young shagbark & grados in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 07/21/2022 - 20:22

In Canto One of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions his favorite young shagbark tree:

 

I had a favorite young shagbark there

With ample dark jade leaves and a black, spare,

Vermiculated trunk. The setting sun

Bronzed the black bark, around which, like undone

Garlands, the shadows of the foliage fell.

It is now stout and rough; it has done well.

White butterflies turn lavender as they

Pass through its shade where gently seems to sway

The phantom of my little daughter's swing. (ll. 49-57)

 

In his Commentary Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) writes:

 

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 SACRED TREE

The gingko 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.

 

Shagbark Hickory is a poem by Carl Sandburg:

 

IN the moonlight under a shag-bark hickory tree
Watching the yellow shadows melt in hoof-pools,
Listening to the yes and the no of a woman’s hands,
I kept my guess why the night was glad.

The night was lit with a woman’s eyes.
The night was crossed with a woman’s hands,
The night kept humming an undersong.

 

Sybil Shade (the poet's wife whom Kinbote calls "a domestic anti-Karlist") is humming as she packs a suitcase:

 

I love you when you're standing on the lawn

Peering at something in a tree: "It's gone.

It was so small. It might come back" (all this

Voiced in a whisper softer than a kiss).

I love you when you call me to admire

A jet's pink trail above the sunset fire.

I love you when you're humming as you pack

A suitcase or the farcical car sack

With round-trip zipper. And I love you most

When with a pensive nod you greet her ghost

And hold her first toy on your palm, or look

At a postcard from her, found in a book. (ll. 281-292)

 

Describing Gradus’ day in New York, Kinbote mentions Carl Sandburg, a poet:

 

He began with the day's copy of The New York Times. His lips moving like wrestling worms, he read about all kinds of things. Hrushchov (whom they spelled "Khrushchev") had abruptly put off a visit to Scandinavia and was to visit Zembla instead (here I tune in: "Vi nazïvaete sebya zemblerami, you call yourselves Zemblans, a ya vas nazïvayu zemlyakami, and I call you fellow countrymen!" Laughter and applause.) The United States was about to launch its first atom-driven merchant ship (just to annoy the Ruskers, of course. J. G.). Last night in Newark, an apartment house at 555 South Street was hit by a thunderbolt that smashed a TV set and injured two people watching an actress lost in a violent studio storm (those tormented spirits are terrible! C. X. K. teste J. S.). The Rachel Jewelry Company in Brooklyn advertised in agate type for a jewelry polisher who "must have experience on costume jewelry (oh, Degré had!). The Helman brothers said they had assisted in the negotiations for the placement of a sizable note: "$11, 000, 000, Decker Glass Manufacturing Company, Inc., note due July 1, 1979," and Gradus, grown young again, reread this twice, with the background gray thought, perhaps, that he would be sixty-four four days after that (no comment). On another bench he found a Monday issue of the same newspaper. During a visit to a museum in Whitehorse (Gradus kicked at a pigeon that came too near), the Queen of England walked to a corner of the White Animals Room, removed her right glove and, with her back turned to several evidently observant people, rubbed her forehead and one of her eyes. A pro-Red revolt had erupted in Iraq. Asked about the Soviet exhibition at the New York Coliseum, Carl Sandburg, a poet, replied, and I quote: "They make their appeal on the highest of intellectual levels." A hack reviewer of new books for tourists, reviewing his own tour through Norway, said that the fjords were too famous to need (his) description, and that all Scandinavians loved flowers. And at a picnic for international children a Zemblan moppet cried to her Japanese friend: Ufgut, ufgut, velkum ut Semblerland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!) I confess it has been a wonderful game - this looking up in the WUL of various ephemerides over the shadow of a padded shoulder. (note to Line 949)

 

