Elemental spirits, Pope and a clue to the barn message in PF

Submitted by MARYROSS on Thu, 09/26/2019 - 18:15

PALE FIRE is a pastiche of parody, drawing from many sources. My particular focus has been Jungian archetypes and alchemy. Of course it is well known that the satirical poets of the 18th Century, Pope, Swift and Johnson comprise a major constituents in Nabokov’s “bursting spongebag” novel. They each made fun of the alchemy of the day. I admit to not knowing much about these men, so I’m doing some catch-up and discovering some interesting things that support my theories.



Pope’s Rape of the Lock:


>There is apparently a card game of “Ombre” structuring the plot. I have conjectured before that it seems a card game is taking place in PF, possibly Lansquenet, or Faro (as in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades).  There are many references in PF to kings, queens, jacks, numbers, diamonds, hearts, clubs, spades. In a variant John Shade writes, “I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost a ‘man’ in Spanish.  The game Ombre comes from Spanish, Hombre.


>Bodkins (hair pins) play a crucial role.


>Elemental spirits play important roles in The Rape of the Lock.  As Pope writes in his foreword:


“The Machinery, Madam, is a term invented by the Criticks, to signify that Part which the Deities, Angels, or Daemons, are made to act in a Poem: For the ancient Poets are in one Respect like many modern Ladies: Let an Action be never so trivial in itself, they always make it appear of the utmost Importance. These Machines I determin’d to raise on a very new and odd Foundation, the Rosicrucian Doctrine of Spirits.”


Pope is ridiculing Rosicrucianism, but the elemental spirits he mocks were first categorized and given names by the alchemist Paracelsus. These were: Air=Sylphs, Earth=Gnomes, Fire=Salamanders and Water=Undines. These categories include all the folkloric elves, fairies, kobolds, imps, nymphs, sprites etc. Elemental spirits can be either beneficent or malevolent, alluring or repulsive. Jung called them trickster figures. Jung’s anima/anima counter-sexual archetypes are often alluring and dangerous tricksters, as well.


PALE FIRE’s “machinery” is likewise abetted by elemental spirits:




Sylvia=Sylph:  Paracelsus’ coinage comes from “sylvester” (woods) + “nymph.” She is a beneficent aerial and wood nymph; she shoots wolves from an airplane.


Gradus=Sylph: Although Gradus is stunted and ugly like a gnome and associated with the alchemical element Mercury (earth element), he also flies through the air and is a messenger and is associated with the Vanessa atalanta.


Vanessa atalanta=Sylph:  The muse is an aerial spirit, a herald of doom, alluring but possibly malevolent.


Alfin=Sylph: He flies planes, therefore aerial. His name suggests “elfin.” He’s a    fairly benign spirit.




Gerald Emerald=Gnome: The man in green is very leprechaun-ish; a fun-loving mischievous  but alluring trickster (practical joker= card allusion).  His Zemblan Shadow, Izumrudov displays his malevolent side.


Poltergeist (Maud)=Gnome: Poltergeists are mischievous to malevolent “household spirits” a.k.a “domestic ghosts.” Kobolds are often house-hold spirits.


Andrikov and Niagarin=Gnomes: The blundering soviet spies dig for treasure, like mining ore.




Odon=Undine: Kinbote’s clever aide-de camp is a merman. His Irish background suggests leprechauns. His brother Nodo, the card-shark is malevolently crafty.


Fleur=Undine: Fleur’s sensual enchantment (wasted on Kinbote) is the epitome of the alluring mermaid. The mermaid Melusine was one of the emblems of the alchemic mercury in its unredeemed (dangerously alluring) state. Melusine was often pictured admiring herself with a mirror and comb, as we see Fleur in C, 80:


“He awoke to find her standing with a comb in her hand before his - or rather, his

grandfather's - cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror,signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay. She turned about before it: a secret device of reflection gathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual nymphs, some of whom, she murmured, must resemble her ancestors when they were young - little peasant garlien combing their hair in shallow water as far as the eye could reach, and then the wistful mermaid from an old tale, and then nothing.”




Oleg=Salamander: Salamanders are possibly equated with dragons, hence fire.  The salamander’s cold body was believed to withstand fire, thus they could live within their element (as all the elementals do – but only their specific element). Light is associated with fire, so the torch light of Oleg’s ghost is an aid to Kinbote’s second tunnel visit.


The many sparks and scintillations in PF suggest the fire element.


