This essay deconstructs Nabokov’s narrative poem “Pale Fire,” attributed to the fictitious John Shade. Although the novel as a whole has received more attention in the literature, there is no shortage of articles and essays on this or that aspect of the poem itself. However, little has been written which adopts as its primary focus the strictly formal properties known to the study of prosody. Critics seem to offer either thematic interpretations or notes on formal properties but without a wider frame of reference. In response, this paper provides a detailed taxonomic description of the particular metrical features which characterize Shade’s verse, including: basic probabilities on the occurrence of any particular binary foot, a tabulation of every elision, and a partial scansion derived from a recorded reading by the author. By (a) modifying Nabokov’s model of anomalous stress, (b) developing a standardized classification of elision, and (c) expanding the Belian method of visualizing modulation, it is shown inter alia that (A) any scud is most likely the only one in its line, (B) Shade’s verse betrays a learned familiarity with the French poetic tradition, and (C) the syncopated and highly organized modulation formalizes the life and, ultimately, the death of Hazel, Shade’s daughter, respectively. Further research is still required to produce a model of rhyme in “Pale Fire” and a comparative study between Nabokov and canonical poets with respect to frequencies of all possible binary feet.
On the Prosody of Nabokov’s Pale Fire
Periodical or collection
Nabokov Online Journal