Vladimir Nabokov

"activities of the IPH would be quite Hudibrastic" Pale Fire & Masonry

By MARYROSS, 30 April, 2024

Hudibras and Freemasonry


Line 629: The fate of beasts 

Above this the poet wrote and struck out: 

The madman's fate


I am not sure this trivial variant has been worth commenting; indeed, the whole passage about the activities of the IPH would be quite Hudibrastic had its pedestrian verse been one foot shorter.  

Pale Fire, p. 181


I think one can be assured that a caveat to the reader such as Kinbote’s above occurs in Pale Fire, it is a clear sign that one should do the opposite –  pay attention and find its import.  The “madman’s fate,” the IPH, and Samuel Butler’s Hudibras must together signify something. 

“The madman’s fate” is Kinbote’s tragic trajectory, which I believe is a satirical classic “Hero’s Journey” of Jungian “individuation.”  The IPH is a satirical look at mystical societies, such as the SPR that Jung and quite a number of other luminaries mentioned in PF were members of (see https://thenabokovian.org/topic/revised-list-occultists-pale-fire?check_logged_in=1#comment-form).  Samuel Butler was a Freemason and wrote Hudibras as a send-up of Rosicrucian and Masonic-style societies that were becoming popular amongst the cognoscenti of the day. 

The main theme of Freemasonry is to confront Death through spiritual development. The same could be said of Jung, the SPR, and the IPH, as well as John Shade’s quest. Is this not a major theme of Pale Fire, couched, like Hudibras, as a satire?

“Hudibrastic” refers to a style of satiric doggerel popularized by Hudibras, a “mock-heroic epic” poem by Samuel Butler, illustrated by William Hogarth. It regales the misadventures of a pompous pedant, Hudibras, who fancies himself a knight and has a series of inane misadventures. It became very popular and the style henceforth became known as “Hudibrastic.” It is not hard to see that Kinbote himself is rather “Hudibrastic.”

That Hudibras was a send-up of secret societies is not hard to see. Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism in the 17th century were entering a period of social cachet, almost a fad, amongst the elite. I quote the following Wikipedia at length to demonstrate the typical description of Hudibras as anti-religion and contemporary morals, but with no mention that it is as well, a satire on Freemasonry. 


According to Wikipedia:


“Hudibras is a vigorous satirical poem, written in a mock-heroic style by Samuel Butler (1613–1680), and published in three parts in 1663, 1664 and 1678. The action is set in the last years of the Interregnum, around 1658–60, immediately before the restoration of Charles II as king in May 1660.

[…] Iambic tetrameter [..]The satire "delighted the royalists but was less an attack on the puritans than a criticism of antiquated thinking and contemporary morals, and a parody of old-fashioned literary form. […] Butler was not the inventor of the rhymed octosyllabic couplet, the Hudibrastic, but he greatly popularised it, and it became a new fashion as soon as Hudibras appeared in print. […]The satire "delighted the royalists but was less an attack on the puritans than a criticism of antiquated thinking and contemporary morals, and a parody of old-fashioned literary form.

[…]Sidrophel, the local Rosicrucian conjurer and astrologer, first appears at the end of Part Two, with his assistant (his "zany"), Whackum.


[…]Butler was not the inventor of the rhymed octosyllabic couplet, the Hudibrastic, but he greatly popularised it, and it became a new fashion as soon as Hudibras appeared in print. Most important of all, however, beginning thirty years after Butler finished HudibrasJonathan Swift memorably re-established and renewed the Hudibrastic couplet as an important literary resource in much of his satirical verse, from Baucis and Philemon (1706-09) to Verses on the Death of Dr Swift (1731-32).

New editions came out dated 1704 and 1712, and another in 1726 that had illustrations by Hogarth.


A parody of Hudibras, by an unknown author appeared in 1723, The Freemasons; an Hudibrastick Poem. It became almost as popular as the original; the Masonic content is more blatantly manifest, though not as witty and far more scurillous and obscene. It shows the Freemasons as a drunken boys club given to orgies with whores, and rituals of flogging on the bare backside, and the “mason kiss” – similarly placed. 

Modern Masons apparently still find this parody of a parody amusing, suggesting that self-satire was the intent with the original Hudibras as well; Butler and Hogarth were masonic brothers in the same London lodge.


