Mikhail Lermontov’s 13 demons

Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Demon” was never published during his lifetime due to its excessive “diabolism.” This year, however, “Demon” was published in Moscow in 13 European languages.

“Demon” is based on the biblical myth of the fallen angel who rebelled against God – a story that has been incorporated into the work of many European poets, including John Milton, George Byron and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Lermontov put a new spin on this age-old tale, describing the Demon’s love for the earthly beauty Tamara. It is a love that proves deadly for her. 

Lermontov started writing the poem when he was just 14 years old. The first version described a demon and an angel who were in love with the same nun, but the poet later modified the concept to make the demon fall in love with the nun and kill her out of hatred for her guardian angel. The work was originally set in Spain; the unwritten poetic code demanded that a romantic poem should take place in a faraway land, and the young poet was taken with Spanish motifs because he imagined he was descended from the ancient Spanish Duke of Lerma. It was only years later that he learned of his true roots in the Scottish Learmonth clan.

Lermontov had finished working on his earlier versions of “Demon” by 1834, but he did not consider the work ready for publication. He achieved a breakthrough after his first exile to the Caucasus (1837-1838) for the poem “Death of the Poet,” in which he blamed the court aristocracy for Alexander Pushkin’s death. Just a few months of regimental service in the Caucasus had a strong influence on Lermontov. After returning to St. Petersburg, he set about rewriting the poem again, replacing his weak Spanish motifs with images of the Caucasus, adding powerful descriptions of its wild nature and Georgian feudal life. In the first “Caucasus” version, completed in 1838, the poem was widely distributed and became famous among the high society in Moscow and St. Peterbsurg. However, Lermontov rewrote the ending to avoid censorship; in the new version, Tamara was saved by the angel instead of dying. Even the empress read the poem in this form, and it was approved by the censors in March 1839 – yet it was never published. The “diabolical” subject matter was partially to blame: in an era when the Orthodoxy was the state ideology, such a text raised too many questions. Lermontov’s character also played a part – he was a duelist and a freethinker who was out of favor with the authorities.

Today “Demon” is recognized as a classic. In honor of the poet’s 200th birthday, the Moscow-based Rudomino Book Center under the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature has produced a unique publication. In addition to the original text, it also contains rhymed translations of the poem in 13 languages: English, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Latvian, Macedonian, German, Polish, Slovenian, French, and Swedish. The publication is illustrated with the works of Mikhail Vrubel from the “Demon” series and prints of a handwritten copy of the poem. “Lermontov’s creative work is quite well-known in Europe today,” the publisher’s executive editor Yury Fridstein said. He went on to explain: “In Britain they know him as a Russian poet with Scottish roots. In Poland and Germany they pay great attention to our literature – one should not forget that Lermontov ‘transferred’ the works of Heine and Goethe into Russian. His creative work has a certain German element. Plus, ‘Demon’ was first published in Germany.” Lermontov is also famous in France because an enormous quantity of his poetry has been translated into French. In 2012, on the eve of the poet’s 200th birthday, the Rudomino Book Center released a three-volume collection of his writings translated into three European languages: French, English, and German. The book has a separate section dedicated to French translations of Lermontov by the great poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

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