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Nabokov's Pale Fire:
The Magic of Artistic Discovery
Brian Boyd

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 1999, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to permissions@press.princeton.edu

Poem


         John Shade's "Pale Fire" opens with an extraordinary series of images whose initial impact lingers in the mind as it expands in implication throughout the poem:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.


As we learn more about Shade's lifelong attempt to understand a world where life is surrounded by death, we realize the full resonance of these opening lines: that he is projecting himself in imagination into the waxwing, as if it were somehow still flying beyond death, and into the reflected azure of the window, as if that were the cloudlessness of some hereafter, even as he stands looking at "the smudge of ashen fluff" of the dead bird's little body. Alvin Kernan comments that the bird "has died flying into the hard barrier of the image which promises freedom but only reflects the world it is already in," and that irony persists:


And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!


    The contrast between the mundaneness of Shade's room--"Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate"--and the magic of the reflection reflects in turn off those other contrasts already intimated between real and imagined, between life and the hint of something beyond life in the "reflected sky," to create a sustained tension throughout the poem between the taken-for-granted, the freshly seen, the vividly projected, and the unseen beyond. This is major poetry, by any standard, fully justifying Kinbote's awe at the end of the Foreword as he watches "John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse" (27).

    The next verse paragraph seems to gaze in the same direction but blinks to a different beat:


Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake
Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,
A dull dark white against the day's pale white
And abstract larches in the neutral light.
And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view.


Shade still stresses sight, but sharpness fades to shapelessness, opacity, dullness, paleness, abstractness, neutrality, so that like Keats compensating for the darkness of stanza 5 of "Ode to a Nightingale" by steeping it in smell, he now turns up the sound. Internal rhyme and off-rhyme (initial and end: Retake, flake; medial: snow, slow; dark, larches) and assonance (flake / Shapeless, opaque) accumulate toward the explosion of


And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view.


For all his peculiarities, Kinbote will prove to have a deep passion for poetry and a fine ear for verbal music, and will often single out for special delectation Shade's ability to counterpoint sound and sense. But as he reads these particular lines he has too much else on his mind to comment on the way Shade compounds the end-rhyme with the triple internal rhyme, the burst of u sounds, the strange fusion and fission and reflection of syllables (gradual ... dual, night unites, viewer ... view) that matches the slow fusion of the light blue of the west with the dark blue of the east as night consolidates itself, and the viewer standing inside, lights on, finds himself now reflected in the window looking onto the darkened view.

    The soft, snowy evening yields to a crisp dawn:


And in the morning, diamonds of frost
Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed
From left to right the blank page of the road?
Reading from left to right in winter's code:
A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:
Dot, arrow pointing back ... A pheasant's feet!


As Robert Alter comments, we do a double take as we read Shade's words, sense our eyes gliding left to right over a once-blank page and see through Shade's metaphor to the pheasant's tracks. These lines show in new ways Shade's closeness of observation, his easy knowledge of natural kinds built up from a lifetime of active curiosity, his precision and play of image (· ?? · ??), his wry self-consciousness, his ingenious incorporation of other structures, visual and verbal, into the exigencies of that last rhyming couplet. Shade at his most playful, as here, is also, we will discover later in the poem, Shade not far from his most philosophical, disclosing his delight in the combinations of the world around him, sensing what almost seems the inherent playfulness of things, apprehending and reshaping his world with an answering spirit of play.


          Although many have no doubt that Shade's "Pale Fire" is major poetry, many have no doubt that it is not. Why? When we come from the tantalizing promise of Kinbote's character in the Foreword, the hints of mysteries not quite stated but perhaps soon to be solved, Shade's world can seem drab and flat. "All colors made me happy: even gray," he writes as he retrieves his autobiographical record, and to a superficial eye there may indeed seem too much gray in his story. Everything in the Foreword suggests that there are surprises to come in Kinbote, that he is wildly eccentric, to say the least, perhaps completely unbalanced, and that we will have a high time reading around him. But Shade contains no secrets, no surprises. No one will ever tell him he is insane. As "Pale Fire" shows us, he is stability itself, living all his life in his parents' home, in the same comfortable small academic town, marrying his childhood sweetheart and in forty years never wavering in his love. He records his undramatic surroundings, recounts his quiet life, and that is all. No wonder, especially after what we see (and before what we will see) of Kinbote, that Shade's world can seem insipid, especially when encased in a verse form that fell out of fashion in English almost two centuries ago.

    Yet as those opening lines suggest, he can make the ordinary extraordinary. If there are no surprises or secrets in him, he finds surprises in his world, in a waxwing's death, in a pheasant's tracks, in a newspaper clipping (Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4 / On Chapman's Homer), in what he dubs an iridule, a rainbow reflected in a cloud from a thunderstorm in a distant valley: he wants us to see that "we are most artistically caged." Caged, all the same. Even more crucial to his life and his poem than the surprises of life are the far greater surprises he suspects around us. (As he will say to Kinbote in the Commentary: "Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one." [C.549, 225]) Canto Two begins:


There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.

There was the day when I began to doubt
Man's sanity: How could he live without
Knowing for sure what dawn, what death, what doom
Awaited consciousness beyond the tomb?

And finally there was the sleepless night
When I decided to explore and fight
The foul, the inadmissible abyss,
Devoting all my twisted life to this
One task. Today I'm sixty-one. Waxwings
Are berry-pecking. A cicada sings.


In "Pale Fire" Shade presents the story of his life as one lifelong quest to explore the "inadmissible abyss" of death, a quest pursued with passion and play, stinging skepticism and quiet trust.

    Whereas in the Foreword we expect to make discoveries about Kinbote, in the poem we feel the constant pressure of the discoveries that Shade would dearly like to make about death. We begin Canto One with the waxwing, Shade's mature attempt as poet to imagine for a moment projecting himself into that "reflected sky," and we end the canto with the series of childhood fits or trances, in which he felt "tugged at by playful death," that leads to his dedicating himself to his quest at the start of Canto Two.

    Canto Two culminates in the dreadful discovery that the Shades must make about their only child's suicide, one March night in 1957, two years before the poet undertakes "Pale Fire." The counterpoint between Hazel's last hours and her parents' uneasy vigil at home while waiting for their unattractive daughter to return from her first blind date creates an unbearable tension and poignancy as time swings back and forth, ticking away to the irretrievable moment of her death at the very midpoint of the poem.

    For all his sense of the mystery behind death, Shade knows he cannot force the door to the beyond. Canto Three shows him arriving, through two major encounters with the ironies of death, at a new sense of the unknown that looms beyond life. First, a term of lectures some twenty years ago at what Shade wryly redubs "I.P.H., a lay / Institute (I) of Preparation (P) / For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we / Called it"--"To speak on death (`to lecture on the Worm,' / Wrote President McAber)."


That tasteless venture helped me in a way.
I learnt what to ignore in my survey
Of death's abyss. And when we lost our child
I knew there would be nothing: no self-styled
Spirit would touch a keyboard of dry wood
To rap out her pet name; no phantom would
Rise gracefully to welcome you and me
In the dark garden, near the shagbark tree.


Then in October 1958, a year and a half after Hazel's death, he has his own near-death experience during a sudden collapse after giving a public lecture. Returning from this blackout, he feels sure he has slipped into death and back, and has seen there, "dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain."

    Galvanized by the thought that this vision offers him a promise of something beyond death, he then reads in a magazine about a woman "whose heart had been / Rubbed back to life by a prompt surgeon's hand" and who reports that she "glimpsed a tall white fountain--and awoke." Convinced he is on the brink of discovering what has eluded him all his life, Shade tracks the woman down, only to find her impossibly gushy. Rather than have her swamp him with claims to a mystical bond between them, he backs off, and calls on the journalist who had written the story:


He took his article from a steel file:
"It's accurate. I have not changed her style.
There's one misprint--not that it matters much:
Mountain, not fountain. The majestic touch."


Life Everlasting--based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.


It did not matter who they were. No sound,
No furtive light came from their involute
Abode, but there they were, aloof and mute,
Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns
To ivory unicorns and ebon fauns....


    After the exhilarating discoveries he thought he had made comes the rude shock of the misprint that wryly confirms for him how impossible it must always remain, on this side of death, to see beyond it. It is not that deflating recognition, however, but the resolve that follows it, that forms the core and key to the poem. It is a resolve he shares with his maker. In a kind of postscript to Speak, Memory that he withheld from publication during his lifetime, and that has just been published for the centenary of his birth, Nabokov dons the mask of a reviewer of his autobiography, and writes, among amusingly disparaging comments, of the "retrospective acumen and creative concentration that the author had to summon in order to plan his book according to the way his life had been planned by unknown players of games." Shade writes his autobiographical poem in exactly the same spirit. Conscious, after the fountain-mountain confusion, that his very quest to explore the beyond makes him seem a mere toy of the gods, he derives a sense of the playfulness hidden deep in things, and feels that he can perhaps understand and participate a little in this playfulness, if only obliquely, through the pleasure of shaping his own world in verse, through playing his own game of worlds, through sensing and adding to the design in and behind his world.


