waxwing & Cedarn in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 08/02/2022 - 07:14

At the beginning of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) compares himself to the shadow of the waxwing:


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. (1-4)


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


Shadows, the, a regicidal organization which commissioned Gradus (q. v.) to assassinate the self-banished king; its leader's terrible name cannot be mentioned, even in the Index to the obscure work of a scholar; his maternal grandfather, a well-known and very courageous master builder, was hired by Thurgus the Turgid, around 1885, to make certain repairs in his quarters, and soon after that perished, poisoned in the royal kitchens, under mysterious circumstances, together with his three young apprentices whose first names Yan, Yonny, and Angeling, are preserved in a ballad still to be heard in some of our wilder valleys.


Waxwings, birds of the genus Bombycilla, 1-4, 131, 1000; Bombycilla shadei, 71; interesting association belatedly realized.


According to Kinbote, he writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade’s poem in Cedarn, Utana:


Shade's poem is, indeed, that sudden flourish of magic: my gray-haired friend, my beloved old conjurer, put a pack of index cards into his hat – and shook out a poem.

To this poem we now must turn. My Foreword has been, I trust, not too skimpy. Other notes, arranged in a running commentary, will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader. Although those notes, in conformity with custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through its text, and perhaps, after having done with the poem, consulting them a third time so as to complete the picture. I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and-forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table - not like the shaky little affair on which my typewriter is precariously enthroned now, in this wretched motor lodge, with that carrousel inside and outside my head, miles away from New Wye. Let me state that without my notes Shade's text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.

CHARLES KINBOTE Oct. 19, 1959, Cedarn, Utana (Foreword)


The cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is a member of the family Bombycillidae or waxwing family of passerine birds. The genus name Bombycilla comes from the Ancient Greek bombux, "silk" and the Modern Latin cilla, "tail"; this is a direct translation of the German Seidenschwanz, "silk-tail", and refers to the silky-soft plumage of these birds. The specific cedrorum is Latin for "of the cedars."


In his poem S chuzhoy storony (“From the Foreign Country,” 1823-24), a Russian version of Heine’s poem Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam (“A fir tree is standing lonely”), Tyutchev renders Fichtenbaum (fir tree; the Russian word for “fir,” el', is feminine) as kedr (cedar):


На севере мрачном, на дикой скале
Кедр одинокий под снегом белеет,
И сладко заснул он в инистой мгле,
И сон его вьюга лелеет.


Про юную пальму всё снится ему,
Что в дальных пределах Востока,
Под пламенным небом, на знойном холму
Стоит и цветет, одинока...


In the last stanza of his poem Vesennyaya groza (“The Spring Thunderstorm,” 1829) Tyutchev, the author of Teni sizye smesilis' ("The gray shadows have commingled," 1836), mentions vetrenaya Geba (frivolous Hebe) who spilled on Earth her gromokipyashchiy kubok (thunder-boiling cup):


Ты скажешь: ветреная Геба,
Кормя Зевесова орла,
Громокипящий кубок с неба,
Смеясь, на землю пролила.


You’d say: capricious Hebe,
feeding Zeus’ eagle,
had spilled on Earth, laughing,
a thunder-boiling cup.


In Canto Four of his poem Shade says that his third collection of poetry was entitled Hebe’s Cup:


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 Commentary Kinbote quotes Shade’s poem The Sacred Tree from his collection Hebe's Cup:


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. (note to Line 49)


Ginkgo Biloba is a poem by J. W. Goethe from "The West-Eastern Divan" (1815):


Dieses Baums Blatt, der von Osten
Meinem Garten anvertraut,
Gibt geheimen Sinn zu kosten,
Wie's den Wissenden erbaut.

Ist es Ein lebendig Wesen,
Das sich in sich selbst getrennt?
Sind es zwei, die sich erlesen,
Daß man sie als Eines kennt?

Solche Frage zu erwidern,
Fand ich wohl den rechten Sinn,
Fühlst du nicht an meinen Liedern,
Daß ich Eins und doppelt bin?


This leaf from a tree in the East,
Has been given to my garden.
It reveals a certain secret,
Which pleases me and thoughtful people.

Does it represent One living creature
Which has divided itself?
Or are these Two, which have decided,
That they should be as One?

