20 June 2014
Bird Images in Canto One of “Pale Fire”
and Mysticism Poetics
Fire” is a poem consisting of four Cantos, and also a part of bigger book Pale Fire (1962), which is a novel
written by Vladimir Nabokov the author of Lolita
(1955). This novel is completely delivered by an imaginary voice of Charles
Kinbote, who is a literary critic and at the same time a neighbor of a poet
John Shade. John Shade is a main character who is told to be an exile from the
northern kingdom of Zembla, and who is the writer of the poem in the novel.
poem is written in heroic couplet, of 999 lines divided into four Cantos—and
supposed 1000th line is identical to the first. In this
retrospective work, John Shade writes on his life and his ambitious life-long
pursuit towards “survival after death” (Canto Two, line 169), which
he delusively thinks everyone but he knows and others conspire to hide from
Canto One (lines 1-166) is about his early life before he knows of the survival
after death. Here appear numerous examples of symbol of bird, which attracted
my attention. Traditionally in western literature, bird, especially nightingale
represents an image of melancholy poets, especially in Romantic era. This is well shown in
John Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to a
Skylark”, that “a poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer
its own solitude with sweet sounds. (Shelley)”
himself intends ‘pure literature’, relatively indifferent to participations
towards social problems or questioning moral or ethical problems existing, as he
says “a work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important
to the individual.”
His Lolita was of this perspective,
and so is Pale Fire. Closely reading
the Canto One of “Pale Fire”, I hope, would give a more specified view of his
on art and literature. It will be carried through the variations of symbolism
of bird in this Canto. In this paper I would like to analyse these symbols in
aspect of art composing.
Form and Meter
Fire” is composed in heroic couplet, in iambic pentameter. This implies that
the poet, John Shade considers himself as a heroic character. This will be
discussed later. The meter of the poem seems to support this assumption, in
that iambic pentameter is generally understood as similar to the rhythm of
routine speech, contrary to tetrameters which represent more musical rhythm as
in ballad form and nursery rhymes. It is also used at significant and crucial
monologues of main characters in Shakespeare’s poetic dramas, like that of Act
III Scene 1 in Hamlet.
when we closely skim the poem, we can figure out that enjambments are so frequently
used that we can scarcely encounter end-stopped lines. Actually, excluding the
last lines of each stanza, we can only find only 24 end-stopped lines in Canto
One which consists of 166 lines. This causes the reader to follow the lines in
a hurried tempo as if he the author speaks with a nervous heart. However,
thinking oppositely, we can understand that the poet wanted to mark some
specific statements as significant, in each end-stopped line midst each stanza.
These lines contain specific information about the speaker, as of his identity,
his parents or his belief. For example, the first couplet “I was the shadow of
the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the windowpane. (lines 1-2)” or “I was
an infant when my parents died. (line 71)” and “My God they died young.
Theolatry I found/Degrading, and its premises, unsound. (lines 99-100)”, these
make the readers to slow down at the end of each line, who had been running on
through the lines busily, and let them remark the statements there. This fact could
be interpreted as a strategy of this long-length poem to give weight to some
lines that contain important contents.
Hero and Heroic Melancholy
I mentioned melancholy heroes. However here we should be careful to distinguish
between melancholy figure and melancholy hero. Generally we think of Oedipus of
Sophocles, Hamlet of Shakespeare, Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost and captain Ahab of Melville’s Moby Dick as typical heroic characters. Of their common
characteristics we can say roughly three: first, one could be called a hero
when one pursues not one’s own interest but what one values most, e.g. justice,
beauty, fate and love. And secondly, in the course of the pursuit, one
encounters one’s counterpart, or say, enemy. Lastly, the action or behavior of
a character should represent a specific value(s) that could be sympathized and
accepted as universally valid.
are also said to be, but more than normal melancholy characters. However, Melancholy
in general is, in cultural context, understood as “a sad thoughtful state of
Melancholy characters have outstanding faculty of reasoning as of Hamlet, are
monomaniac as captain Ahab, and are bound to think of origin and end,
especially essence and death of men, world, and universe i.e. everything—these
are also the main themes of “Existenz” philosophy. These factors are together
obviously presented in Canto Two of “Pale Fire.” Though deliberate analysis of
these lines is not of interest in this paper, they are worth citing here for
showing the melancholy of this poem.
