Alexander Pope sets the ground-work for the form of Pale Fire
, not merely in rhymed iambic mock-heroic couplets (and in figuration from other Essays; even Pope's grot, separating his house and garden, plays a part in Kinbote's escape tunnel, terminating in a green door), but in the preface/poem/notes/index structure that the latter (and Nabokov's own Eugene Onegin
) shares with The Dunciad
. And as The Dunciad
surveys the landscape of Pope's contemporaries (first from his viewpoint, then from the dunce's), Pale Fire
encompasses the development of English poetry from the Metaphysical Poets to 20th century American, especially T.S.Eliot. (Pope's necessary other, Swift, deserves more than passing mention for "Tale of the Tub".) Boyd's Nabokov's Pale Fire
handles particular contributions from Pope (The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Man
) and Eliot (The Waste Land, The Four Quartets
) in admirable depth, but dismisses the broader satire as subservient to the afterlife theme. Others have investigated allusions to specific poets (e.g. Sicker ['92] on Coleridge and Wordsworth -- note the syllable swap in Wordsmith/Goldsworth), but it's well worthwhile to trace these through John Shade's own corpus.
The first Shade work mentioned is Supremely Blest
[L384] as is appropriate for a Pope scholar. Robert Browning is up next, via oblique reference in The Untamed Seahorse
[L671-2]: Kinbote directs us to My Last Duchess
, oblivious to the complaint of the patron directing the artist's hand, while himself complaining about pulling titles out of the airs of prior poets (which in this case does not apply, as the words 'untamed seahorse' do not appear in Browning's poem). Then we come to Shade's poems [L957-62]:Dim Gulf
was my first book (free verse); Night Rote
Came next; then Hebe's Cup
, my final float
In that damp carnival, for now I term
Everything "Poems," and no longer squirm.
transparent thingum does require
Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire
'Hebe's Cup' is from Richard Crashaw's "Music's Duel"
(with help from the Crashaw Club lecture [L683]), 'Dim Gulf' from Poe's "To One in Paradise"
, and the poem
from which 'Pale Fire' derives (Will nowithstanding) is Yeats' "A Poet to his Beloved"
'Night Rote' took a little more doing to uncover, and I had to sidetrack through Joyce to get there: Though Nabokov famously denied that John Shade's and Stephen Dedalus' nail-paring was anything more than a coincidence, I've never been able to extirpate the feeling that the shaving rite in Canto Four of Pale Fire alludes to the introit to Joyce's Ulysses. But a particular sentence from the latter, not much farther on, caught my attention: "A deaf gardener, aproned, masked with Matthew Arnold's face, pushes his mower in the sombre lawn watching narrowly the dancing motes of grasshalms."
The gardener reference piqued my interest, especially the dancing echo with the disregarded butterfly at the close of the poem; in the NYT VN bookchat (since deleted, but resurrected into the current bookchat-of-the-month
[reg req'd]), teddy pointed out the corresponding reference in Kinbote's commentary to the non-existent L1000, wherein gardeners real and faux play their parts: "Oh, he was aiming at me all right but missing me every time, the incorrigible bungler, as I instinctively backed, bellowing and spreading my great strong arms (with my left hand still holding the poem, 'still clutching the inviolable Shade,' to quote Matthew Arnold, 1822-1888) ..."
The embedded quote is from 'The Scholar-Gipsy', first published in Arnold's 1853 revised edition. This edition also includes Arnold's first critical writing, a preface on his theory of poetry; and the poem 'Sohrab and Rustum', which contains the following gardener allusion, L631-9, after the latter has slain the former in combat:
... And he saw that Youth,
Of age and looks to be his own dear son,
Piteous and lovely, lying on the sand,
Like some rich hyacinth which by the scythe
Of an unskilful gardener has been cut,
Mowing the garden grass-plots near its bed,
And lies, a fragrant tower of purple bloom,
On the mown, dying grass--so Sohrab lay,
Lovely in death, upon the common sand.
