The reason why Púshkin has not become a favourite with West European readers is easily understood. His lyric verse is certainly inimitable: it is that of a great poet. His chief novel in verse, Evghéniy Onyéghin, is written with an easiness and a lightness of style, and a picturesqueness of detail, which makes it stand unique in European literature. His renderings in verses of Russian popular tales are delightful reading. But, apart from his very latest productions in the dramatic style, there is in whatever Púshkin wrote none of the depth and elevation of ideas which characterised Goethe and Schiller, Shelley, Byron, and Browning, Victor Hugo and Barbier. The beauty of form, the happy ways of expression, the incomparable command of verse and rhyme, are his main points -- not the beauty of his ideas. And what we look for in poetry is always the higher inspiration, the noble ideas which can help to make us better. In reading Púshkin's verses the Russian reader is continually brought to exclaim: "How beautifully this has been told! It could not, it ought not, to be told in a different way." In this beauty of form Púshkin is inferior to none of the greatest poets. In his ways of expressing even the most insignificant remarks and describing the most insignificant details of everyday life; in the variety of human feeling that he has expressed, and the delicate expression of love under a variety of aspects which is contained in his poetry; and finally, in the way he deeply impressed his own personality upon everything he wrote -- he is certainly a great poet.
It is extremely interesting to compare Púshkin with Schiller, in their lyrics. Leaving aside the greatness and the variety of subjects touched upon by Schiller, and comparing only those pieces of poetry in which both poets speak of themselves, one feels at once that Schiller's personality is infinitely superior, in depth of thought and philosophical comprehension of life, to that of the bright, somewhat spoiled and rather superficial child that Púshkin was. But, at the same time, the individuality of Púshkin is more deeply impressed upon his writings than that of Schiller upon his. Púshkin was full of vital intensity, and his own self is reflected in everything he wrote; a human heart, full of fire, is throbbing intensely in all his verses. This heart is far less sympathetic than that of Schiller, but it is more intimately revealed to the reader. In his best lyrics Schiller did not find either a better expression of feeling, or a greater variety of expression, that Púshkin did. In that respect the Russian poet decidedly stands by the side of Goethe.
Púshkin was born in an aristocratic family at Moscow. Through his mother he had African blood in his veins: she was a beautiful creole, the granddaughter of a negro who had been in the service of Peter I. His father was a typical representative of the noblemen of those times: squandering a large fortune, living all his life anyhow and anyway, amidst feasts, in a house half-furnished and half-empty; fond of the lighter French literature of the time, fond of entering into a discussion upon anything that he had just learned from the encyclopædists, and bringing together at his house all possible notabilities of literature, Russian and French, who happened to be at Moscow.
Púshkin's grandmother and his old nurse were the future poet's best friends in his childhood. From them he got his perfect mastership of the Russian language; and from his nurse, with whom he used to spend, later on, the long winter nights at his country house, when he was ordered by the State police to reside on his country estate, he borrowed that admirable knowledge of Russian folk-lore and Russian ways of expression which rendered his poetry and prose so wonderfully Russian. To these two women we thus owe the creation of the modern, easy, pliable Russian language which Púshkin introduced into our literature.
He was educated at St Petersburg, at the Tsárskoe Seló Lyceum, and even before he left school he became renowned as a most extraordinary poet, in whom Derzhávin recognised more than a mere successor, and whom Zhukóvsky presented was his portrait bearing the following inscription: "To a pupil, from his defeated teacher." Unfortunately, Púshkin's passionate nature drew him away from both the literary circles and the circles of his best friends -- the Decembrists Púshkin and Küchelbecker -- into the circles of the lazy, insignificant aristocrats, amongst whom he spent his vital energy in orgies. Something of the shallow, empty sort of life he lived then he has himself described in Evghéniy Onyéghin.
Being friendly with the political youth who appeared six or seven years later, on the square of Peter I at St Petersburg, as insurgents against autocracy and serfdom, Púshkin wrote an Ode to Liberty, and numbers of small pieces of poetry expressing the most revolutionary ideas, as well as satires against the rulers of the time. The result was that in 1820, when he was only twenty years old, he was exiled to Kishinyóff, a very small town at the time, in newly annexed Bessarabia, where he led the most extravagant life, eventually joining a party of wandering gypsies. Happily enough he was permitted to leave for some time this dusty and uninteresting little spot, and to make, in company with the charming and educated family of the Rayévskys, a journey to the Crimea and the Caucasus, from which journey brought back some of his finest lyrical works.
In 1824, when he had rendered himself quite impossible at Odessa (perhaps also from fear that he might escape to Greece, to join Byron), he was ordered to return to Central Russia and to reside at his small estate, Mikháilovskoye, in the province of Pskov, where he wrote his best things. On December 14, 1825, when the insurrection broke out at St Petersburg, Púshkin was at Mikháilovskoye; otherwise, like so many of his Decembrist friends, he would most certainly have ended his life in Siberia. He succeeded in burning all his papers before they could be seized by the secret police.
Shortly after that he was allowed to return to St Petersburg: Nicholas I undertaking to be himself the censor of his verses, and later on making Púshkin a chamberlain of his Court. Poor Púshkin had thus to live the futile life of a small functionary of the Winter Palace, and this life he certainly hated. The Court nobility and bureaucracy could never pardon him that he, who did not belong to their circle, was considered such a great man in Russia, and Púshkin's life was full of little stings to his self-respect, coming from these classes. He had also the misfortune to marry a lady who was very beautiful but did not in the least appreciate his genius. In 1837 he had to fight on her account a duel, in which he was killed, at the age of thirty-five.