To reply to such a Question,
I found the right answer:
Do you notice in my songs and verses
That I am One and Two?


The first two lines of Goethe’s ballad Der Erlkönig (1782), Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? / Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind… (Who rides so late through the night and wind? / It is the father with his child), are a leitmotif in Canto Three of Shade’s poem. Goethe’s Erlkönig was set to music by Franz Schubert, the author of Der Doppelgänger (a song that sets words by Heine for piano and tenor voice):


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 Schmerzensgewalt;
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 quiet, the streets are calm,
In this house my beloved once lived:
She has long since left the town,
But the house still stands, here in the same place.

A man stands there also and looks to the sky,
And wrings his hands, overwhelmed by pain:
I am terrified – when I see his face,
The moon shows me my own form!

O you Doppelgänger! you pale comrade!
Why do you ape the pain of my love
Which tormented me upon this spot
So many a night, so long ago?


Shade’s murderer, Gradus is Kinbote’s Doppelgänger. Shade’s birthday, July 5 is also Kinbote’s and Gradus’s birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). According to Kinbote, Gradus left Onhava (the capital of Zembla) on July 5, 1959 (the day on which Shade began Canto Two of his poem):


The image in these opening lines evidently refers to a bird knocking itself out, in full flight, against the outer surface of a glass pane in which a mirrored sky, with its slightly darker tint and slightly slower cloud, presents the illusion of continued space. We can visualize John Shade in his early boyhood, a physically unattractive but otherwise beautifully developed lad, experiencing his first eschatological shock, as with incredulous fingers he picks up from the turf that compact ovoid body and gazes at the wax-red streaks ornamenting those gray-brown wings and at the graceful tail feathers tipped with yellow as bright as fresh paint. When in the last year of Shade's life I had the fortune of being his neighbor in the idyllic hills of New Wye (see Foreword), I often saw those particular birds most convivially feeding on the chalk-blue berries of junipers growing at the corner of his house. (See also lines 181-182.)

My knowledge of garden Aves had been limited to those of northern Europe but a young New Wye gardener, in whom I was interested (see note to line 998), helped me to identify the profiles of quite a number of tropical-looking little strangers and their comical calls; and, naturally, every tree top plotted its dotted line toward the ornithological work on my desk to which I would gallop from the lawn in nomenclatorial agitation. How hard I found to fit the name "robin" to the suburban impostor, the gross fowl, with its untidy dull-red livery and the revolting gusto it showed when consuming long, sad, passive worms!

Incidentally, it is curious to note that a crested bird called in Zemblan sampel ("silktail"), closely resembling a waxwing in shape and shade, is the model of one of the three heraldic creatures (the other two being respectively a reindeer proper and a merman azure, crined or) in the armorial bearings of the Zemblan King, Charles the Beloved (born 1915), whose glorious misfortunes I discussed so often with my friend.

The poem was begun at the dead center of the year, a few minutes after midnight July 1, while I played chess with a young Iranian enrolled in our summer school; and I do not doubt that our poet would have understood his annotator's temptation to synchronize a certain fateful fact, the departure from Zembla of the would-be regicide Gradus, with that date. Actually, Gradus left Onhava on the Copenhagen plane on July 5. (note to Lines 1-4)


A crested bird that closely resembles a waxwing in shape and shade, sampel ("silktail") combines Samt (Germ., velvet) with Ampel (Germ., traffic lights) and dupel' (Russ., great snipe), a bird well-known to hunters. Dupel' comes from Doppelschnepfe (the bird's German name). In a letter of June 2 (14), 1855, to Sergey Aksakov (a passionate hunter) Ivan Turgenev (the author of "The Notes of a Hunter," 1851, who brings to mind the king Thurgus the Turgid) says that he was away hunting vesennikh dupeley (vernal great snipes) and mentions Grigorovich, Botkin and Druzhinin (who were Turgenev's guests at Spasskoe, the writer's estate in the Province of Oryol):


