Tag Archives: William Forsell Kirby

The Strange Case of Nabokov and W.F. Kirby

One of the perils and pleasures of Nabokov research comes from dipping a toe into what appears to be no more than a puddle, only to find a much deeper cavern lurking beneath the small ripples of the surface. This is one such case:

In Pale Fire, Kinbote’s note to line 79 gives us a line from Shade (“The evening is the time to praise the day”) which Kinbote asserts was inspired by his recitation of

…a charming quatrain from our Zemblan counterpart to the Elder Edda, in an anonymous English translation (Kirby’s?):

The wise at nightfall praise the day,

The wife when she has passed away,

The ice when it is crossed, the bride

When tumbled, and the horse when tried.

Though the Zemblan Elder Edda is fictional, the Kirby to whom Kinbote refers is a real man and a real translator, W.F. Kirby, though Kirby’s major work of translation was the Finnish epic The Kalevala, not the Elder Edda. Complicating things further, the Zemblan quatrain actually seems be a reworking not of Kirby’s work but of Olive Bray’s 1908 translation of Strophe 81 of the Havamal, a portion of the Elder Edda. It reads:

Praise the day at even, a wife when dead,

a weapon when tried, a maid when married,

ice when ’tis crossed, and ale when ’tis drunk.

So Nabokov, via Kinbote, has here constructed a rhyming English version of Bray’s English translation, in the guise of Kirby’s English translation of a Zemblan work akin to the Old Norse Elder Edda. Got it?

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