One of his earliest productions, written almost immediately after he left school, was Ruslán and Ludmíla, a fairy tale, which he put in beautiful verse. The dominating element of this poem is that wonderland where "a green oak stands on the sea-beach, and a learned cat goes round the oak, -- to which it is attached by a golden chain, -- singing songs when it goes to the left, and telling tales when it goes to the right." It is the wedding day of Ludmila, the heroine; the long bridal feast comes at last to an end, and she retires with her husband; when all of a sudden comes darkness, thunder resounds, and in the storm Ludmíla disappears. She has been carried away by the terrible sorcerer from the Black Sea -- a folk-lore allusion, of course, to the frequent raids of the nomads of Southern Russia. Now, the unhappy husband, as also three other young men, who were formerly suitors of Ludmíla, saddle their horses and go in search of the vanished bride. From their experiences the tale is made up, and it is full of both touching passages and very humorous episodes. After many adventures, Ruslán recovers his Ludmíla, and everything ends to the general satisfaction, as folk-tales always do. 1
This was a most youthful production of Púshkin, but its effect in Russia was tremendous. Classicism, ie the pseudoclassicism which reigned then, was defeated for ever. Everyone wanted to have the poem, everyone retained in memory of whole passages and even pages from it, and with this tale the modern Russian literature -- simple, realistic in its descriptions, modest in its images and fable, earnest and slightly humouristic -- was created. In fact, one could not imagine a greater simplicity in verse than that which Púshkin had already obtained in this poem. But to give an idea of this simplicity to English readers remains absolutely impossible so long as the poem is not translated by some very gifted English poet. Suffice it to say that, while its verses are wonderfully musical, it contains not one single passage in which the author has resorted to unusual or obsolete words -- to any words, indeed, but those which everyone uses in common conversation.
Thunders came upon Púshkin from the classical camp when this poem made its appearance. We have only to think of the Daphnes and the Chloes with which poetry used to be embellished at that time, and the sacerdotal attitude which the poet took towards his readers, to understand how the classical school was offended at the appearance of a poet who expressed his thoughts in beautiful images, without resorting to any of these embellishments, who spoke the language which everyone speaks, and related adventures fit for the nursery. With one cut of his sword Púshkin had freed literature from the ties which were keeping it enslaved.
The tales which he had heard from his old nurse gave him the matter, not only for Ruslán and Ludmíla, but also for a series of popular tales, of which the verses are so natural that as soon as you have pronounced one word that word calls up immediately the next, and this the following, because you cannot say the thing otherwise than in the way in which Púshkin has told it. "Is it not exactly so that tales should be told?" was asked all over Russia; and, the reply being in the affirmative, the fight against pseudo-classicism was won forever.
This simplicity of expression characterised Púshkin in everything he afterwards wrote. He did not depart from it, even when he wrote about so-called elevated subjects, nor in the passionate of philosophical monologues of his latest dramas. It is what makes Púshkin so difficult to translate into English; because, in the English literature of the nineteenth century, Wordsworth is the only poet who has written with the same simplicity. But, while Wordsworth applied this simplicity mainly to the description of the lovely and quiet English landscape, Púshkin spoke with the same simplicity of human life, and his verses continued to flow, as easy as prose and as free from artificial expressions, even when he described the most violent human passions. In his contempt of everything exaggerated and theatrical, and in his determination to have nothing to do with "the lurid tragic actor who wields a cardboard sword," he was thoroughly Russian: and at the same time he powerfully contributed towards establishing, in both the written literature and on the stage, that taste for simplicity and honest expression of feeling of which so many examples will be given in the course of this book.
The main force of Púshkin was in his lyrical poetry, and the chief note of his lyrics was love. The terrible contradictions between the ideal and the real, from which deeper minds, like those of Goethe, or Byron, or Heine, have suffered, were strange to him. Púshkin was of a more superficial nature. It must also be said that a West-European poet has an inheritance which the Russian has not. Every country of Western Europe has passed through periods of great national struggle, during which the great questions of human development were at stake. Great political conflicts have produced deep passions and resulted in tragical situations; but in Russia the great struggles and the religious movements which took place in the seventeenth century, and under Pugatchóff in the eighteenth, were uprisings of peasants, in which the educated classes took no part. The intellectual horizon of a Russian poet is thus necessarily limited. There is, however, something in human nature which always lives and appeals to every mind. This is love, and Púshkin, in his lyric poetry, represented love under so many aspects, in such beautiful forms, and with such a variety of shades, as one finds in no other poet. Besides, he often gave to love an expression so refined, so high, that his higher comprehension of love left as deep a stamp upon subsequent Russian literature as Goethe's refined types of women left in the world's literature. After Púshkin had written, it was impossible for Russian poets to speak of love in a lower sense than he did.
In Russia Púshkin has sometimes been described as a Russian Byron. This appreciation, however, is hardly correct. He certainly imitated Byron in some of his poems, although the imitation became, at least in Evghéniy Onyéghin, a brilliant original creation. He certainly was deeply impressed by Byron's spirited protest against the conventional life of European society, and there was a time when, if he only could have left Russia, he probably would have joined Byron in Greece.
