Nabokov: the Prose and Poetry of It All

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

Readers of Lolita may recall that Humbert Humbert, who delivers himself of the contents of the book while in confinement awaiting trial for murder, is something of a poet. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” he says, and you can count on this particular murderer for scattered flights of verse as well. His are “occassional poems” in the most invidious sense possible. His muse materializes only intermittently, and when she does it is in response to situations of a kind that do not, as a rule, give rise to la poèsie pure—or whatever we may call the opposite of occasional poetry.

Hoping, for example, to calm his restless Lolita he improvises a bit of what he tells her is “nonsense verse.”

The Squirl and his Squirrel, the Rabs and their Rabbits
Have certain obscure and peculiar habits.
Male humming birds make the most exquisite rockets.
The snake when he walks holds his hands in his pockets.

“Nonsense is correct,” Lolita says mockingly perhaps guessing that Humbert’s weakness for nymphets like herself lends the poem a certain “obscure and peculiar” sense which she would prefer to ignore. As poet, Humbert succeeds no better with Rita, a temporary replacement for Lolita, and one who knows her time is short. He tries to stop her accusing sobs by extemporizing some verses about a certain “blue hotel” they have just motored past. “Why blue when it is white, why blue for heaven’s sake?” she protests and starts crying again. Humbert’s lengthiest effort is a ballad, full of literary allusions, double-entendres, and straight French, with which he writes to console himself for the loss of Lolita. One stanza reads:

Happy, happy is gnarled McFate
Touring the States with a child wife,
Plowing his Molly in every State
Among the protected wild life.

Humbert, like other of Nabokov’s creatures, foreign or nutty or both, has a flair for knowing what is going on in the American literary world, such as that “light verse” has been made respectable by Mr.W.H. Auden and that poetry of any weight lends itself nicely to depth analysis. His own analyst, Humbert says of his ballad: “It is really a maniac’s masterpiece. The stark, stiff, lurid rhymes correspond very exactly to certain perspectiveless and terrible landscapes and figures…as drawn by psychopaths in tests devised by astute trainers.” He is aware, too, of that American specialty, the belief that poetry inheres in phenomena themselves rather than in the poet, and that to write a poem one need only catalogue phenomena in impressive numbers. So he pounces upon a mimeographed list of names of Lolita’s classmates, surnames and first names intriguingly reversed for the purpose of alphabetization (e.g., FANTAZIA, STELLA; FLASHMAN, IRVING; HAZE, DOLORES). “A poem, a poem, forsooth!” he exclaims, and goes on to imagine the occupants of the…

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