Maurice Baring.

An Outline of Russian Literature





It will be seen from these passages, all of which apply to Lermontov himself, even if they were not so intended, that he must have been a trying companion, friend, or acquaintance. He had, indeed, except for a few intimate friends, an impossible temperament; he was proud, overbearing, exasperated and exasperating, filled with a savage amour-propre; and he took a childish delight in annoying; he cultivated le plaisir aristocratique de d?plaire; he was envious of what was least enviable in his contemporaries. He could not bear not to make himself felt, and if he felt that he was unsuccessful in accomplishing this by pleasant means, he resorted to unpleasant means. And yet, at the same time, he was warm-hearted, thirsting for love and kindness, and capable of giving himself up to love if he chose.

During his period of training at the Cadet School, he led a wild life; and when he became an officer, he hankered after social and not after literary success. He did not achieve it immediately; at first he was not noticed, and when he was noticed he was not liked. His looks were unprepossessing, and one of his legs was shorter than the other. His physical strength was enormous he could bend a ramrod with his fingers. Noticed he was determined to be; and, as he himself says in one of his letters, observing that every one in society had some sort of pedestal wealth, lineage, position, or patronage he saw that if he, not pre-eminently possessing any of these, though he was, as a matter of fact, of a good Moscow family, could succeed in engaging the attention of one person, others would soon follow suit. This he set about to do by compromising a girl and then abandoning her: and he acquired the reputation of a Don Juan. Later, when he came back from the Caucasus, he was treated as a lion. All this does not throw a pleasant light on his character, more especially as he criticized in scathing tones the society in which he was anxious to play a part, and in which he subsequently enjoyed playing a part. But perhaps both attitudes of mind were sincere. He probably sincerely enjoyed society, and hankered after success in it; and equally sincerely despised society and himself for hankering after it.

As he grew older, his pride and the exasperating provocativeness of his conduct increased to such an extent that he seemed positively seeking for serious trouble, and for some one whose patience he could overtax, and on whom he could fasten a quarrel. And this was not slow to happen.

At the bottom of all this lay no doubt a deep-seated disgust with himself and with the world in general, and a complete indifference to life, resulting from large aspirations which could not find an outlet, and so recoiled upon himself. The epoch, the atmosphere and the society were the worst possible for his peculiar nature; and the only fruitful result of the friction between himself and the society and the established order of his time, was that he was sent to the Caucasus, which proved to be a source of inspiration for him, as it had been for Pushkin.

One is inclined to say, If only he had lived later or longer; yet it may be doubted whether, had he been born in a more favourable epoch, either earlier in the milder r?gime of Alexander I, or later, in the enthusiastic epoch of the reforms, he would have been a happier man and produced finer work.

The curious thing is that his work does not reveal an overwhelming pessimism like Leopardis, an accent of revolt like Mussets, or of combat like Byrons; but rather it testifies to a fundamental indifference to life, a concentrated pride. If it be true that you can roughly divide the Russian temperament into two types the type of the pure fool, such as Dostoyevskys Idiot, and a type of unconquerable pride, such as Lucifer then Lermontov is certainly a fine example of the second type. You feel that he will never submit or yield; but then he died young; and the Russian poets often changed, and not infrequently adopted a compromise which was the same thing as submission.

Lermontov was, like Pushkin, essentially a lyric poet, still more subjective, and profoundly self-centred. His attempts at the drama (imitations of Schiller and an attempt at the manner of Griboyedov) were failures. But, unlike Pushkin, he was a true romantic; and his work proves to us how essentially different a thing Russian romanticism is from French, German or English romanticism. He began with astonishing precocity to write verse when he was twelve. His earliest efforts were in French. He then began to imitate Pushkin. While at the Cadet School he wrote a series of cleverly written, more or less indecent, and more or less Byronic the Byron of Beppotales in verse, describing his love adventures, and episodes of garrison life. What brought him fame was his Ode on the Death of Pushkin, which, although unjustified by the actual facts he represents Pushkin as the victim of a bloodthirsty society strikes strong and bitter chords. Here, without any doubt, are thoughts that breathe and words that burn


And you, the proud and shameless progeny
Of fathers famous for their infamy,
You, who with servile heel have trampled down
The fragments of great names laid low by chance,
You, hungry crowd that swarms about the throne,
Butchers of freedom, and genius, and glory,
You hide behind the shelter of the law,
Before you, right and justice must be dumb!
But, parasites of vice, theres Gods assize;
There is an awful court of law that waits.
You cannot reach it with the sound of gold;
It knows your thoughts beforehand and your deeds;
And vainly you shall call the lying witness;
That shall not help you any more;
And not with all the filth of all your gore
Shall you wash out the poets righteous blood.

