Good poets borrow, great poets steal.
“Annabel Lee” is the last complete poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Like many of his poems such as “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” and “To One in Paradise,” “Annabel Lee” explores the theme of the death of a beautiful young woman, which Poe claims is “unquestionably the most poetic topic in the world.” In the poem, the speaker fell in love with Annabel Lee when they were children. He asserts that their love was so strong and intense that even the angels envied them and caused Annabel Lee’s death. He loves her intensely even after her death, feeling her soul and his mingle. Every night, he dreams of her and her bright eyes, as he lies down by her sepulcher by the sea. The poem was written in 1849 and was not published until shortly after Poe’s death that same year.
One century later, Vladimir Nabokov created one of the most controversial masterpieces of the twentieth century, Lolita (1955), which accounts the story a man loving a child-girl. The protagonist and unreliable narrator, a thirty-seven-year-old French literature professor called Humbert Humbert (or H.H.) is obsessed with the twelve-year-old Dolores Haze whom he privately nicknames Lolita. He is sexually involved with her after becoming her stepfather. Like “Annabel Lee,” Lolita touches on the subject of passion and obsession for a young child and the suffering of the male lover. Indeed, Nabokov intentionally borrowed and reused details, images, and phrases in “Annabel Lee.” His borrowing and alternation of Poe’s poem shows his talent of varying literary materials and merging them into his own creation. Lolita and “Annabel Lee” also offer insights into artists’ process of borrowing and creation in art.
Chapter One of Lolita already evokes several details and images from Poe’s poem. Humbert Humbert’s contemplation about Lolita’s name is an evocation of Poe’s Annabel Lee: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta” (Nabokov 9). The middle syllable of “Lo-lee-ta” alludes to the name Annabel Lee. In the next paragraph, Humbert describes his love for Lolita: “had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea” (Nabokov 9). Though Nabokov alters Poe’s “kingdom by the sea” to “princedom by the sea” (Nabokov 9), this description echoes the first two lines of the second stanza of Poe’s poem: “I was a child and she was a child,/ In this kingdom by the sea” (lines 7-8). The second-to last sentence of this chapter is a reverberation of the phrases “winged-seraphs” and the verb “envy” from the poem: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied” (Nabokov 9). This sentence is a pastiche of two passages of the poem: “the winged seraphs of Heaven” (line 11) and “The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,/ went envying her and me” (lines 21–2). Both H.H. and the speaker in “Annabel Lee” accuse the seraphs of envying their love.
The clearest parallel to Poe’s “Annabel Lee” in Lolita is Humbert Humbert’s account of his childhood and his first love in Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and Chapter Four. Before becoming obsessed with Lolita in his adulthood, Humber, as a child, grew up in his father’s luxurious hotel on the Riviera and fell in love with a girl who lived nearby named Annabel Leigh; they were both thirteen at this point. They were about to consummate their love at seaside but were interrupted by two swimmers whom H.H. called “ribald sea monsters” (Nabokov 53). Annabel Leigh died four months later of typhus. Humbert claims that her death thwarted him of romantic relationship until he reincarnates her in Lolita twenty four year later:
I also know that the shock of Annabel’s death consolidated the frustration of that nightmare summer, made of it a permanent obstacle to any further romance throughout the cold years of my youth. The spiritual and the physical has been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today. Long after her death I felt her thoughts floating through mine. Long before we met, we had had the same dreams. We compared notes. We found strange affinities. (Nabokov 14)
Like Humbert who “felt her thoughts floating through mine” (Nabokov 14) and who “found strange affinities” (Nabokov 14) with his first love, the narrator in “Annabel Lee” senses an inseparable spiritual connection with his lover after her death:
Our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; (line 27-33)
“The matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today” (Nabokov 14) parallel “those who were older than we” (line 28) and “many far wiser than we” (line 29) in Poe’s poem. They are the people who judge the love of H.H. and the narrator in the poem. Humbert’s frustration, obsession with his first love after her death, and his sense of superiority to his peers mirror the narrator’s feelings in Poe’s poem.
In addition to the above chapters, “Annabel Lee” echoes throughout the novel as well. Humbert calls Annabel Leigh and Lolita “my darling” or “my bride” many times, resonating with Poe’s phrase: “my darling—my darling—my life and my bride” (line 39). He calls his trip to the seaside with Lolita “the search for a Kingdom by the Sea” (Nabokov 167). Nabokov originally even titled the novel The Kingdom by the Sea. Nabokov’s choice of subject matter, a man in love with a young child who died premature, is both a tribute and a parody to Poe’s “most poetic topic in the world.” Humbert’s mother died when he was three; his aunt who took after him died after his sixteen birthday; his first love Annabel Leigh died when he was thirteen; and Lolita died giving birth to a stillborn girl at the age of seventeen. Poe himself suffered the loss of his beloved women: his mother, his foster mother, and his wife.
Poe conjures up a fantastical kingdom by the sea where two people are in love and are envied by angels on Heaven. The poem is perhaps Poe’s attempt to rationalize the loss of his woman. Nabokov borrows the subject matter of the poem and creates an intricate novel that challenges any moral interpretation. He forces readers to sympathize with Humbert, though his act is repugnant. He tricks readers, lures them by his excellent command of the English language, appealing them to their sense of beauty. Despite any moral interpretation of the novel, Lolita after all is captivating from H.H.’s psychology to Nabokov’s language. Ultimately, the novel successfully portrays an aesthetic values: the escaping and fragile nature of beauty. Beauty is not reduced to category of good and evil. Beauty perhaps lies on the border of good and evil, of prettiness and sublimity, of the meso and the meta. Nabokov lived a golden aristocratic childhood in Russia, but the emergence of Communism robbed him of his privilege and forced him into a life of exile. Besides being a writer, Nabokov also made serious contributions to the study of butterflies, creatures he considered the epitome of beauty. As a chess composer, Nabokov also invented Lolita as a chess problem, a puzzle, a morally difficult situation. Through Lolita, readers see the attempt of Nabokov the aesthete, Nabokov the exile, Nabokov the lepidopterist, and Nabokov the chess composer, to capture the fragility of beauty.