Paradox and the Narrative Structure of Lermontov’s “Prorok”

Lermontov’s poem “Prorok” 1841 has traditionally been approached as a unified text which carries a single message, namely a response to Puškin’s poem of the same name made in the vein of civic poetry. A close reading, however, reveals several underlying contradictions. Each of the two constituent relational dichotomies of the poem (“poèt”—“tolpa” and “ja”—“bog”) is grounded both in the weltanschauung typical for the genre of romantic lyric poetry and that typical for civic poetry. The text of the poem urges the reader to simultaneously accept two mutually exclusive sets of premises which are conflated in order to construct a single vertical hierarchical structure “bog—poèt (ja)—tolpa.”

The validity of this structure as well as the credibility of any statement made by the narrator is undermined not only by internal contradiction, but also by the presence of a horizontal axis “grad—pustynja.” Any movement along this axis upsets or inverts the hierarchy.

Within the context of Lermontov’s entire ouevre, this poem may be read as an indication of the general direction that his lyric poetry was taking in the last few months of his life. The text attempts to unite the motifs that comprise the lyrical hero (“liričeskij geroj”—Tynjanov, Ginzburg)—by definition a subjective construct that manifests itself across a number of texts. (A similar attempt is made in “Vyxožu odin ja na dorogu …”) “Prorok” is also oriented towards objectivity which causes a shift in the narrator’s perspective within the poem. This shift is typologically similar to the narrative structure of Geroj našego vremeni and explains the paradoxical nature of the work.