hive of words in Bend Sinister; If & avenue of trees in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 03/19/2019 - 11:38

In Canto Two of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions a hive in which he is locked up:


What moment in the gradual decay

Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?

Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?

Are some less lucky, or do all escape?

A syllogism: other men die; but I

Am not another; therefore I'll not die.

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,

A singing in the ears. In this hive I'm

Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had

Been able to imagine life, what mad,

Impossible, unutterably weird,

Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared! (ll. 209-220)


In VN's novel Bend Sinister (1947) Shakespeare's head is compared to a hive of words:


But enough of this, let us hear Ember's rendering of some famous lines:


Ubit' il' ne ubit'? Vot est' oprosen.

Vto bude edler: v rasume tzerpieren

Ogneprashchi i strely zlovo roka –


(or as a Frenchman might have it:)


L’éorgerai-je ou non? Voici le vrai problème.

Est-il plus noble en soi de supporter quand même

Et les dards et le feu d'un accablant destin –


Yes, I am still jesting. We now come to the real thing.


Tam nad ruch'om rostiot naklonno iva,

V vode iavliaia list'ev sedinu;

Guirliandy fantasticheskie sviv

Iz etikh list'ev – s primes'u romashek,

Krapivy, lutikov –


(over yon brook there grows aslant a willow

Showing in the water the hoariness of its leaves;

Having tressed fantastic garlands

of these leaves, with a sprinkling of daisies,

Nettles, crowflowers – )


You see, I have to choose my commentators.

Or this difficult passage:


Ne dumaete-li Vy, sudar', shto vot eto (the song about the wounded deer), da les per'ev na shliape, da dve kamchatye rozy na proreznykh bashmakakh, mogli by, kol' fortuna zadala by mne turku, zasluzhit' mne uchast'e v teatralnoy arteli; a, sudar'?


Or the beginning of my favourite scene:

As he sits listening to Ember's translation, Krug cannot help marvelling at the strangeness of the day. He imagines himself at some point in the future recalling this particular moment. He, Krug, was sitting beside Ember's bed. Ember, with knees raised under the counterpane, was reading bits of blank verse from scraps of paper. Krug had recently lost his wife. A new political order had stunned the city. Two people he was fond of had been spirited away and perhaps executed. But the room was warm and quiet and Ember was deep in Hamlet. And Krug marvelled at the strangeness of the day. He listened to the rich-toned voice (Ember's father had been a Persian merchant) and tried to simplify the terms of his reaction. Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs. Three centuries later, another man, in another country, was trying to render these rhythms and metaphors in a different tongue. This process entailed a prodigious amount of labour, for the necessity of which no real reason could be given. It was as if someone, having seen a certain oak tree (further called Individual T) growing in a certain land and casting its own unique shadow on the green and brown ground, had proceeded to erect in his garden a prodigiously intricate piece of machinery which in itself was as unlike that or any other tree as the translator's inspiration and language were unlike those of the original author, but which, by means of ingenious combination of parts, light effects, breeze-engendering engines, would, when completed, cast a shadow exactly similar to that of Individual T - the same outline, changing in the same manner, with the same double and single spots of sun rippling in the same position, at the same hour of the day. From a practical point of view, such a waste of time and material (those headaches, those midnight triumphs that turn out to be disasters in the sober light of morning!) was almost criminally absurd, since the greatest masterpiece of imitation presupposed a voluntary limitation of thought, in submission to another man's genius. Could this suicidal limitation and submission be compensated by the miracle of adaptive tactics, by the thousand devices of shadography, by the keen pleasure that the weaver of words and their witness experienced at every new wile in the warp, or was it, taken all in all, but an exaggerated and spiritualized replica of Paduk's writing machine? (chapter 7)


At the end of his poem Slovo (“The Word,” 1920) Gumilyov says that, like bees in a deserted hive, the dead words smell bad:


В оный день, когда над миром новым
Бог склонял лицо своё, тогда
Солнце останавливали словом,
Словом разрушали города.

И орёл не взмахивал крылами,
Звёзды жались в ужасе к луне,
Если, точно розовое пламя,
Слово проплывало в вышине.

А для низкой жизни были числа,
Как домашний, подъяремный скот,
Потому что все оттенки смысла
Умное число передаёт.