But, with his light character, Púshkin could not fathom and still less share, the depth of hatred and contempt towards post-revolutionary Europe which consumed Byron's heart. Púshkin's "Byronism" was superficial; and, while he was ready to defy "respectable" society, he knew neither the longings for freedom nor the hatred of hypocrisy which inspired Byron.
Altogether, Púshkin's force was not in his elevating or freedom-inspiring influence. His epicureanism, his education received from French emigrés, and his life amidst the high and frivolous classes of St Petersburg society, prevented him from taking to heart the great problems which were already ripening in Russian life. This is why, towards the end of his short life, he was no longer in touch with those of his readers who felt that to glorify the military power of Russia, after the armies of Nicholas I had crushed Poland, was not worthy of a poet; and that to describe the attractions of a St Petersburg winter-season for a rich and idle gentleman was not to describe Russian life, in which the horrors of serfdom and absolutism were being felt more and more heavily.
Púshkin's real force was in his having created in a few years the Russian literary language, and having freed literature from the theatrical, pompous style which was formerly considered necessary in whatever was printed in black and white. He was great in his stupendous powers of poetical creation: in his capacity of taking the commonest things of everyday life, or the commonest feelings of the most ordinary person, and of so relating them that the reader lived them through; and, on the other side, constructing out of the scantiest materials, and calling to life, a whole historical epoch -- a power of creation which, of those coming after him, only Tolstóy has to the same extent. Púshkin's power was next in his profound realism -- that realism, understood in its best sense, which he was the first to introduce in Russia, and which, we shall see, became afterwards characteristic of the whole of Russian literature. And it is in the broadly humanitarian feelings with which his best writings are permeated, in his bright love of life, and his respect for women. As to beauty of form, his verses are so "easy" that one knows them by heart after having read them twice or thrice. Now that they have penetrated into the villages, they are the delight of millions of peasant children, after having been the delight of such refined and philosophical poets as Turguéneff.
Púshkin also tried his hand at the drama; and so far as may be judged from his latest productions, Don Juan and The Miser-Knight, he surely would have achieved great results had he lived to continue them. His Mermaid (Rusálka) unfortunately remained unfinished, but its dramatic qualities can be judged from what Darmýzhsky has made of it in his opera. His historical drama, Boris Godunóff, taken from the times of the pretender Demetrius, is enlivened here and there by most beautiful scenes, some of them very amusing, and some of them containing a delicate analysis of the sentiments of love and ambition; but it remains rather a dramatic chronicle than a drama. As to The Miser-Knight, it shows an extraordinary power of mature talent, and contains passages undoubtedly worthy of Shakespeare; while Don Juan, imbued with a true Spanish atmosphere, gives a far better comprehension of the Don Juan type than any other representation of it in any literature, and has all the qualities of a first-rate drama.
Towards the end of his very short life a note of deeper comprehension of human affairs began to appear in Púshkin's writings. He had had enough of the life of the higher classes; and, when he began to write a history of the great peasant uprising which took place under Pugatchóff during the reign of Catherine II, he began also to understand and to feel the inner springs of the life of the Russian peasant-class. National life appeared to him under a much broader aspect than before. But at this stage of the development of his genius his career came to a premature end. He was killed, as already stated, in a duel with a society man.
The most popular work of Púshkin is his novel in verse, Evghéniy Onyéghin. In its form it has much in common with Byron's Childe Harold, but it is thoroughly Russian, and contains perhaps the best description of Russian life, both in the capitals and on the smaller estates of noblemen in the country, that has ever been written in Russian literature. Tchaykóvsky, the musician, has made of it an opera which enjoys a great success of the Russian stage. The hero of the novel, Onyéghin, is a typical representative of what society people were at that time. He has received a superficial education, partly from a French émigré, partly from a German teacher, and has learned "something and anyhow." At the age of nineteen he is the owner of a great fortune -- consisting, of course, of serfs, about whom he does not care in the least -- and he is engulfed in the "high-life" of St Petersburg. His day begins very late, with reading scores of invitations to tea-parties, evening parties, and fancy balls. He is, of course, a visitor at the theatre, in which he prefers ballet to the clumsy productions of the Russian dramatists; and he spends a good deal of his day in fashionable restaurants, while his nights are given to balls, where he plays the part of a disillusioned young man, who is tired of life, and wraps himself in the mantle of Byronism. For some reason or other he is compelled to spend a summer on his estate, where he has for a neighbour a young poet, educated in Germany and full of German romanticism. They become great friends, and they make acquaintance with a squire's family in their neighbourhood. The head of the family -- the old mother -- is admirably described. Her two daughters, Tatiána and Olga, are very different in nature: Olga is a quite artless girl, full of the joy of living, who worries herself with no questions, and the young poet is madly in love with her; they are going to marry. As to Tatiána, she is a poetical girl, and Púshkin bestows on her all the wonderful powers of his talent, describing her as an ideal woman: intelligent, thoughtful, and inspired with vague aspirations towards something better than the prosaic life which she is compelled to live. Onyéghin produces upon her, from the first, a deep impression: she falls in love with him; but he, who has made so many conquests in the high circles of the capital, and now wears the mask of disgust of life, takes no notice of the naïve love of the poor country girl. She writes to him and tells him her love with great frankness and in most pathetic words; but the young snob finds nothing better to do than to lecture her about her rashness, and seems to take great pleasure in turning the knife in her wound. At the same time, at a small country ball Onyéghin, moved by some spirit of mischief, begins to flirts in the most provoking way with the other sister, Olga. The young girl seems to be delighted with the attention paid to her by the gloomy hero, and the result is that the poet provokes his friend to a duel. An old retired officer, a true duelist, is mixed up in the affair, and Onyéghin, who cares very much about what the country gentlemen, whom he pretends to despise, may say about him, accepts the provocation and fights the duel. He kills his poet friend and is compelled to leave the country. Several years pass. Tatiána, recovered from an illness, goes one day to the house where formerly Onyéghin stayed and, making friends with an old keeper, spends days and months reading in his library; but life has no attraction for her. After insistent supplication from her mother, she goes to Moscow, and there she marries an old general. This marriage brings her to St Petersburg, where she plays a prominent part in the Court circles. In these surroundings Onyéghin meets her once more, and hardly recognises his Tánya in the worldly lady whom he sees now; he falls madly in love with her. She takes no notice of him, and his letter remain unanswered. At last one day he goes, at an unseemly hour, into her house. He finds her reading his letters, her eyes full of tears, and makes a passionate declaration of his love. To this Tatiána replies by a monologue which is so beautiful that it ought to be quoted here, if there existed an English translation which rendered at least the touching simplicity of Tatiána's words, and consequently the beauty of the verses. A whole generation of Russian women have cried over this monologue, as they were reading these lines:
"Onyéghin, I was younger then, and better looking, I suppose; and I loved you" ... but the love of a country girl offered nothing new to Onyéghin. He paid no attention to her.... "Why then does he follow her now at every step? Why such display of his attention? Is it because she is now rich and belongs to the high society, and is well received at Court?
