shadow of waxwing & Lap of Lord in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 10/19/2021 - 07:08

At the beginning (and, presumably, at the end) of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) compares himself to the shadow of the waxwing:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. (ll. 1-4)


In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (5.2) Horatio calls Osric (the courtier sent by Claudius to invite Hamlet to participate in the duel with Laertes) “this lapwing:”


This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head.


waxwing + lap = wax + lapwing


Preparing to watch “The Mousetrap,” Hamlet asks Ophelia “shall I lie in your lap:”


HAMLET Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

OPHELIA No, my lord.

HAMLET I mean, my head upon your lap?

OPHELIA Ay, my lord.

HAMLET Do you think I meant country matters?

OPHELIA I think nothing, my lord.

HAMLET That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs. (Act 3, scene 2)


In the preceding scene (immediately after Hamlet’s monologue “To be or not to be” in which he mentions a bare bodkin) Ophelia tells Hamlet: “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind:”


My lord, I have remembrances of yours
That I have longèd long to redeliver.
I pray you now receive them.

No, not I. I never gave you aught.

My honored lord, you know right well you did,
And with them words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,
Take these again, for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord. [she takes jewels from her bosom and places them on the table before him]

(Act 3, scene 1)


Ophelia addresses Hamlet “my lord.” In his apology of suicide Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions “your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord:”


Of the note very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your sill or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself or others. Jumping from a high bridge is not recommended even if you cannot swim, for wind and water abound in weird contingencies, and tragedy ought not to culminate in a record dive or a policeman's promotion. If you rent a cell in the luminous waffle, room 1915 or 1959, in a tall business center hotel browing the star dust, and pull up the window, and gentle--not fall, not jump--but roll out as you should for air comfort, there is always the chance of knocking clean through into your own hell a pacific noctambulator walking his dog; in this respect a back room might be safer, especially if giving on the roof of an old tenacious normal house far below where a cat may be trusted to flash out of the way. Another popular take-off is a mountaintop with a sheer drop of say 500 meters but you must find it, because you will be surprised how easy it is to miscalculate your deflection offset, and have some hidden projection, some fool of a crag, rush forth to catch you, causing you to bounce off it into the brush, thwarted, mangled and unnecessarily alive. The ideal drop is from an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your packed parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off--farewell, shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord. If I were a poet I would certainly make an ode to the sweet urge to close one's eyes and surrender utterly unto the perfect safety of wooed death. Ecstatically one forefeels the vastness of the Divine Embrace enfolding one's liberated spirit, the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the miniscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality. (note to Line 493)


After Kinbote's suicide Botkin's loved body is obliterated in the Lap of the Lord, but its shadow (Shade and his poem) remains.


May I share with you this harmless limerick (apologies, it is in Russian):


Есть известный профессор Бордом,

который подрался с лордом.

И профессор, и лорд –

каждый дрался, как чёрт.

Получили оба по мордам.