Vladimir Nabokov

Pegasus in PF

By MARYROSS, 3 August, 2020


I believe I have a PF ‘find’ here:


Kinbote in his commentary to 922 quotes one of Shade’s discards:

England where poets flew the highest, now

Wants them to plod and Pegasus to plough;


This wonderful image of creative sell-out most likely refers to a poem by Friedrich Schiller, “Pegasus in the Yoke” about a poor poet who sells Pegasus to a boorish peasant who puts it to the plough, but finds the fabulous horse untamable.  Finally a deserving youth un-yokes him and they soar into the skies.  The first lines are:


INTO a public fair—a cattle-fair, in short,

  Where other things are bought and sold—ah, sad to tell!

A hungry poet one day brought

  The Muse’s Pegasus, to sell.


In looking through the archives, I found these two statements about VN and Schiller:


>From Alexey Sklyarenko, NABOKV-L POST 0007664

In my opinion, Nabokov's knowledge of German 19th century and contemporary authors (especially in his mature years) was deeper than it is usually thought to be. In his youth, he would read Goethe, Schiller, Uhland in Zhukovski's wonderful translations (which he even preferred to the originals)


>From Mathew Roth, NABOKV-L POST 0015214

  I should also note that VN was very familiar with Schiller. He mentions him many times in his EO commentary



What I also found out is that Schiller was influenced by mystical Christian theosophy. This puts him in company with most (all?) PF poets associated with various esoteric societies.  Christian Theosophy originated with the famous alchemist Jakob Boehme.  I have mentioned in previous posts PF's pervasive references to alchemy. I wonder whether Jakob Boehme, who was called “the Shoemaker” might ultimately be behind the character of Botkin.

That is, if Botkin is actually the alchemist/conjurer/author behind PF.

Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years 11 months ago

This is a great find, Mary (see my detailed reply, "Pegasus & T. S. Eliot in PF," posted separately)! Nur schade (but what a shame) in Schiller's original brings to mind Shade:


Hell wieherte der Hippogryph
Und bäumte sich in prächtiger Parade;
Erstaunt blieb jeder stehn und rief:
"Das edle, königliche Tier! Nur schade,
Daß seinen schlanken Wuchs ein häßlich Flügelpaar
Entstellt! Den schönsten Postzug würd es zieren.
Die Rasse, sagen sie, sei rar,
Doch wer wird durch die Luft kutschieren?


Shrill neighed the hippogriff and clear,

And pranced, and reared, displaying his proud frame,

Till all exclaimed in wonder, who stood near,

“The noble, royal beast! But what a shame

His slender form by such a hateful pair

Of wings is spoiled! He’d set off a fine post-team well.”

“The race,” say others, “would be rare;

But who’d go posting through the air?”


In his Introduction to his English version of Eugene Onegin VN says: “Pushkin likened translators to horses changed at the post houses of civilizations. The greatest reward that I can think of is that students may use my work as a pony.”


In his EO Commentary (vol. II, p. 435) VN quotes a poem from Die Heimkehr (“The Homecoming,” 1823-24) by Heinrich Heine (who expresses much better than Pushkin does in Four: XXII of EO the idea of self-esteem):


Braver Mann! Er schafft mir zu essen!
Will es ihm nie und nimmer vergessen!
Schade, daβ ich ihn nicht küssen kann!
Denn ich bin selbst dieser brave Mann.


A fine man! He gets food for me!
I will never forget him that!
Pity that I cannot kiss him!
For I am myself this fine man.


It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs not only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”), but also a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Der Doppelgänger is a poem by Heinrich Heine:


Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,

In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz;

Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen,

Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz.


Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe,

Und ringt die Hände, vor Schmerzens Gewalt;

Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe –

Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.


Du Doppelgänger! du bleicher Geselle!

Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,

Das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle,

So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?


The night is still, the streets are at rest;

in this house lived my sweetheart.

