NABOKV-L post 0012193, Thu, 8 Dec 2005 18:39:25 -0800

Fwd: Letter about Socher's TLS article on Frost and VN
EDNOTE. Thanks to James Twiggs for calling this item to my attention.

----- Forwarded message from -----
Date: Thu, 8 Dec 2005 13:53:00 -0600
From: James Twiggs <>
Subject: Letter about Socher's TLS article on Frost and VN
To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum

times literary supplement,,25360-1885686,00.html
The TLS October 21, 2005

Kinbote and Shade

Sir, -Commenting on Nabokov's Pale Fire one runs the risk of turning
into its protagonist, Professor Charles Kinbote, madly disgorging
digressive information and misinformation.

Abraham P. Socher ("Shades of Frost", July 1) mostly escapes this
danger, though he skirts it by withholding for six columns his
discovery of the "one short poem" of Frost's that Nabokov said he
"really knew", one "without which Nabokov's novel is almost
unimaginable". We might expect "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy
Evening", which Kinbote (optimistically) calls the "poem that every
American schoolboy knows by heart", but Socher offers instead the
little-known "Questioning Faces": The winter owl banked just in time
to pass And save herself from breaking window glass And her wings
straining suddenly aspread Caught color from the last of evening red
In a display of underdown and quill To glassed-in children at the
window sill.

When Kinbote alludes to a John Shade poem appearing in "the New York
magazine The Beau and the Butterfly, some time in 1958" (playing on
the New Yorker's annual spring cover cartoon), he raises Socher's
hopes that one of Frost's had really been printed there and then.
However, he reports, "Questioning Faces" was first published in the
Saturday Review (of Literature) on April 12, 1958.

"Unfortunately", Socher found, "Frost did not publish a poem in the
New Yorker that year." One might assume from this statement, and
given Frost's immense fame, that his poems had appeared in the New
Yorker in other years, but this is not so.

Even though Frost had called it "our best literary magazine", he
never published a poem there.

Socher makes a case that Nabokov partially echoed "Questioning Faces"
-"a minor poem by a major poet" -in the opening of Shade's "Pale
Fire", where a waxwing fails to "bank in time", leaving a "smudge of
ashen fluff" on the windowpane though not "breaking glass".

This is good for both Frost and Nabokov scholars to know, but Frost's
own evaluation of "Questioning Faces" hints that it may deserve more
respect than Socher and others allow it. Speaking to a huge,
appreciative audience in Boston on December 2, 1962, eight weeks
before his death, Frost commented pointedly, "This is one I'd like
you to remember. This one is my favorite".

A larger question is how to evaluate John Shade's poem. One hopes
that Nabokov composed "Pale Fire" in the same spirit that moved
Chaucer to assign himself "The Tale of Sir Thopas" in The Canterbury
Tales. "Pale Fire" is not a "major" poem on its own but a lengthy
piece of light verse, heavy at times and wholly subsumed in the
crazed narration of its fictitious annotator's commentary. It is
crudely crafted in an often mechanical iambic pentameter -what
Chaucer's Host calls "rym doggerel" - with sentences flying off and
crashing against the invisible line ends:

I cannot understand why from the lake /
I could make out our front porch when I'd take /
Lake Road to school, whilst now, although no tree /
Has intervened, I look but fail to see /
Even the roof. (41-45)

Whether the "drasty rymyng" of "Pale Fire" is "worth a toord" or not,
Professor Kinbote's droppings on it have fertilized the whole field
of what Abraham Socher admires as "fantastically ingenious Pale Fire

1725 Hillcrest Road, Santa Barbara, California 93103.

Copyright 2005 The Times Literary Supplement Ltd.

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