Раз десять собирался я к Вам писать, любезный и почтенный Сергей Тимофеевич, но у меня полон был дом гостями, которые разъехались только вчера, прожив три недели - и я не имел минуты свободного времени. Ваше письмо, полученное мною на днях, заставило меня покраснеть - мне стало стыдно своей лени, и я поспешил взяться за перо. - Гостили у меня Григорович, Боткин и Дружинин; мы проводили время очень весело - разыграли на доморощенном театре доморощенный же фарс и т. д. и т. д. Теперь опять в доме всё пусто - и я не прочь отдохнуть. Я должен, однако, Вам отдать отчет в своих охотничьих похождениях. Я приехал сюда 12-го апреля - и, к изумлению, не застал уже ни одного вальдшнепа - они уже протекли - в нынешнем году всё делается двумя неделями раньше обыкновенного - и реки прошли в половине марта, наделав много разорения и убытков. 18-го апреля я отправился на весенних дупелей и бекасов на берега Десны, в 200-х верстах отсюда. Дупелей и бекасов мы уже застали на яйцах, однако еще были точки - и охота вышла недурная. В 5 полей мы на 4 ружья убили 220 штук. На мою долю пришлось 52. Я стрелял довольно плохо, зато собака моя меня порадовала. Время стояло превосходное - и я вполне насладился весною. В одном из моих полей - я убил странную птицу: помесь курочки и коростеля. Рост ее и весь склад был коростелиный - перья на спине, как у него; перья на груди, животе и боках - как у курочки, нос весь красный и длиннее и острей, чем у коростеля. К сожалению, чучелы я не мог сохранить. - Я до сих пор вовсе не знал, как кошка ловит рыбу - и даже всегда удивлялся, отчего она так до нее жадна - теперь это мне понятно. Век живи - век учись. Мне очень приятно, что гр. Соллогуб доставил Вам наконец "Постоялый двор" - и еще приятнее, что это заставило Вас вспомнить обо мне и написать ко мне; считаю излишним говорить Вам, как Ваше одобрение и память Ваша обо мне - мне дороги.

Я пока ничего не делаю, но собираюсь приняться снова за свой роман [Rudin] и переделать его с основанья. - Здоровье мое порядочно...


Domoroshchennyi fars (the home-made farce) mentioned by Turgenev in his letter to Aksakov is Shkola gostepriimstva ("The School of Hospitality"),  Grigorovich's play mentioned by Fyodor in Chapter Four ("The Life of Chernyshevski") of VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937):


Такие средства познания, как диалектический материализм, необыкновенно напоминают недобросовестные рекламы патентованных снадобий, врачующих сразу все болезни. Случается все же, что такое средство помогает при насморке. Есть, есть классовый душок в отношении к Чернышевскому русских писателей, современных ему. Тургенев, Григорович, Толстой называли его "клоповоняющим господином", всячески между собой над ним измываясь. Как то в Спасском первые двое, вместе с Боткиным и Дружининым, сочинили и разыграли домашний фарс. В сцене, где горит постель, врывался Тургенев с криком... общими дружескими усилиями его уговорили произнести приписываемые ему слова, которыми в молодости он однажды будто бы обмолвился во время пожара на корабле: "Спасите, спасите, я единственный сын у матери". Из этого фарса вполне бездарный Григорович впоследствии сделал свою (вполне плоскую) "Школу гостеприимства", наделив одно из лиц, желчного литератора Чернушина, чертами Николая Гавриловича: кротовые глаза, смотревшие как то вбок, узкие губы, приплюснутое, скомканное лицо, рыжеватые волосы, взбитые на левом виске и эвфемический запас пережженного рома. Любопытно, что пресловутый взвизг ("Спасите" и т. д.) дан как раз Чернушину, чем поощряется мысль Страннолюбского о какой то мистической связи между Чернышевским и Тургеневым. "Я прочел его отвратительную книгу (диссертацию), -- пишет последний в письме к товарищам по насмешке. -- Рака! Рака! Рака! Вы знаете, что ужаснее этого еврейского проклятия нет ничего на свете". "Из этого "рака", суеверно замечает биограф, получился семь лет спустя Ракеев (жандармский полковник, арестовавший проклятого), а самое письмо было Тургеневым написано как раз 12-го июля в день рождения Чернышевского"... (нам кажется, что Страннолюбский перебарщивает).