He struck this strong chord more than once, especially in his indictment of his own generation, called A Thought; and in a poem written on the transfer of Napoleons ashes to Paris, in which he pours scorn on the French for deserting Napoleon when he lived and then acclaiming his ashes.

But it is not in poems such as these that Lermontovs most characteristic qualities are to be found. Lermontov owed nothing to his contemporaries, little to his predecessors, and still less to foreign models. It is true that, as a school-boy, he wrote verses full of Byronic disillusion and satiety, but these were merely echoes of his reading. The gloom of spirit which he expressed later on was a permanent and innate feature of his own temperament. Later, the reading of Shelley spurred on his imagination to emulation, but not to imitation. He sought his own path from the beginning, and he remained in it with obdurate persistence. He remained obstinately himself, indifferent as a rule to outside events, currents of thought and feeling. And he clung to the themes which he chose in his youth. His mind to him a kingdom was, and he peopled it with images and fancies of his own devising. The path which he chose was a narrow one. It was a romantic path. He chose for the subject of the poem by which he is perhaps most widely known, The Demon, the love of a demon for a woman. The subject is as romantic as any chosen by Thomas Moore; but there is nothing now that appears rococo in Lermontovs work. The colours are as fresh to-day as when they were first laid on. The heroine is a Circassian woman, and the action of the poem is in the Caucasus.

The Demon portrayed is not the spirit that denies of Goethe, nor Byrons Lucifer, looking the Almighty in His face and telling him that His evil is not good; nor does he cherish

the study of revenge, immortal hate,

of Miltons Satan; but he is the lost angel of a ruined paradise, who is too proud to accept oblivion even were it offered to him. He dreams of finding in Tamara the joys of the paradise he has foregone. I am he, he says to her, whom no one loves, whom every human being curses. He declares that he has foresworn his proud thoughts, that he desires to be reconciled with Heaven, to love, to pray, to believe in good. And he pours out to her one of the most passionate love declarations ever written, in couplet after couplet of words that glow like jewels and tremble like the strings of a harp, Tamara yields to him, and forfeits her life; but her soul is borne to Heaven by the Angel of Light; she has redeemed her sin by death, and the Demon is left as before alone in a loveless, lampless universe. The poem is interspersed with descriptions of the Caucasus, which are as glowing and splendid as the impassioned utterance of the Demon. They put Pushkins descriptions in the shade. Lermontovs landscape-painting compared with Pushkins is like a picture of Turner compared with a Constable or a Bonnington.

Lermontov followed up his first draft of The Demon (originally planned in 1829, but not finished in its final form until 1841) with other romantic tales, the scene of which for the most part is laid in the Caucasus: such as Izmail Bey, Hadji-Abrek, Orsha the Boyarthe last not a Caucasian tale. These were nearly all of them sketches in which he tried the colours of his palette. But with Mtsyri, the Novice, in which he used some of the materials of the former tales, he produced a finished picture.

Mtsyri is the story of a Circassian orphan who is educated in a convent. The child grows up home-sick at heart, and one day his longing for freedom becomes ungovernable, and he escapes and roams about in the mountains. He loses his way in the forest and is brought back to the monastery after three days, dying from starvation, exertion, and exhaustion. Before he dies he pours out his confession, which takes up the greater part of the poem. He confesses how in the monastery he felt his own country and his own people forever calling, and how he felt he must seek his own people. He describes his wanderings: how he scrambles down the mountain-side and hears the song of a Georgian woman, and sees her as she walks down a narrow path with a pitcher on her head and draws water from the stream. At nightfall he sees the light of a dwelling-place twinkling like a falling star; but he dares not seek it. He loses his way in the forest, he encounters and kills a panther. In the morning, he finds a way out of the woods when the daylight comes; he lies in the grass exhausted under the blinding noon, of which Lermontov gives a gorgeous and detailed description


And on Gods world there lay the deep
And heavy spell of utter sleep,
Although the landrail called, and I
Could hear the trill of the dragonfly
Or else the lisping of the stream
Only a snake, with a yellow gleam
Like golden lettering inlaid
From hilt to tip upon a blade,
Was rustling, for the grass was dry,
And in the loose sand cautiously
It slid, and then began to spring
And roll itself into a ring,
Then, as though struck by sudden fear,
Made haste to dart and disappear.