Barn Spirit=Salamander: Hazel’s spirit in the barn is probably not the same as the poltergeist house-hold spirit; it communicates with light. (For this reason I think it is not a Sylph like Ariel in The Rape of the Lock, but no matter.) The heroine, Belinda is warned by the sylph Ariel about the soon ensuing  travesty of the “dire offence”– the amorous Baron is seeking to snatch a lock of her hair:


But Heav’n reveals not what, or how, or where:

Warn’d by the Sylph, oh pious Maid, beware!

This is to disclose is all thy Guardian can.

Beware of all, but most beware of Man! (11-114)


I have always felt that the usual solution to the spirit in the barn’s message, “Papa do not go etc.” is too inelegant and too easy and is an intended feint. The above spirit warning would seem to make a lot more sense as a warning to Hazel. The Baron in The Rape of the Lock is based on the real personage of Lord Petre. In the mirror of PALE FIRE, the ardent Lord Petre becomes the repulsed Pete Dean. The desired and lovely Belinda (meaning “beautiful beautiful) becomes rejected Hazel.


Note also that Hazel and Fleur are opposite anima figures – repulsive and alluring. Fleur, like the mermaid she is, and like the lovely Belinda, is always combing her hair.


Enticingly, beginning with “oh” through “Man,” there are 81 letters. Leaving out “oh pious Maid, beware!” (17 letters), there are 64 remaining. This is very close to Hazel’s message; she recited the alphabet “eighty times, but of these seventeen yielded no results. Curiously the actual letters of the message only number 61, not 63. I have not been able to make it work, unfortunately, but maybe some genius puzzleer might.


I’m thinking that the number of letters might suggest similar syllables in 2 iambic lines – probably of Nabokov’s creation, but meaning much the same?

Yes, thank you, Alexey, I stand corrected.


I was perhaps a bit hasty posting. A few other revelations have occurred to me: 


>I neglected to mention the young woodwose Pan faunlet and alluring animus Undine, Gordon.


>Likewise the young fisher-boy.


>Fifalda, Fleur’s sister seems associated to the daemonic Undine “Mary” of Sir Walter Scott’s “Lord Ronald’s Coronach.”


>Reference to Goethe's Erlkonig in the poem and in Kinbote's alfear as he escaped over the mountains.


>Also I am thinking now that Gradus must surely be a Gnome, despite his aerial ways. In The Rape of the Lock the demonic gnome is named “Umbriel,” meaning “Shadow.” Compare the following lines to Gradus’ descriptions:


            Umbriel, a dusky, melancholy Sprite,

            As ever sully’d the fair Face of Light, (IV, 13-14)


"He was still groaning and grinding his dentures when he and his briefcase re-offended the sun.” (p.214)


“Gradus is now much nearer to us in space and time than he was in the preceding cantos. He has short upright black hair. We can fill in the bleak oblong of his face with most of its elements such as thick eyebrows and a wart on the chin. He has a ruddy but unhealthy complexion. We see, fairly in focus, the structure of his somewhat mesmeric organs of vision. We see his melancholy nose with its crooked ridge and grooved tip. We see the mineral blue of his jaw and the gravelly pointillé of his suppressed mustache.” (p.211)


Gradus is dark and melancholy and grotesque, like Umbriel. The words “elements” and “mineral” link him to the earth realm of the Gnomes.



>Also, like Pope’s “machinery” of elemental spirits behind every action, Shade’s poem likewise suggests spirit forces are behind events, “playing a game of worlds” and in fact, “hiding my keys,” that is, keys to the novel and presumably the barn spirit’s message, are connected with these supernatural beings.

According to Kinbote (Shade's mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), Gradus (whose whole clan seems to have been in the liquor business) contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus (note to Line 17). In Zhizn’ Chernyshevskogo (“The Life of Chernyshevski”), Chapter Four of VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937), Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev mentions vopros o gnomakh-vinodelakh (the question of the wine-making gnomes):


Миром правит математика и правит толково; соответствие, которое Фурье устанавливал между нашими влечениями и ньютоновым тяготением, особенно было пленительно и на всю жизнь определило отношение Чернышевского к Ньютону, - с яблоком которого нам приятно сравнить яблоко Фурье, стоившее комивояжеру целых четырнадцать су в парижской ресторации, что Фурье навело на размышление об основном беспорядке индустриального механизма, точно также как Маркса привел к мысли о необходимости ознакомиться с экономическими проблемами вопрос о гномах-виноделах ("мелких крестьянах") в долине Мозеля: грациозное зарождение грандиозных идей.

The world is run by mathematics and well run at that; the correspondence which Fourier established between our desires and Newton’s gravity was particularly captivating; it defined Chernyshevski’s attitude to Newton for all his life, and it is pleasant to compare the latter’s apple with Fourier’s apple costing the commercial traveler a whole fourteen sous in a Paris restaurant, a fact that led Fourier to ponder the basic disorder of the industrial mechanism, just as Marx was led to acquaint himself with economic problems by the question of the wine-making gnomes (“small peasants”) in the Moselle Valley: a graceful origination of grandiose ideas.


