oblivion & Elysian life in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 08/25/2021 - 16:17

According to John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962), oblivion thrives not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives:



Was a larvorium and a violet:

A grave in Reason's early spring. And yet

It missed the gist of the whole thing; it missed

What mostly interests the preterist;

For we die every day; oblivion thrives

Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,

And our best yesterdays are now foul piles

Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files.

I'm ready to become a floweret

Or a fat fly, but never, to forget. (ll. 514-524)


In his poem Moy Elizey (“My Elysium,” 1831) written soon after Delvig’s death Baratynski says that in his memory Elysium is not sprinkled with the water of oblivion:


Не славь, обманутый Орфей,
Мне Элизийские селенья:
Элизий в памяти моей
И не кропим водой забвенья.
В нём мир цветущий старины
Умерших тени населяют,
Привычки жизни сохраняют
И чувств её не лишены.
Там жив ты, Дельвиг! там за чашей
Ещё со мною шутишь ты,
Поёшь веселье дружбы нашей
И сердца юные мечты.


Do not glorify, deceived Orpheus,
Elysian villages for me:
Elysium in my memory
Is not sprinkled with the water of oblivion.
In it is the world of blooming antiquity
The shades of the dead inhabit,
Keep the habits of life
And are not deprived of its feelings.
There you live there, Delvig! there over the bowl
You are still joking with me
Sings the fun of our friendship
And the heart’s young dreams.


Describing IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) in Canto Three of his poem, Shade mentions Elysian life:


Time means succession, and succession, change:

Hence timelessness is bound to disarrange

Schedules of sentiment. We give advice

To widower. He has been married twice:

He meets his wives; both loved, both loving, both

Jealous of one another. Time means growth.

And growth means nothing in Elysian life.

Fondling a changeless child, the flax-haired wife

Grieves on the brink of a remembered pond

Full of a dreamy sky. And, also blond,

But with a touch of tawny in the shade,

Feet up, knees clasped, on a stone balustrade

The other sits and raises a moist gaze

Toward the blue impenetrable haze.

How to begin? Which first to kiss? What toy

To give the babe? Does that small solemn boy

Know of the head-on crash which on a wild

March night killed both the mother and the child?

And she, the second love, with instep bare

In ballerina black, why does she wear

The earrings from the other's jewel case?

And why does she avert her fierce young face? (ll. 567-588)


Shade’s poem is almost finished, when the author is killed by Gradus. Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla, Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s 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 Baratynski’s poem Ne podrazhay: svoeobrazen geniy (“Don’t imitate: a genius is unique,” 1828) the third line reads: Doratov li, Shekspirov li dvoynik (Whether Dorat’s or Shakespeare’s double):


Не подражай: своеобразен гений
И собственным величием велик;
Доратов ли, Шекспиров ли двойник,
Досаден ты: не любят повторений.

С Израилем певцу один закон:
Да не творит себе кумира он!
Когда тебя, Мицкевич вдохновенный,
Я застаю у Байроновых ног,
Я думаю: поклонник униженный!
Восстань, восстань и вспомни: сам ты бог!


According to Baratynski, every time he sees inspired Mickiewicz at Byron's feet, he thinks: "rise up, the humble worshipper, rise up and remember that you are a god yourself!" At the beginning of his poem Euthanasia Byron mentions Oblivion and its languid wing:


When Time, or soon or late, shall bring

The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead,

Oblivion! may thy languid wing

Wave gently o'er my dying bed!


Byron is the author of The Waltz (1812). In his poem “To A. M. T-ya” (1814-17) written at the Lyceum Delvig says that, in a waltz’s frenzied whirl, he wished to be all eyes, and, in the poem’s last line, mentions zabvenie (oblivion) and its wing:


Могу ль забыть то сладкое мгновенье,
Когда я вами жил и видел только вас,
И вальса в бешеном круженье
Завидовал свободе дерзких глаз?


Я весь тогда желал оборотиться в зренье,
Я умолял: «Постой, веселое мгновенье!
Пускай я не спущу с прекрасной вечно глаз,
Пусть так забвение крылом покроет нас!»


In his Sonet (“A Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin mentions Mickiewicz (the author of “The Crimean Sonnets,” 1826, and “The Odessan Sonnets,” 1826) and Delvig among famous sonneteers:


Scorn not the sonnet, critic.



Суровый Дант не презирал сонета;
В нём жар любви Петрарка изливал;
Игру его любил творец Макбета;
Им скорбну мысль Камоэнс облекал.

И в наши дни пленяет он поэта:
Вордсворт его орудием избрал,
Когда вдали от суетного света
Природы он рисует идеал.

Под сенью гор Тавриды отдаленной
Певец Литвы в размер его стесненный
Свои мечты мгновенно заключал.

У нас ещё его не знали девы,
Как для него уж Дельвиг забывал
Гекзаметра священные напевы.


Scorn not the sonnet, critic.



Stern Dante did not despise the sonnet;

Into it Petrarch poured out the ardor of love;

Its play the creator of Macbeth loved;

With it Camoes clothed his sorrowful thought.


Even in our days it captivates the poet:

Wordsworth chose it as an instrument,

When far from the vain world

He depicts nature's ideal.


Under the shadow of the mountains of distant Tavrida

The singer of Lithuania in its constrained measure

His dreams he in an instant enclosed.


Here the maidens did not yet know it,

When for it even Delvig forgot

The sacred melodies of the hexameter.

(tr. Ober)


Baron Delvig was Pushkin’s best friend at the Lyceum. Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide on Oct. 19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum).