LESSON 5 Romanticism: Mikhail Lermontov
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:
- Primitivism--a belief in the goodness and value of the unspoiled, created
state of individuals and groups; for example, children and savages tend
to be regarded as heroic and admirable in the Romantic world view. Also,
the artistic productions (folklore, folk art) of the "uncivilized"
population are esteemed.
- Nationality--a belief in the unique value of ethnic groups as formed
into nations or nation- states. In many cases, this belief includes the
idea that each nation has a particular and unique contribution to make to
world culture. This feature of Romanticism often manifested itself as a
sympathetic interest in the national past.
- Individualism--a belief that just as the nation is thought to be uniquely
valuable, so too is the individual person. Where Neoclassicism had tended
to celebrate the universal features of its characters, settings, and situations,
Romanticism emphasized the individual and the peculiar. One manifestation
of this preference was an interest in the weird, mysterious, and supernatural
(as we have seen in Pushkin's "Queen of Spades," for instance).
- Art and the Artist--a belief that the artist should be viewed as a very
special individual, a genius. While Neoclassicism had regarded art as a
craft and the artist as a craftsperson, Romanticism regarded the work of
art as a largely unexplainable phenomenon, the production of a person who
simply had a mysterious gift or talent for such work. Art was often regarded
as one of the highest stages of human culture and as a means of accessing
and expressing the sources of wisdom. Given the uniqueness of the artist,
it follows that each of the artist's productions will be unique. From this
stems the Romantic insistence on novelty and originality in art, in contrast
to the Neoclassical view that the measure of artistic excellence is to be
found in the conformation of particular works to known, (mainly ancient)
standards of artistic goodness.
For additional information on Romanticism in literature, consult the
Encyclopedia Britannica or have a look at Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the
Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Norton, 1958.
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
These study notes have provided only a brief summary of Romanticism. I advise
you to read more about it, and about Lermontov, in:
For Further Thought
- What is the image of Pechorin that emerges from A Hero of Our Time,
and how is this image established in the text?
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?
Have a question?
Students who are formally enrolled in Russian 3421 or Russian 5421 at the
University of Minnesota are invited to send questions to: