In his Commentary to Shade’s poem Kinbote (one of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions the black cat that appeared on the threshold of the music room:


The Goldsworth château had many outside doors, and no matter how thoroughly I inspected them and the window shutters downstairs at bedtime, I never failed to discover next morning something unlocked, unlatched, a little loose, a little ajar, something sly and suspicious-looking. One night the black cat, which a few minutes before I had seen rippling down into the basement where I had arranged toilet facilities for it in an attractive setting, suddenly reappeared on the threshold of the music room, in the middle of my insomnia and a Wagner record, arching its back and sporting a neck bow of white silk which it could certainly never have put on all by itself. (note to Line 62)


Kinbote believes that this is his landlord’s cat that came with the house. Actually, it is a different animal altogether (some neighbor’s cat). In E. A. Poe’s story The Black Cat (1945) the name of the first black cat is Pluto. In classical mythology Pluto is the ruler of the underworld. In his poem Prozerpina (“Proserpine,” 1824) Pushkin mentions koni blednogo Plutona (pale Pluto’s horses):


Плещут волны Флегетона,
Своды Тартара дрожат,
Кони бледного Плутона
Быстро к нимфам Пелиона
Из аида бога мчат.


The waves of the Phlegethon splash,
The vaults of Tartarus tremble,
Pale Pluto’s horses
Quickly to the nymphs of Pelion
Rush the god from Hades.


In a letter of September 10, 1824, to Pushkin Delvig (Pushkin’s best friend at the Lyceum) says that Pushkin’s poem “Proserpine” is pure music:


Милый Пушкин, письмо твоё и «Прозерпину» я получил и тоже в день получения благодарю тебя за них. «Прозерпина» не стихи, а музыка: это пенье райской птички, которое слушая, не увидишь, как пройдёт тысяча лет. Эти двери давно мне знакомы. Сквозь них, ещё в Лицее, меня [иногда] часто выталкивали из Элизея. Какая искусная щеголиха у тебя истина. Подобных цветов мороз не тронет!


Delvig compares Pushkin’s poem to a bird of paradise’s singing that one can listen for a thousand years without noticing the passage of time.


In his great introductory poem to the second edition (1828) of Ruslan and Lyudmila Pushkin mentions kot uchyonyi (the learned cat) that walks to and fro along a golden chain around a green oak. According to Kinbote, kot or is Zemblan for “what is the time:”


What is the time, kot or? He pressed his repeater and, undismayed, it hissed and tinkled out ten twenty-one. (note to Line 149)


Kot or hints at kotoryi chas (“what is the time” in Russian). In Mandelshtam’s poem Net, ne luna, a svetlyi tsiferblat… (“No, not the moon, but a clock’s dial lit brightly…” 1912) mad Batyushkov to the question kotoryi chas replies vechnost’ (Eternity):


Нет, не луна, а светлый циферблат
Сияет мне, — и чем я виноват,
Что слабых звёзд я осязаю млечность?


И Батюшкова мне противна спесь:
Который час, его спросили здесь,
А он ответил любопытным: вечность!


No, not the moon, but a clock's dial lit brightly
Shines upon me; must the blame be mine to bear
If I detect the weakest stars' lacticity?

Thus, Batyushkov's airs cannot fail to rile me:
"What is the time, please, Sir?" they asked him here,
And he replied to the curious: Eternity!

(transl. Ph. Nikolayev)


Mandelshtam is the author of Valkirii (“Valkyrie,” 1916):


Летают Валкирии, поют смычки —
Громоздкая опера к концу идёт.
С тяжёлыми шубами гайдуки
На мраморных лестницах ждут господ.

Уж занавес наглухо упасть готов,
Ещё рукоплещет в райке глупец,
Извозчики пляшут вокруг костров…
«Карету такого-то!» — Разъезд. Конец.


The violins call and the valkyries fly

as the opera lumbers to a close.

On the marble stairs, the footmen mark time,

clutching their ladies’ and lords’ fur-coats.


Up in the gods, some fool claps on

as the curtain falls without a sound.

Cabmen do jigs about their bonfires.

‘So-and-so’s coach!’ They’re off. The End.

(transl. Alistair Noon)


Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”) is the second opera from Richard Wagner’s cycle of four music dramas Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung,” 1876).


In the first stanza of his poem Kogda Psikheya-zhizn’ spuskaetsya k tenyam… (“When Psyche-Life goes down to the shades…” 1920) Mandelshtam mentions shades, Persephone (Proserpine’s Greek name) and slepaya lastochka (a blind swallow):


Когда Психея-жизнь спускается к теням
В полупрозрачный лес, вослед за Персефоной,
Слепая ласточка бросается к ногам
С стигийской нежностью и веткою зелёной.


When Psyche-Life goes down to the shades,

In the semitransparent forest, after Persephone,

a blind swallow, with Stygian tenderness

and a green twig, hurls itself at her feet.


According to Kinbote, Sybil Shade’s maiden name comes from hirondelle (Fr., swallow):


John Shade's wife, née Irondell (which comes not from a little valley yielding iron ore but from the French for "swallow"). She was a few months his senior. I understand she came of Canadian stock, as did Shade's maternal grandmother (a first cousin of Sybil's grandfather, if I am not greatly mistaken). (note to Line 247)


Actually, Sybil Shade’s “real” name seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin). Btw., Sofia was the name of Delvig’s wife (born Saltykov).


Mandelshtam’s poem Silentium (1910) ends in the lines:


Останься пеной, Афродита,
И слово в музыку вернись,
И сердце сердца устыдись,
С первоосновой жизни слито!


Remain as foam, O, Aphrodite,
And let no word from music part,
Let heart become ashamed of heart,
With origins of life fused tightly!

(transl. Andrey Kneller)


Silentium! (1830) is a famous poem by Tyutchev. In the last stanza of his poem Vesennyaya groza (“The Spring Thunderstorm,” 1828) Tyutchev mentions frivolous Hebe spilling on Earth her thunder-boiling cup. Hebe’s Cup is the title of Shade’s third book of verse:


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. 957-952)


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!


After the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade’s “real” name that means in Russian “Hope”) Professor Vsevolod Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent) went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus (Shade’s murderer). There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on October 19, 1959, the Lyceum anniversary), Botkin will be “full” again.


Delvig died on January 14, 1831 (on the anniversary of fictional Lenski’s death). In a letter of January 31, 1831, to Pletnyov Pushkin says that the three of us (Pushkin, Baratynski and Pletnyov) should write Delvig’s life bogatuyu nadezhdami (rich in hopes):


Я хорошо знаю, одним словом, его первую молодость; но ты и Баратынский знаете лучше его раннюю зрелость. Вы были свидетелями возмужалости его души. Напишем же втроем жизнь нашего друга, жизнь, богатую не романическими приключениями, но прекрасными чувствами, светлым чистым разумом и надеждами.


In a letter of April 11, 1831, to Pletnyov Pushkin calls Pletnyov ten’ vozlyublennaya (the beloved shade):


Воля твоя, ты несносен: ни строчки от тебя не дождёшься. Умер ты, что ли? Если тебя уже нет на свете, то, тень возлюбленная, кланяйся от меня Державину и обними моего Дельвига.


Shade’s mad Commentator, Kinbote imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla (a distant northern land).


Alexey Sklyarenko

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