Perishing of hunger and thirst, fever and delirium overtake him, and he fancies that he is lying at the bottom of a deep stream, where speckled fishes are playing in the crystal waters. One of them nestles close to him and sings to him with a silver voice a lullaby, unearthly, like the song of Ariel, and alluring like the call of the Erl Kings daughter. In this poem Lermontov reaches the high-water mark of his descriptive powers. Its pages glow with the splendour of the Caucasus.

To his two masterpieces, The Demon and Mtsyri, he was to add a third: The Song of the Tsar Ivan Vasilievich, the Oprichnik (bodyguardsman), and the Merchant Kalashnikov. The Oprichnik insults the Merchants wife, and the Merchant challenges him to fight with his fists, kills him, and is executed for it. This poem is written as a folk-story, in the style of the Byliny, and it in no way resembles a pastiche. It equals, if it does not surpass, Pushkins Boris Godunov as a realistic vision of the past; and as an epic tale, for simplicity, absolute appropriateness of tone, vividness, truth to nature and terseness, there is nothing in modern Russian literature to compare with it. Besides these larger poems, Lermontov wrote a quantity of short lyrics, many of which, such as The Sail, The Angel, The Prayer, every Russian child knows by heart.

When we come to consider the qualities of Lermontovs romantic work, and ask ourselves in what it differs from the romanticism of the West from that of Victor Hugo, Heine, Musset, Espronceda we find that in Lermontovs work, as in all Russian work, there is mingled with his lyrical, imaginative, and descriptive powers, a bed-rock of matter-of-fact common-sense, a root that is deeply embedded in reality, in the life of everyday. He never escapes into the intense inane of Shelley. Imaginative he is, but he is never lost in the dim twilight of Coleridge. Romantic he is, but one note of Heine takes us into a different world: for instance, Heines quite ordinary adventures in the Harz Mountains convey a spell and glamour that takes us over a borderland that Lermontov never crossed.

Nothing could be more splendid than Lermontovs descriptions; but they are, compared with those of Western poets, concrete, as sharp as views in a camera obscura. He never ate the roots of relish sweet, the honey wild and manna dew of the Belle Dame Sans Merci; he wrote of places where Kubla Khan might have wandered, of ancestral voices prophesying war, but one has only to quote that line to see that Lermontovs poetic world, compared with Coleridges, is solid fact beside intangible dream.

Compared even with Musset and Victor Hugo, how much nearer the earth Lermontov is than either of them! Victor Hugo dealt with just the same themes; but in Lermontov, the most splendid painter of mountains imaginable, you never hear

Le vent qui vient ? travers la montagne,

and you know that it will never drive the Russian poet to frenzy. On the other hand, you never get Victor Hugos extravagance and absurdities. Or take Musset; Musset dealt with romantic themes si quis alius; but when he deals with a subject like Don Juan, which of all subjects belonged to the age of Pushkin and Lermontov, he writes lines like these


Faible, et, comme le lierre, ayant besoin dautrui;
Et ne le cachant pas, et suspendant son ?me,
Comme un luth ?olien, aux l?vres de la nuit.

Here again we are confronted with a different kind of imagination. Or take a bit of sheer description


P?le comme lamour, et de pleurs arros?e,
La nuit aux pieds dargent descend dans la ros?e.

You never find the Russian poet impersonating nature like this, and creating from objects such as the yellow bees in the ivy bloom forms more real than living man. The objects themselves suffice. Lermontov sang of disappointed love over and over again, but never did he create a single image such as


Elle aurait aim?, si lorgueil
Pareil ? la lampe inutile
Quon allume pr?s dun cercueil,
Neut veill? sur son coeur st?rile.

In his descriptive work he is more like Byron; but Byron was far less romantic and far less imaginative than Lermontov, although he invented Byronism, and shattered the crumbling walls of the eighteenth century that surrounded the city of romance, and dallied with romantic themes in his youth. All his best work, the finest passages of Childe Harold, and the whole of Don Juan, were slices of his own life and observation, choses vues; he never created a single character that was not a reflection of himself; and he never entered into the city whose walls he had stormed, and where he had planted his flag.

This does not mean that Lermontov is inferior to the Western romantic poets. It simply means that the Russian poet is and one might add the Russian poets are different. And, indeed, it is this very difference, what he did with this peculiar realistic paste in his composition, that constitutes his unique excellence. So far from its being a vice, he made it into his especial virtue. Lermontov sometimes, in presenting a situation and writing a poem on a fact, presents that situation and that fact without exaggeration, emphasis, adornment, imagery, metaphor, or fancy of any kind, in the language of everyday life, and at the same time he achieves poetry. This was Wordsworths ideal, and he fulfilled it.