Fyodor's book on Chernyshevski begins and ends with an "inverted" sonnet. In the first of his "Three Chess Sonnets" (1924) VN mentions gnom v ochkakh (a bespectacled gnome):


В ходах ладьи -- ямбический размер,
в ходах слона -- анапест. Полутанец,
полурасчёт -- вот шахматы. От пьяниц
в кофейне шум, от дыма воздух сер.

Там Филидор сражался и Дюсер.
Теперь сидят -- бровастый, злой испанец
и гном в очках. Ложится странный глянец
на жилы рук, а взгляд -- как у химер.

Вперёд ладья прошла стопами ямба.
Потом опять -- раздумие. "Карамба,
сдавайтесь же!" Но медлит тихий гном.

И вот толкнул ногтями цвета йода
фигуру. Так! Он жертвует слоном:
волшебный шах и мат в четыре хода.


In the moves of a rook there's iambic meter,
in the moves of a bishop there's anapest.
Half-dance, half-calculation - that's chess. Because of the drunks

it's noisy in the café, because of smoke the air is gray.


Here, Philidor contended, and Ducer.
Now they sit: a thick-browed, angry Spaniard and
a bespectacled gnome. On the veins of their hands
lies a strange gloss, and their look is like that of chimeras.


With iambic feet the rook steps forward.
Then again there is thinking. “Caramba,
resign!” But the quiet gnome lingers.


And now he pushes with his iodic-colored nails
a figure. There! He sacrifices his bishop:
a magic check and mate in four moves.


In its unfinished form Shade’s poem has 999 lines. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”).


See the full version of this post in my part of the forum ("Annotations by Alexey Sklyarenko")

Great contribution, Alexey! Thank you!  I would appreciate any other spirit allusions to PF. 


A few more come to mind:

>Griff and his wife and nymphet daughter Gahr

>Fifalda's connection to the daemonic undines of Scott's "Lord Rodald's Coronach.

>Gordon, the undine is immersed in water images. His aunt Elvina (i.e. "Elf") is also a dead ringer for the goddess Libitina.

>Mandevil Cousins: Their name says it all.

>Sudarg of Bokay: The ageless creator of Zemblan mirrors and bright side of Gradus is more than just a sprite. In Gnosticism he would be the Demiurge. The unconscious mind, as represented by Zembla and Zemblans, is the mirror to “reality.”

>Iris Acht: "Iris" is the goddess of the rainbow. I think maybe she is a near-anagram of "Sirin," Nabokov's fabulous bird nom de plum.


Supernatural spirits certainly seem to be running the “machinery” of Pale Fire. Doubtless spirit connections with other characters may be found. If Blue Zembla is Professor Botkin’s mind, then Kobaltana is that fairyland section of Zembla inhabited by spirits, otherwise known in Jungian psychology as archetypes.

Garh (not "Gahr") is too old to be a nymphet. I wonder if her father Griff is a hint at Griffin (the Invisible Man). After his visit of the Soviet Russia in the fall of 1920 and meeting in the Kremlin with Lenin, H. G. Wells (the author of "The Invisible Man") wrote a series of articles "Russia in the Shadows." Gradus is a member of the Shadows, a regicidal organization.


Gradus makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia steadily marching nearer in iambic motion (note to Line 17). "In the moves of a rook there's iambic meter." Describing Gradus's visit to Oswin Bretwit (Zemblan former consul in Paris whose name means "chess intelligence"), Kinbote mentions Ferz (chess queen) and Zule (rook) Bretwit (note to Line 286). In the second of his "Three Chess Sonnets" VN describes a chess problem and mentions ferz' and its kaverzy (star-shaped tricks):


Движенья рифм и танцовщиц крылатых

есть в шахматной задаче. Посмотри:

тут белых семь, а чёрных только три

на световых и сумрачных квадратах.


Чернеет ферзь между коней горбатых,

и пешки в ночь впились, как янтари.

Решенья ждут и слуги, и цари

в резных венцах и высеченных латах.


Звездообразны каверзы ферзя.

Дразнящая, узорная стезя

уводит мысль,- и снова мысль во мраке.


Но фея рифм - на шахматной доске

является, отблескивая в лаке,

и - лёгкая - взлетает на носке.


In the first line of his poem Pervoe svidanie ("The First Encounter," 1921) Andrey Bely mentions gnom (gnome, a word repeated three times in Bely's Introduction):


Киркою рудокопный гном

Согласных хрусты рушит в томы…

Я – стилистический приём,

Языковые идиомы!