She has long since left the town,

but the house still stands on the selfsame spot.


A man stands there too, staring up,

and wringing his hands in anguish;

I shudder when I see his face –

the moon shows me my own form!


You wraith, pallid companion,

why do you ape the pain of my love

which tormented me on this very spot,

so many a night, in days long past?

(tr. R. Wigmore)


According to Heine (an émigré poet who lived in Paris), his French friends mispronounced his name Enri Enn which sounded almost like Rien (“Mr. Nobody”).


In the opening line of Pegasus im Joche Schiller mentions Haymarket:


Auf einen Pferdemarkt – vielleicht zu Haymarket,
Wo andre Dinge noch in Ware sich verwandeln,
Bracht einst ein hungriger Poet
Der Musen Roß, es zu verhandeln.


Haymarket is a street in London. According to Shade, England wants Pegasus to plough. In Canto Four of his poem Shade describes shaving and mentions slaves who make hay between his mouth and nose:


And while the safety blade with scrape and screak

Travels across the country of my cheek;

Cars on the highway pass, and up the steep

Incline big trucks around my jawbone creep,

And now a silent liner docks, and now

Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough

Old Zembla's fields where my gay stubble grows,

And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose. (ll. 931-938)


Das Sklavenschiff ("The Slave Ship") is a poem by Heinrich Heine.

Alain Champlain

3 years 11 months ago

Seems like a nice find, and fairly plausible based on your description (I haven't read the poem yet — looking forward to it) and your confirmation of VN's having read Schiller. (Admittedly, you lose me in the PS.)


On the topic of Pegasus, are you familiar with its other reference in PF? I highly recommend looking into Kinbote's Picasso (the one he describes as 'earth boy leading raincloud horse') — especially looking at Picasso's own sources of inspiration for his painting. Some great reverberations throughout PF, including the lines you've singled out, since Picasso has made Pegasus into a flightless horse.


PS though I don't find compelling the suggestion that Botkin is the secret author of PF, it's fun nonetheless to point out a Freudian slip of the mask in Alexey's rendition of Canto Four.


3 years 11 months ago

Thanks, Alain and Alexey.

I am familiar with the Picasso, which is titled "Boy Leading a Horse." (there does seem to be a rain cloud in the sky). Kinbote mentions another Picasso print in his Zemblan pied a terre: "One recalls with  nostalgic pleasure its light gray carpeting and pearl-gray walls (one of them graced with a solitary copy of Picasso's Chandelier, pot et casserole émaillée" and I believe another Picasso print is mentioned in Pnin. I have the feeling that VN mentions famous Picasso prints as an indication of low-brow taste (poshlost) - not for the art itself, but because in the 1950's and 60's Picasso prints were ubiquitous in every college dorm and faculty house.

As for my PS, I understand that in and of itself it does not make a lot of sense. I have been gathering a lot of information on alchemy in PF and indications of Jungian archetypes which lead to suspicion of Botkin as author. Too much to explain here, but I will be posting soon a list I am compiling of PF's allusions to artists who were members of esoteric societies, especially the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) that is the template for Shade's IPH. 


3 years 11 months ago

Alain -

You're right about Canto 4!  but I think it is more likely intentional counterpoint, not at all a slip. 


Alain Champlain

3 years 11 months ago

A quick rebuttal to your suggestion that "VN mentions famous Picasso prints as an indication of low-brow taste":

"Nabokov, who had a copy of ['Chandelier, pot et casserole émaillée'] on his writing desk in Montreux, when asked what aspects of Picasso he admired, said: 'the graphic aspect, the masterly technique, and the quiet colors.'" (page 74 of Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Painting by Donald Barton Johnson and Gerard de Vries)

By the way, in case you haven't tracked it down yet, the Mantegna I referred to is called Parnassus.


3 years 11 months ago

Oh, nice! I agree with VN! I am old enough to remember the preponderance of those posters, though. 