Патриарх седой, себе под руку
Покоривший и добро и зло,
Не решаясь обратиться к звуку,
Тростью на песке чертил число.

Но забыли мы, что осиянно
Только слово средь земных тревог,
И в Евангелии от Иоанна
Сказано, что Слово это - Бог.

Мы ему поставили пределом
Скудные пределы естества.
И, как пчелы в улье опустелом,
Дурно пахнут мёртвые слова.


Then, when God bent His face
over the shining new world, then
they stopped the sun with a word,
a word burned cities to the ground.

When a word floated across the sky
like a rose-colored flame
eagles closed their wings, frightened
stars shrank against the moon.

And we creeping forms had numbers,
like tame, load-bearing oxen —
because a knowing number
says everything, says it all.

That grey-haired prophet, who bent
good and evil to his will,
was afraid to speak
and drew a number in the sand.

But we worry about other things, and forget
that only the word glows and shines,
and the Gospel of John
tells us this word is God.

We’ve surrounded it with a wall,
with the narrow borders of this world,
and like bees in a deserted hive
the dead words smell bad.

(tr. Burton Raffel)


Gumilyov’s Slovo brings to mind vsyo eto, vidite l’, slova, slova, slova (all this is merely "words, words, words" you see), a line in Pushkin’s poem <Iz Pindemonti> (<From Pindemonte>, 1836):


Не дорого ценю я громкие права,
От коих не одна кружится голова.
Я не ропщу о том, что отказали боги
Мне в сладкой участи оспоривать налоги
Или мешать царям друг с другом воевать;
И мало горя мне, свободно ли печать
Морочит олухов, иль чуткая цензура
В журнальных замыслах стесняет балагура.
Всё это, видите ль, слова, слова, слова*
Иные, лучшие, мне дороги права;
Иная, лучшая, потребна мне свобода:
Зависеть от царя, зависеть от народа —
Не всё ли нам равно? Бог с ними. Никому
Отчёта не давать, себе лишь самому
Служить и угождать; для власти, для ливреи
Не гнуть ни совести, ни помыслов, ни шеи;
По прихоти своей скитаться здесь и там,
Дивясь божественным природы красотам,
И пред созданьями искусств и вдохновенья
Трепеща радостно в восторгах умиленья.
Вот счастье! вот права...




I have but little use for those loud "rights" - the phrase
That seems to addle people's minds these days.
I do not fault the gods, nor to a soul begrudge it
That I'm denied the bliss of wrangling over a Budget,
Or keeping king from fighting king in martial glee;
Nor do I worry if the Press is free
To hoax the nitwits, or if censor-pokers
Spoil journalistic games for sundry jokers;
All this is merely "words, words, words" you see.
Quite other, better rights are dear to me;
To be dependent on king, or on a nation -
Is it not all the same? Good riddance! But to dance
To no one else's fiddle, foster and advance
one's private self alone; before gold braid and power
with neither conscience, thought, nor spine to cower;
to move now here, now there with fancy's whim for law,
at Nature's godlike works feel ecstasy and awe,
and start before the gifts of art and joyous adoration -
there's bliss for you! There are your rights…
(“translated” by W. Arndt)


As Pushkin points out in a footnote, “words, words, words” is a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In a draft Pushkin’s poem has the date under the text: July 5. According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), Shade began Canto Two on July 5, 1959:


The poet began Canto Two (on his fourteenth card) on July 5, his sixtieth birthday (see note to line 181, "today"). My slip – change to sixty-first. (note to Line 167)


July 5 is not only Shade’s, but also Kinbote’s and Gradus’ birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). In Lines 217-220 Shade wonders what would be, if prior to life we had been able to imagine life. At the beginning of Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions l’if, lifeless tree:


L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:

The grand potato.
                                     I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it--big if!--engaged me for one term
To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"
Wrote President McAber).
                                                     You and I,
And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye
To Yewshade, in another, higher state. (ll. 501-509)


In his Commentary Kinbote  writes:


Line 501: L'if


The yew in French. It is curious that the Zemblan word for the weeping willow is also "if" (the yew is tas).


Line 502: The grand potato


An execrable pun, deliberately placed in this epigraphic position to stress lack of respect for Death. I remember from my schoolroom days Rabelais' soi-disant "last words" among other bright bits in some French manual: Je m'en vais chercher le grand peut-être.


