I sailed across misty seas, Languished in a cloudy land….
Nabokov, “Wondrous Excitement”
Vladimir Nabokov’s 20th year was full of life-changing events, yet he still wrote poetry regularly. He had become devoted to poetry writing at the age of 15, after realizing he didn’t have the talent to excel as an artist. Inspired by Pushkin and by contemporary writers such as Gumilyov, he devoted his last two school years to poetry. In June 1916, having turned 17 in April, he published his first book of poetry, Stikhi.
Soon after graduation, in November 1917 the Nabokov family moved from Moscow to Crimea because of the dangers from his father’s political involvement. He was there for 16 months, during which time he wrote verse regularly. The privileged Nabokov family lived in a house at Livadia, a former residence of the Tsar on the edge of Yalta. The family was still living there at the end of 1918.
1. POEM: NEW YEAR
Aged 19, Nabokov entered the New Year with a strong resolution to increase his verse writing. This included a 430-line poem in response to Blok’s seminal “The Twelve.”
“Hurry!” we cry, “Hurry!”
And loudly in the cold silence
twelve small doors
have slammed shut one after another…
And we don’t pity those who have left:
let’s forget them!
Slow days have passed
with sad monotony.
And others that have entered
through half-open doors
are not sad or bereft
but bring only joy.
But until year’s end,
bright gifts fade into obscurity
and will crowd together in a corner,
smiling at us from afar…
Vladimir Nabokov 1 January, 1919
2. POEM: RUSSIA
Early in 1919 his beloved cousin Vladimir (“Mon meilleur ami”) went off to fight the Bolsheviks. Nabokov gave him his own boots. Sadly, Vladimir soon died in battle and Nabokov was a pall-bearer at his funeral. Nabokov wrote “In Memory of a Friend” soon after. The poem recalls their childhood games and concludes, “although everything was simpler, harsher,/He was still playing the same game.” Just before he heard of his friend’s death, he wrote a poem about his homeland showing how deeply Russia is embedded in his soul.
Is it all the same with me, whether you are called
a slave, a mercenary or just crazy?
You are shining… I’ll take a look—and remember happiness.
Yes, these rays will not get in.
You are in my passion and in my solemn sufferings
and in a woman’s slow gaze.
In fields illumined, cold and virgin,
you blossomed like a blue flower.
You led autumn through the tear-stained groves
and kissed my eyelashes in the spring.
In stuffy churches, you repeated after the deacon
the blind words of the liturgy.
In the summer you flashed with lightning across the cornfield;
on a winter day I saw your face in the hoarfrost.
With me at night, you bent over the pages
of powerful songbooks.
You were and will be. I was mysteriously created
from the splendor and fluff of your clouds.
When the starry night splashes over me,
I hear your crying call.
You are in my heart, Russia. You are the chain and the foot.
You are in the murmur of blood, in the confusion of dreams.
But why should I stray into this age of indifference?
You shine to me as before.
5 March 1919 Crimea
3. POEM: HOTEL ROOM
On April 8, after learning of the advances by the Red Army, the Nabokov family left Livadia and drove to Sebastopol, which was the only exit from Russia to safety. Although in Sebastopol only a week, Nabokov wrote a poem about the family’s stay in the posh Hotel Metropole. Here in a drab hotel room he still finds beauty.
No bed, no bench.
Dull yellow wallpaper.
Two chairs. A distorting mirror.
We enter—me and my shadow.
We open the window with a creak:
the reflection falls to the ground.
The night is lifeless. Dogs in the distance
sever the silence with varied barking.
I stand still at the window,
and in the black chalice of the firmament
L\like a golden drop of honey
the moon shines sweetly.
4. POEM: ISTANBUL
After desperate negotiations, the Nabokovs finally leave Russia from Sebastopol on April 15, aboard a Greek vessel carrying dried fruit. Nabokov claims he was playing chess on the deck as the vessel dodged machine gun fire from the Red Army. They sailed past Istanbul on their way to Greece.
The shore surfaces at dawn;
a fragrant wind wafts by.
Our sleepy ship seems to stand
inside a huge amber gem.
Furrowing the water in circles,
a shoal of fish splashes drowsily,
but this agitation is as transient
as ripples from light rain.