          In Canto Four Shade focuses precisely on the way he shapes his verse, on the way he composes, in the midst of what seems anything but a life permeated by design. The Canto starts with the word "Now" and remains in the present moment of composition throughout, exploring the nature of poetic inspiration as it arrives amid the clutter of the everyday. Repeatedly Canto Four seems to promise some mighty theme ("Now I shall cry out as / None has cried out. Now I shall try what none / Has tried ..."), only to lapse back into the mundanity of the moment, as Shade soaps his leg or shaves.

    Shade ends the canto and the poem by looking around him as he writes, in the late afternoon of July 21, 1959, at the chance harmonies of the present. He answers the highly wrought image of waxwing and window at the start of the poem by finishing with a fade-out into the world around him, a slow dissolve into the here and now, which nevertheless builds on the discovery he has reached at the end of Canto Three, that there is some mysterious match between the artifice of his art and his attempt to see behind life:


Gently the day has passed in a sustained
Low hum of harmony. The brain is drained
And a brown ament, and the noun I meant
To use but did not, dry on the cement.
Maybe my sensual love for the consonne
D'appui
, Echo's fey child, is based upon
A feeling of fantastically planned,
Richly rhymed life.

I feel I understand
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through my art,
In terms of combinational delight;
And if my private universe scans right,
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line.
I'm reasonably sure that we survive
And that my darling somewhere is alive,
As I am reasonably sure that I
Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July
The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine,
And that the day will probably be fine;
So this alarm clock let me set myself,
Yawn, and put back Shade's "Poems" on their shelf.


But it's not bedtime yet. The sun attains
Old Dr. Sutton's last two windowpanes.
The man must be--what? Eighty? Eighty-two?
Was twice my age the year I married you.
Where are you? In the garden. I can see
Part of your shadow near the shagbark tree.
Somewhere horseshoes are being tossed. Click. Clunk.
(Leaning against its lamppost like a drunk.)
A dark Vanessa with a crimson band
Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.
And through the flowing shade and ebbing light
A man, unheedful of the butterfly--
Some neighbor's gardener, I guess--goes by
Trundling an empty barrow up the lane.


    Even as he affirms the relationship between his art and his confidence in the ultimate design of life, Shade here seems ready to renounce the high artifice of the poem's opening images, to accept serenely the quiet continuities of life. The poem breaks off in the midst of things, amid the casual circumstances of the hour--a chance extra ("Some neighbor's gardener"), an offhand phrase ("I guess"), a low-key rhyme ("goes by"), a last line without its expected matching rhyme--amid the quotidian, the undesigned, the artlessness of life.

    The poem breaks off, yet everything indicates that it probably needs just one more line to be finished. The story of Shade's past has caught up with his present, with the day and the very hour of writing; he is ready to set his poems back on their shelf as he awaits the sunset. The design of the poem, too, seems to confirm the subdued closure. It consists of four cantos; Cantos Two and Three match each other exactly in length; with one more line, Canto Four would be exactly the length of Canto One, and these two outer flanks together would add up to a third of the whole, or the equivalent of each of the inner two cantos. Or to tally things another way: Hazel's death, at line 500, the end of Canto Two, seems to have been placed exactly halfway to the end of a thousand-line poem.

    Shade ends quietly, after the shock of the start, and yet he satisfies his own urge for hidden design, for what he calls in his Canto Three epiphany "some kind of link-and-bobolink." Just before "Gently the day has passed," but already on the last day of composing the poem, he writes:


Dim Gulf was my first book (free verse); Night Rote
Came next; then Hebe's Cup, my final float
In that damp carnival, for now I term
Everything "Poems," and no longer squirm.
(But this transparent thingum does require
Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.)


He appears to grasp for a stopgap title, and to sound not quite convinced. The line suggests he may have borrowed from Shakespeare, and if we reach for a concordance, we find our hunch is right:


I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears. (Timon of Athens, 4.3.435-40)


In the past Shade has followed the common academic habit (which Kinbote will roundly denounce) of stealing his titles from other authors' phrases, but he has reformed, reverting to the plain "Poems" before, as he pretends, succumbing today to the need for some name for the long poem now drawing to an end. With his usual modesty he reaches for a title that implies his poem can shed only a pallid glow compared to the heat and light Shakespeare radiates over the landscape of English literature.

