sourcedoc: === === === CHARLES KINBOTE'S NOTES ON THE POEM "PALE FIRE," BY JOHN SHADE

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=== === === CHARLES KINBOTE'S NOTES ON THE POEM "PALE FIRE," BY JOHN SHADE

=== Lines 1-4: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain, etc.

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 ...

=== Line 12: that crystal land

Perhaps an allusion to Zembla, my dear country. After this, in the

disjointed, half-obliterated draft which I am not at all sure I have

deciphered properly:

     Ah, I must not forget to say something

     That my friend told me of a certain king.

...

That King’s reign (1936-1958) will be remembered by at least a few

discerning historians as a peaceful and elegant one. Owing to a fluid

system of judicious alliances, Mars in his time never marred the record.

Internally, until corruption, betrayal, and Extremism penetrated it, the

People’s Place (parliament) worked in perfect harmony with the Royal

Council. Harmony, indeed, was the reign’s password. The polite arts and

pure sciences flourished. Technicology, applied physics, industrial

chemistry and so forth were suffered to thrive. ...

====

Line 17: And then the gradual; Line 29: gray

By an extraordinary coincidence (inherent perhaps in the contrapuntal

nature of Shade’s art) our poet seems to name here (gradual, gray) a man,

whom he was to see for one fatal moment three weeks later, but of whose

existence at the time (July 2) he could not have known. ... We shall

accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim

Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem,

following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around

the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the

foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between

two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new

canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving

up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off,

boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out

the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet

lays down his pen for the night.

===

Line 27: Sherlock Holmes

A hawk-nosed, lanky, rather likable private detective, the main character

in various stories by Conan Doyle. I have no means to ascertain at the

present time which of these is referred here but I suspect that our poet

simply made up this Case of the Reversed Footprints.

===

Lines 34-35: Stilettos of a frozen stillicide

How persistently our poet evokes images of winter in the beginning of a

poem which he started composing on a balmy summer night! The mechanism of

the associations is easy to make out (glass leading to crystal and crystal

to ice) but the prompter behind it retains his incognito. One is too

modest to suppose that the fact that the poet and his future commentator

first met on a winter day somehow impinges here on the actual season. ...

===

Lines 39-40: Was close my eyes, etc.

These lines are represented in the drafts by a variant reading:

     39 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and home would haste my

thieves,

     40 The sun with stolen ice, the moon with leaves

One cannot help recalling a passage in Timon of Athens (Act IV, Scene 3)

where the misanthrope talks to the three marauders. Having no library in

the desolate log cabin where I live like Timon is his cave, I am compelled

for the purpose of quick citation to retranslate this passage into English

prose from a Zemblan poetical version of Timon which, I hope, sufficiently

approximates the text, or is at least faithful to its spirit ...

===

Line 42: I could make out

By the end of May I could make out the outlines of some of my images in the

shape his genius might give them; by mid-June I felt sure at last that he

would recreate in a poem the dazzling Zembla burning in my brain. I

mesmerized him with it, I saturated him with my vision, I pressed upon him,

with a drunkard’s wild generosity, all that I was helpless myself to put

into verse. ...

Although I realize only too clearly, alas, that the result, in its pale and

diaphanous final phase, cannot be regarded as a direct echo of my narrative

...

... of my discourse on Zembla and her unfortunate king.

===

Lines 47-48: the frame house between Goldsworth and Wordsmith

The first name refers to the house in Dulwich Road that I rented from Hugh

Warren Goldsworth, authority on Roman Law and distinguished judge. ...

Judge Goldsworth had a wife and four daughters. Family photographs met me

in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure

that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change

from horribly cute little school-girls to smart young ladies and superior

mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an

extent that finally I gather them one by one and dumped them all in a

closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes.

...

===

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 her (from a

letter I received on April 6, 1959, from southern France):

     THE SACRED TREE

     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.

====

Line 57: The phantom of my little daughter’s swing

After this Shade crossed out lightly the following lines in the draft:

     The light is good; the reading lamps, long-necked;

     All doors have keys. Your modern architect

     Is in collusion with psychanalysts:

     When planning parent’s bedrooms, he insists

     On lockless doors so that, when looking back,

     The future patient of the future quack

     May find, all set for him, the Primal Scene.

===

Line 61: TV’s huge paperclip

In the otherwise empty, and pretty fatuous, obituary mentioned in my notes

to lines 71-72, there happens to be quoted a manuscript poem (received from

Sybil Shade) which is said to have been “composed by our poet apparently at

the end of June, thus less than a month before our poet’s death, thus being

the last short piece that our poet wrote.”