I don't recall a discussion of a Mantegna, or Parnassus. I did make a post quite a good while back about gradus ad Parnassus and the meaning of the two peaks of the mountain.

BTW, I now realize that you meant the "Freudian slip" was Alexey's, not VN's. "Old Zembla's fields" is interesting though, in light of the Pegasus lines. There are some people who think that John Shade is supposed to be an inferior poet (I am not among them - I love the poem). But here it would seem that Shade is acknowledging that he is just "plodding" along well-trod furrows.  Somewhere I read a VN quote about not thinking much of Pope and his ilk (and I would agree with that, too. VN is a much better iambic pentameter master.)

Alain Champlain

3 years 11 months ago

I agree, the poem is one of my favourites.

As for the "Old Zembla's fields" section, I read it in large part as a parody of Mowing by Robert Frost.

In Mowing the poet is inspired by his "long scythe whispering to the ground." Compare to Shade who composes while shaving, listening to "the safety blade with scrape and screak." Frost compares the mowing labor to his poetic labor, having "laid the swale in rows" like the lines of a poem, after which he has "left the hay to make," suggesting that the reader will participate in a shared act of meaning-making with the poet. Compare to Pale Fire: Shade would lampoon the possible interpretation of a libertarian communal meaning-making, insisting specifically that it's "slaves" who "make hay", very much like Conmal's "I am not slave! Let be my critic slave." See also Nabokov's own great joke (if you know both meanings of 'galley') in an interview in The Paris Review, 1967:

E.M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or whereever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

The irony is that while Shade is lampooning the "hay making" approach to poetic interpretation, he accidentally glancingly names the Zemblan who will be left to make hay, not at all a slave to Shade's dictates — in fact, a king in his own right. The irony is compounded by the following lines (939-940), unaware of the coming "commentary" and unaware this would be the "unfinished poem" in question. (The quality of the irony is the same as when he says "I am reasonably sure that I // Shall wake at six tomorrow".) It's important to understand that lines 939-940 don't come out of nowhere — that Shade is thinking of meaning-making when he's talking about "making hay."

There's a lot more to be said about the shaving as part of a pattern of body waste products vs artistic creation. Quick example: "the pencil with which he kept picking his ear (inspecting now and then the lead, and even tasting it)." That's all for now.


3 years 11 months ago

Thanks, Alain, you've given me so much more to respond to, which I will attempt, briefly:

>Shade shaving:

The "mowing" allusions and interpretation make sense to me.

A major part of VN's genius is how many allusions he can pile into one image - no single one is "right". There is also Mathew Roth's "werewolf" interpretation - the animal hairs growing from within. Shade also mentions "bimanist" and "sinister," both suggesting homosexuality, which would be an aspect of the repressed within that is that "unchanged prickliness" that he wishes he could "set free." His adam's apple is always prickley - i.e. referencing sin. No wonder he follows this immediately by "now I shall speak of evil and despair."

Apparently (according again to Mathew Roth) Nabokov, in an earlier version of PF intended Shade to be experiencing a breakdown from homophobic fears.

Also, shaving, razors and beards occur a number of times.



Right, K "makes hay" of S's work.

I do not know the second meaning of "galley"- is it printable?



Also, in alchemy part of the process is called "The King in his Bath." The enervated King (prima materia) is being resurrected. Death and resurrection (transcendence) I believe is PF's meta-theme of PF

Alain Champlain

3 years 11 months ago

Re: galley slaves joke: galley can refer to a ship (as in the 'trip' he refers to in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India), but galley can also refer to a printer's proof (as in his own books).


3 years 11 months ago

Of course! and it is printable, too!


Here is something that has perplexed me: Is John Shade a king?


I believe there are possibly 3 chess games going on in PF (begun each time a game is initiated in the text) and at least one card game, probably “ombre,” a card game behind Pope’s Rape of the Lock, or possibly “Faro” as in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades.