In reference to Pale Fire, a number of things may be mentioned:


>Butler is not specifically mentioned in Pale Fire, but Hogarth is (F:19 “Hogarthian tippler”; C629:182 “Grubby Group” Hogarth etching of a “Grub Street” poet, The Distrest Poet 

>Butler’s ‘Hudibrastic’ style influenced the later 18th C. English satiric poets alluded to in Pale Fire, i.e. Johnson, Swift, & Pope. 

>Swift, Pope, and Boswell (& possibly Johnson) were Freemasons – all alluded to in Pale Fire.

>Butler and Hogarth were Masonic brothers in the same London lodge.. 

>Kinbote seems to understand Hudibras’ as a Masonic send-up; he likens it to Shade’s satire on the occult-oriented IPH. 

>Hudibras takes place during the time of the Interregnum, which means during Charles II’s exile. Pricilla Meyer’s signal book on Pale Fire devotes a whole chapter to the connections of Kinbote/King Charles’ connection to the English monarch and the history of English literature. She also writes that Charles II “Liked ‘Hudibras’ so well that he gave [Butler] three hundred pounds and a pension…”

>James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) became in 1601 the first English monarch to be initiated into the Masons. He was succeeded by Charles I, 1649, who was defeated in the English civil war, escaped, brought back, and beheaded.

>James VI and his sons Charles and James were also masons. Charles II was enthroned but then exiled, later to be reinstated. Charles exiled James, but after Charles died his brother returned as James II & VII, then deposed and exiled leading to the interregnum with Cromwell. (A puritan anti-masonic era).

>James II & VII’s loyalists became known as Jacobites. So many Jacobites were also masons that they became associated with the movement. Many of them fled to France where the Jacobite lodges influenced French masonry. James II’s grandson, “Bonny Prince Charley” (also a Mason) led the doomed Jacobite rebellion.

>Although this period of English history seems to suggest an influence on Nabokov’s Charles II of Zembla, it is clearly, and probably intentionally not exact. However, the profusion of “Jameses” and “Charleses”, revolutions, exiles, deposings and beheadings, is notable. (“James” = French “Jacques”; Hebrew “Jacob”).

>There was even an important masonic Jacobite councilor to James named “Kincaradine.”

>Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, whatever their clouded history and connection, were becoming during this era increasingly popular amongst the nobility and intellectuals, largely in part because of the interminable internecine religious wars. Freemasonry was tolerant and not yet reviled by the Catholics.

 > Hudibras fancies himself a chivalric knight. Masons call themselves “knights” and infer that their origins go back to the Knights Templar and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

Although a direct line from the Knights Templar to Freemasonry has long been contested, by the 18th Century anti-masonic invective, as well as some lodges, believed it did. It seems likely that this notion had been brewing during the time of Butler’s story, if not long before. So Hudibras seems to be a mad mason. In one adventure he has a run-in with an alchemist/astrologer, named “Sidrophel” (Star lover), who has been described, as a “Rosicrucian.”

>Throughout the series Hudibras unsuccessfully tries to woo a wealthy woman, referred to only as “the widow.” She gets the better of him in the end and proclaims a feminist manifesto:

Masons referred to themselves as “Sons of the Widow.” Who was the Widow? There are several different explanations. In the Grail lore (revered by Masons), Percival’s mother fell dead the moment he rode off to become a knight; it turns out that she was the sister of the ailing Grail King whom Percival ultimately saves. 

Some say the Widow was the wife of the masonic venerated Hiram Abif, architect of Solomon’s Temple. Some say Ruth the wife of Boaz, great-grandfather of David. “Boaz” is the name of the left-side column on the masonic porch. Some say Mary Magdalene. Some say The Widow goes back to Isis who regenerated her dead husband, Osiris. 

Ultimately it seems that in the highest degrees, the bastions of masculine perfection venerate a woman: Sophia, goddess of Wisdom. 


Who is this feminine pinnacle in Pale Fire? … the widow, Sybil!

Just as Hudibras woos the Widow for the wrong reasons (money over wisdom), Kinbote is left unsuccessful in getting what he wants from Sybil – her confirmation that she agreed to give Kinbote the stolen manuscript (fame/greed over Art). )

This scenario is in keeping with the Jungian theories in Pale Fire that I have tried to describe. (see esp. Sybil: Black Widow Spider at the Center of  Pale Fire’s Web of Sense, academia.edu) Jung who was clearly influenced by Masonry, especially the alchemic side of it which emphasizes the union of opposites and the veneration of Sophia. He believed the ultimate task of a man was to integrate the feminine, the anima.