Я – хрустом тухнущая пещь, —

Пеку приём: стихи – в начинку;

Давно поломанная вещь,

Давно пора меня в починку.

Висок – винтящая мигрень…

Душа – кутящая…

И – что же?..

Я в веселящий Духов день

Склонён перед тобою, Боже!


Bely's poem was written on Whit Sunday and Whit Monday, 1921. In "The Life of Chernyshevski" Fyodor mentions Dukhov den' (Whit Monday):


Духов день (28 мая 1862 г.), дует сильный ветер; пожар начался на Лиговке, а затем мазурики подожгли Апраксин Двор. Бежит Достоевский, мчатся пожарные, "и на окнах аптек в разноцветных шарах вверх ногами на миг отразились". А там, густой дым повалил через Фонтанку по направлению к Чернышеву переулку, откуда вскоре поднялся новый чёрный столб... Между тем Достоевский прибежал. Прибежал к сердцу черноты, к Чернышевскому, и стал истерически его умолять приостановить всё это. Тут занятны два момента: вера в адское могущество Николая Гавриловича и слухи о том, что поджоги велись по тому самому плану, который был составлен ещё в 1849 году петрашевцами.


Whit Monday (May 28, 1862), a strong wind is blowing; a conflagration has begun on the Ligovka and then the desperadoes set fire to the Apraxin Market. Dostoevski is running, firemen are galloping "and in pharmacy windows, in gaudy glass globes, upside down are in passing reflected" (as seen by Nekrasov). And over there, thick smoke billows over the Fontanka canal in the direction of Chernyshyov Street, where presently a new, black column arises…. Meanwhile Dostoevski has arrived. He has arrived at the heart of the blackness, at Chernyshevski's place, and starts to beg him hysterically to put a stop to all this. Two aspects are interesting here: the belief in Nikolay Gavrilovich's satanic powers, and the rumors that the arson was being carried out according to the same plan which the Petrashevskians had drawn up as early as 1849.


Oscar Nattochdag's nickname, Netochka hints at Dostoevski's unfinished novel Netochka Nezvanov (1849).


The author of Peterburg (1913), Bely wrote "The First Encounter" in Petrograd (St. Petersburg's name in 1914-24). According to Kinbote, Leningrad used to be Petrograd (note to Line 596).


A friend of Rudolf Steiner (who brings to mind Kinbote's steinmann), Andrey Bely was a member of the Anthroposophic society. In the National Library in Paris Oswin Bretwit read theosophic works and solved chess problems in old newspapers (note to Line 286).

Thank you for the correction. Why do you say Garh is too old to be a nymphet? Because her parents are old? - they are fairytale creatures, so that doesn't really matter. She is described as "young" and "girl". At any rate, she is definitely what Jung would describe as an alluring anima figure. Jung claimed that the anima was often "blurry," "vague", "indistinct", etc. Nabakov uses these words for alluring anima characters in PF: Garh, Fleur, Sylvia.


Are you suggesting the Bretwits and Nattochdag are elemental spirits, too?  I would like to think they are, but I don't see the connection, except that Nabokov certainly found chess "enchanting."

In my post on Gradus as a gnome I forgot to say that in Canto Four of his poem Shade mentions Marx (pairing him with Freud):


Now I shall speak of evil as none has

Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;

The white-hosed moron torturing a black

Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;

Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;

Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;

Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx,

Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks. (ll. 923-930)


Gradus has a loosely folded umbrella in one hand:


Although Gradus availed himself of all varieties of locomotion - rented cars, local trains, escalators, airplanes - somehow the eye of the mind sees him, and the muscles of the mind feel him, as always streaking across the sky with black traveling bag in one hand and loosely folded umbrella in the other, in a sustained glide high over sea and land. The force propelling him is the magic action of Shade's poem itself, the very mechanism and sweep of verse, the powerful iambic motor. Never before has the inexorable advance of fate received such a sensuous form (for other images of that transcendental tramp's approach see note to line 17). (note to Lines 131-132)


In his poem Dachnoe ("Vacationing," 1924) Hodasevich mentions umbrellas and a half-blind, broad-mouthed gnome:


На мокрый мир нисходит угомон...

Лишь кое-где, топча сырой газон,


Блудливые невесты с женихами

Слипаются, накрытые зонтами,


а к ним под юбки лазит с фонарём

Полуслепой, широкоротый гном.


Peace descents to the wet world...

and only here and there, trampling down the damp grass,


Lecherous brides and their grooms

stick together under the cover of umbrellas,


while crawling under their skirts with a lantern

is a half-blind, broad-mouthed gnome.

(tr. D. Bethea)