Mikhail Lermontov (1814 – 1841) is considered to be among the greatest of the Russian poets, and a very important figure in Russian literature of the 19th century, as well as the Russian romanticist movement. His life-history is a case-study in tragedy: he was estranged from his father in early youth, with the latter possibly dying as a consequence, and in any event, occasioning tremendous guilt in his son; his life at university was brought to an abrupt end, and he joined the military; on the death of Pushkin, he famously wrote the poem “Death of a Poet“, all but accusing the establishment for causing Pushkin’s death in a duel. For this, he was exiled to the Caucasus, where he composed some of his best poetry, that brought him (temporary) fame and recognition. An unhappy time at St Petersburg and a doomed love affair were followed by a second exile to the Caucasus – and eventually, his death (like Pushkin) in a duel at the age of… twenty-seven.
I’ve found Lermontov’s poetry (quite apart from his famous novel, A Hero of Our Time, which is brilliant) fascinating and intriguing (notwithstanding having to struggle through some absolutely horrendous translations). In particular – and despite being placed firmly in the romantic tradition – Lermontov is a poet who defies classification and pigeonholing. It is the varied dissonance of his poetry, the clashing and conflicting themes and ideas, that interest me most – and it is these that I propose to examine over the next two posts.
A far sail shimmers, white and lonely,
Through the blue haze above the foam.
What does it seek in foreign harbours?
What has it left behind at home?
The billows romp, and the wind whistles.
The rigging swings, and the tall mast creaks.
Alas, it is not joy, he flees from,
Nor is it happiness he seeks.
Below, the seas like blue light flowing,
Above, the sun’s gold streams increase,
But it is storm the rebel asks for,
As though in storms were peace.
I start with this piece because I think it is representative, to a great degree, of Lermontov’s ethos, the ethos that is visible in most of his poetry. Like Byron, Lermontov seems to me to be an anti-romantic romanticist: he feels the powerful allure of the romantic creed, an allure he cannot resist, and it forms an integral part of his poetry; and yet, at the same time, he is aware, all too aware, of its limitations; and this, again like Byron, takes the form of a constant, ubiquitous and self-aware ironising, an ironising that is pungent, biting and at times, extremely bitter.
And The Sail is an example par excellence. The first eleven lines express some of the classic romantic themes: the ship as a metaphor, both for exile, and for an endless quest; detailed descriptions of the sea, that in this poem comes to embody nature, the nature that is yet unspoilt by the mechanistic age; a solitary endeavour (presumably because no-one else shares in it); and the neverending yearning of the romantic, a yearning to escape from the dull, quotidian and altogether inadequate world that he finds himself trapped in, into a place that will allow his soul to find utterance. The penultimate line approaches the apotheosis: “but it is storm the rebel asks for…” – yes, wearied of the tame world in which life is an illusion, the poet is longing for the storm, the chaos, that will allow him to truly live. And then Lermontov, in the last line, shatters with one wry observation all that he has painstakingly built up through eleven lines of sense, imagery and emotion: “As though in storms were peace.” To the reader expecting the high climax, this is a profoundly disorienting denouement. What is Lermontov trying to say here? Perhaps that the quest itself is hopelessly misguided; that the perennial flight from is fated to only ever remain that – a flight from, but a flight to nothing; that escapism, the raison d’etre of romanticism is impossible, because there is no destination to escape to; and that the dream-world, even as dream world, on its own terms, not only cannot transcend its own illusory essence, but must always remain painfully self-aware of the illusion. Complete deception is unachievable, and so comfort in that deception is a vain hope. But above all else, there is doubt, doubt about the one thing that romanticism considers beyond all doubt – the validity of its constructed world (think of how, in The Biographia Literaria, Coleridge focused so strongly and powerfully on the primacy of the imagination). And this, I think this is a rather acute diagnosis of the romantic condition, because it explains perfectly why, in the poetry of Shelley, Keats and Coleridge (I hesitate to include Byron), despite the relentless construction of dream-worlds, there is a near-constant, all-pervasive sense of melancholy, of incompleteness, of entrapment.
Lermontov addresses the construction of dream-worlds in a similar fashion. The First of January is a poem that touches upon a very familiar romantic theme: it is a lament for lost and irrecoverable love. After registering his disgust with the shallow throng that he now finds himself amidst (“motley crowd“, “foolish whisperings of speeches“, “false politeness“), and after traveling back in time and space to the site of his young love, with poignant and melancholic descriptions (“a quiet pool under a net of grass“, “the mists – above the lawns so endless…“), without any kind of warning, he gives us this:
I think about her, I weep and I do love, I love my sacred dreams’ creation…
Astonishingly affirming the unreality of something that defines the romantic ethos: the concept of romantic love itself. Lermontov returns immediately to the traditional romantic theme of contrasting the depth of his love with the pale mockery that he sees around him, ending the poem with a savage yearning to “cast in their eyes my iron verse/ steeped in bitterness and hatred!“, but those two lines have destabilised the reading of the poem. It is as if, just for a moment – yet knowingly, premeditatedly, very deliberately – the curtain has fallen from the romantic vision, and its inadequacy has been laid bare.
Nor does Lermontov believe in a love that exalts the being. In The Beggar, he finds an astonishing image to describe his unrequited love: a beggar who, in the throes of anguish, asks for a piece of bread – and is given, instead, as a cruel jest, a “cold stone”.
The romantics had an abiding faith in the power of poetry to change the world. Shelley famously claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world“. And Arthur O’Shaughnessy, in his famous “Ode“, writes:
And out of a fabulous story We fashion an empire's glory: One man with a dream, at pleasure, Shall go forth and conquer a crown; And three with a new song's measure Can trample an empire down.
Lermontov, however, is having absolutely none of that. In The Poet, he compares the influence of poetry to that of a dagger, once constructed and wielded to accomplish great deeds, but now fallen into disuse, rusted away, “harmless and inglorious“. And the poet?
In our tame age, ah poet, think how you
Have lost significance…
Exchanged for gold that power which hitherto
Both the poet and the dagger, Lermontov finishes with a brilliant bit of imagery, are “rusted by contempt.” And interestingly, in the 1960s, Bateson and the Movement would make much the same point in their battle against the Victorian and Georgian romantics. Lermontov anticipated them by a hundred and twenty-five years.
If Lermontov has little patience with the poets’ delusion of grandeur, he has even less time for sentiment. A number of his poems represent a quite Lucretian yearning for the absence of emotion. In The Clouds, for instance, comparing the southward-bound clouds to his own exile, he ends thus:
No! O’er those barren wastes heedlessly journeying,
Passion you know not or anguish or punishment;
Feeling you lack, you are free – free eternally,
You have no homeland, for you there’s no banishment.
Equating freedom with the inability to feel, to long, to yearn, to love, to suffer – well, there is an argument to be made for that, of course, and Lucretius and the Stoics have made it – but it is a strange one for a romantic to endorse. Moreover, there is a clear sense that this antipathy for the emotions (much like Byron) stems from the weariness of satiety. The prevailing sense is that emotions were indulged in to the hilt during misspent youth, and laid waste to such an extent that now there is nothing but exhaustion, emptiness and a desire to be rid of the whole business. So, Lermontov writes:
To love… Whom?.. If briefly, ’tis not worth the effort…
Vain longing, since love cannot last.
Look into your heart: joy and torment – all paltry, and there
Remains not a trace of the past.
The passions?.. Sweet ailment that reason will easily cure,
A cold word of logic arrest…
Could you have a more express denunciation of romanticism than in the last two lines, a more emphatic embrace of the Enlightenment, against which the former creed set itself up?