A member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization), Gradus is Shade’s murderer. Gradus' birthday, July 5 is also Shade's and Kinbote's birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). Gradus → grados ("tree" in Zemblan) → gradas (Spanish for "flight of stairs"). Gradas is an anagram of Asgard (in Norse mythology, a location associated with Gods). It appears in a multitude of Old Norse sagas and mythological texts. Some researchers identify Asgard as one of the Nine Worlds surrounding the tree Yggdrasil. Norse mythology portrays Asgard as a fortified home to the Aesir tribe of gods, located in the sky. Asgard consists of smaller realms that individually do not appear as frequently in mythological poems and prose. Ancient Norse eschatalogy envisages the total destruction of Asgard during Ragnarök, and its later restoration after the world's renewal. The best-known Gods of the Norse pantheon are Aesir or live in Asgard: Odin, Thor, Loki, and Baldr. Asgard is depicted as celestial city of high towers surrounded by a great wall. Odin's famous hall of Valhalla, where his throne may have been located, is in Asgard. In the prologue of the medieval Icelandic Edda, Snorri Sturluson identifies Troy with Asgard, and Aeneas (the hero of Virgil’s The Aeneid) with Vidar, son of Odin and survivor of Ragnarök.

 

Carl Sandburg’s first three books were brought out by Asgard Press:

 

In Reckless Ecstasy. Illinois: Asgard Press, 1904.
Incidentals. Illinois: Asgard Press, 1904.
The Plaint of the Rose. Illinois: Asgard Press, 1908.

 

In his Foreword to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions a certain ferocious lady who confused Odin's Hall with the title of a Finnish epic:

 

Oh, there were many such incidents. In a skit performed by a group of drama students I was pictured as a pompous woman hater with a German accent, constantly quoting Housman and nibbling raw carrots; and a week before Shade's death, a certain ferocious lady at whose club I had refused to speak on the subject of "The Hally Vally" (as she put it, confusing Odin's Hall with the title of a Finnish epic), said to me in the middle of a grocery store, "You are a remarkably disagreeable person. I fail to see how John and Sybil can stand you," and, exasperated by my polite smile, she added: "What's more, you are insane." But let me not pursue the tabulation of nonsense. Whatever was thought, whatever was said, I had my full reward in John's friendship. This friendship was the more precious for its tenderness being intentionally concealed, especially when we were not alone, by that gruffness which stems from what can be termed the dignity of the heart. His whole being constituted a mask. John Shade's physical appearance was so little in keeping with the harmonies hiving in the man, that one felt inclined to dismiss it as a coarse disguise or passing fashion; for if the fashions of the Romantic Age subtilized a poet's manliness by baring his attractive neck, pruning his profile and reflecting a mountain lake in his oval gaze, present-day bards, owing perhaps to better opportunities of aging, look like gorillas or vultures. My sublime neighbor's face had something about it that might have appealed to the eye, had it been only leonine or only Iroquoian; but unfortunately, by combining the two it merely reminded one of a fleshy Hogarthian tippler of indeterminate sex. His misshapen body, that gray mop of abundant hair, the yellow nails of his pudgy fingers, the bags under his lusterless eyes, were only intelligible if regarded as the waste products eliminated from his intrinsic self by the same forces of perfection which purifed and chiseled his verse. He was his own cancellation.

I have one favorite photograph of him. In this color snapshot taken by a onetime friend of mine, on a brilliant spring day, Shade is seen leaning on a sturdy cane that had belonged to his aunt Maud (see line 86). I am wearing a white windbreaker acquired in a local sports shop and a pair of lilac slacks hailing from Cannes. My left hand is half raised - not to pat Shade on the shoulder as seems to be the intention, but to remove my sunglasses which, however, it never reached in that life, the life of the picture; and the library book under my right arm is a treatise on certain Zemblan calisthenics in which I proposed to interest that young roomer of mine who snapped the picture. A week later he was to betray my trust by taking sordid advantage of my absence on a trip to Washington whence I returned to find he had been entertaining a fiery-haired whore from Exton who had left her combings and reek in all three bathrooms. Naturally we separated at once, and through a chink in the window curtains I saw bad Bob standing rather pathetically, with his crewcut, and shabby valise, and the skis I had given him, all forlorn on the roadside, waiting for a fellow student to drive him away forever. I can forgive everything save treason.

 

Kinbote’s favorite photograph of Shade brings to mind a million photographers mentioned by Kinbote at the end of his Commentary:

 

"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 two other 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 principals: 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)