Magazine article Russian Life

The Mystery of Lermontov

Magazine article Russian Life

The Mystery of Lermontov

Article excerpt

MIKHAIL LERMONTOV, born 200 years ago this fall, is perhaps Russia's most mysterious poet. After Pushkin's irony had seemingly destroyed the romantic worldview, this youth wrote, in his not yet independent child- hood verses, of a disappointment with this earthly world, as though he remembered his previous life--a life before Earth.

For any poet we can identify a key poem, a kind of calling card. For Lermontov, that poem is "Angel," written in 1831 (at 17), and the only early poem he published himself (in 1840):

   At midnight an angel was crossing the sky,
   And quietly he sang;
   The moon and the stars and the concourse of clouds
   Paid heed to his heavenly song.

   He sang of the bliss of the innocent souls
   In heavenly gardens above;
   Of almighty God he sang out, and his praise
   Was pure and sincere.

   He bore in his arms a young soul
   To our valley of sorrow and tears;
   The young soul remembered the heavenly song
   So vivid and yet without words.

   And long did it struggle on earth,
   With wondrous desire imbued;
   But none of the tedious songs of our earth
   Could rival celestial song.


It seems as though throughout our poet's short life (not even 27 years), his soul held onto the sounds of an angelic song--compared to it, all earthly songs are tedious, and earthly life is "such an empty and stupid joke."

His entire life, Lermontov tried to figure out his relationship with God: at times arguing with Him (which is why the character of the Demon is so important to him), at times thanking Him in bitter tones (as in "Gratitude"), at times repeating "a single wondrous prayer." After all, if God allows so much evil in the world, then He is either not omnipotent, or not benevolent--hence Lermontov's mutiny, his doubt, his lack of faith.

LERMONTOV FELT HIS UNIQUENESS AT AN EARLY AGE--AS EARLY AS 1832 (AT THE age of 18) he wrote a poem starting: "No, I'm not Byron, I am another chosen one, as yet unknown..." A chosen one--that was why he was always against the crowd, always alone, always a vagrant, a "wanderer, hunted by the world," whose near future portends a torturous death:

   At the place of execution--despised, but proud--
   I will end my life

   ("The day will come, and, condemned by the world ... ")

   I have foreseen my lot, my end:
   A bloody grave awaits me

   ("June 11, 1831")

   I knew: this head you love will go
   From your bosom to the gallows.

   ("Do not laugh at my prophetic longing ...")


In the last year of his life, Lermontov composed the mystical poem "Dream"--a complex construction of dreams-with in-dreams in which he sees his own dead body dreaming of a woman, who sees a vision of a "familiar corpse," the corpse of the poet who describes his dream and hers.

What, in Lermontov's mind, can stand up to this evil, paltry world? Not Christian universal forgiveness, not humility. No, only great evil is up to the task. And so we have Lermontov's demonic heroes: Arbenin, the protagonist of his best drama, Masquerade-, the Demon, a central theme in the poet's works; and Pechorin, the main character of his classic novel, Hero of Our Time.

FOR MOST READERS, PUSHKIN'S MASSIVE SHADOW HAS OBSCURED HIS PREDE- cessors, his contemporaries, and even those who came after him--includ- ing Lermontov. Nonetheless, throughout his life Lermontov argued with Pushkin in his work, often contradicting what his great predecessor said. Pushkin's "Prisoner" ends with the free bird (an eagle), crying out to the sky and the mountains, "Let us fly away!" Meanwhile, Lermontov's prisoner, hears only

   The echoed, measured paces,
   Of the wordless sentry walking
   In the silence of the night.


While God gives Pushkin's "Prophet" a gift and commands him to "speak, to bum the hearts of men," Lermontov's "Prophet" is persecuted, ridiculed, despised. …

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