“They say that the Dead die not, but remain / near to the rich heirs of their grief and mirth.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s first work of literary criticism was “Rupert Brooke,” an essay he wrote in 1921 and published the following year in Grani, a Russian-language journal in Berlin. In it he translates into Russian 20 poems or excerpts from poems written by Brooke. There was a personal connection. Brooke had graduated from Cambridge in 1909, Nabokov in 1922. After the start of the Great War, Brooke joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. In February 1915, he sailed to the Dardanelles in preparation for the Gallipoli campaign. He contracted blood poisoning from an insect bite and died on April 23, one day after Nabokov’s sixteenth birthday. Brooke was buried on the Greek island of Skyros.
The lines at the top are from one of Brooke’s sonnets, “Clouds,” which was translated by Nabokov and included in his essay. His comment on the poem: “This isn’t far from complete reconciliation with death . . .” The theme would reappear in Nabokov’s work for the next fifty-five years, most memorably in Pale Fire. In his penultimate novel, Transparent Things (1972), Nabokov has Hugh Person say:
“It is generally assumed that if man were to establish the fact of survival after death, he would also solve, or be on the way to solving the riddle of Being. Alas, the two problems do not necessarily overlap or blend.”
Nabokov died on this date, July 2, in 1977 at age seventy-eight. I remember hearing the news on a humid summer evening on the car radio in Youngstown, Ohio.
[“Rupert Brooke” is collected in Nabokov’s posthumously published Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor (eds. Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, 2019.)]