Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026698, Fri, 11 Dec 2015 13:10:54 +0300

numbers, streetlamps & Tamerlane in Pale Fire
In his poem The Nature of Electricity Shade mentions the streetlamp number
999 and Tamerlane:

The dead, the gentle dead-who knows?-
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man's departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley's incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell. (Kinbote's note to Line 347)

In the manuscript Shade's almost finished poem Pale Fire has 999 lines and,
according to Kinbote, needs but one line (identical to Line 1: "I was the
shadow of the waxwing slain") to be completed. 999 is 666 (the Apocalyptic
"Number of the Beast") turned upside down. In Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869)
Pierre Bezukhov discusses the meaning of the number 666 in an attempt to
prove that he is the man destined to kill Napoleon. In Domik v Kolomne ("The
Cottage in Kolomna," 1830), an admirable mock epic in octaves, Pushkin
compares the poet who leads his numbered lines like a marching army to
Tamerlane or even to Napoleon himself:

Как весело стихи свои вести
Под цифрами, в порядке, строй за строем,
Не позволять им в сторону брести,
Как войску, в пух рассыпанному боем!
Тут каждый слог замечен и в чести,
Тут каждый стих глядит себе героем,
А стихотворец... с кем же равен он?
Он Тамерлан иль сам Наполеон. (V)

Pushkin's poem begins as follows:

Четырестопный ямб мне надоел:
Им пишет всякий. Мальчикам в забаву
Пора б его оставить. Я хотел
Давным-давно приняться за октаву.
А в самом деле: я бы совладел
С тройным созвучием. Пущусь на славу!
Ведь рифмы запросто со мной живут;
Две придут сами, третью приведут. (I)

According to Pushkin, the rhymes live with him without ceremony: two will
come by themselves, the third will be brought by force. Therefore he hopes
that he will be able to control troynoe sozvuchie ("the triple accord").

It seems to me that Shade's unfinished poem needs not only Line 1000, and
not only the coda (Line 1001: "By its own double in the windowpane"), but
also the final triple accord. The poem's last word rhymes with "slain" in
Line 1000, with "up the lane" in Line 999 and with Tamerlane (the Tartar
conqueror mentioned by Shade in The Nature of Electricity and by Pushkin in
The Cottage in Kolomna)! In Lines 967-68 of his poem Shade mentions his
sensuous love for "the consonne d'appui, Echo's fey child." In his poem
Rifma ("Rhyme," 1830), eight hexameters, Pushkin says that Rhyme is the
daughter of Phoebus and Echo.* Consonne d'appui (the onset consonant) is
thus Rhyme's brother. According to Chekhov, Kratkost' (Brevity) is Talent's
sister. And, in Tyutchev's poem Bliznetsy ("The Twins," 1852), the two pairs
of twins are Death and Sleep, on the one hand, and Suicide and Love, on the
other. In his Foreword to Shade's poem Kinbote mentions two charming
identical twins:

I turned to go, not wishing to listen to a marital scene, but she [Sybil
Shade] called me back: "Have a drink with us," she said, "or rather with me,
because John is forbidden to touch alcohol." I explained I could not stay
long because I was about to have a kind of little seminar at home followed
by some table tennis, with two charming identical twins and another boy,
another boy.

At the beginning of "The Cottage in Kolomna" Pushkin says that he is tired
of iambic tetrameter (the meter of Eugene Onegin in which everybody writes)
and that it is time to leave it mal'chikam v zabavu (to boys for their
pastimes). In first octave of Pushkin's poem zabava (pastime; amusement,
fun) rhymes with oktava (octave) and with slava (glory; fame). But it also
rhymes with Poltava! In Pushkin's Poltava (1828) there is a famous line:

I gryanul boy, Poltavskiy boy!

And the battle began, the battle of Poltava!

It brings to mind another famous line, that from Alexander Blok's cycle Na
Pole Kulikovom ("In the Field of Kulikovo," 1908):

I vechnyi boy! Pokoy nam tol'ko snitsya.

And the eternal fight! We only dream of repose.

In his poem Dvenadtsat' ("The Twelve," 1918) Blok mentions elekstricheskiy
fonarik na oglobel'kakh (corr., an electric lantern on the shafts):

Снег крутит, лихач кричит,

Ванька с Катькою летит -

Елекстрический фонарик

На оглобельках...

Ах, ах, пади!

In Blok's famous poem Noch', ulitsa, fonar', apteka: (Night, street, lamp,
drugstore:" 1912) the last word is fonar' (streetlamp):

Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,

Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.

Живи ещё хоть четверть века -

Всё будет так. Исхода нет.

Умрёшь - начнёшь опять сначала

И повторится всё, как встарь:

Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,

Аптека, улица, фонарь.

Night, street, lamp, drugstore,

A dull and meaningless light.

Go on and live another quarter century -

Nothing will change. There's no way out.

You'll die, then start from the beginning,

It will repeat, just like before:

Night, icy ripples on a canal,

Drugstore, street, lamp.

*in Pushkin's earlier poem, Rifma, zvuchnaya podruga: ("Rhyme, the sonorous
friend:" 1828), Rhyme's parents are Apollo (Phoebus) and Mnemosyne (the
Muses' mother who in Pushkin's Rifma is the mid-wife)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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