Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0022041, Tue, 27 Sep 2011 23:34:00 -0300

One of Tennyson's translations and Pale Fire
Dear List,

In Jorge Luis Borges's Lectures on English Literature (1966, Buenos Aires) we can find a new possible link to Pale Fire's northern lands, Viking navigators, battles, Anglo Saxons.* This time it's not through Alfred Tennyson's "Lady of the Lake,"but his translation of "The Battle of Brunanburh."** Google led me to a site that offers a brief description of this curious and successful translation referred to by Borges. Here it is:

Tennyson's famous translation of "The Battle of Brunanburh" was first published in Ballads and Other Poems in 1880. It is based on his son Hallam's prose translation of the poem, published in The Contemporary Review, November, 1876. In his memoir, Hallam states, "My father liked the rush of the alliterative verse, as giving something of the old English war-song." (A Memoir by His Son, 255) Tennyson tried to retain the alliterative style of the original Anglo Saxon. However at the time, the custom was to translate single half lines instead of long lines of four beats bound with alliteration.(Old English Poetry, 262). The translation became quite popular and was highly praised.[...]The original poem is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle*** for the year 937. Tennyson includes this summary of the events surrounding the battle before the first line of his translation: "Constantinus, King of the Scots, after having sworn allegiance to Athelstan, allied himself with the Danes of Ireland under Anlaf, and invading England, was defeated by Athelstan and his brother Edmund with great slaughter at Brunanburh in the year 937.
(Tennyson Handbook, 197)"

We find references to various Alfreds in "Pale Fire" (even to a fictitious King Alfred****), as we read in his note to line "little hairs stand on end." Kinbote writes: "Alfred Housman (1859-1936), whose collection The Shropshire Lad vies with the In Memoriam of Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) in representing, perhaps (no, delete this craven "perhaps"), the highest achievement of English poetry in a hundred years, says somewhere (in a foreword?) exactly the opposite: The bristling of thrilled little hairs obstructed his barbering; but since both Alfreds certainly used an Ordinary Razor, and John Shade an ancient Gillette, the discrepancy may have been due to the use of different instruments."

Although Nabokov mentions Alfred Tennyson using a "slight of hand" (a marvellous typo found in an excellent article about glory and fame), I suppose he must have been quite familiar with his translation Cf. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/tennyson/brunanburh/brun.html With patience and some daring scattered references to the Slovo, to good or bad translations and to battles can to be found in PF#.

* P.Meyer SWSHH p.204: "The geographic Ultima Thule of the ancients resembles Zembla, 'a distant northern land.' Nabokov provides the modern geographical real-life variant of the exploration of Ultima Thule in an early play The Pole, (1923)"..."a metaphysical journey to the most distant point...eternity." [...]Many of the strands in Pale Fire are present in Bering'a story - Viking navigators...the Danish connection, the history of St.Petersburg, the relationship of the two hemispheres, and the exploration of the northernmost point that leads to death."

** - Priscilla Meyer (SWSHH, p.207 n.28) indicates Mary McCarthy's "hazel shade" and Tennyson's Mermaid and Mermen poem (Odon's disguise in the lines that deal with King Charles's II escape).

*** - Assembled by Alfred, the Great (871-899)

**** CK's note to line 238 "Oh, there you are," rude Alfred would say to the gentle Norwegian who had come to weave a subtly different variant of some old Norse myth he had already related before: "Oh there you are again!" And thus it came to pass, my dears, that a fabulous exile, a God-inspired northern bard, is known today to English schoolboys by the trivial nickname: Ohthere.
This line leads us to a reference to the Bera Range and its Mt.Glitterntin. From the Index we are led to a note to line 149 :"The Bera Range, a two-hundred-mile-long chain of rugged mountains, not quite reaching the northern end of the Zemblan peninsula (cut off basally by an impassable canal from the mainland of madness), divides it into two parts, the flourishing eastern region of Onhava and other townships, such as Aros and Grindelwod, and the much narrower western strip with its quaint fishing hamlets and pleasant beach resorts. The two coasts are connected by two asphalted highways: the older one shirks difficulties by running first along the eastern slopes northward to Odevalla, Yeslove and Embla, and only then turning west at the northmost point of the peninsula... one can distinguish on clear days, far out to the east, beyond the Gulf of Surprise, a dim iridescence which some say is Russia."

# For example, from CK's note to line 238, we finally reach a reference to a "battle"(on line 149).."all the shadows of his lost kingdom gathered to play around his rocking chair as he dozed off between that blaze and the tremulous light of a little earthenware cresset, a beaked affair rather like a Roman lamp, hanging above a shelf where poor beady baubles and bits of nacre became microscopic soldiers swarming in desperate battle." Perhaps even the Roman oil lamp serves to shed light on fighting microscopic soldiers.

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