There was a time
in my demented youth
When somehow I
suspected that the truth
after death was known
To every human
being: I alone
and a great conspiracy
Of books and
people hid the truth from me.
There was the
day when I began to doubt
How could he live without
Knowing for sure
what dawn, what death, what doom
beyond the tomb?
there was the sleepless night
When I decided
to explore and fight
The foul, the
Devoting all my twisted
life to this
One task. Today
I’m sixty-one. Waxwings
berry-pecking. A cicada sings.
“Pale Fire”, Canto
Two, lines 167-182.
we can see, the speaker is a monomaniac character who believes there exists “survival
after death” but everyone “hid the truth” from him, so that his life was “The
foul, the inadmissible abyss” to “explore and fight” for all his time. He
thinks it is hardly sane to “live without/Knowing for sure what dawn, what
death, what doom” is waiting for him.
exploration had taken place from his “demented youth” to the age of “sixty-one.”
Though we cannot call him a hero, we could say that the speaker is somehow ‘heroic’,
as he had pushed ahead his melancholy to such extremity though his confrontation
against those who hid the “survival after death” remained imaginary till the
end of this poem.
Bird Metaphor and Forlorn Melancholy
symbol of bird is the kernel of Canto One, sophisticatedly built up with
numerous bird-metaphors, each representing different meanings. To list all the
bird metaphors in Canto One here: line 1(waxwing), line 24(pheasant), line
63(mockingbird), and again line 131(waxwing). Metaphors related to birds appear
in: line 72(ornithologists), line 79(preterist) and line 106(cage). Here I
would like to show that these bird-metaphors are together indicating the
speaker’s three different aspects.
Waxwing: Forlorn Solitude
is a common bird species in the United States. The speaker of the poem lives in
New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A.(as shown in Canto Two, line 250) The commonplaceness
of this bird makes a vivid contrast to the rarity and ethereality of
Nightingale or Skylark which are the symbol of Romantic poets. This will be
speaker claims that he “was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure
in the windowpane. (Canto One, lines 1-2)” This bird is assumed to have tried
to fly off the cage adoring the azure brightness of the sky, but fails to
escape, being crashed into the window. This metaphor is quite abject and even
self-depreciating. It needs close interpretation. In the core of this metaphor
lies the solitude(which is also a significant keyword to melancholy) of the
speaker. He says:
I was an infant when my parents died.
They both were ornithologists. I’ve
So often to evoke them …
My God they died young. Theolatry I
Degrading, and its premises, unsound.
No free man needs a God: but was I free?
is who studies birds. Common birds would be of no interest for them. The
speaker feels alienated from his parents in that supposedly they gave little
attention to their child, and critically, they “died young”, when the speaker “was
an infant.” The fact, immediately, caused his belief in God(theolatry) to
become “degrading” and “its premises” to seem “unsound.” Precisely what premise
that the religion presupposed here is not clear.
feeling of loneliness is closely linked to its consequence, that the speaker
thinks he is not free, “most artistically caged. (line 114)” Cage is an
extended metaphor that came from the original metaphor of waxwing, a bird. In
Canto One, there appear various lines that depict sceneries from his home and around.
However, the boundary is not wide. From the first stanza the speaker starts
from a view from his room, then snowy outdoor scene, to the lake and the “Lake
Road to school (line 43)”. Then he comes to his old house, never to mention any
his narrow range of activity we can say that his ‘problem’ is somehow related
to it. At first we might come up with his illness:
thread of subtle pain
Tugged at by playful death, released
But always present, ran through me. One
When I’d just turn eleven, as I lay
Prone on the floor and watched a
A tin wheelbarrow and pushed by a tin
Bypass chair legs and stray beneath the bed,
There was a sudden sunburst in my head.
this pain he experiences:
And then black night. That blackness was
I felt distributed through space and
One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand
Under the pebbles of a panting strand,
One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,
In caves, my blood, and the stars, my
There were dull throbs in my Triassic;
Optical spots in Upper Pleistocene,
An icy shiver down my Age of Stone,
And all tomorrows in my funny bone.
