Yewshade, uniformed baboon & grand potato in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 09/01/2018 - 08:08

At the beginning of Canto Three of his poem Shade (the poet in VN's novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions l’if, lifeless tree, the grand potato and Yewshade:


L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:

The grand potato.
                                     I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it--big if!--engaged me for one term
To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"
Wrote President McAber).
                                                     You and I,
And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye
To Yewshade, in another, higher state. (ll. 500-509)


In his Commentary Kinbote (who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) writes:


Line 501: L'if


The yew in French. It is curious that the Zemblan word for the weeping willow is also "if" (the yew is tas).


Line 502: The grand potato


An execrable pun, deliberately placed in this epigraphic position to stress lack of respect for Death. I remember from my schoolroom days Rabelais' soi-disant "last words" among other bright bits in some French manual: Je m'en vais chercher le grand peut-être.


In a conversation at the Faculty Club Kinbote calls the hag whom Shade is said to resemble “the third in the witch row:”


"Take my own case," continued my dear friend ignoring Mr. H. "I have been said to resemble at least four people: Samuel Johnson; the lovingly reconstructed ancestor of man in the Exton Museum; and two local characters, one being the slapdash disheveled hag who ladles out the mash in the Levin Hall cafeteria."

"The third in the witch row," I precised quaintly, and everybody laughed. (note to Line 894)


In Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act IV, scene 1) the third witch mentions “slips of yew:”



Round about the cauldron go,

In the poisoned entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

Sweltered venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i' th' charmèd pot.



Double, double toil and trouble,

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.



Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake.

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.



Double, double toil and trouble,

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.



Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,

Witches' mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravined salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digged i' th' dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat and slips of yew

Slivered in the moon’s eclipse,

Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-delivered by a drab,

Make the gruel thick and slab.

Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,

For the ingredients of our cauldron.



Double, double toil and trouble,

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.



Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.


“A baboon’s blood” brings to mind “some uniformed baboon” mentioned by Shade in the same Canto Three:


But who can teach the thoughts we should roll-call
When morning finds us marching to the wall
Under the stage direction of some goon
Political, some uniformed baboon?
We'll think of matters only known to us--
Empires of rhyme, Indies of calculus;
Listen to the distant cocks crow, and discern
Upon the rough gray wall a rare wall fern;
And while our royal hands are being tied,
Taunt our inferiors, cheerfully deride
The dedicated imbeciles, and spit
Into their eyes just for the fun of it. (ll. 597-608)


“Double, double toil and trouble” brings to mind “a sea of troubles” mentioned by Hamlet in his famous monologue. Hamlet’s monologue and a scene from Act Four of Shakespeare’s Hamlet were translated into Russian by VN. In VN’s Russian version of her monologue Gertrude (Hamlet's mother) mentions blednaya iva (a pale willow):


Есть ива у ручья; к той бледной иве,

склонившейся над ясною водой,

она пришла с гирляндами ромашек,

крапивы, лютиков, лиловой змейки,

зовущейся у вольных пастухов

иначе и грубее, а у наших

холодных дев -- перстами мёртвых.


There is a willow grows aslant a brook

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them. (Hamlet, Act IV, scene 7)


Problema Gamleta (“The Problem of Hamlet”) is an essay by I. Annenski included in Vtoraya kniga otrazheniy (“The Second Book of Reflections,” 1909). In his essay Ob Annenskom (“On Annenski,” 1921) Hodasevich compares Annenski to Ivan Ilyich Golovin (the main character in Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” 1886) and points out that Annenski regarded his penname Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody”) as a translation of Greek Outis (the pseudonym under which Odysseus conceals his identity from Polyphemus, the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey):

Чего не додумал Иван Ильич, то знал Анненский.
Знал, что никаким директорством, никаким бытом и даже никакой филологией от смерти по-настоящему не загородиться. Она уничтожит и директора, и барина, и филолога. Только над истинным его "я", над тем, что отображается в "чувствах и мыслях", над личностью -- у неё как будто нет власти. И он находил реальное, осязаемое отражение и утверждение личности -- в поэзии. Тот, чьё лицо он видел, подходя к зеркалу, был директор гимназии, смертный никто. Тот, чьё лицо отражалось в поэзии, был бессмертный некто. Ник. Т-о -- никто -- есть безличный действительный статский советник, которым, как видимой оболочкой, прикрыт невидимый некто. Этот свой псевдоним, под которым он печатал стихи, Анненский рассматривал как перевод греческого "утис", никто, -- того самого псевдонима, под которым Одиссей скрыл от циклопа Полифема своё истинное имя, свою подлинную личность, своего некто. Поэзия была для него заклятием страшного Полифема -- смерти. Но психологически это не только не мешало, а даже способствовало тому, чтобы его вдохновительницей, его Музой была смерть.


