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Vladimir Nabokov and the Russian Hexameter: Classical Imitations in His Early Poetry

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    V. Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia, ed., with a commentary, by M. Malikova, St. Petersburg, 2002, p. 260.

  2. 2.

    Starover, literally ‘Old Believer’, is a member of a schismatic sect that appeared in Russia in the 17th century. Here, ‘someone who prefers older norms to the established tastes of their time’.

  3. 3.

    The place and importance of poetry in Nabokov’s oeuvre is usefully summed up in Maria Malikova’s introduction to the collection of Nabokov’s Russian poetry in the ‘Biblioteka poeta’ series (Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia [n. 1 above], pp. 5–52). For a synoptic approach to Nabokov’s poetry, where the lyric voice of Nabokov’s verse informs the authorial voice in his entire oeuvre, see P. D. Morris, Vladimir Nabokov: Poetry and the Lyric Voice, Toronto, Buffalo, London, 2010.

  4. 4.

    G. S. Smith, ‘Nabokov and Russian Verse Form’, Russian Literature Triquarterly, 24, 1991, pp. 271–305 (302).

  5. 5.

    Nabokov’s early drama in verse ‘In the Springtime’ (‘Vesnoi’, 1918, now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library) was written in six-foot iamb. Brian Boyd referred to its meter as ‘hexameter’ in his biography (B. Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, 1990, p. 142), and Maria Malikova repeated this information in her introduction (Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia [n. 1 above], p. 14). Similarly, Boyd classified Zhukovskii’s and Baratynskii’s meters, analyzed by Nabokov in two separate school notebooks in 1918 (in the Berg Collection), as ‘hexameters’ (Boyd, Russian Years [n. 5 above], p. 151), while they were also six-foot iambs. I follow Mikhail Gasparov’s definition of the Russian hexameter as a six-foot dactylic line, where any dactyl except in the fifth foot can be replaced by a trochee, and the last foot is always trochaic, and of the Russian pentameter as a derivate of the hexameter where the third and sixth feet are shortened to a single stressed syllable and the fourth and fifth feet are always dactylic (M. Gasparov, Russkii stikh nachala XX veka v kommentariiakh, 2nd edn., Moscow, 2001, pp. 141–2). On the origins and evolution of the Russian hexameter, see R. Burgi, A History of the Russian Hexameter, Hamden, CT, 1954; S. Bondi, ‘Pushkin i russkii gekzametr’, in O Pushkine: stat’i i issledovaniia, Moscow, 1978, pp. 307–70; M. Shapir, ‘O geksametre i pentametre v poezii Katenina (O formal’no-semanticheskoi derivatsii stikhotvornykh razmerov)’, Philologica, 1, 1994, pp. 43–114; M. Gasparov, ‘Russkii geksametr i drugie natsionalnye formy geksametra’, in Izbrannye Trudy, III, Moscow, 1997, pp. 234–58. For the clearest and most instructive introduction into these meters, the Anglophone reader is referred to B. Scherr, Russian Poetry: Metre, Rhythm, and Rhyme, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1986, pp. 126–40. With respect to the uses of the hexameter in early 20th-century Russian poetry, I rely on Iurii Orlitskii’s classification: (a) classical stylizations with clear references to antiquity (Annenskii, Merezhkovskii, Viacheslav Ivanov, Briusov, Blok, Voloshin, Nabokov); (b) modernized variants which were more flexible metrically and which admitted any topic (Briusov, Nabokov, Khodasevich) and (c) modernist parody, or the modern ironic hexameter (Sasha Chernyi, Mandelshtam, Radimov, satirical journalism) (Iu. Orlitskii, ‘Geksametr i pentameter v tvorchestve poetov Serebrianogo veka’, in Antichnost’ i russkaia kul’tura Serebrianogo veka. XII Losevskie chteniia. K 85-letiiu A.A. Takho-Godi, ed. A. Takho-Godi, E. Takho-Godi, M. Edel’shtein, Moscow, 2008, pp. 56–66 [58]).

  6. 6.

    G. Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii, Paris, 1956, p. 122.

