NABOKV-L post 0022738, Mon, 23 Apr 2012 19:59:19 -0700

Re: Seeking information on Nabokov's poem "Shakespeare" (1924)?
a russian scholar gililov has some strong points regarding the bard - vn probably would support his theory
vladimir m.

From: piano forte <>
Sent: Monday, April 23, 2012 4:48 PM
Subject: [NABOKV-L] Seeking information on Nabokov's poem "Shakespeare" (1924)?

The birthday of Nabokov and Shakespeare seems a good time to ask what VN could have intended by the verse below, if not to express grave doubts about the Bard's true identity.

Does anyone on the list have any information on this early poem, which describes Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, with astonishing clarity?

If Nabokov believed William of Stratford wrote the immortal plays and poems, why would Dmitri, who jealously guarded his father's reputation, permit this verse to be "reprinted...with his kind permission" in the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter?



Ever Reader (No. 9, Summer/Fall 1999) | Ever Reader Home Page
Vladimir Nabokov and William Shakespeare by Philip F Howerton, Jr.

This article was first published in the Winter 1990 Shakespeare Oxford
Society Newsletter.

Vladimir Nabokov, the great Russian/American writer, was born on April
22, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 1914 he published his first
work, a small book of poems in a lilac folder. It carried an epigraph
from Romeo and Juliet. At the time of his death in 1977, he left
behind an enormous oeuvre which included, in the opinion of many, some
of the finest novels in Russian and English written in this century.
Alfred Appel, a Nabokovian scholar, has said that "although the
problem has not yet been submitted to a composer, Shakespeare would
seem to be the writer Nabokov invokes most frequently in his novels in
English." Nabokov himself once said that the "verbal poetical texture
of Shakespeare is the greatest the world has known."

Nabokov, whom Time magazine in 1969 called "The greatest
living American novelist," was also a professor of literature for
twenty years. While at Cornell he published his literal translation of
Eugene Onegin in four volumes, together with almost nine hundred pages
of seminal notes (over thirty references to Shakespeare) and his
"Notes on Prosody." The latter was a book-length "outline of the
differences and similarities" between English and Russian iambic
tetrameters and revealed an astonishing knowledge of English as well
as Russian poetry.

In 1947 Nabokov published a bitterly satirical novel about
totalitarianism called Bend Sinister. In Chapter Seven he took the
opportunity (which has puzzled scholars ever since) to make the
following, apparently ironical, comments about the Stratfordian

"A fluted glass with a blue-veined violet and a jug of hot punch stand
on Ember's bedtable. The buff wall directly above his bed (he has a
bad cold) bears a sequence of three engravings.

Number one represents a sixteenth-century gentleman in the act of
handing a book to a humble fellow who holds a spear and a bay-crowned
hat in his left hand. Note the sinistral detail (why? Ah, "that is the
question," as Monsieur Homais once remarked, quoting le journal d'hier
a question which is answered in a wooden voice by the Portrait on the
title page of the First Folio). Note also the legend: "Ink, a Drug."
Somebody's idle pencil (Ember highly treasures this scholium) has
numbered the letters so as to spell Grudinka which means "bacon' in
several Slavic languages.

Number two shows the rustic (now clad in the clothes of the gentleman)
removing from the head of the gentleman (now writing at a desk) a kind
of shapska. Scribbled underneath in the same hand: "Ham-let, or
Home-lette au Lard."

Finally, number three has a road, traveler on foot (wearing the stolen
shapska) and a road sign 'To High Wycombe."

His name is protean. He begets doubles at every comer. His penmanship
is unconsciously faked by lawyers who happen to write a similar hand.
On the wet morning of November 27, 1582, he is Shaxpere and she is a
Wately of Temple Grafton. A couple of days later he is Shagsper and
she is a Hathaway of Stratford-on-Avon. Who is he? William X,
cunningly composed of two left arms and a mask. Who else? The person
who said (not for the first time) that the glory of God is to hide a
thing, and the glory of man is to find it. However, the fact that the
Warwickshire fellow wrote the plays is most satisfactorily proved on
the strength of an applejohn and a pale primrose."

Several Stratfordian academics have suggested privately, in response
to queries, that Nabokov's assertion in Bend Sinister that "the fact
that the Warwickshire follow wrote the plays is most satisfactorily
proved on the strength of an applejohn and a pale primrose," may be
taken at face value. Citing Caroline Spurgeon's Shakespeare's Imagery
as a possible source, it is suggested that Nabokov may have felt that
only someone familiar with the particular fauna and flora of
Warwickshire could have written the plays. Nabokov, the argument
presumably goes, subscribed to a theory which says, in effect, that
because of his "genius" Shaksper was able to acquire by some sort of
mysterious osmosis a thorough familiarity with court affairs and
international politics, medicine and anatomy, law, music, birds,
falconry, hunting, sailing, warfare, French, Latin, Greek, the
environs of Italy, and more, but, by Golly, he had to be from
Warwickshire to know that applejohns and primroses existed in England!

