Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005272, Mon, 3 Jul 2000 14:44:32 -0700

Pale Fire & Heroic Couplets
From: Arthur Glass <goliard@worldnet.att.net>

Is 'Pale Fire,' as Kinbote says it is, 'a poem in heroic couplets?'

Surely it is a poem in consecutively rhymed lines, but is that sufficient to
call it a poem composed in heroic couplets? The adjective 'heroic' implies
that there are couplets that are not so. A Shakespearean sonnet ends with a
couplet, after all. Would anyone say that the first two lines of Donne's 'An
Anatomie of the World' constitute a heroic couplet?

When that rich Soule which to her heaven is gone
Whom all do celebrate, who know they have one....

As I remember my literary history, Edmund Waller is credited with being the
progenitor of the heroic couplet. The opening four lines of 'At Penshurst'
will suffice:

Had Sacharissa lived when mortals made
Choice of their deities, this sacred shade
Had held an altar to her power, that gave
The peace and glory which these alleys have.

Note that in lines one, two and four, the line-pause is near the middle
(line three is irregular in this regard). But we still do not have the
polished, closed couplet perfected by Dryden. Here is the beginning of
'Absalom and Achitophel:'

In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin;
When man on many multiplied his kind,
Ere one to one was cursedly confined;

Each line is end-stopped, the second line of each couplet stopped more
heavily than the first. Line and the couplet each constitute a metrical

Now cosider the opening of 'Canto Two' of 'Pale Fire'

There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
To every human being; I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.

Line one is obviously end-stopped. one might argue for a slight pause at the
end of line two, but it can hardly be called heavily stopped, as befits the
second line of a closed couplet. Line three could be read as end-stopped
with a heavy stress on 'alone.' It would be difficult to argue for an
end-stop after line four.

Let's end for now with the Popean glory of the closed couplet from the
'Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot:'

What Walls can guard me, or what Shades can hide?
They pierce my Thickets, thro' my Grot they glide,
By land, by water, they renew the charge,
They stop the Chariot, and they board the Barge.

Notice that I have been looking for 'shade.' But then, it's July in New

In short, there is a certain swing to a genuine heroic couplet, which the
attuned ear can pick up without analysis. There is also a cultural ambience
in which the form makes elegant sense, apart from which it is a tropical
fish out of water. but more of that anon.