Dim Gulf & Gulf of Surprise in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 05/16/2021 - 09:55

In Canto Four of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) says that the title of his first book (free verse) was Dim Gulf:


Dim Gulf was my first book (free verse); Night Rote

Came next; then Hebe's Cup, my final float

In that damp carnival, for now I term

Everything "Poems," and no longer squirm.

(But this transparent thingum does require

Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.) (ll. 957-962)


In his poem To One in Paradise (1843) E. A. Poe compares the Past to a dim gulf:


Ah, dream too bright to last!
Ah, starry Hope! that didst arise
But to be overcast!
A voice from out the Future cries,
“On! on!”—but o’er the Past
(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies
Mute, motionless, aghast!


Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe (“The Grave of Edgar Poe”) is a sonnet by Stéphane Mallarmé:


Tel qu’en Lui-même enfin l’éternité le change,
Le Poëte suscite avec un glaive nu
Son siècle épouvanté de n’avoir pas connu
Que la mort triomphait dans cette voix étrange !

Eux, comme un vil sursaut d’hydre oyant jadis l’ange
Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu
Proclamèrent très haut le sortilège bu
Dans le flot sans honneur de quelque noir mélange.

Du sol et de la nue hostiles, ô grief !
Si notre idée avec ne sculpte un bas-relief
Dont la tombe de Poe éblouissante s’orne
Calme bloc ici-bas chu d’un désastre obscur
Que ce granit du moins montre à jamais sa borne
Aux noirs vols du Blasphème épars dans le futur.


Mallarmé’s sonnet was translated into Russian by Innokentiy Annenski. In Annenski’s version Mallarmé’s sonnet has fifteen lines (the so-called "sonnet with a coda”):


Сквозь ризу бренную бессмертьем осиянный,
Грозя подъемлет он сверкающий свой меч
Над непознавшими, что та больная речь
Царю гробов была ликующей осанной.

Как гидра некогда отпрянула виясь
От блеска истины в божественном глаголе,
Так вопияли вы, над гением глумясь,
Что яд философа топил он в алкоголе.

О если меж стихий рождая только гнев,
Идее не дано отлиться в барельеф,
Чтоб просияла им забвенная могила,

Хоть ты, о чёрный прах от смерти золотой,
Обломок лишнего в гармонии светила,
На прах Эдгара По перенесён мечтой,
Для крыльев дьявола отныне будь метой.


In his essay Ob Annenskom (“On Annenski,” 1921) Hodasevich compares Annenski to Ivan Ilyich Golovin (the main character in Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” 1886), points out that Annenski regarded his penname Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody”) as a translation of Greek Outis (the pseudonym under which Odysseus conceals his identity from Polyphemus, the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey) and says that Annenski’s Muse was death:


Чего не додумал Иван Ильич, то знал Анненский. Знал, что никаким директорством, никаким бытом и даже никакой филологией от смерти по-настоящему не загородиться. Она уничтожит и директора, и барина, и филолога. Только над истинным его "я", над тем, что отображается в "чувствах и мыслях", над личностью -- у неё как будто нет власти. И он находил реальное, осязаемое отражение и утверждение личности -- в поэзии. Тот, чьё лицо он видел, подходя к зеркалу, был директор гимназии, смертный никто. Тот, чьё лицо отражалось в поэзии, был бессмертный некто. Ник. Т-о -- никто -- есть безличный действительный статский советник, которым, как видимой оболочкой, прикрыт невидимый некто. Этот свой псевдоним, под которым он печатал стихи, Анненский рассматривал как перевод греческого "утис", никто, -- того самого псевдонима, под которым Одиссей скрыл от циклопа Полифема своё истинное имя, свою подлинную личность, своего некто. Поэзия была для него заклятием страшного Полифема -- смерти. Но психологически это не только не мешало, а даже способствовало тому, чтобы его вдохновительницей, его Музой была смерть.