In a letter of Oct. 17, 1908, to Ekaterina Mukhin, I. Annenski (a poet who suffered from an incurable heart disease and wrote under the penname Nik. T-o, “Mr. Nobody”) says that people who ceased to believe in God but who continue to fear the devil created this otzyvayushchiysya kalamburom (smacking of a pun) terror before the smell of sulfuric pitch, Le grand Peut-Etre:


Люди, переставшие верить в бога, но продолжающие трепетать чёрта... Это они создали на языке тысячелетней иронии этот отзывающийся каламбуром ужас перед запахом серной смолы - Le grand Peut-Etre. Для меня peut-etre - не только бог, но это всё, хотя это и не ответ, и не успокоение…


Describing his arrival in America, Kinbote remarks that Shade’s heart attack (about which the poet tells in Canto Three) took place on Oct. 17, 1958:


John Shade's heart attack (Oct. 17, 1958) practically coincided with the disguised king's arrival in America where he descended by parachute from a chartered plane piloted by Colonel Montacute, in a field of hay-feverish, rank-flowering weeds, near Baltimore whose oriole is not an oriole. It had all been perfectly timed, and he was still wrestling with the unfamiliar French contraption when the Rolls-Royce from Sylvia O'Donnell's manor turned toward his green silks from a road and approached along the mowntrop, its fat wheels bouncing disapprovingly and its black shining body slowly gliding along. (note to Line 691)


In a conversation at the Faculty Club Kinbote calls the hag whom Shade is said to resemble “the third in the witch row:”


"Take my own case," continued my dear friend ignoring Mr. H. "I have been said to resemble at least four people: Samuel Johnson; the lovingly reconstructed ancestor of man in the Exton Museum; and two local characters, one being the slapdash disheveled hag who ladles out the mash in the Levin Hall cafeteria."

"The third in the witch row," I precised quaintly, and everybody laughed. (note to Line 894)


In Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act IV, scene 1) the third witch mentions “slips of yew:”



Round about the cauldron go,

In the poisoned entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

Sweltered venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i' th' charmèd pot.



Double, double toil and trouble,

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.



Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake.

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.



Double, double toil and trouble,

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.



Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,

Witches' mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravined salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digged i' th' dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat and slips of yew

Slivered in the moon’s eclipse,

Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-delivered by a drab,

Make the gruel thick and slab.

Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,

For the ingredients of our cauldron.



Double, double toil and trouble,

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.



Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.


“A baboon’s blood” brings to mind “some uniformed baboon” mentioned by Shade in Canto Three of his poem:


But who can teach the thoughts we should roll-call
When morning finds us marching to the wall
Under the stage direction of some goon
Political, some uniformed baboon?
We'll think of matters only known to us--
Empires of rhyme, Indies of calculus;
Listen to the distant cocks crow, and discern
Upon the rough gray wall a rare wall fern;
And while our royal hands are being tied,
Taunt our inferiors, cheerfully deride
The dedicated imbeciles, and spit
Into their eyes just for the fun of it. (ll. 597-608)


In his Introduction (1963) to Bend Sinister VN mentions imbeciles and the uniformed waxworks:


Is there any judgment on my part carried out, any sentence pronounced, any satisfaction given to the moral sense? If imbeciles and brutes can punish other brutes and imbeciles, and if crime still retains an objective meaning in the meaningless world of Paduk (all of which is doubtful), we may affirm that crime is punished at the end of the book when the uniformed waxworks are really hurt, and the dummies are at last in quite dreadful pain, and pretty Mariette gently bleeds, staked and tom by the lust of 40 soldiers.


The characters of Bend Sinister include Dr Azureus and a person called Crystalsen. At the beginning of his poem Shade mentions the false azure in the windowpane and crystal land outdoors:


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.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate…
Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land! (ll. 1-12)


"Some uniformed baboon" and “the uniformed waxworks” bring to mind the King’s “fancy uniform” mentioned by Gerald Emerald (a young instructor at Wordsmith University):


"What a pity I cannot prove my point," muttered the tenacious German visitor. "If only there was a picture here. Couldn't there be somewhere -"

"Sure," said young Emerald and left his seat.

Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"

Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla" [sarcastically stressing the "Nova'"].

"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asked my dear Shade.

"Yes, a king's destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).

Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"

"Oxford, 1956," I replied.

"You do know Russian, though?" said Pardon. "I think I heard you, the other day, talking to - what's his name - oh, my goodness" [laboriously composing his lips].

Shade: "Sir, we all find it difficult to attack that name" [laughing].

Professor Hurley: "Think of the French word for 'tire': punoo."

Shade: "Why, Sir, I am afraid you have only punctured the difficulty" [laughing uproariously].

"Flatman," quipped I. "Yes," I went on, turning to Pardon, "I certainly do speak Russian. You see, it was the fashionable language par excellence, much more so than French, among the nobles of Zembla at least, and at its court. Today, of course, all this has changed. It is now the lower classes who are forcibly taught to speak Russian."

"Aren't we, too, trying to teach Russian in our schools?" said Pink.

In the meantime, at the other end of the room, young Emerald had been communing with the bookshelves. At this point he returned with the T-Z volume of an illustrated encyclopedia.

Well, said he, "here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome" ("Oh, that won't do," wailed the German visitor). "Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform," continued Emerald. "Quite the fancy pansy, in fact."

"And you," I said quietly, "are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket."

"But what have I said?" the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper.

"Now, now," said Shade. "I'm sure, Charles, our young friend never intended to insult your sovereign and namesake."

"He could not, even if he had wished," I observed placidly, turning it all into a joke.

Gerald Emerald extended his hand - which at the moment of writing still remains in that position. (note to Line 894)


“A foul-minded pup” (as Kinbote calls Gerald Emerald) brings to mind Aunt Maud’s half-paralyzed Skye terrier (the breed called in Zembla "weeping-willow dog"):


It appears that in the beginning of 1950, long before the barn incident (see note to line 347), sixteen-year-old Hazel was involved in some appalling "psychokinetic" manifestations that lasted for nearly a month. Initially, one gathers, the poltergeist meant to impregnate the disturbance with the identity of Aunt Maud who had just died; the first object to perform was the basket in which she had once kept her half-paralyzed Skye terrier (the breed called in our country "weeping-willow dog"). Sybil had had the animal destroyed soon after its mistress's hospitalization, incurring the wrath of Hazel who was beside herself with distress. One morning this basket shot out of the "intact" sanctuary (see lines 90-98) and traveled along the corridor past the open door of the study, where Shade was at work; he saw it whizz by and spill its humble contents: a ragged coverlet, a rubber bone, and a partly discolored cushion. Next day the scene of action switched to the dining room where one of Aunt Maud's oils (Cypress and Bat) was found to be turned toward the wall. Other incidents followed, such as short flights accomplished by her scrapbook (see note to line 90) and, of course, all kinds of knockings, especially in the sanctuary, which would rouse Hazel from her, no doubt, peaceful sleep in the adjacent bedroom. But soon the poltergeist ran out of ideas in connection with Aunt Maud and became, as it were, more eclectic. All the banal motions that objects are limited to in such cases, were gone through in this one. Saucepans crashed in the kitchen; a snowball was found (perhaps, prematurely) in the icebox; once or twice Sybil saw a plate sail by like a discus and land safely on the sofa; lamps kept lighting up in various parts of the house; chairs waddled away to assemble in the impassable pantry; mysterious bits of string were found on the floor; invisible revelers staggered down the staircase in the middle of the night; and one winter morning Shade, upon rising and taking a look at the weather, saw that the little table from his study upon which he kept a Bible-like Webster open at M was standing in a state of shock outdoors, on the snow (subliminally this may have participated in the making of lines 5-12). (note to Line 230)


Cypress and Bat (one of Aunt Maud's oils) brings to mind “a cross between bat and crab,” as Kinbote calls Gradus (Shade’s murderer):


The grotesque figure of Gradus, a cross between bat and crab, was not much odder than many other Shadows, such as, for example, Nodo, Odon's epileptic half-brother who cheated at cards, or a mad Mandevil who had lost a leg in trying to make anti-matter. (note to Line 171)


Odon = Nodo = odno (neut. of odin, “one”). In Annenski’s poem Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1904) the last word is odin (alone):


Не я, и не он, и не ты,
И то же, что я, и не то же:
Так были мы где-то похожи,
Что наши смешались черты.