forlornness is also well presented in his past living with his aunt Maud (line
86) after his loss of both parents. However, she was no complete substitute for
his parents or his model to learn from, as he writes she was “dear” yet “bizarre
(ibid.)” with “grotesque growths and images of doom (line 89).” The words here
at the Index of a open verse book support this: “Moon (line 94)” for lunatic, “Moor
(line 85)” for barren land and “Moral (ibid.)” for spirit or mentality; and
moor and moral together point out that the mental state of aunt Maud (or
furthermore John Shade himself) was quite desolate. As Freud puts:
The melancholic displays something else
besides which is lacking in mourning—an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard,
an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world
which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.
Mockingbird: Empty Self and Mannerism Life
state of life would have made him feel dull and bored. All his interest became
his picture book (line 105) and celestial things in the book and in the sky, as
constellations (“the Great Bear”; line 120) and Milky Way (line 126). These
were what built up his spiritual ‘world’ of his youth. (lines 105-106)
those would be not enough to fulfill his emptiness. The metaphor of mockingbird
seems to demonstrate his early mannerism life. It is dramatically presented
when the speaker revisits his old home. In that scene he encounters a
mockingbird echoing “all the programs she had heard (line 64)”, “rasping out (line
66)” some fragments she remembers and then “Returning to her perch—the new TV (line
70)”, as if he witnesses his own early life at the very moment of reminiscence.
when we carefully grope in dark around the first and third stanza, we find
there is a possibility that the speaker had not at all been entirely anchored
in that dull living. It can be found in ‘fancy.’
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Whatever in my field of vision dwelt—
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the
Stilettos of a frozen stillicide—
Was printed on my eyelids' nether side
Where it would tarry for an hour or two,
And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the
these lines, words as ‘duplicate (line 5)’ and ‘reproduce (line 39)’ are
remarked. These are the evidence that the poet has a faculty of fancying and he
had made it as a part of his world. But just copying the world outside into
Pheasant: Lunatic Creativity of Imagination
seems not the case. Scenery of falling snow the speaker is amazed at is
described in the first stanza and then continues through the second. There
appears our pheasant:
Whose spurred feet have
From left to right the blank page of the
Reading from left to right in winter's
A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:
Dot, arrow pointing back...A pheasant's
Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,
Finding your China right behind my
Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow
Tracks pointed back when he reversed his
lines can be understood as an implied allusion to Ted Hughes’ “The Thought Fox (1957).”
In both, an animal, symbolizing creativity, had passed through the snow, the “blank
page”, and the speaker only discovers the foot prints and traces its tracks. It
is clearer in those lines above, that the “feet” of an animal “have crossed” “the
blank page” of winter snow “from left to right” in a hurried, “spurred” feet.
The speaker but figures out that the foot prints are of an ethereal bird that
has “Torquated beauty (a ring-shaped shade around the neck)” and is a “sublimated”
alluding Sherlock Holmes, he curiously asks: “Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the
fellow whose/Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes?” ‘He’ here is a
killer who committed the crime in the snow-covered mountain cottage and then
disappeared without any trace left behind. The fact was that, on the way back
down he reversed his shoes and trod the very prints that were made on the way
up. Alike, the speaker says the trace of the pheasant is not of easy pursuit.
the context up to here, the pheasant can be viewed as a faculty or an aspect in
the poet John Shade. However, unlike the other two metaphors i.e. waxwing and
mockingbird, the pheasant is depicted as rather mystical one. He can only see
the track left behind that allows no chase after it, as its feet are “spurred.”
The move of imagination, the poet himself could not get any hint of it. It is
this point of analysis, we could say that the pursuit towards the mad
imagination is what made John Shade live. His grave confrontation against death
here will be mentioned, as art survives any death, it is a fertile fountain of
meaning. Melancholy makes people solitary, and then makes them feel deep
nothingness, deficiency and meaninglessness of the world and their ego,
following Freud above. The struggle to find out the meaning and essence in
their life often chooses its way to the art. In this respect we can understand
Shakespeare’s obsessive pursuit towards immortality and other people like John
Keats or Jean Paul Sartre and so on. John Shade is one of them.