"Because my fall, in such condition, Would be well noted ev'rywhere, And bring to you an envied reputation?"And she continues:
"For me, Onyéghin, all this wealth, This showy tinsel of Court life, All my successes in the world, My well-appointed house and balls ... For me are nought! -- I gladly would Give up these rags, this masquerade, And all the brilliancy and din, For a small shelf of books, a garden wild, Our weather-beaten house so poor -- Those very places where I met With you, Onyéghin, that first time; And for the churchyard of our village, Where now a cross and shady trees Stand on the grave of my poor nurse. * * * And happiness was possible then! It was so near!She supplicates Onyéghin to leave her. "I love you, " she says:
"Why should I hide from you the truth? But I am given to another, And true to him I shall remain."2How many thousands of young Russian women have later on repeated these same verses, and said to themselves: "I would gladly give up all these rags and all this masquerade of luxurious life for a small shelf of books, for life in the country, amidst the peasants, and for the grave of my old nurse in our village." How many have done it! And we shall see how this same type of Russian girl was developed still further in the novels of Turguéneff -- and in Russian life. Was not Púshkin a great poet to have foreseen and predicted it?
It is said that when Turguéneff and his great friend, Kavélin, came together -- Kavélin was a very sympathetic philosopher and a writer upon law -- a favourite theme of their discussions was: Púshkin or Lérmontoff?" Turguéneff, as is known, considered Púshkin one of the greatest poets, and especially one of the greatest artists, among men; while Kavélin must have insisted upon the fact that in his best productions Lérmontoff was but slightly inferior to Púshkin as an artist, that his verses were real music, while at the same time the inspiration of his poetry was of a much higher standard than that of Púshkin. When it is added that eight years was the entire limit of Lérmontoff's literary career -- he was killed in a duel at the age of twenty-six -- the powers and the potentialities of this poet will be seen as once.
Lérmontoff had Scotch blood in his veins. At least, the founder of the family was a Scotchman, George Learmonth, who, with sixty Scotchmen and Irishmen, entered the service of Poland first, and afterwards, in 1613, of Russia. The inner biography of the poet remains still but imperfectly known. It is certain that his childhood and boyhood were anything but happy. His mother was a lover of poetry -- perhaps a poet herself; but he lost her when he was only three years old -- she was only twenty-one. His aristocratic grandmother on the maternal side took him from his father -- a poor army officer, whom the child worshipped -- and educated him, preventing all intercourse between the father and the son. The boy was very gifted, and at the age of fourteen had already begun to write verses and poems -- first in French, (like Púshkin), and soon in Russian. Schiller and Shakespeare and, from the age of sixteen, Byron and Shelley were his favourties. At the age of sixteen Lérmontoff entered the Moscow University, from which he was, however, excluded next year for some offence against a very uninteresting professor. He then entered a military school at St Petersburg, to become at the age of eighteen an officer of the hussars.
A young man of twenty-two, Lérmontoff suddenly became widely known for a piece of poetry which he wrote on the occasion of P7Uacute;shkin's death (1837). A great poet, as well as a lover of liberty and a foe of oppression, was revealed at once in this passionate production of the young writer, of which the concluding verses were especially powerful. "But you," he wrote, "who stand, a haughty crowd, around the throne, You hang men of genius, of liberty, and fame! You have now the law to cover you, And justice must close her lips before you! But there is a judgment of God, -- you, dissolute crowd! There is a severe judge who waits for you. You will not buy him by the sound of your gold...And, with all your black blood, You will not wash away the stain of the poet's pure blood!" In a few days all St Petersburg, and very soon all Russia, knew these verses by heart; they circulated in thousands of manuscript copies.