A case in point is his long poem on the Oprichnik, which has been mentioned; and some of the most striking examples of this unadorned and realistic writing are to be found in his lyrics. In the Testament, for example, where a wounded officer gives his last instructions to his friend who is going home on leave


I want to be alone with you,
A moment quite alone.
The minutes left to me are few,
They say Ill soon be gone.
And youll be going home on leave,
Then say but why? I do believe
Theres not a soul, wholl greatly care
To hear about me over there.


And yet if some one asks you there,
Let us suppose they do
Tell them a bullet hit me here,
The chest, and it went through.
And say I died and for the Tsar,
And say what fools the doctors are;
And that I shook you by the hand,
And thought about my native land.


My father and my mother, too!
They may be dead by now;
To tell the truth, it wouldnt do
To grieve them anyhow.
If one of them is living, say
Im bad at writing home, and they
Have sent us to the front, you see,
And that they neednt wait for me.


We had a neighbour, as you know,
And you remember I
And she How very long ago
It is we said good-bye!
She wont ask after me, nor care,
But tell her evrything, dont spare
Her empty heart; and let her cry;
To her it doesnt signify.

The language is the language of ordinary everyday conversation. Every word the officer says might have been said by him in ordinary life, and there is not a note that jars; the speech is the living speech of conversation without being slang: and the result is a poignant piece of poetry. Another perhaps still more beautiful and touching example is the cradle-song which a mother sings to a Cossack baby, in which again every word has the native savour and homeliness of a Cossack womans speech, and every feeling expressed is one that she would have felt. A third example is Borodino, an account of the famous battle told by a veteran, as a veteran would tell it. Lermontovs fishes never talk like big whales.

All Russian poets have this gift of reality of conception and simplicity of treatment in a greater or a lesser degree; perhaps none has it in such a supreme degree as Lermontov. The difference between Pushkins style and Lermontovs is that, when you read Pushkin, you think: How perfectly and how simply that is said! How in the world did he do it? You admire the magic hand of chance. In reading Lermontov at his simplest and best, you do not think about the style at all, you simply respond to what is said, and the style escapes notice in its absolute appropriateness. Thus, what Matthew Arnold said about Byron and Wordsworth is true about Lermontov there are moments when Nature takes the pen from his hand and writes for him.

In Lermontov there is nothing slovenly; but there is a great deal that is flat and sullen. But if one reviews the great amount of work he produced in his short life, one is struck, not by its variety, as in the case of Pushkin, it is, on the contrary, limited and monotonous in subject, but by his authentic lyrical inspiration, by the strength, the intensity, the concentration of his genius, the richness of his imagination, the wealth of his palette, his gorgeous colouring and the high level of his strong square musical verse. And perhaps more than by anything else, one is struck by the blend in his nature and his work which has just been discussed, of romantic imagination and stern reality, of soaring thought and earthly common-sense, as though we had before us the temperament of a Thackeray with the wings of a Shelley. Lermontov is certainly, whichever way you take him, one of the most astonishing figures, and certainly the greatest purely lyrical Erscheinung in Russian literature.

With the death of Lermontov in 1841, the springtide of national song that began in the reign of Alexander I comes to an end; for the only poet he left behind him did not survive him long. This was his contemporary Koltsov (1809-42), the greatest of Russian folk-poets. The son of a cattle-dealer, after a fitful and short-lived primary education at the district school of Voronezh, he adopted his fathers trade, and by a sheer accident a cultivated young man of Moscow came across him and his verses, and raised funds for their publication.

Koltsovs verse paints peasant life as it is, without any sentimentality or rhetoric; it is described from the inside, and not from the outside. This is the great difference between Koltsov and other popular poets who came later. Moreover, he caught and reproduced the true Volkston in his lyrics, so that they are indistinguishable in accent from real folk-poetry. Koltsov sings of the woods, and the rustling rye, of harvest time and sowing; the song of the love-sick girl reaping; the lonely grave; the vague dreams and desires of the peasants heart. His pictures have the dignity and truth of Jean Fran?ois Millet, and his lyrical cry is as authentic as that of Burns. His more literary poems are like Burns English poems compared with his work in the Scots. But he died the year after Lermontov, of consumption, and with his death the curtain was rung down on the first act of Russian literature. When it was next rung up, it was on the age of prose.





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