NABOKV-L post 0016686, Tue, 8 Jul 2008 10:35:42 -0400

THOUGHTS: Shade's Mockingbird
Jansy quoted a bit of Shade's poem the other day:

... the stiff vane so often visited
By the naïve, the gauzy mockingbird
Retelling all the programs she had heard;
Switching from chippo-chippo to a clear
To-wee, to-wee; then rasping out: come here,
Come here, come herrr’; flirting her tail aloft,
Or gracefully indulging in a soft
Upward hop-flop, and instantly (to-wee!)
70 Returning to her perch * the new TV.

It so happens that I've been thinking about this very passage quite a bit. Some thoughts:

1. Why point out that the vane is "stiff"? Are some vanes droopy? It seems like an entirely superfluous adjective. If VN needed something there for meter's sake, he could have as easily chosen a color or another, more useful, pathetic modifier. Given this, I can't help thinking that "stiff" is a pun, pointing us to the slang usage which means "corpse." This doesn't make sense in the context of "PF," but if we relate "vane" to Cynthia and Sybil Vane (two stiffs by the end of the story) then perhaps we begin to make something of this otherwise odd image.

2. Why is the mockingbird naive and gauzy? Is it because she simply repeats, without discretion, whatever she has heard? She has no inner life that would drive her to sing her own song?

3. Why is the mockingbird female? Since there is no discernible difference in the appearance of male and female mockingbirds, Shade must have arbitrarily decided that his subject was female. Or perhaps he thinks of it as female because, in line 422, he calls Sybil his "tender mockingbird." Sybil, like the real mockingbird, is engaged with the new TV at the time this name is used.

4. What to make of the transcription of the bird's song? Why to-wee? Why Come here, come herrr'? Mockingbirds can sing most any song, so Shade is not borrowing some standard transcription of the mockingbird's song.

This is speculative, of course, but my own feeling is that this mockingbird is none other than Hazel Shade. Brian Boyd has made, I think, a pretty convincing case that Hazel returns as the Red Admirable at the end of the poem, and that the ring-necked pheasant ("sublimated grouse") is likewise a version of the dingy cygnet-to-wood duck transformation associated with Hazel. If Hazel is the Vanessa and the pheasant, might she not also be this mockingbird? Certain elements seem to fit:

A. The invocation of the Vane Sisters suddenly makes a lot more sense. Like them, Hazel is attempting to contact the living from the beyond.

B. This explains why the mockingbird is a female.

C. Hazel appears in the form of a pet name John gives to Sybil. We have already seen this in the case of the Vanessa, where Shade calls Sybil his "dark Vanessa, crimson barred, my blest / My Admirable butterfly." (270-71) My own belief is that Hazel is trying to, in a sense, replace her mother, to become the object of her father's affection. Therefore, she embodies the amatory metaphors John uses to describe Sybil.

D. To-wee and Come here, come herrr (but not chippo, as far as I can tell) can be read as words from Hazel to her father. To-wee becomes "two, we" (we two) and Come here, come herrr becomes a plea for attention and a play on Shade's name, which is, in Spanish, "almost man," just as herr, in German, means "mister." (I won't go into the possible association with Hermann Karlovich). Just as the Vanessa, in a "frightening imitation of conscious play," tries to communicate with Shade, and just as the pheasant seems to leave a coded message for him, so too does the mockingbird (with increasing, raspy desperation, try to grab Shade's attention.

E. If we accept that Hazel may be taking the form both of the pheasant and the mockingbird, a curious family unit snaps into view. As Jerry Friedman helpfully informed me (off-list), the northern mockingbird was often, especially in the 19th century, called the American nightingale (because of its musicality and propensity for singing at night). So then: Shade is a waxwing, Sybil a swallow (hirondelle), and Hazel a nightingale/pheasant. As far as I know, this arrangement has only one precedent: the myth of Tereus, Procne, Philomel, and Itys. As Ovid tells it, Tereus was married to Procne, with whom he had a son, Itys. But Tereus lusted after Procne's sister, Philomel. He eventually raped her, imprisoned her, and cut out her tongue. But Philomel hid a message in the weave of a tapestry that she managed to get into the hands of Procne. When Procne found out what happened, she rescued Philomel and they together, in a rash act of revenge, slaughtered Itys and served him as a meal to Tereus. When Tereus found out, he chased the sisters into the forest, where the Gods intervened, changing Tereus into a crested bird with a mask on its face (in early translations a "lapwing"), Procne into a swallow, and Philomel into a nightingale. Some versions of the myth say that Itys was reassembled into a pheasant. It isn't hard to see the similarities here. Shade, like Tereus, is a crested bird with a mask (whose name, waxwing, is phonetically similar to lapwing); Sybil, like Procne, is a swallow; and Hazel, like Philomel, is a (American) nightingale, while also doubling the role of Itys, a pheasant.

As you may have guessed, I believe that this is no mere coincidence, and I likewise believe that it supports a reading of the novel wherein there is some kind of unnatural relationship (active or passive) between John Shade and Hazel. In Ovid, it is very clear that Tereus's relationship with Philomel is seen as a form of incest, and the father's devouring of his child is simply an alimentary form of incest. Note too that in one scene in the Metamorphoses, Tereus, while witnessing Philomel embracing her father (the king), wishes that he were her father, so that he could indulge his passion incestuously. (Shade, by the way, twice imagines himself a king in "PF"--see lines 605 and 894; in the latter of these, he, like Kinbote, imagines himself both as a king and as the victim of an assassin.)

We can now also note another link to Eliot's "Game of Chess," which Shade (or Nabokov) parodies in Canto Three. Just before the "What is that noise?" bit, Eliot shows us the mantle with its "carved dolphin," where a picture displays,
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears.
Brian Boyd has argued that VN was also parodying the first section of "A Game of Chess," (a woman before toilet items), so this adds one more piece to that puzzle, as well.

Those who may not be familiar with what I've written about this up to now, should see here:

Matt Roth

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