NABOKV-L post 0020005, Mon, 10 May 2010 16:18:50 -0600

Re: THOUGHTS: the need for climax in Canto 4
On Wed, May 5, 2010 at 9:33 AM, Matthew Roth <> wrote:

> Gary,
> As JF said, your thoughts on Canto Four have sparked a lot of interest.
> Kudos to you for an engaging discussion. I think you may be overselling the
> *degree *to which the lack of art reveals madness. As Jerry, I believe,
> pointed out, it may be that Shade just didn't have a chance to revise,
> though it had been his practice to edit *as he went along*.

Yes, and according to Kinbote in the Foreword, the last cards show evidence
of "cataclysmic" revision, but Shade didn't have the chance to make a "Fair
Copy", so he may have revised that part less.

Yet I do think there is a bit of unraveling there which, in combination with
> many other details from the novel as a whole, may reveal an *ebb* of
> sense. Actually, I think you give Shade too much credit for the envoi, as
> you call it. While lines 963-976 are striking and meaningful, the rest is a
> jumble of odd details.
> 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.
> I sometimes read the opinion that these lines confirm Shade's confidence in
> the afterlife. But look at all the qualifiers! How sure is he? Reasonably
> sure. What does reasonable mean? It means that he is as certain of Hazel's
> existence as he is that he will wake up tomorrow (okay so far) *"And that
> the day will probably be fine*." So the afterlife is as certain as the *
> probability* of good weather--that is to say, not very certain at all!

(To be pedantic, it's possible to be 95% certain that there's a 60% chance
of fine weather.)

> The word "probably" is a significant hedge.

Absolutely His God died young. He would have liked some kind of certainty,
but what he found instead was a faint hope, described as such in a very
deliberate anticlimax. But he started with nothing but the skepticism and
atheism of most intellectuals of his time (and probably ours still).
Reaching a reasonable certainty would feel tremendous.

So after that less than definitive declaration, the culmination of the whole
> poem, we get two flabby lines describing the speaker preparing to wrap up
> his day (and his poem). Thud.

He doesn't want to finish in the grand manner. As Gary said, there's
something grandiose about telling us his insights, but he limits his
grandiosity. Auden had the god Terminus remind us a few years later

...that abhorred in the Heav'ns are all
self-proclaimed poets who, to wow an
audience, utter some resonant lie.

So Shade understates, maybe with some ironic self-mockery. Or maybe his
qualifiers give him a feeling of greater reliability. He doesn't have that
certainty that we might worry will turn into a rant.

Though these lines hardly inspire, they might have served as a logical
> ending for the poem, but Shade needs to get us to line 1000, so we need
> another 15 lines. In these we find:
> 1. A description of Old Dr. Sutton's windows reflecting the sun.
> 2. Idle conjecture about Dr. Sutton's age.
> 3. Shift to wondering where Sybil is.
> 4. Acknowledgment that Sybil is near the shagbark.
> 5. Sound of horseshoes & mildly clever metaphor picturing leaning horseshoe
> 6. Lovely description of dark Vanessa
> 7. Unknown man trundling wheelbarrow
> 8. Presumably a repetition of the first line.
> Again, many, if not all, of these details end up being important to the
> novel as a whole, but they are trivial in the poem itself. Readers have no
> cause to care about Dr. Sutton's age, or to care about John Shade's interest
> in Dr. Sutton's age. The Sybil/shagbark conjunction reminds us of Sybil's
> grief re: Hazel, which is fine, and the dark Vanessa has already been
> associated with Sybil, but these loosely associative images don't really
> take us anywhere new; nor do they serve as an effective denouement. I
> suppose the twilight gives everything a kind of purple, melancholy patina?
> But then we get the final interruption--a man with a wheelbarrow. Who is he?
> What is he doing in the penultimate line of the poem? And how does that
> wheelbarrow lead us back to line 1? I know the relationship to the clockwork
> toy, but I don't think Shade himself is making that connection here. As he
> said earlier, it really does seem like his brain is drained and he is no
> longer able to determine which images have value and which do
> not--everything is equivalent: alarm clock, poems, Sutton, Sybil,
> horseshoes, butterfly, wheelbarrow, [waxwing].
> MR
> In general Shade is a putter-inner [*], partly because he needs to hit
1,000 lines, as you said, but I agree that this is an extreme example. But
I think his content goes with his contentment. For a moment he doesn't need
to strive for his incessant wit or even to select images (so it's fine that
his brain is drained). In the low hum of harmony, he's content with

Thanks to Jansy for quoting these sentences from "Sounds", which I'd

I had a feeling of enraptured equilibrium as I sensed the musical
relationship between the silvery specters of rain and your inclined
shoulders, which would give a shudder when you pressed your fingers into the
rippling luster. And when I withdrew deep into myself the whole world seemed
like that—homogeneous, congruent, bound by the laws of harmony...I realized
that everything in the world was an interplay of identical particles
comprising different kinds of consonance: the trees, the water, you... All
was unified, equivalent, divine.

I think that's a more excited version of the mood Shade is in. Everything
is beautiful. This is the mood I see in William Carlos Williams's poem "The
Red Wheelbarrow" (1923). Could Shade or Nabokov have mentioned the
wheelbarrow to allude to that poem?

To join the discussion of the last line, I think the simplest explanation is
that at the time of Shade's death, he doesn't know what it is yet.
Presumably he wants to go back to the waxwing slain, but the precise wording
is one of the details (maybe the only one) that Kinbote tells us Shade
hasn't settled yet. Then after he dies but survives, the original line
makes sense it couldn't have in any other sequence of events: he became the
part that lived on, flew on.

I suppose one could say Kinbote invented that comment because he wants us to
believe he knows the last line, though. In that case it would be a red
herring and Shade might always have intended the poem to have 999 lines, as
Sam Gwynn suggested. (That would make a little more sense of Shade's
mention of an "abstruse/ Unfinished poem".

[*] For the non-native speakers of English: "putter-inner" isn't something
you should imitate.

Jerry Friedman

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