Born of a mother with a literary leaning and an aristocratic father, who gave up the military career for that of a painter, Maikov himself was a sculptor who lost his way in literature. He studied painting in his youth, and indeed his poems show a clear sense of line and color, but his best work is marked by a truly sculptural quality. He received a thorough classical education and in his early work he imitated the Greek and Roman masters. Generally speaking, he yields all too easily to the indirections of erudition and to the Protean pleasures of promiscuous translation. It is in the classical genre that he achieves a small excellence. His finest craftsmanship is shown in enamels and cameos, and in clay medallions, but he has neither the paganism of Gautier nor the sensitive sophistication of Régnier. Maikov's is a baptized Pan and a feigning Bacchus.
His later work was dominated by a nationalistic bias which opposed the chosen Russian people to "the rotten West." A typical æsthete, Maikov found himself in the conservative camp. For nearly half a century he served his monarch as a censor. The antinomy of east and west, of Christianity and paganism, viewed with a cold objectivity, superseded his interest in the antique world. This is the pivotal idea of his greatest narrative poem, the tragedy of "The Two Worlds."