В тот же год появился "Рудин", но напал на него Чернышевский (за карикатурное изображение Бакунина) только в 60 году, когда Тургенев уже был ненужен "Современнику", который он покинул из-за добролюбовского змеиного шипка на "Накануне". Толстой не выносил нашего героя: "Его так и слышишь, -- писал он о нем, -- тоненький неприятный голосок, говорящий тупые неприятности... и возмущается в своем уголке, покуда никто не сказал цыц и не посмотрел в глаза". "Аристократы становились грубыми хамами, -- замечает по этому поводу Стеклов, -- когда заговаривали с нисшими или о нисших по общественному положению". "Нисший", впрочем, не оставался в долгу и, зная, как Тургеневу дорого всякое словечко против Толстого, щедро говорил о "пошлости и хвастовстве" последнего, "хвастовстве бестолкового павлина своим хвостом, не прикрывающим его пошлой задницы" и т. д. "Вы не какой-нибудь Островский или Толстой, -- добавлял Николай Гаврилович, -- вы наша честь" (а "Рудин" уже вышел, -- два года как вышел).


Such methods of knowledge as dialectical materialism curiously resemble the unscrupulous advertisements for patent medicines, which cure all illnesses at once. Still, such an expedient can occasionally help with a cold. There was quite definitively a smack of class arrogance about the attitudes of contemporary wellborn writers toward plebeian Chernyshevski. Turgenev, Grigorovich and Tolstoy called him “the bedbugstinking gentleman” and among themselves jeered at him in all kinds of ways. Once at Turgenev’s country place, the first two, together with Botkin and Druzhinin, composed and acted a domestic farce. In a scene where a couch was supposed to catch fire, Turgenev had to come out running with the cry… here the common efforts of his friends had persuaded him to utter the unfortunate words which in his youth he had allegedly addressed to a sailor during a fire on board ship: “Save me, save me, I am my mother’s only son.” Out of this farce the utterly talentless Grigorovich subsequently concocted his completely mediocre School of Hospitality, where he endowed one of the characters, the splenetic writer Chernushin, with the features of Nikolay Gavrilovich: mole’s eyes looking oddly askance, thin lips, a flattened, crumpled face, gingery hair fluffed up on the left temple and a euphemistic stench of burnt rum. It is curious that the notorious wail (“Save me,” etc.) is attributed here to Chernushin, which gives color to Strannolyubski’s idea that there was a kind of mystic link between Turgenev and Chernyshevski. “I have read his disgusting book [the dissertation]” writes the former in a letter to his fellow mockers. “Raca! Raca! Raca! You know that there is nothing in the world more terrible than this Jewish curse.”

“This ‘raca’ or ‘raka,’ ” remarks the biographer superstitiously, “resulted seven years later in Rakeev (the police colonel who arrested the anathematized man), and the letter itself had been written by Turgenev on precisely the 12th of July, Chernyshevski’s birthday …” (it seems to us that Strannolyubski is stretching it a bit).

That same year Turgenev’s Rudin appeared, but Chernyshevski attacked it (for its caricature of Bakunin) only in 1860, when Turgenev was no longer necessary to The Contemporary, which he had left as a result of Dobrolyubov’s directing a snake hiss at his “On the Eve.” Tolstoy could not tolerate our hero: “One keeps hearing him,” he wrote, “hearing that thin, nasty little voice of his saying obtuse, nasty things… as he keeps waxing indignant in his corner until someone says ‘shut up’ and looks him in the eye.” “The aristocrats turned into coarse ruffians,” remarks Steklov in this connection, “when they talked with inferiors or about people who were inferior to them socially.” “The inferior,” however, did not remain in debt; knowing how much Turgenev prized every word spoken against Tolstoy, Chernyshevski, in the fifties, freely enlarged upon Tolstoy’s poshlost (vulgarity) and hvastovstvo (bragging)—“the bragging of a thickheaded peacock about a tail which doesn’t even cover his vulgar bottom,” etc. “You are not some Ostrovski or some Tolstoy,” added Nikolay Gavrilovich, “you are an honor to us” (and Rudin was already out—had been out for two years).


Chapter Four of the "The Gift" begins and ends with a sonnet. Shade’s poem consists of 999 lines and 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.”


The poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer 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’s “real” name). Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope 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. Btw., Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword to Shade's poem not in "Cedarn, Utana," but in a madhouse near Quebec (in the same sanatorium where Humbert Humbert, the narrator and main character in VN's novel Lolita, 1955, writes his poem "Wanted").


ginkgo + grape + hybrid = king + geography + bird