'Sohrab and Rustum' replaced 'Empedocles at Etna' from an earlier edition; Mark Seigchrist ('78) pointed out the constructive reliance on counterweighting dualities, but critics have debated whether the poem truly satisfies the criteria Arnold set forth in his preface; this, and the theme of the poem, is often seen as emblematic of Arnold's own career, as are these lines, from 'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse' in the same edition: Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born
It was by wandering down this carefully planted garden path that I arrived at "Dover Beach"
as the source for 'Night Rote' hitting the right note; and 'a distant northern sea' evokes the commentator's last word (index entry for Zembla).
So that, aside from the metaphysical Crashaw, the poetic references are to 19c poets who were also critics and theorists. ("Poems" is too ambiguous to lay at Eliot's door, but still ...) That this plays into the satiric mode is clear enough, but I remained unsatisfied with the prominence of the gardener in Pale Fire
until I looked into Sybil Shade's contribution, her translation of Donne and Marvell [L677-8], the latter of which gets disproportionate space in the commentary. The poem in question is "The Nymph complaining for the death of her Faun"; within the poem, reference to Silvio helps to establish Sybil (nee Irondell) Shade's identification with the pivotal Sylvia O'Donnell (well-connected to Zemblans and Wordsmith administrators alike), and the opening couplet ("The wanton Troopers riding by/Have shot my Faun and it will dye.") hearkens back to the epigraph by Samuel Johnson (by way of Boswell: "... Hodge shall not be shot."). Widening my view to Marvell's larger corpus, I found that the late lyrics correlate not only with the aforementioned sources for John Shade's titles (e.g. Music's Duel with Musicks Empire), but with other thematic aspects (cf. Arnold above) as well; the late advices to the painter are suggestive of Browning's Last Duchess. The choice of Donne and Marvell for translation is explained in part by Eliot's essay on Marvell's je ne sais quoi
But the clincher, for me, was consideration of Marvell's trajectory as a poet: his progression through lyric/panegyric/mock heroic/satiric (a movement culminating in Pope) mirrors that of the poem 'Pale Fire' as it passes from hand to hand, and that progression is synchronized with the English government's passing through Charles I and Cromwell to Charles II, model for Kinbote's sovereign encapsulated by Boyd (NPF, 80):"... foremost in England's Charles II, whom Kinbote happily evokes in his Commentary, because of his flair, looks, and popularity, and especially his romantic escape after the battle of Worcester in 1651: "Many times that night our King cast himself upon the ground with the desperate resolution of resting there till dawn that he might shift with less torment what hazard soever he ran. (I am thinking of another Charles, another long dark man above two yards high)" (C597-608). In the first sentence, Kinbote quotes almost verbatim from the History of the Rebellion (1702-4) by Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon ..."
"Clarendon's Housewarming" is coincidentally one of Marvell's satires, bracketed by the advices to the painter. But, lest it be thought I merely make ornaments of accidents and possibilities, I draw your attention to Marvell's last lyric, "The Garden"
. In Some Versions of Pastoral
, Empson begins:"The chief point of the poem is to contrast and reconcile conscious and unconscious states, intuitive and intellectual modes of apprehension; and yet that distinction is never made, perhaps could not have been made; his thought is implied by his metaphors. [...] The Oxford edition notes bring out a crucial double meaning (so that this at least is not my own fancy) in the most analytical statement of the poem, about the Mind --
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade."
I shan't try to gloss the argument (go read Empson!), beyond noting that it sees this as the crisis, mid-poem, and that Empson speaks of the escalation in levels of thought leading up to it: "... the three central verses of the Marvell poem ... in the course of suggesting various interlocking hierarchies (knowing that you know that you know, reconciling the remaining unconscious with the increasing consciousness, uniting in various degrees perception and creation, the one and the many), it does in fact rise through a hierarchy of three sharply contrasted styles and with them gives a more and more inclusive account of the mind's relation to nature."
But Nabokov plexes the artistry by taking this to the next level, or three, in correlating the sequel to Shade's glimpse of the afterlife (stanza vii), Kinbote's solipsism (viii), and the final resolution by our metaphysical gardener, Negative Capability Brown (ix). The structural sublimity of his satire makes Nabokov's no child's garden of verse.