No, I’m not Byron, I’m unknown;
I am, like him, a chosen one,
an exile hounded by this world –
only I bear a Russian soul.
An early start, an early end –
little indeed will I complete;
within my heart, as in a sea,
lie shattered hopes – a sunken load.
Grim ocean, tell me, who can glean
your deepest secrets? Who can speak
my thoughts to the unheeding crowd?
I… God… or will they die unheard?
by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)
translated by Boris Dralyuk
Fun fact: Of course the opening line of this poem refers to Lord Byron. George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), known as Lord Byron, was a British nobleman, poet, peer, politician, and leading figure in the Romantic movement. He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential. Among his best-known works are the lengthy narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as well as the short lyric poem “She Walks in Beauty”.
Lermontov compares himself to Byron as both endure exile – however Byron’s, unlike Lermontov’s, was by choice. Perhaps more interesting to note is that Byron exiled himself to escape his fame in Britain while, in contrast, Lermontov fears he will die before his verse is recognised. Both became infamous but their reaction to it was very different.
Comparing both you wonder how sincere Lermontov is in this comparison and his voiced concerns of his verse being left unknown considering his poem Death of the Poet, its final part written impromptu, in the course of several minutes, was spread around by Rayevsky and caused uproar. The last 16 lines of it, explicitly addressed to the inner circles at the court, all but accused the powerful “pillars” of Russian high-society of complicity in Pushkin’s death. The poem portrayed that society as a cabal of self-interested venomous wretches “huddling about the throne in a greedy throng”, “the hangmen who kill liberty, genius, and glory” about to suffer the apocalyptic judgment of God. The poem propelled Lermontov to an unprecedented level of fame. Zhukovsky hailed the “new powerful talent“; popular opinion greeted him as “Pushkin’s heir“. Hardly a man who is doomed to have his thoughts unheeded by the crowd.
Perhaps, in his favour, we might reflect he is confessing to being unable to endure his sudden fame caused by his controversial poem, as Byron had gleefully revelled in for his own works and indeed lifestyle, and is somewhat regretful and fearful it would only be for ‘Death of a Poet‘ he would be remembered and none of his other works. Of course we now know him as a Russian Romantic writer, poet and painter, sometimes called “the poet of the Caucasus“, the most important Russian poet after Alexander Pushkin’s death in 1837 and the greatest figure in Russian Romanticism. His influence on later Russian literature is still felt in modern times, not only through his poetry, but also through his prose, which founded the tradition of the Russian psychological novel.