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Modern Russian Poetry/Mikhail Lermontov

Mikhail Lermontov

(1814-1841)

Whether or not the semi-legendary Thomas of Erceldoune, who received his poetic gift from the fairies, was Lermontov's ancestor, it is certain that the Russian poet traced his lineage back to George Learmont of Scotland, who settled in Russia in the seventeenth century. His grandchildren claimed that they were descended from that Learmont who fought with Malcolm against Macbeth.

Lermontov's immediate heredity was rather poor. His hysterical mother died in 1817, when he was three years old, and he grew up as the bone of contention between his father and his wealthy, overbearing grandmother. On her estate the spoiled darling received his early education, of the usual imported type. He was extraordinarily precocious in both love and literature. Between 1828 and 1832 he had written 300 lyrics, 15 long narrative poems and 3 dramas. He was little more than a boy when he graduated from a military college at St. Petersburg, having previously spent two years at the University of Moscow, and plunged into "a life of poetry, drowned in champagne." His technique as a heart-breaker was only excelled by his power as a poet, and that, in spite of a repellent exterior. Upon Pushkin's death Lermontov's obituary poem brought him rapid fame and exile to the Caucasus. This region was to the poets of Russia what Italy has been to those of England. The romantic glamor of the enchanted land suffused Lermontov's work. One of his flames called him a Prometheus chained to the rocks of the Caucasus, but he was more like a pendulum swinging between them and the beau monde of St. Petersburg. He indulged inordinately in the sadism of sarcasm, and was as well hated by the men as he was loved by the women. Spared by the bullets of the mountaineers, Lermontov was killed in a duel with an outraged colleague, only a year older at his death than was John Keats.

Yet this brilliant bully and egotistic rake was, after his own fashion, a knight of the Holy Grail and a poetic genius such as rarely graces any language.