didactic katydid & low hum of harmony in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 05/10/2021 - 16:07

In Canto Two of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) says that his daughter called her mother "a didactic katydid:"


                         She twisted words: pot, top

Spider, redips. And "powder" was "red wop."

She called you a didactic katydid.

She hardly ever smiled, and when she did,

It was a sign of pain. She'd criticize

Ferociously our projects, and with eyes

Expressionless sit on her tumbled bed

Spreading her swollen feet, scratching her head

With psoriatic fingernails, and moan,

Murmuring dreadful words in monotone. (ll. 347-356)


Kuznechik-pouchitel' (as in her Russian translation of Pale Fire Vera Nabokov renders "a didactic katydid") brings to mind Polonski's poem Kuznechik-muzykant ("The Grasshopper Musician," 1859). In Polonski's poem the grasshopper falls in love with a pretty butterfly. In Canto Two and then again at the end of his poem Shade mentions a Vanessa butterfly:


Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,

My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest

My Admirable butterfly! Explain

How could you, in the gloam of Lilac Lane,

Have let uncouth, hysterical John Shade

Blubber your face, and ear, and shoulder blade? (ll. 269-274)


A dark Vanessa with a crimson band

Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand

And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.

And through the flowing shade and ebbing light

A man, unheedful of the butterfly -

Some neighbor's gardener, I guess - goes by

Trundling an empty barrow up the lane. (ll. 993-999)


Shade’s poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla, Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s 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”). Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1862) is a poem by Polonski:


Я шёл и не слыхал, как пели соловьи,

И не видал, как звёзды загорались,

И слушал я шаги — шаги, не знаю чьи,

За мной в лесной глуши неясно повторялись.

Я думал — эхо, зверь, колышется тростник;

Я верить не хотел, дрожа и замирая,

Что по моим следам, на шаг не отставая,

Идёт не человек, не зверь, а мой двойник.

То я бежать хотел, пугливо озираясь,

То самого себя, как мальчика, стыдил...

Вдруг злость меня взяла — и, страшно задыхаясь,

Я сам пошел к нему навстречу и спросил:

— Что ты пророчишь мне или зачем пугаешь?

Ты призрак иль обман фантазии больной?

— Ах!— отвечал двойник,— ты видеть мне мешаешь

И не даёшь внимать гармонии ночной;

Ты хочешь отравить меня своим сомненьем,

Меня — живой родник поэзии твоей!..

И, не сводя с меня испуганных очей,

Двойник мой на меня глядел с таким смятеньем,

Как будто я к нему среди ночных теней —

Я, а не он ко мне явился привиденьем.


In Polonski’s poem the Double tells to the poet: “you prevent me from seeing and don’t let me listen to the nocturnal harmony (vnimat’ garmonii nochnoy). The last day of Shade’s life has passed in a sustained low hum of harmony:


Gently the day has passed in a sustained

Low hum of harmony. The brain is drained

And a brown ament, and the noun I meant

To use but did not, dry on the cement.

Maybe my sensual love for the consonne

D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon

A feeling of fantastically planned,

Richly rhymed life. I feel I understand

Existence, or at least a minute part

Of my existence, only through my art,

In terms of combinational delight;

And if my private universe scans right,

So does the verse of galaxies divine

Which I suspect is an iambic line. (ll. 963-976)


Polonski translated into Russian Bourdillon’s poem “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes:”


Ночь смотрит тысячами глаз,

А день глядит одним;

Но солнца нет — и по земле

Тьма стелется, как дым.


Ум смотрит тысячами глаз,

Любовь глядит одним;

Но нет любви — и гаснет жизнь,

И дни плывут, как дым.


The night has a thousand eyes,

      And the day but one;

Yet the light of the bright world dies

      With the dying sun.


  The mind has a thousand eyes,

      And the heart but one:

Yet the light of a whole life dies

      When love is done.


1000 + 1 = 1001 (the total number of lines in Shade’s poem).


Let me also draw your attention to the updated version of my previous post, “Tessera Square & password Pity in Pale Fire.”