In Russian poetry there are two names which are usually spoken one after
the other: Pushkin and Lermontov. Only fifteen years divide Pushkin, born
in 1799, from Lermontov, born in 1814. Here, however, fifteen years stood
not so much for a difference in age as in epoch and indicated a difference
not in the fate of individuals but of generations.
At the age of fourteen he entered a boarding school for the sons of noble families attached to Moscow University where two years later he became a student. In 1832, Lermontov left the university and transferred to an officer's school, choosing to enter military service as was usual for young men of his milieu. The School of Ensigns of the Guard and Cavalry Cadets (such was its official designation) was situated in Petersburg, and it was in his years there that Lermontov began to move amongst the high society of the imperial capital, that high society which he so abhorred and which, in return, was to declare war on him, war to the death. In 1834, at the age of twenty, Lermontov graduated from the military school with the lowest officer's rank of cornet and was seconded to a Hussar Regiment of the Imperial Guards.
Lermontov's first attempts at poetry date to 1828 and, by 1832,he was already the author of two hundred lyric poems, ten long poems and three plays. This was a genuine boiling over of creative vigour and in its youthful seething and bubbling we can already catch hints of the future power of his mature poetry.
From a very early age, Lermontov thought of himself as a poet and could not imagine his future otherwise than in poetry. He even imbued his stern and eminently practical grandmother with this thought-such was the power of his conviction. His student's and later his officer-cadet's and officer's uniforms were to him merely the outward form of his connection with the official order; his inner ties with society were formed in spite of university and regiment - through poetry.
The officer's school and service in the Hussars did not estrange the young poet from his vocation. These years gave him a rich store of observation on which to draw, and much food for thought on the mores of society. His creative horizons broadened and, without abandoning poetry, he now turned also to prose and drama: stories such as Vadim and Princess Ligovskaya and the dramatic masterpiece Masquerade were written at this time.
In 1837, shattered by Pushkin's death, Lermontov wrote a poem on the occasion, a poem which rang out like an answering shot not aimed his action. The poem provoked an enthusiastic reaction amongst the enlightened society of the time. It was copied and recopied, passed from hand to hand, from mouth to mouth. The name of Lermontov which up till this time had been known only in the narrow circle of the poet's friends, became famous and men repeated it with hope and gratitude in all corners of Russia. This reaction was profoundly disturbing to Nicholas I; the flame which had just been trampled out by the jack-boots of autocracy flared up again with burning intensity. Lermontov, for composing "impermissible" verse, was transferred from his Hussar Regiment in St. Petersburg to active service in the Caucasus. This was the poet's first exile.
His exile to the Caucasus where he came to know the life of the ordinary soldiers and of the mountain folk brought him sharply up against reality. Having escaped the moribund atmosphere of high society he perceived how tittle the life of the people had in common with the conceptions of that life then current in the drawing- rooms of St. Petersburg. He absorbed the poetry of this life and felt himself at one with it. His work gained in humanity and this has become, in our eyes, an inalienable part of his genius. Valerik is a remarkable poem, but it is but one in a whole cycle of magnificent works written by Lermontov over these years. He completed and rewrote Mtsyri and The Demon, both begun almost in boyhood, finished The Lay of the Merchant Kaiashnikov..., and wrote a quantity of exquisite lyric verse which has passed into the classic tradition of Russian literature.