Until looking into the Masonic motif of PF I have been unsure whether, in the end, Nabokov intended Kinbote’s suicide to indicate an “ego-death” and thus a successful Jungian transcendence, or whether failing to deal with Sybil as anima indicates a failed transcendence. The parallel Masonic veneration of Sophia suggests to me the latter. Nabokov did not hold either the feminine, nor clubby societies, in high esteem, and this may have been his way of saying “Never surrender!”











Alexey Sklyarenko

1 month 1 week ago

Although I do not subscribe to Mary's Jungo-Masonic theory (because to write Pale Fire VN needed neither Jung, nor the Masons), it is worth mentioning that Shade looks like a fleshy Hogarthian tippler of indeterminate sex: 


Oh, there were many such incidents. In a skit performed by a group of drama students I was pictured as a pompous woman hater with a German accent, constantly quoting Housman and nibbling raw carrots; and a week before Shade's death, a certain ferocious lady at whose club I had refused to speak on the subject of "The Hally Valley" (as she put it, confusing Odin's Hall with the title of a Finnish epic), said to me in the middle of a grocery store, "You are a remarkably disagreeable person. I fail to see how John and Sybil can stand you," and, exasperated by my polite smile, she added: "What's more, you are insane." But let me not pursue the tabulation of nonsense. Whatever was thought, whatever was said, I had my full reward in John's friendship. This friendship was the more precious for its tenderness being intentionally concealed, especially when we were not alone, by that gruffness which stems from what can be termed the dignity of the heart. His whole being constituted a mask. John Shade's physical appearance was so little in keeping with the harmonies hiving in the man, that one felt inclined to dismiss it as a coarse disguise or passing fashion; for if the fashions of the Romantic Age subtilized a poet's manliness by baring his attractive neck, pruning his profile and reflecting a mountain lake in his oval gaze, present-day bards, owing perhaps to better opportunities of aging, look like gorillas or vultures. My sublime neighbor's face had something about it that might have appealed to the eye, had it been only leonine or only Iroquoian; but unfortunately, by combining the two it merely reminded one of a fleshy Hogarthian tippler of indeterminate sex. His misshapen body, that gray mop of abundant hair, the yellow nails of his pudgy fingers, the bags under his lusterless eyes, were only intelligible if regarded as the waste products eliminated from his intrinsic self by the same forces of perfection which purifed and chiseled his verse. He was his own cancellation. (Foreword)


"My sublime neighbor" (as Kinbote calls Shade) makes one think of sublimation (part of the royal art where the true gold is made). William Hogarth (1697-1764) is the author of the illustrations for Samuel Butler's satirical poem Hudibras (1663-78). The Way of All Flesh (written between 1873 and 1884 and originally titled Ernest Pontifex or the Way of All Flesh) is a semi-autobiographical novel (published in 1903) by Samuel Butler that attacks Victorian-era hypocrisy. Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was an English novelist and critic, best known for his satirical utopian novel Erewhon (1872). Erewhon is Nowhere backwards. Botkin (Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus' "real" name) is nikto b (none would), a phrase used by Mozart in Pushkin's little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830), in reverse. John Shade is the son of Samuel Shade (who died at fifty, in 1902) and Caroline Lukin. According to Kinbote (the author of a book on surnames), the Lukins are an old Essex family. In Essex (a ceremonial county in the East of England) there is 'sex.' Shade resembles a fleshy Hogarthian tippler of indeterminate sex.


1 month 1 week ago


I assert that on a deeper thematic level my "Jungo-Masonic" theories help to unify many of the hidden themes and allusions in PF. For instance, take "Hogarth." Aside from being a Mason, why did Nabokov choose to mention him in relation to John Shade's "indeterminate sex"?

Viewing the PF characters as Jungian archetypes helps to see the connection. All of the main characters have gender issues (imbalanced "anima/animus" as Jung would see it.) Kinbote is the most obvious due to his homosexuality. A few critics have also noted that Aunt Maud and Hazel appear to be Lesbians. Even the lovely Disa first appears wearing boys' clothes. The wanton guide-girl Garh dresses in boys' clothes, too. King Alfin is meek and unmasculine, while Queen Blenda is horsey and domineering. Sybil has the sharp and opinionated tongue of a woman Jung would say is ruled by her "animus." The Jungian view also reveals Sybil as the main antagonist, the ur-anima the "Great Mother" archetype (but that's another part of the whole story SYBIL: Spider at the Center of Pale Fire's Web of Sense). This is also why the "widow" in Hudibras and in Masonry is relevant.