The Mysticism Poetics against Romantic Scheme
insist here that the image of the pheasant is John Shade’s, furthermore Nabokov’s
view on Imagination which is a sole true origin of poetry composing. This
becomes clear when we refer to the following excerpt from Canto Four:
I’m puzzled by the difference between
Two methods of composing: A, the kind
Which goes on solely in the poet’s mind,
A testing of performing words, while he
Is soaping a third time one leg, and B,
The other kind, much more decorous, when
He’s in his study writing with a pen.
In method B the hand supports the thought,
The abstract battle is concretely
The pen stops in mid-air, then swoops to
A canceled sunset or restore a star,
And thus it physically guides the phrase
Toward faint daylight through the inky
But method A is agony! The brain
Is soon enclosed in a steel cap of pain.
A muse in overalls directs the drill
Which grinds and which no effort of the
Can interrupt, while the automaton
Is taking off what he has just put on
Or walking briskly to the corner store
To but the paper he has read before.
Canto Four, lines 840-860
the poet conflicts between abstraction (method B) and agony (method A),
but soon he raises the hand of the latter. The muse in the poet’s head “directs
the drill” of inspiration like the “spurred feet (line 20)” of a pheasant, and “no
effort of the will/Can interrupt” it. This view on art composing is kind of a
reminiscence of Plato, who thought “poiēsis”, which indicates a human creation
especially of art, that cannot be reduced to technical training, to come solely
from the “divine madness” inspired by Muses. And the divine madness, later by
Aristotle was understood as an imaginative power of Melancholy.
in Renaissance and following Romantic era, the focus of creativity had moved to
human being, as to change the concept of “poet” from a divine person to rather
a normal character, and especially in Romantic era, yet who must be sensitive
to one’s deep heart. This Romantic scheme is believed to begin from William
Wordsworth, who regards poem as “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” of
the foreshadow of its failure was cast by John Keats and his poem “Ode to a
Nightingale (1819).” Spite that Shelley announced the poet is a nightingale,
Keats’ speaker ends up failing to identify himself with his admirable
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
John Keats. “Ode to a Nightingale”. Lines
he is left forlorn. Romantic dilemma of poetics here unravels itself. The Imagination,
especially artistic and poetic imagination is what an individual cannot grasp
and possess for whole, because when it is completely caught up in any
consciousness at all, it would cease to be imagination.
Imagination always has its indigenous realm that is not reduced to any consciousness.
It moves like a pheasant. This is why the poet in the first hand compared
himself not with an ethereal bird like Nightingale but with a common figure of
“Pale Fire”, a poet struggles to seize at least a flash, or “a sudden sunburst (“Pale
Fire”, Canto One, line 146)” of imagination (pheasant’s spurred feet), between
his/her melancholy (waxwing) and lethargic mannerism (mockingbird). Yet the
poet does not release the hands just waiting for un-promised arrival of divine
inspiration. In his/her mind goes a “testing of performing words. (line 843)”
This poetics, based on the belief in human imagination, is rather a dialectic
one, opposing both the archaic view of Plato and the self-contradictory
Romantic scheme, yet sublimating both to a higher degree.
very title of this poem is also an allusion to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: “The moon's an arrant
thief,/And her pale fire she snatches from the sun” (Act IV, scene 3). The fire
here means creativity and inspiration. It would be of no trouble to read the
Canto One of “Pale Fire” as subtle rhymes implicitly concerning poetry itself.
In this poem Nabokov created a heroic melancholy character John Shade who obsessively
pursues the “survival after death.” The speaker alludes himself to specific
kinds of birds i.e. waxwing, mockingbird and pheasant.
he did not identify himself direct with a waxwing but a “shadow” of the
waxwing, it is still a mystery (one reason—an allusion to his name, Shade). But
through these peculiar metaphors we can draw our conclusion that, John Shade,
furthermore Nabokov himself viewed the process of art composing as a witty yet
painstaking work in which the poet tries to grasp a hint of his/her swift-moving
imagination, carefully following the trace of it, at least to catch its tip of
the tail. The poet has to struggle between his/her forlorn solitude of
melancholy, which waxwing symbolizes, and the torpor of mannerism, which
mockingbird represents, to hold the moment of flash. The process of art, mainly
confronting death, in that it never ends as a complete form, is heroic. This
rather mysticism poetics is in conflict with both the ancient view of poetry
and the Romantic view of poets, dialectically uplifting both to a more refined
Sigmund Freud. “Mourning and Melancholia”. The Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of
the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works.
