In Western circles, the name Mikhail Lermontov might be associated with his one and only novel, A Hero of Our Time, a semi-autobiographical work whose main character was disillusioned, cynical, and extravagant. However, in Russia, his place of origin, he is also widely recognized for his great poetic output.
Born in October of 1814, the Moscow native Lermontov was forced to balance his life on a tightrope pulled taut between two clashing societies. His mother, a wealthy heiress, had disregarded her high status and married a poor soldier with little to his name. The resulting tension eventually separated father from child and was the cause of his mother’s early death.
As a boy, Lermontov grew up under the doting guardianship of his grandmother. He lacked nothing, and became skilled in many arts, languages, and musical instruments. His weak constitution inspired frequent trips to the Caucasus, where sunny climate promoted good health and nature was his inspiration.
Eventually, he attended Moscow University, and decided to pursue a career in writing. Time at university is considered by most to be a happy experience, but his isolated childhood had not promoted a lively social life, and he lacked friends, not simply due to lack of trying but also due to his caustic attitude and biting wit.
Without finishing school, Lermontov redirected his career and pursued the military. Although he endured military school in St. Petersburg, he was a brooding artist at heart and no soldier. It was the death of Alexander Pushkin which incited young Lermontov to compose the poem called, The Death of a Poet in the year 1837, and it was this poem that brought Lermontov great fame and infamy. His words spoke out strongly against high Russian society while addressing Pushkin’s death by duel. After being brought to the Czar’s attention, Czar Nicholas I issued Lermontov’s arrest and exile to the Caucasus.
Although exile was intended to be strong punishment, he was sent to reside in the land he had loved as a child, and here he studied the languages of the natives and continued to write beautiful poetry.
His first exile was not long-lasting, however, because his ever-adoring grandmother brought him back to St. Petersburg. In 1840, he was still rather taciturn and rude, and his harsh mannerisms among the social elite quickly landed him in a second exile to the Caucasus, but this time he was sent as a soldier to the frontlines fighting tribesmen.
Always teetering among society on his volatile tightrope, Lermontov was able to return from the second exile, but within a year he was fatally wounded in a duel against his fellow army officer, Nikolay Martynov. Lermontov was only twenty-six years old.
While his young life is honorably remembered internationally due largely to his novel and his elegy for Alexander Pushkin, it is important to pay tribute to the rest of his poems. He was influenced strongly by Lord Byron, and was praised by the playwright and author, Anton Chekhov. His language is lyrical and romantic as he explores love, philosophy, and the depths of humanity.
Below are two of his exceptional poems composed at the young age of seventeen:
What a pity that the Maker
Who created sea and shore
Did not let me be a breaker
Ever tossing with a roar.
I would come, a freeborn rebel,
To the sand behind the cliff;
I would fondle every pebble
But despise the timid skiff.
I would wildly hunt my quarry,
I would drown it and destroy,
But the sufferers I’d carry
On my liquid breast with joy;
I would laugh at pains infernal,
Paradise would leave me cool;
Streaming restlessness eternal
Would remain my only rule;
Then I would not seek oblivion
In a distant northern clime;
I would die, or I’d be living
Any place and any time.
No, I am not Byron, though I and he
Were both exposed to fame and danger;
‘Mid men a wanderer and stranger,
I have a Russian soul in me.
I started young, I’ll finish sooner,
In vain my mind for wisdom gropes;
My soul is like a shipwrecked schooner
That sank with all its broken hopes.
Who will, oh sea! your secrets fathom?
Who will you of your treasure rob?
And so my thoughts: alone I have them-
Myself and God, but not the mob.