For this passionate cry of his heart, Lérmontoff was exiled at once. Only the intervention of his powerful friends prevented him from being marched straight to Siberia. He was transferred from the regiment of guards to which he belonged to an army regiment in the Caucasus. Lérmontoff was already acquainted with the Caucasus: he had been taken there as a child of ten, and he had brought back from this sojourn an ineffaceable impression Now the grandeur of the great mountain range impressed him still more forcibly. The Caucasus is one of the most beautiful regions on earth. It is a chain of mountains much greater than the Alps, surrounded by endless forests, gardens, and steppes, situated in a sounthern climate, in a dry region where the transparency of the air enhances immensely the natural beauty of the mountains. The snow-clad giants are seen from the Steppes scores of miles away, and the immensity of the chain produces an impression which is equalled nowhere in Europe. Moreover, a half-tropical vegetation clothes mountain slopes, where the villages nestle, with their semi-military aspect and their turrets, basking in all the gorgeous sunshine of the East, or concealed in he dark shadows of the narrow gorges, and populated by a race of people among the most beautiful of Europe. Finally, at the time Lérmontoff was there the mountaineers were fighting against the Russian invaders with unabated courage and daring for each valley of their native mountains.
All these natural beauties of the Caucasus have been reflected in Lérmontoff's poetry, in such a way that in no other literature are there descriptions of nature so beautiful, or so impressive and correct. Bodenstedt, his German translator and personal friend, who knew the Caucasus well, was quite right in observing that they are worth volumes of geographical descriptions. The reading of many volumes about the Caucasus does not add any concrete features to those which are impressed upon the mind by reading the poems of Lérmontoff. Turguéneff quotes somewhere Shakespeare's description of the sea as seen from the cliffs of Dover (in King Lear), as a masterpiece of objective poetry dealing with nature. I must confess, however, that the concentration of attention upon small details in this description does not appeal to my mind. It gives no impression of the immensity of the sea as seen from the Dover cliffs, nor of the wonderful richness of colour displayed by the waters on a sunny day. No such reproach could ever be made against Lérmontoff's poetry of nature. Bodenstedt truly says that Lérmontoff has managed to satisfy at the same time both the naturalist and the lover of art. Whether he describes the gigantic chain, where the eye loses itself -- her in snow clouds, there in the unfathomable depths of narrow gorges; or whether he mentions some detail: a mountain stream, or the endless woods, or the smiling valleys of Georgia covered wit flowers, or the strings of light clouds floating in the dry breezes of Northern Caucasia, -- he always remains so true to nature that his picture rises before the eye in life-colours, and yet it is imbued with a poetical atmosphere which makes one feel the freshness of these mountains, the balm of their forests and meadows, the purity of the air. And all this is written in verses wonderfully musical. Lérmontoff's verses, though not so "easy" as Púshkin's, are very often even more musical. They sound like a beautiful melody. The Russian language is always rather melodious, but in the verses of Lérmontoff it becomes almost as melodious as Italian.
The intellectual aspect of Lérmontoff is nearer to Shelley than to any other poet. He was deeply impressed by the author of Prometheus Bound; but he did not try to imitate Shelley. In his earliest productions he did indeed imitate Púshkin and Púshkin's Byronism; but he very soon struck a line of his own. All that can be said is, that the mind of Lérmontoff was disquieted by the same great problems of Good and Evil struggling in the human heart, as in the universe at large, which disquieted Shelley. Like Shelley among the poets, and like Schopenhauer among the philosophers, he felt the coming of that burning need of a revision of the moral principles now current, so characteristic of our own times. He embodied these ideas in two poems, The Demon and Mtsýri, which complete each other. The leading idea of the first is that of a fierce soul which has broken with both earth and heaven, and looks with contempt upon all who are moved by petty passions. An exile from paradise and a hater of human virtues, he knows these petty passions, and despises them with all his superiority. The love of this demon towards a Georgian girl who takes refuge from his love in a convent, and dies there -- what more unreal subject could be chosen? And yet, on reading the poem, one is struck at every line by its incredible wealth of purely realistic, concrete descriptions of scenes and of human feelings, all of the most exquisite beauty. The dance of the girl at her Georgian castle before the wedding, the encounter of the bridegroom with robbers and his death, the galloping of his faithful horse, the sufferings of the bride and her retirement to a convent, nay , the love itself of the demon and every one of the demon's movements -- this is of the purest realism in the highest sense of the word: that realism with which Púshkin had stamped Russian literature once and for all.
Mtsýri is the cry of a young soul longing for liberty. A boy, taken from a Circassian village, from the mountains, is brought up in a small Russian monastery. The monks think that they have killed in him all human passions and longings; but the dream of his childhood is - be it only once, be it only for a moment - to see his native mountains where his sisters sang round his cradle, and to press his burning bosom against the heart of one who is not a stranger. One night, when a storm rages and the monks are praying for fear in their church, he escapes from the monastery, and wanders for three days in the woods. For once in his life he enjoys a few moments of liberty; he feels all the energy and all the forces of his youth: "As for me, I was like a wild beast," he says afterwards, "and I was ready to fight with the storm, the lightning , the tiger of the forest." But, being an exotic plant, weakened by education, he does not find his way to his native country. He is lost in the forests which spread for hundreds of miles round him, and is found a few days later, exhausted, not far from the monastery. He dies from the wounds which he has received in a fight with a leopard.
