Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Passages from a famous American poem

The tricks memory plays.

Vladimir Nabokov taught me to listen for the poetry embedded in prose.  In the magnificent Chapter 4 of The Gift (1938, sort of), we find:

Chernyshevski’s “philosophy” goes back through Feuerbach, to the Encyclopedists. On the other hand, applied Hegelianism, working gradually left, went through that same Feuerbach to join Marx, who in his Holy Family expresses himself thus:

    . . . . no great intelligence
    Is needed to distinguish a connection
    Between the teaching of materialism
    Regarding inborn tendency to good;
    Of industry; the moral right to pleasure,
    And communism.

I have put it into blank verse so it would be less boring. (244-5, Vintage edition, 1991)

The “I” in that last line, the switch back to prose, is not Nabokov but Fyodor, the novel’s protagonist.  The long chapter is “actually” Fyodor’s book about Nikolai Chernoshevsky, fascinating author of the terrible (but fascinating) novel What Is To Be Done? (1862).  So the cheekiness (“less boring”) exists on two levels.  This chapter is among the greatest pieces of writing of, let’s say, 20th century fiction.  Five Branch Tree is writing about The Gift’s fraternal twin, Invitation to a Beheading (1938).  Where was I?

Note, please, that Nabokov is not actually discovering the inadvertent poetry of Karl Marx, but putting Marx into verse.  Not the same thing at all.  My memory fooled me.

What, then, is this, from Chapter 12 of Bend Sinister (1947), VN’s second novel in English:

On the next slip of paper he had transcribed passages from a famous American poem

      A curious sight – these bashful bears,
      These timid warrior whalemen

      And now the time of tide has come;
      The ship casts off her cables

      It is not shown on any map;
      True places never are

      This lovely light, it lights not me;
      All loveliness is anguish –

and, of course, that bit about the delicious death of an Ohio honey hunter (for my humour’s sake I shall preserve the style in which I once narrated it at Thula to a lounging circle of my Russian friends). (155, Vintage edition, 1990).

Krug, the protagonist, spends several pages leafing through similar “dead and unusable” notes for an essay.  I have no idea what that business about the honey hunter is.  But the poem, the famous American poem.  Searchable texts almost spoil the fun.

The first couplet is from Moby-Dick, Chapter 5, “The Breakfast.”  The second is from Chapter 9, “The Sermon.”  The profoundly Melvillean third describes Queequeg’s home, Chapter 12, “Biographical”; the painful last lines are Ahab’s, Chapter 37, “Sunset.”

Nabokov had discovered, or created, a lost Melville poem, shattered and scattered throughout Moby-Dick.  So this is where I learned to look for poetry in prose.  It was Melville all along.

How, by the way, did I know that the poem was Melville’s?  The whalemen are a pretty blatant clue, aren't they, but that’s not it.  Nabokov explains the gag in the introduction he added to the novel in 1963.


  1. Best. Post. Ever. I have always craved a Nabokov/Melville connection! (And have not read Bend Sinister)

    The whalemen are a good giveaway, but the line about Queequeg's home even better. At least for someone who's been reading as much Melville as I have. That's some Mardian romance there. Wonder about the Ohio honey hunter.

  2. I stopped too soon. Chapter 78, "Cistern and Buckets".

    "Only one sweeter end can readily be recalled--the delicious death of an Ohio honey-hunter, who seeking honey in the crotch of a hollow tree, found such exceeding store of it, that leaning too far over, it sucked him in, so that he died embalmed. How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato's honey head, and sweetly perished there?"

    Now I don't know what either writer is talking about.

  3. Of course, of course! For some reason "Ohio" was only calling to mine the lakeman, or canalman, or whatever, who wasn't from Ohio at all, but was the only midwesterny thing I could think of.

  4. "Vladimir Nabokov taught me to listen for the poetry embedded in prose."

    Well said. Some of his sentences literally lift off the page for me.

    The Gift has now been added to my 'soon to be read' list.

  5. The Gift and Invitation to a Beheading (along with a few stories) are the cream of the Russian period. He wrote these two masterpeices, and then gave up Russian!