Could such a man as Nabokov (who, by the way, was an accomplished
naturalist) have really believed (for starters) that applejohns and
primroses were not only endemic to Warwickshire but could not have
been known by, say, a well-traveled nobleman from Essex (a hundred
miles away and on the same latitude)? Or subscribed to the notion that
only a rustic (with a manure heap in his front yard?) could have
appreciated the charms of rural England? Not likely.

In 1941, shortly after he had come to this country, Nabokov wrote a
review for The New Republic of Frayne Williams' book, Mr. Shakespeare
of the Globe, in which he had some very pointed things to say about
the Stratfordian habit of biography. He began as follows: "The
biographical part of this book will not disappoint the imaginary
not-too-bright giant for whom blurbs are fattened and human interest
lavishly spread." He ended with this: "Finally, it is interesting to
learn that 'it takes two to make a conversation and the same number to
make love' -- which fact, together with the second-best bed ('the most
intimate monument of her life') is about all we and the voluble author
really know concerning that particular marriage."

But if Nabokov had real doubts about the authorship, why didn't he
ever come right out and say so? Perhaps that was a fight that he did
not need. The Nabokovs were very poor in the Forbes and even up to the
time of the success of Lolita in the late 1950's, their finances were
never off shaky ground. He was dependent, quite simply, on his
sometimes precarious position in academia. Always suspect by the
orthodox because of his staunch opposition to communism, he waded into
further difficulty with his sometimes scathing appraisals of certain
"established" authors and with his attacks on what he called "solidly
unionized professional paraphrasts" and their "arty" mistranslations
of works such as Onegin. Given what is known about the treatment of
other, declared anti-Stratfordians at the hands of the orthodox, it
would not be the least surprising if Nabokov had simply decided to
keep his opinions to himself. Except, of course, for the few glimpses
he did give us.

Anything else? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. In 1924 Nabokov wrote a
little poem in Russian which his son, Dmitri, translated into English
in 1988. Reprinted here with his kind permission, it is called:


Amid grandees of times Elizabethan
you shimmered too, you followed sumptuous custom;
the circle of ruff, the silv'ry satin that
encased your thigh, the wedgelike beard--in all of this
you were like other men... Thus was enfolded
your godlike thunder in a succinct cape.

Haughty, aloof from theatre's alarums,
you easily, regretlessly relinquished
the laurels twinning into a dry wreath,
concealing for all time your monstrous genius
beneath a mask; and yet, your phantasm's echoes
still vibrate for us; your Venetian Moor,
his anguish; Falstaff's visage, like an udder
with pasted-on mustache; the raging Lear...
You are among us, you're alive; your name, though,
your image, too--deceiving, thus, the world
you have submerged in your beloved Lethe.
It's true, of course, a usurer had grown
accustomed, for a sum, to sign your work
(that Shakespeare---Will--who played the Ghost in Hamlet,
who lives in pubs, and died before he could
digest in full his portion of a boar's head)...

The frigate breathed, your country you were leaving,
To Italy you went. A female voice
called singsong through the iron's pattern
called to her balcony the tall inglesse,
grown languid from the lemon-tinted moon
and Verona's streets. My inclination
is to imagine, possibly, the droll
and kind creator of Don Quixote
exchanging with you a few casual words
while waiting for fresh horses--and the evening
was surely blue. The well behind the tavern
contained a pail's pure tinkling sound... Reply
whom did you love? Reveal yourself--whose memoirs
refer to you in passing? Look what numbers
of lowly, worthless souls have left their trace,
what countless names Brantome has for the asking!
Reveal yourself, god of iambic thunder,
you hundred-mouthed, unthinkably great bard!

No! At the destined hour, when you felt banished
by God from your existence, you recalled
those secret manuscripts, fully aware
that your supremacy would rest unblemished
by public rumor's unashamed brand,
that ever, midst the shifting dust of ages,
faceless you'd stay, like immortality
itself--then vanished in the distance, smiling.

How did Vladimir Nabokov feel about the authorship? You be the judge.

Copyright 1979 Vladimir Nabokov Estate
English version copyright 1988 Dmitri Nabokov
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