Re: merits of Shade’s poem: CHW to MR & JF
Matt and Jerry mount a concerted defence of the merits of Pale Fire the
poem. As much of what has been said, both for and against its quality, boils down
to matters of subjective taste and personal reaction, the discussion
threatens to descend to the nursery level of: Yes, it is! No, it isn’t! --- which
one hopes to avoid. Still, having entered the lists, there is some obligation
to pursue the joust. I hope I don't seem too blunt and direct.
Matthew Roth says:
It seems to me that if VN wanted us to see Shade's poem as "miserable," much
of the power of the novel is lost. If CK is violating a bad poem by a bad
man, why should we even care? Isn't some of the tension in the novel derived
from the sense that this is an important poem?
I think Andrew Brown actually said: It is a miserable poem. It is an almost
okay verse narrative. Although “miserable” may be a bit excessive, I do
think it is necessary and intellectually more scrupulous to respect his
distinction between poetry and verse, although I realize MR rejected this distinction
at the very beginning of our discussion. The tension in the novel is
maintained if we accept that it is, in one of its aspects, an inquiry into the
essence of literary excellence, and into the relationship between life and art,
illusion and reality.
Matthew Roth also said:
I agree with you (ie CHW) that Shade would have done better had he written
in blank verse. The heroic couplets are, of course, a bouquet thrown with
admiration to Pope, but the form simply doesn't converse with the content in
"PF," except as it relates to elegy. But the majority of the poem isn't elegaic;
neither is it particularly witty, a trait Pope accentuates through the pithy
play of the heroic rhyme. For me, the choice of heroic couplets is the
poem's biggest fault--though I admire the feat all the same.
Quite honestly, as I’ve already said, I can see hardly any link at all
between Pope and PF; and heroic couplets are used by many other versifiers, for
various purposes. Jerry made the point, though, which I thought a good one,
that 999 rhyming lines require a rhyming line for closure, and line 1 offers a
possibility. It’s an ingeniously dangling end to the unfinished composition.
Doesn’t this echo Finnegans Wake? I’m speaking from memory.
……. these adjectives (zesty, special), combined with the x-to-y pun, have
method in them.
1. 489-490 provide a necessary, and brief, moment of weightlessness between
the preceding anxiety and succeeding heavy resolution. The lines show how
that place was once associated with lightness, as we see the bright skaters
gliding across the ice. Shade gives us that image, but it is palimpsest, thin
ice, and we soon see the dark water seeping through.
Palimpsest threw me here, and I had to look it up, but the dictionary
definition still didn’t help me grasp your drift. I understand that there is an
intended contrast between fleeting lightness and impending darkness.
2. Zesty gives us the Z to go with X and Y.
Both zesty and special still seem to me out of register adjectives in the
context. What is the purpose of playing games with the alphabet when your
daughter is about to drown herself? Zesty strikes me as a Lolita-type word --- on
a par with blooper. Special is merely weak.
3. The sounds in Neck, Zesty, Exe, and Special are musically allied. It's
the same sound, as well as a similar emotional effect, as we get in "festive
blaze" a few lines earlier. The playfulness is rueful, almost hysterical. After
these lines, the vowel sounds grow much darker and longer, the only like
exception being "excitement" in 495.
All right. Perhaps a kind of mounting hysteria is being suggested. Laughter
might be the emotionally jarring reaction to an anticipated tragedy, although
the effect seems to be preceding the cause.
I'm not sure why you have an issue with "and some say," which seems to me a
perfectly reasonable follow-up to "Others supposed" and "People have thought"
in the previous lines. "Night of blow" is a bit fanciful, but it chimes
with the "great excitement" in the next line--a very authentic way, I think,
of describing the belated change from winter to spring in northern Appalachia.
So I guess I found it both skilful and convincing enough. Indeed, I don't
find this section bathetic in the least. It might be my favorite section of
The rhyme of “crossed” with “frost” seems to me natural, smooth and
unforced, particularly if “special” is removed. The next three rhymes seem
sought after (like “Retake, retake” in line 487) and the lines they terminate
appear to have been manipulated to fit them in. The cart is pulling the horse. “
Night of blow” may be good American, but to me it just seems like bad
English, almost grotesque and slightly comic. A matter of taste, as I can’t help
I agree with much of what Matt says in defense of the end of Canto 2. I
like "zesty" as a description of skaters and I see the desire for the z that
Andrew mentioned, but I too think the line would be better without any
adjective. Some sort of adjective for "frost" is needed, since mere frost doesn't
made skating possible, but I don't think "special" is the right word. (I'm
amazed that JS and VN resisted the temptation of "extra".) Finally, "from Exe to
Wye" in that context is not so offensive since Shade will argue that
coincidences are as important as life and death. Maybe more important.
My comments on Matt’s views apply. I don’t really agree that an adjective
for “frost” is needed, since if there are skaters the mind already accepts
the idea that the frost is serious enough for the ice to bear them. I’m not
sure about the coincidence (?) of Exe and Wye.
For some time I was racking my mind to think what the following lines
reminded me of:
A blurry shape stepped off the reedy bank
Into a crackling, gulping swamp, and sank.
Finally I hit on it. It conjured up the image of a hippopotamus I’d seen
entering the water when on a river safari in East Africa in 1974. My thoughts
strayed to the ancient Egyptian goddess Tauret (various spellings). Why, in
English, does cradle assonate with grave? But I digress.
PS. There was another double negative in my letter to Jansy. Just testing.
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