Here it is:

     THE SWING

     The setting sun that lights the tips

     Of TV’s giant paperclips

     Upon the roof;

===

Line 62: often

Often, almost nightly, throughout the spring of 1959, I had feared for my

life. Solitude is the playfield of Satan. I cannot describe the depths of

my loneliness and distress. There was naturally my famous neighbor just

across he lane, and at one time I took in a dissipated young roomer (who

generally came home long after midnight). Yet I wish to stress that cold

hard core of loneliness which is not good for a displaced soul. Everybody

knows how given to regicide Zemblans are: two Queens, three Kings, and

fourteen Pretenders died violent deaths, strangled, stabbed, poisoned, and

drowned, the course of only one century (1700-1800). The Goldsworth castle

became particularly solitary after that turning point at dusk which

resembles so much the nightfall of the mind. Stealthy rustles, the

footsteps of yesteryear leaves, an idle breeze, a dog touring the garbage

cans—everything sounded to me like a bloodthirsty prowler. ...

===

Line 70: The new TV

After this, in the draft (dated July 3), come a few unnumbered lines that

may have been intended for some later parts of the poem. They are not

actually deleted but are accompanied by a question mark in the margin and

encircled with a wavy line encroaching upon some of the letters:

     There are events, strange happenings, that strike

     The mind as emblematic. They are like

     Lost similes adrift without a string,

     Attached to nothing. Thus that northern king,

     Whose desperate escape from prison was

     Brought off successfully only because

     Some forty of his followers that night

     Impersonated him and aped his flight—

He never would have reached the western coast had not a fad spread among

his secret supporters, romantic, heroic daredevils, of impersonating the

fleeing king. They rigged themselves out to look like him in red sweaters

and red caps, and popped up here and there, completely bewildering the

revolutionary police. Some of the pranksters were much younger than the

King, but this did not matter ...

===

Line 71: parents

With commendable alacrity, Professor Hurley produced an Appreciation of

John Shade’s published works within a month after the poet’s death. It

came out in a skimpy literary review, whose name momentarily escapes me,

and was shown to me in Chicago where I interrupted for a couple of days my

automobile journey from New Wye to Cedarn, in these grim autumnal mountains.

A Commentary where placid scholarship should reign is not the place for

blasting the preposterous defects of that little obituary. ...

===

Line 79: a preterist

Written against this in the margin of the draft are two lines of which only

the first can be deciphered. It reads:

     The evening is the time to praise the day

I feel pretty sure that my friend was trying to incorporate here something

he and Mrs. Shade had heard me quote in my lighter-hearted moments, namely

a charming quatrain from our Zemblan counterpart of the Elder Edda, in an

anonymous English translation (Kirby’s?):

     The wise at nightfall praise the day,

===

Line 80: my bedroom

Our Prince was fond of Fleur as of a sister but with no soft shadow of

incest or secondary homosexual complications. She had a small pale face

with prominent cheekbones, luminous eyes, and curly dark hair. It was

rumored that after going about with a porcelain cup and Cinderella’s

slipper for months, the society sculptor and poet Arnor had found in her

what he sought and had used her breasts and feet for his Lilith Calling

Back Adam; but I am certainly no expert in these tender matters. Otar, her

lover, said that when you walked behind her, and she knew you were walking

behind her, the swing and play of those slim haunches was something

intensely artistic ...

===

Line 85: Who’d seen the Pope

Pius X, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, 1835-1914; Pope 1903-1914.

===

Lines 86-90: Aunt Maud

Maud Shade, 1869-1950, Samuel Shade’s sister. At her death, Hazel (born

1934) was not exactly a “babe” as implied in line 90. I found her

paintings unpleasant but interesting. Aunt Maud was far from spinsterish,

and the extravagant and sardonic turn of her mind must have shocked

sometimes the genteel dames of New Wye.

===

Lines 90-93: Her room, etc.

In the draft, instead of the final text:

     ……………………….her room

     We’ve kept intact. Her trivia for us

     Retrace her style: the leaf sarcophagus

     (A Luna’s dead and shriveled-up cocoon)

===

Line 91: trivia

Among these was a scrapbook in which over a period of years (1937-1949)

Aunt Maud had been pasting clippings of an involuntarily ludicrous or

grotesque nature. John Shade allowed me one day to memorandum the first

and the last of the series; they happened to intercommunicate most

pleasingly, I thought. Both stemmed from the same family magazine Life, so

justly famed for its pudibundity in regard to the mysteries of the male

sex; hence one can well imagine how startled or titillated those families

were. The first comes from the issue of May 10, 1937, p. 67, and

advertises the Talon Trouser Fastener (a rather grasping and painful name,

by the way). ...

====

Line 92: the paperweight

The image of those old-fashioned horrors strangely haunted our poet. I

have clipped from a newspaper that recently reprinted it an old poem of his

where the souvenir shop also preserves a landscape admired by the tourist:

     MOUNTAIN VIEW

     Between the mountain and the eye

     The spirit of the distance draws

     A veil of blue amorous gauze,

     The very texture of the sky.

===Line 98: On Chapman’s Homer

A reference to the title of Keats’ famous sonnet (often quoted in America)

which owing to a printer’s absentmindedness, has been drolly transposed,

from some other article, into the account of a sports event. For other

vivid misprints see note to line 802.

===

Line 101: No free man needs a God

When one considers the numberless thinkers and poets in the history of

human creativity whose freedom of mind was enhanced rather than stunted by

Faith, one is bound to question the wisdom of this easy aphorism (see also

note to line 549).

=30=

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