In chess, John Shade can’t be a king because the game goes on after he is eliminated. The name “John” is actually the name that “Jack” is derived from. Shade may actually be a knight or knave like Gradus (Jack Grey).


“Grey” is the color of shade or shadows. There is a contrapuntal equivalence of sorts between John Shade and Jack Grey.  I maintain that, on a separate but parallel fictive plane, all of the characters of PF are Jungian archetypes of Botkin and their relationships are played out according to this paradigm.


Gradus is the Jungian shadow – the dark repressed archetype. Shade is the persona, the ego Kinbote’s idealized mask. We can see this in O’Connor’s idealization of Whitman “The Good Grey Poet” (see “Grey Poet” post). But Shade, like the persona is hiding a dark side, the “bad grey poet.” Shade, like the persona is both light and dark – “grey.” He appears to be the “fashion of modern day bards,” that is, a bit of a pose. On his dark side, he drinks, he has affaires and his marriage is not the blissful union he puts forth. Ultimately, in the Jungian paradigm, when the shadow erupts (glass factory explosion) from the unconscious, the persona can no longer hold its pose and basically is annihilated.  That is why Jack Grey kills the Bad Grey Poet. Then, the shadow, recognizing its basic inept serviceability self-destructs, and Gradus commits suicide.

Without his ‘front’ and ‘back’ Kinbote feels himself a solus rex. But still he senses a more menacing shadow. Again according to the Jungian paradigm, that would be the anima, the contra-sexual archetype that Jung called the “masterpiece” and that is Sybil, the Queen of Spades in cards, and I think the Red Queen in a chess game between red and white.


That in a nutshell (walnut) is my theory in brief.


3 years 11 months ago

The comparison that Alain makes to Frost's Mowing seems fruitful. It impelled me to revisit the poem in any case. But, I think Frost there is challenging both Wordsworth's "wise passiveness" (Expostulation and Reply) as well as Keats's Ode on Indolence (It was no dream of the gift of idle hours/ Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf) that Shade may take issue with? Housman's famous lines on the razor, "if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act", ends with a quotation from one of Keats's letters, "speaking of Fanny Brawne ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.’ The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach." Another time, VN would extol the virtues of the stomach and chewing (and picking apart) literary bits properly. In general though, my take does not really place Shade contra Frost here. I mean not much to argue against "the fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows" or against "the earnest love that laid the swale in rows" (one step away from, you would note, Shakespeare's "silent love has writ").

But nice source for Pegasus! Although I suspect the comparison may be too common for a direct reference. To be honest, the whole business of plodding and ploughing immediately reminds me of VN's reply to Edmund Wilson ("Reply to my Critics") on one of the passages from Eugene Onegin:

"If, however, we resist the unfair temptation of imagining Mr. Wilson’s horse plodding through my trot and, instead, have it plod through Mr. Wilson’s snow, we obtain the inept picture of an unfortunate beast of burden laboriously working its way through that snow, whereas in reality Pushkin celebrates relief, not exertions. The peasant is not “rejoicing” or “feeling festive,” as paraphrasts have it (not knowing Pushkin’s use of torzhestvovat’ here and elsewhere), but “celebrating” (the coming of winter), since the snow under the sleigh facilitates the little nag’s progress and is especially welcome after a long snowless autumn of muddy ruts and reluctant cart wheels."

This I think, one of the issues, different readers are reminded of different things, rather than of resemblances of thoughts.


3 years 11 months ago

Shakeeb, You inspired me to actually read "Mowing." As it happened, I found it on a site called "The Poetry Foundation" https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53001/mowing-56d231eca88cd whose logo is a flying Pegasus! 

I agree with you about comparisons that are too common for a direct reference. Still, I would argue for Pegasus in the Yoke, unless there many literary references to Pegasus ploughing. I think that delightful image is probably original with Schiller.