According to Kinbote (Shade's mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), in a conversation with him Shade said that death could be an even greater surprise than life:


We happened to start speaking of the general present-day nebulation of the notion of "sin," of its confusion with the much more carnally colored ideal of "crime," and I alluded briefly to my childhood contacts with certain rituals of our church. Confession with us is auricular and is conducted in a richly ornamented recess, the confessionist holding a lighted taper and standing with it beside the priest's high-backed seat which is shaped almost exactly as the coronation chair of a Scottish king. Little polite boy that I was, I always feared to stain his purple-black sleeve with the scalding tears of wax that kept dripping onto my knuckles, forming there tight little crusts, and I was fascinated by the illumed concavity of his ear resembling a seashell or a glossy orchid, a convoluted receptacle that seemed much too large for the disposal of my peccadilloes.

SHADE: All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.

KINBOTE: Is it fair to base objections upon obsolete terminology?

SHADE: All religions are based upon obsolete terminology.

KINBOTE: What we term Original Sin can never grow obsolete.

SHADE: I know nothing about that. In fact when I was small I thought it meant Cain killing Abel. Personally, I am with the old snuff-takers: L'homme est né bon.

KINBOTE: Yet disobeying the Divine Will is a fundamental definition of Sin.

SHADE: I cannot disobey something which I do not know and the reality of which I have the right to deny.

KINBOTE: Tut-tut. Do you also deny that there are sins?

SHADE: I can name only two: murder, and the deliberate infliction of pain.

KINBOTE: Then a man spending his life in absolute solitude could not be a sinner?

SHADE: He could torture animals. He could poison the springs on his island. He could denounce an innocent man in a posthumous manifesto.

KINBOTE: And so the password is – ?

SHADE: Pity.

KINBOTE: But who instilled it in us, John? Who is the Judge of life, and the Designer of death?

SHADE: Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one. (note to Line 549)


Describing the King’s escape from Zembla, Kinbote mentions the Gulf of Surprise:


The Bera Range, a two-hundred-mile-long chain of rugged mountains, not quite reaching the northern end of the Zemblan peninsula (cut off basally by an impassable canal from the mainland of madness), divides it into two parts, the flourishing eastern region of Onhava and other townships, such as Aros and Grindelwod, and the much narrower western strip with its quaint fishing hamlets and pleasant beach resorts. The two coasts are connected by two asphalted highways; the older one shirks difficulties by running first along the eastern slopes northward to Odevalla, Yeslove and Embla, and only then turning west at the northmost point of the peninsula; the newer one, an elaborate, twisting, marvelously graded road, traverses the range westward from just north of Onhava to Bregberg, and is termed in tourist booklets a "scenic drive." Several trails cross the mountains at various points and lead to passes none of which exceeds an altitude of five thousand feet; a few peaks rise some two thousand feet higher and retain their snow in midsummer; and from one of them, the highest and hardest, Mt. Glitterntin, one can distinguish on clear days, far out to the east, beyond the Gulf of Surprise, a dim iridescence which some say is Russia. (note to Line 149)


Shade’s murderer, Gradus is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization). In his poem Villa Nazionale (1904) Annenski mentions teni dushnye zaliva (the sultry shadows of the gulf):


Смычка заслушавшись, тоскливо
Волна горит, а луч померк, —
И в тени душные залива
Вот-вот ворвётся фейерверк.

Но в мутном чаяньи испуга,
В истоме прерванного сна,
Не угадать Царице юга
Тот миг шальной, когда она

Развяжет, разоймёт, расщиплет
Золотоцветный свой букет
И звёзды робкие рассыплет
Огнями дерзкими ракет.


In his essay Iznanka poezii (“The Inner Side of Poetry”) included in Vtoraya kniga otrazheniy (“The Second Book of Reflections,” 1909) Annenski mentions udivlenie mokhnatykh gusenits (the surprise of hairy caterpillars):