"The grave does not frighten me," he says to the old monk who attends him. "Suffering, they say, goes to sleep there in the eternal cold stillness. But I regret to part with life....I am young, still young....hast thou ever known the dreams of youth? Or hast thou forgotten how thou once lovedst and hatedst? Maybe, this beautiful world has lost for thee its beauty. Thou art weak and grey; thou hast lost all desires. No matter! Thou hast lived once; thou hast something to forget in this world. Thou hast lived - I might have lived, too!" And he tells about the beauty of the nature which he saw when he had run away, his frantic joy at feeling free, his running after the lightning, his fight with a leopard. "thou wishest to know what I did while I was free?" - I lived, old man! I lived! And my life, without these three happy days, would have been gloomier and darker than thy powerless old age!" But it is impossible to tell all the beauties of this poem. It must be read, and let us hope that a good translation of it will be published some day.
Lérmontoff's demonism or pessimism was not the pessimism of despair, but a militant protest against all that is ignoble in life, and in this respect his poetry has deeply impressed itself upon all our subsequent literature. His pessimism was the irritation of a strong man at seeing others round him so weak and so base. With his inborn feeling of the Beautiful, which evidently can never exist without the True and the Good, and at the same time surrounded - especially in the worldly spheres he lived in, and on the Caucasus - by men and women who could not or did not dare to understand him, he might of easily have arrived at a pessimistic contempt and hatred of mankind; but he always maintained his faith in the higher qualities of man. It was quite natural that in his youth - especially in those years of universal reaction, the thirties - Lérmontoff should have expressed his discontent with the world in such a general and abstract creation as The Demon. Something similar we find even with Schiller. But gradually his pessimism took a more concrete form. It was not mankind altogether, and still less heaven and earth, that he despised in his latter productions, but the negative features of his own generation. In his prose novel, The Hero of our Own Time, in his Thoughts (Duma), etc., he perceived higher ideals, and already in 1840 -- ie, one year before his death - he seemed ready to open a new page in his creation, in which his powerfully constructive and critical mind would have been directed towards the real evils of actual life, and real, positive good would apparently have been his aim. But it was at this very moment that , like Púshkin, he fell in a duel.
Lérmontoff was, above all, a "humanist," - a deeply humanitarian poet. Already at the age of twenty-three, he had written a poem from the times of John the Terrible, Song about the Merchant Kaláshnikoff, which is rightly considered as one of the best gems of Russian literature, both for its powers, its artistic finish, and its wonderful epic style. The poem, which produced a great impression when it became known in Germany in Bodenstedt's translation, is imbued with the fiercest spirit of revolt against the courtiers of the Terrible Tsar.
Lérmontoff deeply loved Russia, but not the official Russia: not the crushing military power of a fatherland, which is so dear to the so-called patriots, and he wrote:
I love my fatherland; but strange that love, In spite of all my reasoning may say; Its glory, bought by shedding streams of blood, Its quietness, so full of fierce disdain, And the traditions of its gloomy past Do not awake in me a happy vision....What he loved in Russia was its country life, its plains, the life of its peasants. He was inspired at the same time with a deep love towards the natives of the Caucasus, who were waging their bitter fight against the Russians for their liberty. Himself a Russian, and a member of two different expeditions against the Circassians, his heart throbbed nevertheless in sympathy with that brave, warm-hearted people in their struggle for independence. One poem, Izmsail-Bey, is an apotheosis of this struggle of the Circassians against the Russians; in another, one of his best - a Circassian is described as fleeing from the field of battle to run home to his village, and there his mother herself repudiates him as a traitor. Another gem of poetry, one of his shorter poems, Valérik, is considered by those who know what real warfare is as the most correct description of it in poetry. And yet, Lérmontoff disliked war, and he ends one of his admirable descriptions of fighting with these lines:
"I thought: How miserable is man! What does he want? The sky is pure, and under it there's room for all; but without reason and necessity, his heart is full of hatred. - Why?"He died in his twenty-seventh year. Exiled for a second time to the Caucasus (for a duel which he had fought at St Petersburg with a Barrante, the son of the French ambassador) he was staying at Pyatigórsk, frequenting the shallow society which usually comes together in such watering places. His jokes and sarcasms addressed to an officer, Martýnoff, who used to drape himself in a Byronian mantle the better to capture the hearts of young girls, led to a duel. Lérmontoff, as he had already done in his first duel, shot sideways purposely; but Martýnoff slowly and purposely took his aim so as even to call forth the protest of the seconds - and killed Lérmontoff on the spot.
Toward the end of his life Púshkin gave himself more and more to prose writing. He began an extensive history of the peasant uprising of 1773 under Pugatchóff, and undertook for that purpose a journey to East Russia, where he collected, besides public documents, personal reminiscences and popular traditions relating to this uprising. At the same time he also wrote a novel, The Captain's Daughter, the scene of which was laid in that disturbed period. The novel is not very remarkable in itself. True, the portraits of Pugatchóff and of an old servant, as well as the description of the whole life in the small forts of East Russia, garrisoned at that time by only a few invalid soldiers, are very true to reality and brilliantly pictured; but in the general construction of the novel Púshkin paid a tribute to the sentimentalism of the times. Nevertheless, The Captain's Daughter, and especially the other prose novels of Púshkin, have played an important part in the history of Russian literature. Through them Púshkin introduced into Russia the realistic school, long before Balzac did so in France, and this school has since that time prevailed in Russian prose-literature. I do not mean, of course, Realism in the sense of dwelling mainly upon the lowest instincts of man, as it was misunderstood by some French writers, but in the sense of treating both high and low manifestations of human nature in a way true to reality, and in their real proportions. Moreover, the simplicityof these novels, both as regards their plots and the way the plots are treated, is simply marvellous, and in this way they have traced the lines upon which the development of Russian novel writing has ever since been pursued. The novels of Lérmontoff, of Hérzen (Whose Fault?), and of Turguéneff and Tolstóy descent, I dare to say, in a much more direct line from Púshkin's novels than from those of Gógol.