3 years 11 months ago

I didn't mean to cut short discussions on Frost or any other poet in regard to Pale Fire. On the contrary, I have often felt too little has been said on the merits of the poem itself, the inner harmonies, recurring imagery and so on. We would do well in compiling one's favourite lines from the poem itself, the ones that caught our attention most when reading or re-reading the poem. In any case, Alain's points was a good starting point to talk about other poems in relation to Pale Fire. And it would be wonderful to properly visit (like Mary did) other poets while mining for data behind Pale Fire.


3 years 11 months ago

The first couplet of PF slayed me! I had no idea of what it meant – just the lilt of the language.


I loved Mowing, too! Whether or not VN had that poem in mind in the shaving sequence, I think Frost’s transcendent perception of life’s ‘small’ things congruent with VN’s views.


In ascribing a reference, it's important that it fits contextually and thematically.


3 years 11 months ago

Mary says: " Apparently (according again to Mathew Roth) Nabokov, in an earlier version of PF intended Shade to be experiencing a breakdown from homophobic fears."

I don't believe I ever claimed such a thing. Certainly nothing in the holograph manuscript points to that. At the risk of multiplying misattributions, I do seem to recall Carolyn Kunin arguing for something along these lines in the context of the published version.

Matt Roth


3 years 11 months ago

Mathew Roth – I greatly apologize. That was a casual and careless attribution and, of course, not a quote. I was recalling a paper of yours, concerning some of Nabokov’s discarded versions of PF, which I could not at the moment remember the title. It was bad form for me not to confirm.  I have found now the paper, The Composition of Nabokov’s PALE FIRE, and the relevant part, which I am copying below:



(Indeed it sold exceptionally well—

Mainly because I had seen fit to dwell

In scolarly detail on the delights

Byron derived from little catamites)

I started a new poem. . . .


Comment: These uncanceled lines were replaced later with the corresponding lines that

appear in 1E. Had they remained, the focus on Byron’s catamites would have established

Shade’s scholarly (at least) interest in realms we more readily associate with the homosexual world of Kinbote and Zembla.




676 delights

These are manifold. Impaling deep tenderness on the stake of strong passion is, of

course, the classicist’s choice. Other ways to paradise may be tried, as the one we heraldists call engoulant or inguillant, or vorant. The ways to paradise are narrow and ^but^ a good boy never chokes ^on the gorged sword^. The more cultivated lover likes to face his armed twin. Thus the green spark that lit the caveman’s face spurted forth from two redwood sticks. The ways to paradise ^sometimes^ cannot be told sometimes from those of ^to^ hell. Blasphemy,insomnia and disgust.

“Oh let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!”



Comment: This undated card is placed between Kinbote’s notes to lines 671-672 and

line 678. The word “delights” is found in the uncanceled variant (discussed above) in which Shade reveals that his book, The Untamed Seahorse, investigates “the delights / Byron derived from little catamites.” Like Shade’s line, this passage was removed during the revision process and does not appear in 1E. In heraldry, engoulant means “partly swallowed” and vorant means “devouring” or “swallowing.” One is reminded of an image from Lolita, where Humbert describes “a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat” (134). I have not been able to find any evidence of the term inguillant. One wonders if it might be rooted in “inguin-,” meaning “groin.” The last sentence, in quotation marks, is from King Lear (1.5.40). Had it survived the revision process, this meditation would arguably have qualified as the most sexually explicit passage in the novel. It is unclear whether Nabokov first revised the lines in Shade’s

poem, thus making this passage extraneous, or vice-versa. One imagines, however, that had he wanted to keep the passage, he could have found a way to include it, even without the corresponding line in “Pale Fire.


I understood these as implicit indications of Shade’s struggle with homosexuality in earlier versions, later excised.  Of course that is strictly my interpretation. I apologize again, for not making that clear.

Most Humbly, Mary


3 years 11 months ago

Thanks, Mary, for the correction and for quoting from my article, which interested parties can find in the NOJ archives.