  7. 7.

    The Greek Anthology, a ‘garden containing the flowers and weeds of fifteen hundred years of Greek poetry, from the most humdrum doggerel to the purest poetry’ (A. D. E. Cameron, ‘Anthology’, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd rev. edn, ed. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, Oxford, 2003, pp. 101–2 [102]), inspired Russian and Western European neoclassical poets alike. For a definitive account of the anthological genre in Russian poetry, as well as of the Russian reception of the Greek Anthology, see S. Kibalnik, Russkaia antologicheskaia poeziia pervoi treti XIX veka, Leningrad, 1990. For a useful metrical analysis of Nabokov’s published hexametric poems outside of the thematic links and the classical tradition, see O. I. Fedotov, Mezhdu Motsartom i Salieri. O poeticheskom dare Nabokova, Moscow, 2014.

  8. 8.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 160.

  9. 9.

    Orlitskii, ‘Geksametr i pentametr’ (n. 5 above), p. 65.

  10. 10.

    Sergei Kibalnik convincingly argues that ‘youths’ appeared in Pushkin’s verse under the influence of Anton Delvig’s anthological poetry, and Delvig in his turn relied on Greek anthological models (Kibalnik, Russkaia antologicheskaia poeziia [n. 7 above], p. 220).

  11. 11.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), pp. 160–1.

  12. 12.

    Translated by G. Shapiro and D. Nabokov, published in D. Zimmer, Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths, web version, http://www.d-e-zimmer.de/eGuide/Lep2.1-M-O.htm#N.antiopa, accessed 29 December 2017.

  13. 13.

    In a 1970 interview with A. Appel Jr., when giving a brief outline of his poetic evolution, Nabokov insisted that at this early stage he went through ‘a period (reaching well into the 1920s) of a kind of private curatorship, aimed at preserving nostalgic retrospections and developing Byzantine imagery (this has been mistaken by some readers for an interest in “religion”, which, beyond literary stylization, never meant anything to me)’ (V. Nabokov, Strong Opinions, New York, 1973, p. 160). He then spoke in the same interview of the ‘false glamor of Byzantine imagery that attracted young poets of the Blokian era’ when explaining the choice of his Russian nom de plume, Sirin (ibid. p. 161). From these allusions, we can infer that by ‘Byzantine’ Nabokov meant the kind of archaistic stylizations in poetry that he used, for instance, in the cycle ‘Angels’ (‘Angely’, 1918–21) which describes the nine celestial orders according to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Cf. also the Symbolist poet of the pre-Blokian generation, I. Annenskii referring to archaistic stylizations as Byzantinism and equating it with contemporary decadence in his essay ‘On Contemporary Lyricism’ (‘O sovremennom lirizme’, 1909).

  14. 14.

    D. Zimmer, Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths, web version, http://www.d-e-zimmer.de/eGuide/Lep2.1-M-O.htm#N.antiopa, accessed 29 December 2017.

  15. 15.

    M. Malikova mistakenly identifies Vanessa antiopa with Vanessa atalanta in her note to this poem (Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia [n. 1 above], p. 554).

  16. 16.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 167.

  17. 17.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 171.

  18. 18.

    V. Nabokov, The Gift, trans. by M. Scammell in coll. with the author, New York, 1991, p. 6.

  19. 19.

    V. Nabokov, Sobranie sochinenii russkogo perioda v 5 tomakh, IV, St. Petersburg, 2003, p. 194.

  20. 20.

    Nabokov, Sobranie sochinenii russkogo perioda (n. 19 above), p. 417.

  21. 21.

    Nabokov, The Gift (n. 18 above), p. 239.

  22. 22.

    Album 8. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

  23. 23.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia, p. 61.

  24. 24.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 80.

  25. 25.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 543.

  26. 26.

    For an analysis of the translation, see S. Shvabrin, Vladimir Nabokov as Translator: The Multilingual Works of the Russian Period, PhD Diss., Los Angeles, 2007, p. 251.

  27. 27.

    Album 8, Berg Collection.

  28. 28.

