Dear Carolyn,
I have found the further evidence I alluded to a short while ago, in response to your question, of VN's high opinion of Shade and his poem. It is given by Brian Boyd (16 December 2005) in response to my questions, and can be found in the archives. Here it is:
<< [...] That the quality of the poem was as high as Nabokov could achieve seems to be confirmed by every recorded comment he made about it:

"I should have written you sooner but I had an intense period of inspiration that I badly needed for a long poem (part of my new novel) and kept imbibing it while it lasted for hours on end" (to Edmund Wilson, 27 Feb 1961, Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya).

Nabokov could have "badly needed" inspiration even to parody ineptitude or limitation, but he would surely have needed it even more to attain excellence in a language not his own. His gratitude seems to point toward the second reading.

In reply to some questions Andrew Field sent while preparing Nabokov: His Life in Art, Véra Nabokov answered  on 11 December 1965, quoting VN directly:

" 'To be quite frank, Shade's poem is a rather good Nabokov poem, and the allusion to Frost is incidental and meant only to give local color.' We read somewhere in a review that the poem was mediocre, obscure and a parody of something or other. Sources: A pinch of Pope perhaps, as form goes. My husband admits that apart from the poem about the little horse in the wintry woods, he has not read much Frost."

Clearly V and V were surprised and amused to read that "the poem was mediocre, obscure and a parody." And the comment about Frost may be set
against Abe Socher's claim to a source for the opening of "Pale Fire" in Frost's poem "Of a Winter Evening" (<>

Just after completing the poem in February 1961, Nabokov drafted a letter to the New Yorker, asking if they would be prepared to publish the whole of the "Pale Fire" poem in a single issue. It would have been a strange move to ask them to publish a poem by an invented poet that he thought was artistically flawed and indeed as we know he would later call Shade "by far the greatest of invented poets" (SO 59). Since he had taken the trouble to compose fine poems for his invented Vasily Shishkov (which would be hailed as masterpieces by his critical foe Georgy Adamovich) this is no mean claim.

When the magazine Show asked Nabokov a few months later in 1961 if he had anything they could publish, Véra answered, offering "Pale Fire":

"The poem has 999 lines, consists of four cantos, and, while it contains the essence of the poet's life story, presents also his philosophy and its history. The last [1000th] line was never written because the poet was killed after the 999th" (VéN to Richard Schickel, 18 May 1961).

This would seem to address the concern of Anthony Stadlen (Nabokv-L, 10 Dec 2005, asking of me: "But how does he know that 'we return to the
first line'  Why should we accept Kinbote's assertion? How, even, do we know that there would have been only one more line?"). Nabokov had also
noted in his draft letter to the New Yorker: "this long poem which its (invented) author the American poet John Shade did not quite complete (when he died before writing the last[,] one thousandth[,] line)." Nabokov at least intended that Shade intended just one more line, but never wrote it. It would presumably have rhymed with "lane"  in 999. Since Shade particularly liked "the consonne d'appui," it may have ended with the "l" of "lane," as well as the rest of the syllable, as in "slain," the first line of the poem. But we do not and cannot know. [...]. >>
Best wishes,
Anthony Stadlen

Search the Nabokv-L archive with Google

Contact the Editors

All private editorial communications, without exception, are read by both co-editors.

Visit Zembla

View Nabokv-L Policies