LESSON 5 Romanticism: Mikhail Lermontov

Study Notes


Romanticism was a broadly-based cultural and intellectual movement which spread throughout Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is best understood as a reaction to Neoclassicism, the tendency that had dominated literature and art in the middle part of the eighteenth century. As in the past, Russian intellectual culture lagged behind western European culture. The first signs of Romanticism did not penetrate Russia until the first decade of the nineteenth century, and it became a prominent tendency in Russian literature only in the years from 1810 to 1840. Romanticism had so many facets and touched so many different areas of culture that it is not feasible to offer a uniform definition of this phenomenon. One can observe, however, that certain characteristic features tended to be associated with the Romantic outlook. Note that each of these features represents a reaction to the sensibilities of Neoclassicism:

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)

Romanticism in Russian literature is represented mainly by the efforts of writers and poets of the second rank. There are some Romantic aspects to the works of Pushkin and Gogol, but neither of these writers can be adequately characterized simply as "Romantics." The most famous Romantic writer of Russia was Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov, a poet and novelist. Lermontov was born in 1814 and orphaned at the age of three. A precocious child, his imagination was strongly stirred by the Romantic ideas coming into fashion in the 1820s. Lermontov's first verse shows the strong influence of his admiration for the poetry of Lord Byron. Lermontov served in the army and went through a phase of writing coarse and rather vulgar poems about military life; his fascination with the savage and exotic settings of the Caucasus Mountains is typically romantic. Romantic, too, is his understanding of the poet as one divorced from the lives and concerns of ordinary people.

Lermontov often portrays his poetic persona as a stranger in an unfamiliar, unpleasant land, longing for the better, wiser homeland of his birth. Lermontov's maturity as a poet and writer was short- lived. It began with his "On the Poet's Death," a poem he wrote in 1837 in response to the death of his poetic idol, Aleksandr Pushkin, in a duel. It ended with his own death in a duel in 1841.

Lermontov's literary remains include a solid volume of mature poetry and a celebrated novel, A Hero of Our Time. This final period in his career features a reworking of earlier themes and poems, the creation of several longer poetic compositions--notably the long narrative poem, "The Demon"--and a turn to artistic prose. A Hero of Our Time is from the same mold as Pushkin's Tales of Belkin and Gogol's Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka--that is, a series of stories by allegedly diverse hands. In this case, however, novelistic unity is achieved by the presence in each of the stories of the same central character, an army officer named Pechorin. Pechorin became the type of the Russian Romantic with his egoism, great ability, sensitivity, and sense of alienation from ordinary mortals.

There are no required readings for this lesson.

Supplemental Literary Text

Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time

Supplementary Reading

These study notes have provided only a brief summary of Romanticism. I advise you to read more about it, and about Lermontov, in: Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (especially the introductory chapters)
Moser, The Russian Short Story section on Lermontov
Terras, Handbook of Russian Literature "Romanticism" and "Lermontov"
Wellek, Concepts of Criticism "The Concept of Romanticism"
Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature, pp. 122-43; 155-165

For Further Thought

Optional and Personal

Based on what you have read about Lermontov and about Romanticism, what qualities in Lermontov's life and work seem to you to be in harmony with the spirit of Romanticism? As you read the material for this lesson, consider whether the beliefs of the Romantics are still commonly held by people today. What would you think of the claim that we still live in the Romantic period as far as the majority culture of the West is concerned?

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