Lérmontoff also wrote one novel in prose, The Hero of our Own Time, of which the hero, Petchórin, was to some extent a real representative of a portion of the educated society in those years of romanticism. It is true that some critics saw in him the portraiture of the author himself and his acquaintances; but, as Lérmontoff wrote in his preface to a second edition of this novel - "The hero of our own time is indeed a portrait, but not of one single man: it is the portrait of the vices of our generation," - the book indicates "the illness from which this generation suffers."
Petchórin is an extremely clever, bold, enterprising man who regards his surroundings with cold contempt. He is undoubtedly a superior man, superior to Púshkin's Onyéghin; but he is, above all, an egotist who finds no better application for his superior capacities than all sorts of mad adventures, always connected with love-making. He falls in love with a Circassian girl whom he sees at a native festival. The girl is also taken by the beauty and the gloomy aspect of the Russian. To marry her is evidently out of question, because her Mussulman relatives would never give her to a Russian. Then, Petchórin daringly kidnaps her, with the aid of her brother, and the girl is brought to the Russian fort, where Petchórin is an officer. For several weeks she only cries and never speaks a word to the Russian, but by and bye she feels love for him. That is the beginning of the tragedy. Petchórin soon has enough of the Circassian beauty; he deserts her more and more for hunting adventures, and during one of them she is kidnapped by a Circassian who loves her, and who, on seeing that he cannot escape with her, kills her with his dagger. For Petchórin this solution is almost welcome.
A few years later the same Petchórin appears amidst Russian society in one of the Caucasus watering towns. There he meets with Princess Mary, who is courted by a young man - Grushnísky, -- a sort of Caucasian caricature of Byron, draped in a mantle of contempt for mankind, but in reality a very shallow sort of personage. Petchórin, who cares but little for the Princess Mary, finds, however, a sort of wicked pleasure in rendering Grushnítsky ridiculous in her eyes, and uses all his wit to bring the girl to his feet. When this is done, he loses all interest in her. He makes a fool of Grushnítsky, and when the young man provokes him to a duel, he kills him. This was the hero of the time, and it must be owned that it was not a caricature. In a society free from care about the means of living - it was of course in serfdom times, under Nicholas I - when there was no sort of political life in the country, a man of superior ability very often found no issue for his forces but in such adventures as Petchórin's.
It need not be said that the novel is admirable written - that it is full of living descriptions of Caucasus "society"; that the characters are splendidly delineated, and that some of them, like the old Captain Maxím Maxímytch, have remained living types of some of the best specimens of mankind. Through these qualities The Hero of our own Time, like Evghéniy Onyéghin, became a model for quite a series of subsequent novels.
The fable-writer KRYLÓFF (1786-1844) is perhaps the Russian writer who is best known abroad. English readers know him through the excellent work and translations of so great a connoisseur of Russian literature and language as Ralston was, and little can be added to what Ralson has said of this eminently original writer.
He stands on the boundary between two centuries, and reflects both the end of the one and the beginning of the other. Up to 1807, he wrote comedies which, even more than the other comedies of the time, were mere imitations from the French. It was only in 1807-1809 that he found his true vocation and began writing fables, in which domain he attained the first rank, not only in Russia, but among the fable-writers in all modern literatures. Many of his fables - at any rate, the best known ones - are translations from Lafontaine; and yet they are entirely original productions. Lafontaine's animals are academically educated French gentlemen; even the peasant in his fables come from Versailles. There is nothing of the sort in Krylóff. Every animal in his fables is a character - wonderfully true to life. Nay, even the cadence of his verses changes and takes a special aspect each time a new animal is introduced - that heavy simpleton, the Bear, or the fine and cunning Fox, or the versatile Monkey. Krylóff knew every one of them intimately; he knew each of their movements, and above all he had noticed and enjoyed long since in his own self the humorous side of every one of the dwellers of the forests or the companions of Man, before he undertook to put them in his fables. This is why Krylóff may be taken as the greatest fable-writer not only of Russia - where he had a not to be neglected rival in DMÍTREFF (1760-1837) - but also of all nations of modern times. True, there is no depth, no profound and cutting irony, in Krylóff's fables. Nothing but a good0natured, easy-going irony, which made the very essence of his heavy frame, his lazy habits, and his quiet contemplation. But, is this not the true domain of fable, which must not be confounded with satire?
At the same time there is no writer who has better possessed and better understood the true essence of the really popular Russian language, the language spoken by the men and women of the people. At a time when the Russian litérateurs hesitated between the elegant, Europeanised style of Karamzín, and the clumsy, half-Slavonic style of the nationalists of the old school, Krylóff, even in his very first fables, written in 1807, had already worked out a style which at once gave him a quite unique position in Russian literature, and which has not been surpassed even by such masters of the popular Russian language as was Ostróvskiy and some of the folk-novelists of a later epoch. For terseness, expressiveness and strict adherence to the true spirit of the popularly-spoken Russian, Krylóff had no rivals.
Several minor poets, contemporary of Púshkin and Lérmontoff, and some of them their personal friends, must be mentioned in this place. The influence of Púshkin was so great that he could not but call to life a school of writers who should try to follow inn his steps. None of them reached such a height as to claim to be considered a world poet; but each of them has made his contribution in one way or another to the development of Russian poetry, each one has had his humanising and elevating influence.