Но алмазные слова и даются не даром. Облюбовав человека, который любит ее не на шутку, жизнь раздразнит его соблазнами, она истомит его, как любовница, то упрямо-ускользающая, то вдруг опьянело-сомлевшая. Хуже: еще до наступления его рокового и любострастного сна жизнь заставит поэта сознать воочию и с болезненною ясностью, что он не только не царь вселенной, но, наоборот, бессильнейшая и ничтожнейшая часть ее же, любимой им жизни, мизинец ее ноги, что он лишь безразличный атом, который не только не вправе, но и не властен обладать поглотившим его миром. И вот в награду за ряд разочарований, может быть, падений, за терпеливо сносимые обиды, покидая наутро постель своего призрачного любовника, жизнь оставляет ему несколько символов. - Прочитай людям эти метафоры, и ты уверишь их, что я точно была в твоих объятиях, уверишь, что это ты заставил меня стать прекрасной и ритмичной, и что эти символы даны тебе в залог нашего будущего свидания. Прочитай им твои метафоры, и завтра, глядя на меня и узнавая меня в твоих символах, люди сами будут повторять, что ты был моим счастливым любовником. Может быть, твоя любовь еще ни разу не была более тщетной, более поруганной, чем в эту ночь. Но утешься. Завтра твое тщеславие будет насыщено завистью твоих друзей и удивлением мохнатых гусениц.


In his poem Net, bytie – ne zybkaya zagadka… (“No, life isn’t an unresolvable riddle,” 1923) VN says that we are gusenitsy angelov (the caterpillars of angels):


Нет, бытие - не зыбкая загадка!

Подлунный дол и ясен, и росист.

Мы - гусеницы ангелов; и сладко

въедаться с краю в нежный лист.


Рядись в шипы, ползи, сгибайся, крепни,

и чем жадней твой ход зеленый был,

тем бархатистей и великолепней

хвосты освобожденных крыл.


At the end of his poem Shade mentions a dark Vanessa butterfly:


A dark Vanessa with 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)


In his Commentary Kinbote writes:


One minute before his death, as we were crossing from his demesne to mine and had begun working up between the junipers and ornamental shrubs, a Red Admirable (see note to line 270) came dizzily whirling around us like a colored flame. Once or twice before we had already noticed the same individual, at that same time, on that same spot, where the low sun finding an aperture in the foliage splashed the brown sand with a last radiance while the evening's shade covered the rest of the path. One's eyes could not follow the rapid butterfly in the sunbeams as it flashed and vanished, and flashed again, with an almost frightening imitation of conscious play which now culminated in its settling upon my delighted friend's sleeve. It took off, and we saw it next moment sporting in an ecstasy of frivolous haste around a laurel shrub, every now and then perching on a lacquered leaf and sliding down its grooved middle like a boy down the banisters on his birthday. Then the tide of the shade reached the laurels, and the magnificent, velvet-and-flame creature dissolved in it. (note to Lines 993-95)


In Strong Opinions (Interview 15) VN comments on Vanessa atalanta (the Red Admirable) as follows:


Its coloring is quite splendid and I liked it very much in my youth. Great numbers of them migrated from Africa to Northern Russia, where it was called "The Butterfly of Doom" because it was especially abundant in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and the markings on the underside of its two hind wings seem to read "1881". The Red Admirable's ability to travel so far is matched by many other migratory butterflies. (p. 170)


Tsar Alexander II was killed by a bomb of the terrorists. At the end of his Commentary Kinbote mentions “ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square:”


"And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a gentle young voice may inquire.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the other two characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out--somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door--a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


“A million photographers” brings to mind russkikh milliony (the millions of Russians) mentioned by Dostoevski (who uses the word gradus, “degree,” twice in a letter of Oct. 31, 1838, to his brother) in his poem “On the Coronation of Alexander II and Conclusion of Peace” (1856):


Идёт наш царь принять корону…
Молитву чистую творя,
Взывают русских миллионы:
Благослови, господь, царя!


According to Kinbote, Shade listed Dostoevski among Russian humorists:


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)


One of the essays in Annenski's "Second Book of Reflections" is entitled Yumor Lermontova ("Lermontov's Humor").


Shade’s poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. 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”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski, a poem (1862) by Polonski, a poem (1904) by Annenski and a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok. Tyanet vetrom ot zaliva (“The wind blows from the gulf,” 1902) is a poem by Blok:


Тянет ветром от залива,
В тёплом ветре — снова ты.
Широко и прихотливо
Покачнулась гладь мечты.

Здесь ли, нет ли — это с моря
Огоньки и голоса…
На темнеющем просторе —
Там — песчаная коса.

Над моими ли мечтами —
Вечереющий обман?
И широкими струями
Колыхается туман…