In Outis there is tis (Russian for “yew”). In a letter of October 17, 1908, to Ekaterina Mukhin, Annenski says that people who ceased to believe in God but who continue to fear the devil created this otzyvayushchiysya kalamburom (smacking of a pun) terror before the smell of sulfuric pitch, Le grand Peut-Etre:

Люди, переставшие верить в бога, но продолжающие трепетать чёрта...
Это они создали на языке тысячелетней иронии этот отзывающийся каламбуром ужас перед запахом серной смолы - Le grand Peut-Etre. Для меня peut-etre - не только бог, но это всё, хотя это и не ответ, и не успокоение…


Describing his arrival in America, Kinbote remarks that Shade’s heart attack (about which the poet tells in Canto Three) took place on October 17, 1958:


John Shade's heart attack (Oct. 17, 1958) practically coincided with the disguised king's arrival in America where he descended by parachute from a chartered plane piloted by Colonel Montacute, in a field of hay-feverish, rank-flowering weeds, near Baltimore whose oriole is not an oriole. It had all been perfectly timed, and he was still wrestling with the unfamiliar French contraption when the Rolls-Royce from Sylvia O'Donnell's manor turned toward his green silks from a road and approached along the mowntrop, its fat wheels bouncing disapprovingly and its black shining body slowly gliding along. (note to Line 691)


Sylvia O'Donnell is the mother of Odon (a world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot who helps the king to escape from Zembla) and of Odon’s half-brother Nodo (a cardsharp and despicable traitor). Odon = Nodo = odno (neut. of odin, “one”). In Annenski’s poem Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1904) the last word is odin (alone):


Не я, и не он, и не ты,
И то же, что я, и не то же:
Так были мы где-то похожи,
Что наши смешались черты.

В сомненьи кипит ещё спор,
Но, слиты незримой четою,
Одной мы живём и мечтою,
Мечтою разлуки с тех пор.

Горячешный сон волновал
Обманом вторых очертаний,
Но чем я глядел неустанней,
Тем ярче себя ж узнавал.

Лишь полога ночи немой
Порой отразит колыханье
Моё и другое дыханье,
Бой сердца и мой и не мой…

И в мутном круженьи годин
Всё чаще вопрос меня мучит:
Когда наконец нас разлучат,
Каким же я буду один?


Not I, and not he, and not you,
Both what I am, and what I am not:
We were so alike somewhere
That our features got mixed.




And, in the turbid whirling of years,
The question torments me ever more often:
When we will be separated at last,
What kind of person I will be alone?


Annenski is the author of Son i net (“Sleep and No”), a fourteen-line poem whose title plays on sonet (sonnet). In his Sonet (“A Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin points out that tvorets Makbeta (the author of Macbeth) loved a sonnet’s play. The epigraph to Pushkin’s “Sonnet” is from Wordsworth: “Scorn not the sonnet, critic.” Yew-Trees (1803) is a poem by Wordsworth. Shade’s house is “between Wordsmith and Goldsworth.”


Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol points out that a coda (“tail” in Italian) can be longer than a sonnet itself. Kinbote’s entire Foreword, Commentary and Index) can thus be regarded as a coda of Shade’s poem. Scorn not the coda, reader.


Kinbote's Foreword is dated Oct. 19, 1959 (on this day Kinbote completes his work on Shade's poem and commits suicide). In his poem 19 oktyabrya ("October 19," 1825) written in Mikhaylovskoe (where the poet lived in exile) to celebrate the Lyceum anniversary Pushkin says: ya p'yu odin (I drink alone). In Pushkin's poem Istina ("Truth," 1816) written at the Lyceum a man drinks a bowl of wine and finds truth at the bottom:


Издавна мудрые искали
Забытых истины следов
И долго, долго толковали
Давнишни толки стариков.
Твердили: «Истина святая
В колодез убралась тайком»,
И, дружно воду выпивая,
Кричали: «Здесь её найдём!»

Но кто-то, смертных благодетель
(И чуть ли не старик Силен),
Их важной глупости свидетель,
Водой и криком утомлен,
Оставил невидимку нашу,
Подумал первый о вине
И, осушив до капли чашу,
Увидел истину на дне.


From ancient times sages looked
for the forgotten footprints of truth
and for a long, long time interpreted
the ancint speeches of old men.
They kept repeating: “the sacred truth
secretely hid itself into a well.”
And, drinking water all together,
cried out: “we’ll find it here!”

But somebody, a benefactor of mortals,
(Perhaps even Silenus himself)
the witness of their pompous stupidity,
tired of water and of noise,
left our invisible friend,
was the first to think of wine,
and, having drained a bowl to the last drop,
saw truth at the bottom.


In Pushkin's poem Geroy ("The Hero," 1830), a dialogue between Poet and Friend, the Poet says: T'my nizkikh istin mne dorozhe / nas vozvyshayushchiy obman (More than a myriad of low truths / I value the Delusion that exalts us). The hero in Pushkin's poem is Napoleon. In Chapter Two (XIV: 5-7) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin says that we all expect to be Napoleons and the millions of two-legged creatures for us are only tools (orudie odno). In Pushkin's "Sonnet" Wordsworth chose the sonnet as his tool (orudiem izbral).