Istanbul rises out of the dusk:
two sharp, black minarets
in the dark gold of dawn
above the bright silk of the water.
6 April 1919
5. POEM: YOU WANDER
In Greece the Nabokov family settled in Piraeus for just over three weeks. Nabokov visited the sights of Athens and hunted butterflies. He also wrote his first poem as an expatriate.
You wander about the garden and think.
Shade has spilled over the large flowers.
On a noisy night, ask the wind:
are birches noisy in Russia?
Passionately ask the crystal moon:
are the rivers clear in my homeland?
The wind will answer, the moonbeams will answer…
You will know everything, but just be silent.
27 April 1919 Faler [Athens]
6. POEM: DREAM ON THE ACROPOLIS
His visit to the Acropolis initiated an important statement on his poetic approach—a rejection of the classical myth kitty in favour of Russian culture.
A Dream on the Acropolis
I both love and hate these dreams.
Do you know their strange game?
For one moment, like a flock of splendid birds,
The past suddenly bursts into reality,
and sparkling, spins around you and flies away,
Agitating your whole soul.
I visited the Acropolis for the first time….
A poor Greek, with a paste ring on his little finger,
led me into the ruined temples
of their inscrutable ancestors.
were glowing red between the stones,
and I thought for a moment
that the marble strips dotted with poppies,
looked like the purple lips of the dead…
We passed by the yellow columns
and saw the site from above.
I looked down and a miracle occurred…
Did the southern sun play a joke
on this northern, yearning soul,
or were the over-avid eyes of the poet
agonizingly and miraculously deceived?
I don’t know… But the mountains suddenly vanished,
and the blue surface of the glimmering sea
turned into a flowery plain:
golden hearts of chamomile,
violets, puffy widow flowers,
and campanula—I made out
in the thick grass, shining in the sun…
White Athens was transformed.
Before me was a familiar village;
everything--blue-grey, half-blind huts,
an inn with a green sign, a chapel,
and children playing knucklebones,
and a plaintively bellowing cow,
and a drunkard, and a drunken Russian wind
inflating the shirt on his back…
In the distance, between the field and the village,
I see a birch forest— cheerful like youth--
a pale green forest,
and openings to wayward paths…
Supposing I indulge their twists and turns,
wander, dream, rip bark from the birches,
embrace a damp, amber trunk
and cling, cling to it with chest and lips
and drink its honey blood!
I see everything: the gleam of a grain of sand on the path,
the dead body of a mole near a hill of black earth
and a mottled beetle on its black skin…
And I myself (O, how perfectly sweet
it seemed to me!) I myself stand
in the village cemetery, where
the shade of a bowed cherry tree breathes so sweetly,
where between the graves wild strawberries redden,
where alder earrings fall
on old humpbacked crosses…
I reluctantly awoke, and a voice
Faltered while diligently reasoning
on the proportions of the doric columns
and on the ancient powerful goddesses.
What were they to me? I saw a different dream.
The day was fading. The windows below were on fire.
Orange clouds moved westward.
“Thank you,” I uttered hastily,
and several coins with holes fell
into the palm of the obliging Greek.
Thus I paid for the dream in silver…
Athens 25 April 1919
7. POEM: ACROPOLIS
Later in 1919, when safely in England, Nabokov wrote a second poem about the Acropolis. This time he did not reject the classical past but rather used it for inspiration: “it’s as if an upsurge of wondrous lines were sounding.”
Whose step is behind me? Whose linen is rustling?
Who sings there in front of the marble goddess?
You, my thought. In the carved shadows of the columns
it’s as if an upsurge of wondrous lines were sounding.
I’m happy with everything. I’m gratified by the azure
and the peacock brightness of the sea flowing into the Erechtheion;
I set off downwards and there in the dust of centuries
my footprint, blue from the sunlight, is captured.
In the gloom, in the depths, for a moment I want to escape:
There, it seems, along the Milky Way
of bygone times, through the silent dusk,
You fly mysteriously in a melodious dream…
O how fresh, the reverential silence
In the sanctuary, where the shade of an olive tree breathes!
8. POEM: WONDROUS EXCITEMENT
Comfortabbly settled in London, Nabokov was now able to confront his muse.
O, encountering wondrous excitement!
A glowing look… A wingéd cry…
Vision, you are tangible!