В сомненьи кипит ещё спор,
Но, слиты незримой четою,
Одной мы живём и мечтою,
Мечтою разлуки с тех пор.

Горячешный сон волновал
Обманом вторых очертаний,
Но чем я глядел неустанней,
Тем ярче себя ж узнавал.

Лишь полога ночи немой
Порой отразит колыханье
Моё и другое дыханье,
Бой сердца и мой и не мой…

И в мутном круженьи годин
Всё чаще вопрос меня мучит:
Когда наконец нас разлучат,
Каким же я буду один?


Not I, and not he, and not you,
Both what I am, and what I am not:
We were so alike somewhere
That our features got mixed. 


And, in the turbid whirling of years,
The question torments me ever more often:
When we will be separated at last,
What kind of person I will be alone?


Annenski is the author of Problema Gamleta (“The Problem of Hamlet”), an essay included in Vtoraya kniga otrazheniy (“The Second Book of Reflections,” 1909), Kiparisovyi larets (“The Cypress Box,” 1910), a posthumous collection of poetry, and Son i net (“Sleep and No”), a fourteen-line poem whose title plays on sonet (sonnet). In his Sonet (“A Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin points out that tvorets Makbeta (the author of Macbeth) loved a sonnet’s play. The epigraph to Pushkin’s “Sonnet” is from Wordsworth: “Scorn not the sonnet, critic.” Yew-Trees (1803) is a poem by Wordsworth. Shade lives in a house “between Wordsmith and Goldsworth.” At Wordsmith (Shade’s and Kinbote’s University) there is the famous avenue of all the trees mentioned by Shakespeare. In his poem Derev'ya ("The Trees," 1916) Gumilyov says that on sweet Earth, the sister of the stars, we live in exile and the trees are at home:


Я знаю, что деревьям, а не нам

Дано величье совершенной жизни,

На ласковой земле, сестре звездам,

Мы — на чужбине, а они — в отчизне.  


Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs but one line (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”).


Annenski's collection “The Cypress Box” consists of trilistniki (the Trefoils). The three main characters in Pale Fire, Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin's personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote's Commentary). There is a hope (nadezhda) that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade's poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin's epigrams, "half-milord, half-merchant, etc."), will be full again.


"Weeping-willow dog" (as Kinbote calls the Skye terrier) brings to mind "the arboreal counterpart of a very shaggy dog with hair hanging over its eyes" mentioned by VN in his 1965 interview included in Speak, Memory (p. 55):


As to Pale Fire, although I had devised some odds and ends of Zemblan lore in the late fifties in lthaca, New York, I felt the first real pang of the novel, a rather complete vision of its structure in miniature, and jotted it down-- I have it in one of my pocket diaries-- while sailing from New York to France in 1959. The American poem discussed in the book by His Majesty, Charles of Zembla, was the hardest stuff I ever had to compose. Most of it I wrote in Nice, in winter, walking along the Promenade des Anglais or rambling in the neighboring hills. A good deal of Kinbote's commentary was written here in the Montreux Palace garden, one of the most enchanting and inspiring gardens I know. I'm especially fond of its weeping cedar, the arboreal counterpart of a very shaggy dog with hair hanging over its eyes.


"A rather complete vision of [the novel's] structure in miniature" brings to mind Gumilyov's poem Persidskaya miniatyura ("Persian Miniature," 1919):


Когда я кончу наконец
Игру в cache-cache со смертью хмурой,
То сделает меня Творец
Персидскою миниатюрой.

И небо, точно бирюза,
И принц, поднявший еле-еле
Миндалевидные глаза
На взлёт девических качелей.

С копьём окровавленным шах,
Стремящийся тропой неверной
На киноварных высотах
За улетающею серной.

И ни во сне, ни наяву
Невиданные туберозы,
И сладким вечером в траву
Уже наклоненные лозы.

А на обратной стороне,
Как облака Тибета, чистой,
Носить отрадно будет мне
Значок великого артиста.

Благоухающий старик,
Негоциант или придворный,
Взглянув, меня полюбит вмиг
Любовью острой и упорной.

Его однообразных дней
Звездой я буду путеводной,
Вино, любовниц и друзей
Я заменю поочередно.

И вот когда я утолю,
Без упоенья, без страданья,
Старинную мечту мою
Будить повсюду обожанье.