In Shakespeare's Macbeth (Act II, scene 3) Macbeth mentions the wine of life:


Had I but died an hour before this chance,

I had lived a blessèd time, for from this instant

There’s nothing serious in mortality.

All is but toys. Renown and grace is dead.

The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees

Is left this vault to brag of.


Alexander Blok's poem Neznakomka ("Incognita," 1906) ends in the line: Ya znayu: istina v vine (I know: in wine is truth). In Blok's poem the drunks in a tavern cry out: "In vino veritas!" In VN's novel Zashchita Luzhina ("The Luzhin Defense," 1930) Veritas is a Berlin film company for which Valentinov (Luzhin's former tutor and impressario) works. According to Kinbote, he may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (note to Line 1000).


There is tas (the yew in Zemblan) in veritas (Lat., truth) and vino (Russ., wine) in vinograd (grape). Vinograd (1824) is a poem by Pushkin:


Не стану я жалеть о розах,
Увядших с лёгкою весной;
Мне мил и виноград на лозах,
В кистях созревший под горой,
Краса моей долины злачной,
Отрада осени златой,
Продолговатый и прозрачный,
Как персты девы молодой.


I won't regret about roses
Short lived in the early spring.
I celebrate the crop of grapes
The ripe grape bunches at the hill.
Transparent, elongated berries
Remind young maidens' fingertips.
Abundant richness of the valley,
The Golden Autumn's perfect gift.


According to Kinbote, Gradus contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape:


Jakob Gradus called himself variously Jack Degree or Jacques de Grey, or James de Gray, and also appears in police records as Ravus, Ravenstone, and d'Argus. Having a morbid affection for the ruddy Russia of the Soviet era, he contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus. His father, Martin Gradus, had been a Protestant minister in Riga, but except for him and a maternal uncle (Roman Tselovalnikov, police officer and part-time member of the Social-Revolutionary party), the whole clan seems to have been in the liquor business. Martin Gradus died in 1920, and his widow moved to Strasbourg where she soon died, too. Another Gradus, an Alsatian merchant, who oddly enough was totally unrelated to our killer but had been a close business friend of his kinsmen for years, adopted the boy and raised him with his own children. It would seem that at one time young Gradus studied pharmacology in Zurich, and at another, traveled to misty vineyards as an itinerant wine taster. We find him next engaging in petty subversive activities - printing peevish pamphlets, acting as messenger for obscure syndicalist groups, organizing strikes at glass factories, and that sort of thing. Sometime in the forties he came to Zembla as a brandy salesman. There he married a publican's daughter. His connection with the Extremist party dates from its first ugly writhings, and when the revolution broke out, his modest organizational gifts found some appreciation in various offices. His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket, took place on the very day that an innocent poet in an innocent land was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night. (note to Line 17)


Shade's murderer, Jakob Gradus is also known as Jack Degree. In a letter of May 16, 1835, to Pushkin Katenin plays on a line from Canto Four of Boileau’s L'Art poétique (1674), Il n'est point de degré du médiocre au pire (there is no degree from mediocre to worst):


Судя по твоим, увы! слишком правдоподобным словам, ты умрёшь (дай бог тебе много лет здравствовать!) Вениямином русских поэтов, юнейшим из сынов Израиля, а новое поколение безъимянное; ибо имена, подобные Кукольнику, sentent fort le Perrault. Где ему до Шаховского? У того везде кое-что хорошо. Своя Семья мила, в Аристофане целая идея, и будь всё как второй акт, вышла бы в своём роде хорошая комедия; князь не тщательный художник и не великий поэт, но вопреки Boileau:


Il est bien des degrés du médiocre au pire

сиречь до Кукольника; и какими стихами, с тех пор как они взбунтовались противу всех правил, они пишут!


In his Otvet Kateninu ("Reply to Katenin," 1828) Pushkin quotes a line from Derzhavin's poem Dva soseda ("Two Neighbors"), ne p'yu, lyubeznyi moy sosed (I don't drink, my dear neighbor), mentions lavr Kornelya ili Tassa (the laurel wreath of Corneille or Tasso) and, in the poem's last line, uses the word odin (alone):


Останься ты в строях Парнаса;
Пред делом кубок наливай
И лавр Корнеля или Тасса
Один с похмелья пожинай.


Do stay in the service of Parnassus,

before the battle fill you cup

and the laurel wreath of Corneille or Tasso

win in a solitary intoxication.


In the name Tasso there is tas (Zemblan for "yew"). According to Kinbote, grados is Zemblan for “tree” (note to Lines 47-48). Gradus is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization). In the name Katenin there are teni (shadows). The Latin phrase gradus ad Parnassum (a step to Parnassus) is sometimes shortened to gradus.


Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin's personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote's Commentary). There is a hope (nadezhda) that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade's poem and commits suicide, Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin's epigrams, "half-milord, half-merchant, etc."), will be full again.