The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English

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NABOKOV, Vladimir (Vladimirovich) ( 1899- 1977), was born in St Petersburg, the eldest son of cosmopolitan aristocrats. Mastering both French and English in childhood, Nabokov demonstrated precocious literary gifts, publishing two collections of verse while still in his teens. When his family fled revolutionary Russia in 1919, Nabokov entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he published his first English verse. After his father, a liberal politician, was assassinated by Russian reactionaries in 1922. Nabokov moved to Berlin where he married Vera Slonim, and established himself as a leading emigré writer, usually using the pseudonym, V. Sirin. Moving to Paris in 1937 to avoid the Nazi threat, Nabokov began writing in English, and in 1940 the Nabokovs and their son Dimitri (later his father's translator), emigrated to America where he obtained university positions in literature and lepidopterology, eventually accepting a professorship at Cornell. The international success of Lolita following its American publication in 1958 allowed Nabokov to retire from teaching in 1959 and move to Switzerland to be near his son. Although Nabokov, an American citizen, claimed his European residency would be temporary, he died in Montreux.

Nabokov maintained that there was no generic difference between poetry and 'artistic prose', and his own verse displays the same conspicuous virtues of his fiction--playful musicality, dark wit, and narrative ingenuity. He published only a few mature poems in English, but they are uniformly strong and strikingly original. The long monologue, 'An Evening of Russian Poetry', which is spoken by an imaginary lecturer visiting a women's college, begins as gentle academic satire but builds into an exile's extravagant elegy for his lost Russia. Nabokov's finest poems, like 'The Ballad of Longwood Glen' and 'The Literary Dinner', often employ black comedy but use that savage and sophisticated humour to protect their essential innocence. Nabokov's most ambitious poem in English (or Russian) was 'Pale Fire', which formed the centre-piece of his masterful 1961 experimental novel of the same tide. Purportedly written by John Shade (whom Nabokov convincingly called 'the greatest of invented poets'), this 999-line poem in heroic couplets provides the mysterious and eccentric critic, Charles Kinbote, the opportunity to project his autobiography into 200 pages of hilarious and heart-breaking footnotes. A masterful performance, Pale Fire became an influential model to postmodern novelists. Nabokov's poetry, however, has had little direct influence.

Nabokov also made significant contributions to verse translation and prosody. After having done many literary translations of Russian poetry, he eventually became a ferocious champion of 'honest and clumsy' literalism. His massively annotated translation of Pushkin Eugene Onegin ( Princeton, NJ, 1964) demonstrates scholarship and pedantry in equal measure. His book-length appendix on Pushkin's metre (later published separately as Notes on Prosody), which brilliantly compares English and Russian iambic tetrameter, remains a magisterial study of versification. The fullest collection of Nabokov verse is Poems and Problems ( New York and London, 1970). See also Andrew Field, VN: The Lifeand Art of Vladimir Nabokov

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