When I’ve given up
playing at hide-and-seek with sour-faced
Death, the Creator will turn me
into a Persian miniature —

With a turquoise sky
and a prince just raising
his almond eyes
to the arc of a girl’s swing,

And a bloody-speared Shah
rushing down rocky paths,
across cinnabar heights,
after a flying deer,

And tuberoses that no eyes,
no dreams have ever seen,
and vines bending into the grass
in the sweet twilight,

And on the other side,
clean as clouds in Tibet,
a great artist’s mark:
a sign and a joy.

Some fragrant old man
of business, of the court,
will see me, love me
at once, love me hard and sharp.


I'll be a guiding star

of his monotonous days.

I’ll change by turns

wine, mistresses and friends.

And finally — without ecstasy,
without pain — my old dream
will be satisfied,
and everyone, everywhere will adore me.

(tr. Burton Raffel)


In his interview to Briceland Gazette Clare Quilty (a character in VN's novel Lolita, 1955) mentioned a Persian bubble bird:


Wine, wine, wine, quipped the author of Dark Age who refused to be photographed, may suit a Persian bubble bird, but I say give me rain, rain, rain on the shingle roof for roses and inspiration every time. (2.26)


In Canto Three of his poem Shade calls 1958 "a year of Tempests" and mentions Hurricane Lolita that swept from Florida to Main:


It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane

Lolita swept from Florida to Main.

Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.

Lang made your portrait. And one night I died. (ll. 679-682)


In Shakespeare’s Tempest (5.1) Prospero mentions Jove’s stout oak, the pine and cedar:


And ’twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war—to th' dread rattling thunder

Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak

With his own bolt;

    the strong-based promontory

Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up

The pine and cedar; graves at my command

Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth

By my so potent art.


Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade's poem in Cedarn, Utana. Cedarn is an anagram of nacred, a word that rhymes with sacred. In his poem Kubla Khan (1797) S. T. Coleridge mentions Alph, the sacred river, and a cedarn cover:


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.


But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!


The original title of Bend Sinister was A Person from Porlock (after a man who interrupted Coleridge in the process act of writing down his great visionary poem). In a draft Pushkin’s poem Anchar (“The Upas Tree,” 1828) subtitled Drevo yada (“A Tree of Poison”) has the epigraph from Coleridge:


It is a poison-tree, that pierced to the inmost

Weeps only tears of poison.


According to Kinbote, “tree” in Zemblan is grados:


Line 49: shagbark


A hickory. Our poet shared with the English masters the noble knack of transplanting trees into verse with their sap and shade. Many years ago Disa, our King's Queen, whose favorite trees were the jacaranda and the maidenhair, copied out in her album a quatrain from John Shade's collection of short poems Hebe's Cup, which I cannot refrain from quoting here (from a letter I received on April 6, 1959, from southern France):



The ginkgo leaf, in golden hue, when shed,

A muscat grape,

Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread,

In shape.


When the new Episcopal church in New Wye (see note to line 549) was built, the bulldozers spared an arc of those sacred trees planted by a landscaper of genius (Repburg) at the end of the so-called Shakespeare Avenue, on the campus. I do not know if it is relevant or not but there is a cat-and-mouse game in the second line, and "tree" in Zemblan is grados.


Goethe’s poem Ginkgo Biloba (from The West-Eastern Divan) ends in the lines:


Fühlst du nicht an meinen Liedern,
Daß ich eins und doppelt bin?  


Don’t you feel in my songs
That I am One and Two?


Kubla is an anagram of Kabul. Ford o' Kabul River is a poem by Kipling, the author of If and A Tree Song (that mentions, among other trees, the yew):


Yew that is old in churchyard-mould,
He breedeth a mighty bow.
Alder for shoes do wise men choose,

And beech for cups also.
But when ye have killed, and your bowl is spilled,
And your shoes are clean outworn,
Back ye must speed for all that ye need,
To Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!