    In fact the title Shade lifts from Shakespeare also puts a highly ironic twist on the whole practice of purloining another's phrase, since it wittily steals from Timon's denunciation against universal thievery. Even that self-deprecatory "some moondrop title" (a moondrop, Webster's Second notes, is "a liquid of magical potency, supposed to be shed by the moon") subtly echoes Timon's image, and like the whole passage from which the title comes, harks back to the images of reflection that open the poem.

    Now at the close of the day and the close of his poem, describing in his last verse paragraph the sun sinking even as he writes, its "flowing shade and ebbing light," Shade once again echoes the tide and light imagery from Timon, once again links back to his poem's beginning, and does exactly what he said in Canto Three he had wanted to do, to imitate those "Playing a game of worlds .../ ... Making ornaments / Of accidents and possibilities." In that same passage in Canto Three, Shade had also said that it sufficed that he could find in life "Some kind of link-and-bobolink." This oddly misleading phrase links the very idea of linkage with the name of an American bird, and here at the end of the poem Shade can link the ending of the poem deceptively with the beginning it seems so little to resemble, through the butterfly, the "Vanessa with a crimson band" on its wing, that allows a hide-and-seek visual echo of the bright red streak on the wing of that other American bird, the waxwing, in the poem's first line.

    The waxwing slain by the false azure in the windowpane, as we can see from a later vantage point in the poem, has strongly personal associations with people Shade has lost: his parents were ornithologists, and as we learn in the Commentary, his father even had a Mexican waxwing, Bombycilla shadei, named after him; and Shade will evoke Hazel in her last hour of life standing "Before the azure entrance" of the Hawaiian bar where she has just been rudely spurned. Like the waxwing at the start that reflects those he has lost, the Vanessa at the end of the poem pays a private tribute, this time to the one person still by his side, his wife, Sybil. Much earlier in the poem, after recounting how they first became sweethearts, he turns to her:


Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,
My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly! . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .

We have been married forty years. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I love you when you're standing on the lawn
Peering at something in a tree: "It's gone.
It was so small. It might come back" (all this
Voiced in a whisper softer than a kiss).
I love you when you call me to admire
A jet's pink trail above the sunset fire.
I love you when you're humming as you pack
A suitcase or the farcical car sack
With round-trip zipper And I love you most
When with a pensive nod you greet her ghost
And hold her first toy on your palm, or look
At a postcard from her, found in a book.


    At the very beginning of his last day's composition, Shade again turns to his wife:


And all the time, and all the time, my love,
You too are there, beneath the word, above
The syllable, to underscore and stress
The vital rhythm. One heard a woman's dress
Rustle in days of yore. I've often caught
The sound and sense of your approaching thought.
And all in you is youth, and you make new,
By quoting them, old things I made for you.


In the last paragraph of the poem, not only does the Vanessa that he has identified with her flit back, but he looks out to see Sybil herself, and all the attitudes he has said he particularly loves in her: her standing in the garden, poised near a tree; her admiring something in "the sunset fire," as the setting sun now "attains / Old Dr. Sutton's last two windowpanes"; and especially the times when he loves her with the sharpest pang of all, "When with a pensive nod you greet her ghost," some little memento of Hazel's past, for here he sees her "shadow near the shagbark tree" that he has himself so indelibly associated with Hazel's childhood:


I had a favorite young shagbark there
With ample dark jade leaves and a black, spare,
Vermiculated trunk. The setting sun
Bronzed the black bark, around which, like undone
Garlands, the shadows of the foliage fell.
It is now stout and rough; it has done well.
White butterflies turn lavender as they
Pass through its shade where gently seems to sway
The phantom of my little daughter's swing.


    After Hazel's death Shade had said that I.P.H. had taught him that "no phantom would / Rise gracefully to welcome you and me / In the dark garden, near the shagbark tree." Nevertheless at the end of his poem, as he looks at the world unwinding around him, he fuses together, through the force of his art, the shagbark, the setting sun, another butterfly, the "phantom" recollection of Hazel's swing, Sybil's "shadow" near the tree, and implicitly their tenderly stored image of Hazel. What seems an ordinary evening turns out to be part of an intricate texture Shade has bravely woven to celebrate all he shares with his wife and to commemorate what they have lost in their daughter. Here, more delicately and deceptively than in the starker scoring of the counterpoint of Hazel's last night, he plays his "game of worlds," answering the turmoil of that night with his own design and his own sense of confidence in the ultimate design of things, even amid the accidents of the passing day.

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