    Nabokov, Sobranie sochinenii russkogo perioda (n. 19 above), p. 277.

  29. 29.

    V. Nabokov, Novels 1955–1962, New York, 1996, pp. 462–4.

  30. 30.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), pp. 159–60.

  31. 31.

    The name Dia (Дия) may have just as well been an abbreviation of Dioneia (Дионея), which Nabokov might have encountered in Pushkin; or Lydia (Лидия) in Martial or Briusov; or Delia (Делия), which he could have known from Tibullus, Batiushkov or Pushkin. Delia was actually one of Nabokov’s favourite names: it occurs as a stock name for the beloved of the lyric poet in the 1923 poem ‘V kakom raiu vpervye prozhurchali…’ (Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia [n. 1 above], p. 267); then, as Pushkin’s ‘лицейская Делия’ in the poem ‘Tolstoi’ of 1928 (ibid., p. 341) and finally as one of the stock names of the young poet’s girlfriend in Speak, Memory (V. Nabokov, Novels and Memoirs 19411951, New York, 1996, p. 552; not in the Russian version of his memoir ‘Drugie berega’). In Russian poetry, Ivan Dmitriev wrote elegies in imitation of Tibullus and first used the name Delia in the 1790s; Konstantin Batiushkov then used it in his translations from Tibullus in 1809 and in 1814–1816, both Batiushkov and Pushkin (then a teenage student at the Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo) wrote poems addressing Delia (hence ‘Delia of the Lyceum’ with reference to Pushkin in Nabokov’s poem ‘Tolstoi’). In early 20th-century Russian poetry, Osip Mandelshtam mentioned Delia in his 1918 poem ‘Tristia’ (on his choice, see C. Cavanagh, Osip Mandelshtam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition, Princeton, 1995, p. 24) but as the ‘лицейская Делия’ indicates, Nabokov was more interested in the Golden Age of Russian poetry (early 19th century) than his contemporaries in the Silver Age (early 20th).

  32. 32.

    Kibalnik, Russkaia antologicheskaia poeziia (n. 7 above), pp. 112–3.

  33. 33.

    See, for example, the 1922 essay ‘Rupert Brooke’, where Nabokov reproached Brooke for ‘denigrating the underside of love’ (‘чернить исподнюю сторону любви’ [Nabokov, Sobranie sochinenii russkogo perioda (n. 19 above), I, p. 738]), that is, for being too explicit and too physical in his comparisons.

  34. 34.

    Album 8, Berg Collection.

  35. 35.


  36. 36.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 261.

  37. 37.

    Cf. ‘Iz bleska v ten’ i v blesk iz teni…’ (1923), where the poet offers an etiological story of the birth of music out of the twang of a bowstring (Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia [n. 1 above], p. 62).

  38. 38.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 261.

  39. 39.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 261.

  40. 40.

    As late as 1972 Nabokov remembered Gumilev’s bravery and adventurousness as reflected in the man’s poetry. The lecture ‘The Art of Literature and Commonsense’ (1941) was dedicated to the memory of Gumilev. For a summary of Nabokov’s attitude to Gumilev, see V. Alexandrov, ‘Nabokov and Gumilev’, in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, ed. V. Alexandrov, New York, London, 1995, pp. 428–32. D. Barton Johnson suggested that the young Nabokov was not immune to romantic hero worship, and his attitude to Brooke was similar to his attitude to Gumilev: the latter ‘was only a year older than Brooke, [and] may have been for Nabokov a Brooke-like figure’ (D. B. Johnson, ‘Nabokov and British Literature: Rupert Brooke and Walter de la Mare’, Revue des Etudes Slaves, 72, 2000, pp. 319–32, [331 n. 25]).

  41. 41.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 261.

  42. 42.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 67.

  43. 43.

    Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii (n. 6 above), p. 121.

  44. 44.