According to Kinbote, his uncle Conmal (Shakespeare's Zemblan translator, 1855-1955) had just completed Kipling's "The Rhyme of the Three Sealers" when he fell ill and soon died:


English was not taught in Zembla before Mr. Campbell's time. Conmal mastered it all by himself (mainly by learning a lexicon by heart) as a young man, around 1880, when not the verbal inferno but a quiet military career seemed to open before him, and his first work (the translation of Shakespeare's Sonnets) was the outcome of a bet with a fellow officer. He exchanged his frogged uniform for a scholar's dressing gown and tackled The Tempest. A slow worker, he needed half a century to translate the works of him whom he called "dze Bart," in their entirety. After this, in 1930, he went on to Milton and other poets, steadily drilling through the ages, and had just completed Kipling's "The Rhyme of the Three Sealers" ("Now this is the Law of the Muscovite that he proved with shot and steel") when he fell ill and soon expired under his splendid painted bed ceil with its reproductions of Altamira animals, his last words in his last delirium being "Comment dit-on 'mourir' en anglais?"--a beautiful and touching end. (note to Line 962)


"The Law of the Muscovite" brings to mind moskovett, a cold wind that blows on Zemblan eastern shores throughout March:


I imagine, that during that period the Shades, or at least John Shade, experienced a sensation of odd instability as if parts of the everyday, smoothly running world had got unscrewed, and you became aware that one of your tires was rolling beside you, or that your steering wheel had come off. My poor friend could not help recalling the dramatic fits of his early boyhood and wondering if this was not a new genetic variant of the same theme, preserved through procreation. Trying to hide from neighbors these horrible and humiliating phenomena was not the least of Shade's worries. He was terrified, and he was lacerated with pity. Although never able to corner her, that flabby, feeble, clumsy and solemn girl, who seemed more interested than frightened, he and Sybil never doubted that in some extraordinary way she was the agent of the disturbance which they saw as representing (I now quote Jane P.) "an outward extension or expulsion of insanity." They could not do much about it, partly because they disliked modern voodoo-psychiatry, but mainly because they were afraid of Hazel, and afraid to hurt her. They had however a secret interview with old-fashioned and learned Dr. Sutton, and this put them in better spirits. They were contemplating moving into another house or, more exactly, loudly saying to each other, so as to be overheard by anyone who might be listening, that they were contemplating moving, when all at once the fiend was gone, as happens with the moskovett, that bitter blast, that colossus of cold air that blows on our eastern shores throughout March, and then one morning you hear the birds, and the flags hang flaccid, and the outlines of the world are again in place. The phenomena ceased completely and were, if not forgotten, at least never referred to; but how curious it is that we do not perceive a mysterious sign of equation between the Hercules springing forth from a neurotic child's weak frame and the boisterous ghost of Aunt Maud; how curious that our rationality feels satisfied when we plump for the first explanation, though, actually, the scientific and the supernatural, the miracle of the muscle and the miracle of the mind, are both inexplicable as are all the ways of Our Lord. (note to Line 230)


and moskovskiy medved' (bear from Muscovy) mentioned by VN in his Universitetskaya poema ("The University Poem," 1927):


А жил я в комнате старинной,
но в тишине её пустынной
тенями мало дорожил.
Держа московского медведя,
боксёров жалуя и бредя
красой Италии, тут жил
студентом Байрон хромоногий.
Я вспоминал его тревоги,--
как Геллеспонт он переплыл,
чтоб похудеть. Но я остыл
 его твореньям... Да простится
неромантичности моей,--
мне розы мраморные Китса
всех бутафорских бурь милей.


I lived within an antique chamber,
but, inside its desert silence,
I hardly savoured the shades’ presence.
Clutching his bear from Muscovy,
esteemed the boxer’s fate,
of Italic beauty dreaming
lame Byron passed his student days.
I remembered his distress –
his swim across the Hellespont
to lose some weight.
But I have cooled toward his creations…
so do forgive my unromantic side –
to me the marble roses of Keats
have more charm than all those stagey storms. (10)


Keats is the author of On First Looking into Chapman's Homer (1816), a sonnet. In Canto One of his poem Shade describes Aunt Maud's room and mentions Chapman's homer (a baseball term):


I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,

A poet and a painter with a taste

For realistic objects interlaced

With grotesque growths and images of doom.

She lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room

We've kept intact. Its trivia create

A still life in her style: the paperweight

Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,

The verse book open at the Index (Moon,

Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,

The human skull; and from the local Star

A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4

On Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door. (ll. 86-98)


Aunt Maud's verse book open at the Index (Moon, Moonrise, Moor, Moral) corresponds to Shade's Bible-like Webster open at M on the little table that one winter morning the poet saw standing in a state of shock outdoors.


