Boyd re the Pale Fire poem
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Date: Thu, 15 Dec 2005 21:32:00 +1300
From: Brian Boyd <email@example.com>
Reply-To: Brian Boyd <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: The Pale Fire poem
To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum
Volodya and all,
An interesting question. Nabokov put all he had into "Pale Fire" the
poem, I think, though of course he made up Shade's past--and I do not
think this loving son and loving father could have invented a child's
suicide as the narrative center of the poem in a spirit of mockery.
To indicate ironic ineptitude or artistic limitation in a work within
a work (as Michael Glynn thinks Nabokov has done in Pale Fire) the
signals have to be unmistakeable: not necessarily as gross as Peter
Quince's clunky doggerel in A Midsummer Night's Dream's Pyramus and
Thisbe, or as flat as Orlando's sonnets in As You Like It, but
perhaps as clumsy as Ilya Borisovich Tal's in "Lips to Lips" or as
florid as the work of the "Katya" addressed in "The Admiralty Spire,"
or as thoroughly undermined by the circumstantial prosaisms of real
life as the vapid insipidities of Stephen Dedalus's villanelle in A
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In The Gift Fyodor partially
repudiates and quickly outgrows his "Life of Chernyshevsky," and
Nabokov himself distances it, by making it the work of a young and
rapidly maturing writer, by Koncheyev's and other criticisms, and by
the difference in texture and subtlety between the "biography" and
its "autobiographical" envelope.
But Shade is a mature and acclaimed poet, whose taste, tact,
knowledge, sensitivity and commitment to craftsmanship in the novel
outside the poem seem beyond question.
That the quality of the poem was as high as Nabokov could achieve
seems to be confirmed by every recorded comment he made about it:
"I should have written you sooner but I had an intense period of
inspiration that I badly needed for a long poem (part of my new
novel) and kept imbibing it while it lasted for hours on end" (to
Edmund Wilson, 27 Feb 1961, Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya).
Nabokov could have "badly needed" inspiration even to parody
ineptitude or limitation, but he would surely have needed it even
more to attain excellence in a language not his own. His gratitude
seems to point toward the second reading.
In reply to some questions Andrew Field sent while preparing Nabokov:
His Life in Art, Véra Nabokov answered on 11 December 1965, quoting
" 'To be quite frank, Shade's poem is a rather good Nabokov poem, and
the allusion to Frost is incidental and meant only to give local
color.' We read somewhere in a review that the poem was mediocre,
obscure and a parody of something or other. Sources: 'A pinch of Pope
perhaps, as form goes.' My husband admits that apart from the poem
about the little horse in the wintry woods, he has not read much Frost."
Clearly V and V were surprised and amused to read that "the poem was
mediocre, obscure and a parody." And the comment about Frost may be
set against Abe Socher's claim to a source for the opening of "Pale
Fire" in Frost's poem "Of a Winter Evening" (http://
Just after completing the poem in February 1961, Nabokov drafted a
letter to the New Yorker, asking if they would be prepared to publish
the whole of the "Pale Fire" poem in a single issue. It would have
been a strange move to ask them to publish a poem by an invented poet
that he thought was artistically flawed--and indeed as we know he
would later call Shade "by far the greatest of invented poets" (SO
59). Since he had taken the trouble to compose fine poems for his
invented Vasily Shishkov--which would be hailed as masterpieces by his
critical foe Georgy Adamovich--this is no mean claim.
When the magazine Show asked Nabokov a few months later in 1961 if he
had anything they could publish, Véra answered, offering "Pale Fire":
"The poem has 999 lines, consists of four cantos, and, while it
contains the essence of the poet's life story, presents also his
philosophy and its history. The last [1000th] line was never written
because the poet was killed after the 999th" (VéN to Richard
Schickel, 18 May 1961).
This would seem to address the concern of Anthony Stadlen (Nabokv-L,
10 Dec 2005, asking of me: "But how does he know that 'we return to
the first line'? Why should we accept Kinbote's assertion? How, even,
do we know that there would have been only one more line?"). Nabokov
had also noted in his draft letter to the New Yorker: "this long poem
which its (invented) author the American poet John Shade did not
quite complete (when he died before writing the last[,] one thousandth
[,] line)." Nabokov at least intended that Shade intended just one
more line, but never wrote it. It would presumably have rhymed with
"lane" in 999. Since Shade particularly liked "the consonne d'appui,"
it may have ended with the "l" of "lane," as well as the rest of the
syllable, as in "slain," the first line of the poem. But we do not
and cannot know.
To return to Volodya Mylnikov's question, it is in this sense and
this sense only that the poem MUST be seen in terms of Nabokov's
novel, and not just on its own terms: its incompleteness, and the
reason for its incompleteness, and the way in which its first line is
placed at its end by Kinbote in his note to line 1000, add complex
and poignant ironies that enormously amplify the poem and its themes.
The poem itself was as rich an accomplishment as Nabokov could make
it, but he also intended from the first that it would be far richer
still for the fictional reverberations he would arrange around it.
Walter Miale seems surprised that a poet should mingle the lofty and
the low, the high and the homely. But this has been done in poetry
since before Homer, and for many reasons, according to the local
context. Why does he assume that Shade is unaware of these clashing
levels, when there seems little else he is unaware of? Might not the
interpenetration of the mundane and magisterial be the conscious
choice of Shade, who happily describes his inspiration while shaving,
or indeed, paring his nails, and therefore seems to agree with his
maker that "genuine art mixes categories"?
On 15/12/2005, at 2:47 PM, Donald B. Johnson wrote:
> It is fascinating to read the discussion about Pale
> I have a question - is it correct to judge Pale Fire
> poem as it is without context of the whole book?
> I feel that the main artistic issue of the book - its
> construction and how all the elements work together.
> How "non artistic realities" as, say, Preface and
> Intdex can be transformed into aesthetic phenomena.
> All the parts are so well balanced.
> The poem itself works perfect in the novel. I am sure
> Nabokov would have come up with better rhyming pattern
> (and Brian Boyed showed those "weak ones") , but it is
> quite possible that it was not Nabokov's purpose.
> The poem is written by John Shade and not Nabokov. The
> novel Pale Fire is written by Nabokov.
> Best, Vladimir Mylnikov
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