    None of these names appeared in Brooke’s original. Interestingly, Nabokov will make the poet John Shade mention ‘the talks / with Socrates and Proust in cypress walks’ as one of the versions of the afterlife in Pale Fire (Nabokov, Novels 1955–1962 [n. 28 above], p. 463). This could be a reminiscence of A. Fet’s line ‘In Elysium there are tsars, heroes, and poets’ (‘В Элизии цари, герои и поэты’) from ‘Netlennostiu bozhestvennoi odety…’ (1863 or 1864, first publ. 1900). Overall, the trope of the Elizium poetov (‘Elysium of Poets’) was introduced into Russian poetry by Anton Delvig and Aleksandr Pushkin, and the fact that Nabokov evoked it with such consistency is additional evidence of his status as ‘poetical starover.’ On the role of this trope as a marker of the ‘basic orientation toward the language and poetics of the Russian “Golden Age” in Vladislav Khodasevich’s poetry in the 1930s, see V. Zel’chenko, ‘ “Pamiati kota Murra” Khodasevicha: stikhi o russkoi poezii’, Russian Literature, 83/84, 2016, pp. 187–99.

  45. 45.

    Orlitskii, ‘Geksametr i pentametr’ (n. 5 above), p. 64.

  46. 46.

    Nabokov, Stikhotvoreniia (n. 1 above), p. 262.

  47. 47.

    Nabokov dedicated several poems to the memory of his dead cousin, among them ‘Kak ty – ia s otrocheskikh dnei’ (1919) and ‘Pamiati druga’ (1923).

  48. 48.

    There might also be an echo of the popular ancient tradition of the acceptance of death as transition to a happier state: from Aristotle’s lost ‘Eudemus, or On the Soul’, where Silenus shares his wisdom with King Midas (‘The best for mortals would be to have never been born, but since this is unattainable, the second best is to die as soon as possible’) to Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and Christianity.

  49. 49.

    V. Khodasevich dedicated a poem in elegiac distich to his father as well (‘Dactyls’), but it was written between January 1927 and March 1928 and could not have influenced Nabokov. Before 1923, Khodasevich used the Russian dactylic hexameter and elegiac distich mainly for humorous and parodic purposes (for a detailed analysis, see O. I. Fedotov, ‘Metrika i ritmika Vladislava Khodasevicha. I. Imitatsia antichnoi metriki i sillabiki’, in Uchenye zapiski Kazanskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, 149, 2007, pp. 180–91).

  50. 50.

    Album 8, Berg Collection.

  51. 51.

    Boyd, Russian Years (n. 5 above), p. 150.

  52. 52.

    R. Ellis, A Commentary on Catullus, Oxford, 1876, p. 15.

  53. 53.

    All the popular Russian translations of this poem, by A. Fet (1850), F. Korsh (1899), A. Piotrovskii (1929) and S. Shervinskii (1986) speak of envy and evil eye, and none mentions charts, poetry or marble.

  54. 54.

    Nabokov, Sobranie sochinenii russkogo perioda (n. 19 above), I, p. 737.

  55. 55.

    It is also worth noting that Catullus 5 was the only poem by Catullus that Nabokov quoted in his work in the original: in Chapter 16 of Bend Sinister (1946) the phrase Brevis lux. Da mi basia mille constitutes part of Adam Krug’s interior monologue (Nabokov, Novels and Memoirs [n. 30 above], p. 323).

  56. 56.

    For a brief analysis of these references, see Fedotov, Mezhdu Motsartom i Salieri (n. 7 above), pp. 163–5.

  57. 57.

    Bondi, ‘Pushkin i russkii gekzametr’ (n. 5 above), pp. 345–6.

Author information

Correspondence to Sergey Karpukhin.

Additional information

I would like to thank the editors and two anonymous reviewers of the International Journal of the Classical Tradition for their most helpful suggestions and comments. I am particularly grateful to one of the reviewers for their advice regarding the structure of the paper and for their invaluable help in finessing the English translations of Nabokov’s poems. I have also benefited from the critical acumen and knowledge of Alexander Dolinin, under whose direction I wrote this article as part of my doctoral dissertation, defended at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2015.

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Karpukhin, S. Vladimir Nabokov and the Russian Hexameter: Classical Imitations in His Early Poetry. Int class trad 27, 89–111 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12138-018-0457-y

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