KOZLÓFF (1779-1840) has reflected in his poetry the extremely sad character of his life. At the age of about forty he was stricken with paralysis, losing the use of his legs, and soon after that his sight; but his poetical gift remained with him, and he dictated to his daughter some of the saddest elegies which Russian literature possesses, as also a great number of our most perfect translations. His Monk made everyone in Russia shed tears, and Púshkin hastened to acknowledge the strength of the poem. Endowed with the most wonderful memory - he knew by heart all Byron, all the poems of Walter Scott, all Racine, Tasso, and Dante, -- Kozlóff, like Zhukóvskiy, with whom he had much in common, made a great number of translations from various languages, especially from the English idealists, and some of his translations from the Polish, such as The Crimean Sonnets of Mickiewicz, are real works of art.
DÉLWIG (1798-1831) was a great personal friend of Púshkin, whose comrade he was at the Lyceum. He represented in Russian literature the tendency towards reviving ancient Greek forms of poetry, but happily enough he tried at the same time to write in the style of the Russian popular songs, and the lyrics which he wrote in this manner especially contributed to make of him a favourite poet of his own time. Some of his romances have remained popular till now.
BARATÝNSKIY (1800-1844) was another poet of the same group of friends. Under the influence of the wild nature of Finland, where he spend several years in exile, he became a romantic poet, full of the love of nature, and also of melancholy, and deeply interested in philosophical questions, to which he could find no reply. He thus lacked a definite conception of life, but what he wrote was clothed in a beautiful form, and in very expressive, elegant verses.
YAZÝKOFF (1803-1846) belongs to the same circle. He was intimate with Púshkin, who much admired his verses. It must be said, however, that the poetry of Yazýkoff had chiefly an historical influence in the sense of perfecting the forms of poetical expression. Unfortunately, he had to struggle against almost continual illness, and he died just when he had reached the full development of his talent.
VENEVÍTINOFF (1805-1822) died at a still younger age; but there is no exaggeration in saying that he promised to become a great poet, endowed with the same depth of philosophical conception as was Goethe, and capable of attaining the same beauty of form. The few verses he wrote during the last year of his life revealed the suddenly attained maturity of a great poetical talent, and may be compared with the verses of the greatest poets.
PRINCE ALEXANDER ODÓEVSKIY (1803-1839) and POLEZHÁEFF (1806-1838) are two other poets who died very young, and whose lives were entirely broken by political persecution. Odóevskiy was a friend of the Decembrists. After the 14 th of December, 1825, he was arrested, taken to the fortress of St Peter and St Paul and then sentenced to hard labour in Siberia, whence he was not released till twelve years later, to be sent as a soldier to the Caucasus. There he became the friend of Lérmontoff, one of whose best elegies was written on Odóevskiy's death. The verses of Odóevskiy (they were not printed abroad while he lived) lack finish, but he was a real poet and a patriot too, as is seen from his Dream of a Poet, and his historical poem, Vasilkó.
The fate of POLEZHÁEFF was even more tragic. He was only twenty years old - a brilliant student of the Moscow University - when he wrote an autobiographical poem, Sáshka, full of allusions to the evils of autocracy and of appeals for freedom. This poem was shown to Nicholas I, who ordered the young poet to be sent as a soldier to an army regiment. The duration of service was then twenty-five years, and Polezh&aaucte;ff saw not the slightest chance of release. More than that: for an unauthorised absence from his regiment (he had gone to Moscow with the intention of presenting a petition of release to the Tsar) he was condemned to receive one thousand strokes with the sticks, and only by mere luck escaped the punishment. He never succumbed to his fate, and in the horrible barracks of those times he remained what he was: a pupil of Byron, Lamartine, and Macpherson, never broken, protesting against tyranny in verses that were written in tears and blood. When he was dying from consumption in a military hospital at Moscow Nicholas I pardoned him: his promotion to the grade of officer came when he was dead.
A similar fate befell the Little Russian poet SHEVCHÉNKO (1814-1861), who, for some of his poetry, was sent in 1847 to a battalion as a common soldier. His epical poems from the life of the free Cossacks in olden times, heart rendering poems from the life of the serfs, and lyrics, all written in Little Russian and thoroughly popular in both form and content, belong to the fine specimens of poetry of all nations.
Of prose writers of the same epoch only a few can be mentioned in this book, and these in a few lines. ALEXANDER BESTÚZHEFF (1797-1837), who wrote under the nom de plume of MARLÍNSKIY - one of the "Decembrists," exiled to Siberia, and later on sent to the Caucasus as a soldier - was the author of widely-read novels. Like Púshkin and Lérmontoff he was under the influence of Byron, and described "titanic passions" in Byron's style, as also striking adventures in the style of the French novelists of the Romantic school; but he deserves at the same time to be regarded as the first to write novels from Russian life in which matters of social interest were discussed.
Other favourite novelists of the same epoch were: ZAGÓSKIN (1789-1852), the author of extremely popular historical novels, Yúriy Miloslávskiy, Róslavleff, etc., all written in a sentimentally patriotic style; NARYÉZHNYI (1780-1825), who is considered by some Russian critics as a forerunner of Gógol, because he wrote already in the realistic style, describing, like Gógol, the dark sides of Russian life; and LAZHÉCHNIKOFF (1792-1868), the author of a number of very popular historical novels of Russian life.