hussars with light duties, Lermontov pursued the social pleasures of St. Petersburg, writing 4 narrative poems, 2 dramas (Masquerade and Two Brothers), and fewer than 30 lyrics. Of the narrative poems The Demon was most important. Lermontov worked on it from 1829 to 1841, with no fewer than eight revisions, five by 1834. The theme is a variation of the traditional "fallen angel."
During this period Lermontov first attempted prose fiction in Vadim and Princess Ligovskaya, probably because the genre was in the ascendant. Vadim, written between 1832 and 1834, has roots in the commonplaces of the Gothic tale and romantic themes. The story takes place against the background of Pugachev's rebellion of 1773-1774, and its theme is unrequited love. The most important prose effort, the unfinished social tale Princess Ligovskaya, provides an early sketch of Pechorin, the hero of A Hero of Our Times, although the style is at times florid and the narrative structure is faulty.
In 1837 Aleksandr Pushkin was killed in a duel, and Lermontov, who admired him tremendously, wrote a eulogy blaming those surrounding the throne. He was arrested, incarcerated, and then exiled for a year to military duty in the Caucasus.
Final Years (1837-1841)
Virtually everything Lermontov wrote during these years was of a high order. Whereas earlier poems reflected his immediate personal interest, these later poems (fewer than 70 lyrics) are about truth, freedom, honesty, and dignity. Many, filled with contempt and scorn for society, concern the conflict between the poet and the mob. He also completed five narrative poems and began two others, the best being The Fugitive, Mtsyri, and the final version of The Demon.
A Hero of Our Times (1840), the first Russian psychological novel and a great example of Russian prose, provoked a great deal of critical comment. The influential critic Vissarion Belinsky spoke in approving tones, but many critics considered it a distortion of reality. The work consists of five stories relating the adventures of Grigory Pechorin from various perspectives; the last three stories are narrated in the form of a journal. The setting is the Caucasus, and the themes are Pechorin's abduction of a native princess, an encounter with smugglers at the Black Sea port of Taman, a romantic rivalry between Pechorin and another officer for the affections of a Princess Mary, and an experiment by a friend of Pechorin's to prove the validity of predestination. The five parts are ordered to give progressively a closer and fuller view of Pechorin, but the order is psychological rather than chronological, with all the story elements subordinated to this psychological portrait. Pechorin suffers from boredom, lack of faith, and general spiritual desiccation. He is a vividly drawn character, a triumph of Russian literature.
During these years Lermontov was exiled to the Caucasus repeatedly by Czar Nicholas I, who was greatly displeased with his spirited irreverence. Lermontov was assigned to the front ranks, where his life would be in great danger. Lermontov obeyed orders cheerfully, distinguishing himself by his bravery. The Czar's design was not destined to be fulfilled; another fate awaited Lermontov. In Pyatigorsk, Lermontov provoked N. S. Martynov, a former fellow cadet and then a retired major, to a duel with his merciless satire of Martynov's affectations of Caucasian dress and manners. In the duel, fought on July 15, 1841, Martynov killed Lermontov with his first shot.
Further Reading on Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov
A balanced and intelligent review of Lermontov's work and some biographical information are in John Mersereau, Mikhail Lermontov (1962), and in the long introduction to Michael Lermontov, translated by C. E. L'Ami and Alexander Welikotny (1967). Recommended for general historical and literary background is Prince D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (2 vols., 1927), which is available in abridged form, in one volume, edited by Francis J. Whitfield (1958).
Additional Biography Sources
Kelly, Laurence, Lermontov: tragedy in the Caucasus, New York: G. Braziller, 1978, 1977.