Vladimir Nabokov had spent over 20 years as a Russian exile by the time the 1930s was coming to a close and at that stage had built up an international reputation as a gifted writer of poetry and prose. However, as war was looming he found himself destitute and unable to obtain permission to work in France. With a wife and a young son to support and the Nazis on the march he knew he had to get out fast. The most obvious route was through academia and he looked for a post in England or America.
His decision to leave France marked the moment when he would stop writing, for the most part, in Russian and by 1940 he was composing primarily in English. This farewell to his mother tongue was obviously a defining moment for Nabokov but, before he made his break, he wrote a few last poems including a final farewell to his younger self, a poem that would eventually be called ‘We So Firmly Believed’.
In this video Nabokov recites an early translation of the poem which was then called ‘To My Youth’. The poem is one of the best from Nabokov’s Russian period and according to Alexander Dolinin, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin – Madison:
He wrote it on the brink of World War II when his career as a leading Russian author in emigration was coming to an end, in a sense, all his poems from this period are farewells to Russian language, Russian literature and ‘old world’ as he knew it.
So here it is in text. A 1954 translation of the poem, which he describes on tape as “a clumsy, but more or less exact affair”:
To My Youth
We used to believe so firmly, you and I, in the unity
of existence; but now I glance back–and it is
astounding–how impersonal in color, how unreal in
pattern you have become, my youth.
When one examines the matter, it is like the haze of
a wave between me and you, between the shallows and the
drowning–or else I see a receding highway, and you
from behind as you pedal right into the sunset on your semi-racer.
You are no more myself, you’re a mere outline, the subject
of any first chapter–but how long we believed
in the oneness of the way from the damp gorge
to the mountain heather.
Nabokov re-translated the poem for his 1970 volume, Poems and Problems and called it ‘We So Firmly Believed’. There’s quite a difference. Perhaps it him addressing the problem of clumsiness. Perhaps it is time, memory.
We So Firmly Believed
We so firmly believed in the linkage of life,
but now I’ve looked back–and it is astonishing
to what a degree you, my youth,
seem in tints not mine, in traits not real.
If one probes it, it’s rather like a wave’s haze
between me and you, between shallow and sinking,
or else I see telegraph poles and you from the back
as right into the sunset you ride your half-racer.
You’ve long ceased to be I. You’re an outline–the hero
of any first chapter; yet how long we believed
that there was no break in the way from the damp dell
to the alpine heath.