Trembling, I nestle up against you…
I have sailed across misty seas
And languished in a cloudy land,
while a boring god and a boring devil
argued aimlessly within me.
And at midnight’s crossroads
passion appeared before me—
barefoot, in fiery rags
and head thrown back…
But I wasn’t asking for false endearments.
I pined in Earth’s gardens…
I searched for truth and simplicity
among the dubious and complex.
O achievement, wings, dawn!
The dream is fully attained!
With a diamond song in your eyes
you lean over me…
0. POEM: “THE SKY IS ROLLING BY”
He was also able to luxuriate in nature again.
The Sky Is Rolling By
The sky is rolling past, breathing and shining…
Here it is—a gift from God, take it or leave it!
Here it is—free will, barefoot, simple,
the cold and gold of ringing dawn!
My sharp shadow is the shadow of a giant.
Succulent stems crunch under my footsteps.
There’s ringing in the air. The plain turns pink.
Each flower is like a moon of the day.
Here it is—freewill, barefoot, simple!
Downy clouds on dawn’s edge…
And like a flock of swans in the dark,
clear thought rise in the mind.
God! Your world is indeed wonderful!
Silently gathering dew from the field,
and not spilling a heart full of songs,
I will convey my heart to You…
13 September 1919
10. POEM: “BLIZZARD”
After three months in England, Nabokov wrote about his nostalgia for Russia. This poem describes his thoughts as he tried to get to sleep. (He was an insomniac.)
Shadow chases shadow along the wall,
never catching up… Lie down, don’t grumble.
So the wind’s moaning? Well, let it moan to itself….
Aren’t you warm by the stove?
The night is evil… Worn-out anguish…
Can’t you sleep? Or are you afraid of the wind?
This is Russia, not a steppe blizzard!
This is black Russia writhing!
Oh, it howls and rails like a hysterical woman!
If you can, go and rescue her!
And what about you? Enough, don’t listen…
Let’s just manage without Russia!
The wind’s moaning is slowly easing…
But it’s still screaming! Oh, it’s dreadful on the steppes…
Tomorrow there’ll be snowdrifts up to the roof…
What a blizzard! Come on! Go to sleep.
30 August 1919
11. POEM: BE MORE TRANSPARENT
For the last three months of the year Nabokov was an undergraduate at Cambridge, reading Zoology and Modern and Medieval Languages. There are fewer poems from this period. Of interest is a poem about his new situation and his enduring Russian identity.
Be More Transparent
Be more transparent and simple with me.
You’re the only one who stayed with me.
My home has burnt down and they’ve cut down
the grove where my spring grew misty,
where the birch trees daydreamed
and the woodpecker tapped on tree trunks…
In a hopeless battle I lost a friend
and then my Native land.
In dreams I soared with ghosts;
in reality I roamed with loose women.
In the mountains I squandered my ideas,
and in the ocean I lost my songs.
And now at your fireside,
I’m fated to yearn for the past.
Be gentle, be sincere. Remember,
you’re the only one who stayed with me.
12 November 1919
12. POEM: From Drops of Paint: LA MORTE D’ARTHUR, CRUSADERS, DOSTOEVSKY
Finally at the end of the year, during Christmas break, and perhaps because he had been neglecting his poetry writing, Nabokov wrote 17 poems between December 6-24. Each poem in this exercise had the same format: two stanzas of four lines rhyming ababcdcd. The unconnected poems were collected under the title Drops of Paint. Here are three examples.
La Morte d’Arthur
Of everything I’ve seen but forgotten,
you, resonant fairy tale, are a reminder.
Yes. I was a shy knight,
and a buckle cut into my shoulder.
Yes. An evil encounter at a stream
and on that silk-green evening,
scales of enemy chain mail
and a horse under a mourning blanket.
When we stood before the enemy
under snow-white walls,
arrows screamed all around
And Christ appeared between us.
He looked on—and the arrows in flight
Turned into stars and flowers
And in a joyful swarm fell smoothly
Onto Christ’s shoulders.
Pining in this world as in hell,
ugly, convulsively bright,
in his prophetic ravings,
he outlined our disastrous century.
Hearing his wailing in the night,
God thought: Is it really possible
that everything I have granted
could be so terrible and complex?
6-24 December 1919