Moon and Moonrise bring to mind Archibald Moon, in VN's novel Podvig ("Glory," 1932) Martin's professor of Russian at Cambridge. Archibald Moon’s book on Russia has for epigraph the first line of Keats’ Endymion (1818), “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:”


Профессором русской словесности и истории был в ту пору небезызвестный Арчибальд Мун. В России он прожил довольно долго, всюду побывал, всех знал, всё перевидел. Теперь, черноволосый, бледный, в пенсне на тонком носу, он бесшумно проезжал на велосипеде с высоким рулём, сидя совсем прямо, а за обедом, в знаменитой столовой с дубовыми столами и огромными цветными окнами, вертел головой, как птица, и быстро, быстро крошил длинными пальцами хлеб. Говорили, единственное, что он в мире любит, это - Россия. Многие не понимали, почему он там не остался. На вопросы такого рода Мун неизменно отвечал: "Справьтесь у Робертсона" (это был востоковед) "почему он не остался в Вавилоне". Возражали вполне резонно, что Вавилона уже нет. Мун кивал, тихо и хитро улыбаясь. Он усматривал в октябрьском перевороте некий отчетливый конец. Охотно допуская, что со временем образуется в Советском Союзе, пройдя через первобытные фазы, известная культура, он вместе с тем утверждал, что Россия завершена и неповторима, - что её можно взять, как прекрасную амфору, и поставить под стекло. Печной горшок, который там теперь обжигался, ничего общего с нею не имел. Гражданская война представлялась ему нелепой: одни бьются за призрак прошлого, другие за призрак будущего, - меж тем, как Россию потихоньку украл Арчибальд Мун и запер у себя в кабинете. Ему нравилась её завершённость. Она была расцвечена синевою вод и прозрачным пурпуром пушкинских стихов. Вот уже скоро два года, как он писал на английском языке её историю, надеялся всю её уложить в один толстенький том. Эпиграф из Китса ("Создание красоты - радость навеки"), тончайшая бумага, мягкий сафьяновый переплёт. Задача была трудная: найти гармонию между эрудицией и тесной живописной прозой, дать совершенный образ одного округлого тысячелетия.


At that time the chair of Russian literature and history was occupied by the distinguished scholar Archibald Moon. He had lived fairly long in Russia, and had been everywhere, met everyone, seen everything there. Now, pale and dark-haired, with a pince-nez on his thin nose, he could be observed riding by, sitting perfectly upright, on a bicycle with high handlebars; or, at dinner in the renowned hall with oaken tables and huge stained-glass windows, he would jerk his head from side to side like a bird, and crumble bread extremely fast between his long fingers. They said the only thing this Englishman loved in the world was Russia. Many people could not understand why he had not remained there. Moon’s reply to questions of that kind would invariably be: “Ask Robertson” (the orientalist) “why he did not stay in Babylon.” The perfectly reasonable objection would be raised that Babylon no longer existed. Moon would nod with a sly, silent smile. He saw in the Bolshevist insurrection a certain clear-cut finality. While he willingly allowed that, by-and-by, after the primitive phases, some civilization might develop in the “Soviet Union,” he nevertheless maintained that Russia was concluded and unrepeatable, that you could embrace it like a splendid amphora and put it behind glass. The clay kitchen pot now being baked there had nothing in common with it. The civil war seemed absurd to him: one side fighting for the ghost of the past, the other for the ghost of the future, and meanwhile Archibald Moon quietly had stolen Russia and locked it up in his study. He admired this finality. It was colored by the blue of waters and the transparent porphyry of Pushkin’s poetry. For nearly two years now he had been working on an English-language history of Russia, and he hoped to squeeze it all into one plump volume. An obvious motto (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”), ultrathin paper, a soft Morocco binding. The task was a difficult one: to find a harmony between erudition and tight picturesque prose, to give a perfect image of one orbicular millennium. (chapter XVI)


Odno okrugloe tysyacheletie (one orbicular millennium) brings to mind Odon (a world-famous Zemblan actor who helps the king to escape from Zembla), Adam Krug (the main character in Bend Sinister) and the total number of lines (1001) in Shade's poem. A distant northern land, Kinbote's Zembla has a lot in common with Martin's and Sonya's Zoorland in "Glory."