John Shade perfectly fits the archetype of the "Persona." This is where the Jungian paradigm illuminates the character dynamics and the depth of Nabokov’s deceit. For Nabokov has so brilliantly led readers to believe that Shade is the kindly, common-sensical old fire-side poet, devoted husband, and loving father. But there is a darker Shade, as we shall see as we lift the mask.

Persona” means “mask,” a word in fact used to describe Shade in the foreword: “His whole being constituted a mask.” It is a “coarse disguise”(F, 19). The persona, is the false face shown to the public and wished for by the ego. I go into more deeply Shade’s drinking, philandering, and passive-aggression towards his wife and child in my papers, The Tri-Part Man and Sybil. More pertinent to the “gender-bender” theme, he is also described as a “fleshy Hogarthian tippler of indeterminate sex.”

As a sensitive boy Shade was unpopular with his peers; he “never bounced a ball, or swung a bat.  He felt shame at his preternatural mystical swoons. Doubting his own experience he adopted the “acceptable” medical diagnosis of “fits” and “bad heart.” Doubt, Jung claimed, is the bane of the persona; the persona is always insecure, the mask held up by a shaky hand. The adult Shade seems a staid, humble, well-adjusted, person, yet he may be hiding even more than his drinking and domestic issues.

Matthew Roth discovered in the Berg Collection Nabokov’s actual discarded drafts of Pale Fire that indicate he may originally have intended for Shade to be homosexual, or at least threatened by homophobia. It seems that Nabokov may have intended at first to have this irruption of awareness as the etiology of Shade’s breakdown. Perhaps he later decided to have the original character break down into sub-characters a la Jungian archetypes. Here is a sample of a discard:

“676 delights

These are manifold. Impaling deep tenderness on the stake of strong passion is, of course, the classicist’s choice. Other ways to paradise may be tried, as the one we heraldists call engoulant or inguillant, or vorant. The ways to paradise are narrow but a good boy never chokes on the gorged sword, The more cultivated lover likes to face his armed twin. Thus the green spark that lit the caveman’s face spurted forth from two redwood sticks. The ways to paradise sometimes cannot be told from those to hell. Blasphemy, insomnia and disgust.

Oh, let me not be mad, sweet heaven!”


Shade hints at his darker side in the apparently light-hearted bath-and-shave sequence in Canto Four. He calls himself a “bimanist,” indicating that he operates from two sides, one sinister. “Left hand” is the slang for homosexuality. (Kinbote also is left-handed). His shadowy side is in the line, “[S]omeday I must set free/The Newport Frill in me.” (P, 54) (The Newport Frill was an old style of beard with fluffy sideburns. Perhaps there was a sort of "gay blade" fashion associated with it?) The poetic sublimation of his dark side, “that patch of prick-liness,” is always itching to be expressed. As pointed out by Roth and DeRewal this may suggest a werewolf; it was once believed that a werewolf’s fur was turned inside out in his human form. No wonder he writes, “Now I shall speak of evil and despair”! (P, 54) These words do not seem so facetious now.

Hence, an "indeterminate sex" theme also runs through PF. Homosexuality has long been noted as a prickly trope in Nabokov's work. This is a point where that theme's thread intersects with Hogarth, Masonry, Jung, and homosexuality. Because of their secrecy, the Mason's have been accused of having homosexual orgies at least since Hudibras and the anonymous lascivious sequel. This is most likely untrue, but they have been known for a lot of drinking at their gatherings (held in ale houses in Butler's day), and their veneration of the phallus.

Caveat: Note that Jung was at the height of his career in the 1950-60's, as was Nabokov. The mores of that time are reflected in the work of both men, and thus are also reflected in my writing about them.

Dear Mary, you will never prove your Jungian point, because for you it is an axiom that does not require proof. I fully agree with Carolyn who told you what VN would think of the Scheißkerl (I mean, Swiss Kerl). Sorry. Btw., I realized only recently what Carolyn meant when she called me "czar Alexis." I notice that "let me not be mad, sweet Heaven!" is an allusion to Pushkin's poem Ne day mne Bog soyti s uma ("The Lord forbid my going mad! A beggar's lot is not as bad").