Tom Furniss, Michael Bath. Reading
Poetry. London and Ney York: Routledge.
Vladimir Nabokov (1962). Pale
Fire. New York: Vintage International.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1903). A Defense of Poetry. Boston, MA: Ginn
“Nabokov's interview(03)”. Playboy . http://lib.ru/NABOKOW/Inter03.txt.
Date of Access: 16 June 2014.
Fire(A Poem in Four Cantos)”, Canto One
was the shadow of the waxwing slain
the false azure in the windowpane
was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
my lamp, an apple on a plate:
the night, I'd let dark glass
all the furniture above the grass,
how delightful when a fall of snow
my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
to make chair and bed exactly stand
that snow, out in that crystal land!
the falling snow: each drifting flake
and slow, unsteady and opaque,
dull dark white against the day's pale white
abstract larches in the neutral light.
then the gradual and dual blue
night unites the viewer and the view,
in the morning, diamonds of frost
amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed
left to right the blank page of the road?
from left to right in winter's code:
dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:
arrow pointing back...A pheasant's feet!
beauty, sublimated grouse,
your China right behind my house.
he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose
pointed back when he reversed his shoes?
colors made me happy: even gray.
eyes were such that literally they
photographs. Whenever I'd permit,
with a silent shiver, order it,
in my field of vision dwelt--
indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte
of a frozen stillicide--
printed on my eyelids' nether side
it would tarry for an hour or two,
while this lasted all I had to do
close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.
cannot understand why from the lake
could make out our front porch when I'd take
Road to school, whilst now, although no tree
intervened, Ilook but fail tosee
the roof. Maybe some quirk in space
caused a fold or furrow to displace
fragile vista, the frame house between
and Wordsmith on its square of green.
had a favorite young shagbark there
ample dark jade leaves and a black, spare
trunk. The setting sun
the black bark, around which, like undone
the shadows of the foliage fell.
is now stout and rough; it has done well.
butterflies turn lavender as they
through its shade where gently seems to sway
phantom of my little daughter's swing.
house itself is much the same. One wing
had revamped. There's a solarium. There's
picture window flanked with fancy chairs.
huge paperclip now shines instead
the stiff vane so often visited
the naive, the gauzy mockingbird
all the programs that she had heard;
from chippo-chippo to a clear
to-wee; then rasping out: come here,
here, come herrr'; flitting her tail aloft,
gracefully indulging in a soft
hop-flop, and instantly (to-wee)
to her perch--the new TV.
was an infant when my parents died.
both were ornithologists. I've tried
often to evoke them that today
have a thousand parents. Sadly they
in their own virtues and recede,
certain words, chance words I hear or read,
as"bad heart" always to him refer,
"cancer of the pancreas" to her.
preterist: one who collects cold nests.
was my bedroom, now reserved for guests.
tucked away by the Canadian maid,
listened to the buzz downstairs and prayed
everybody to be always well,
and aunts, the maid, her niece Adele,
seen the Pope, people in books, and God.
was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,
poet and a painter with a taste
realistic objects interlaced
grotesque growths and images of doom.
lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room
kept intact. Its trivia create
still life in her style: the paperweight
convex glass enclosing a lagoon,
verse open at the Index (Moon,
Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar
human skull; and from the local Star
curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door
God they died young. Theolatry I found
and its premises, unsound.
free man needs a God; but was I free?
fully I felt nature glued to me
how my childish palate loved the taste
half-honey, of that golden paste
picture book was at an early age
painted parchment papering our cage:
rings around the moon; blood-orange sun;
Iris; and that rare phenomenon
iridule--when beautiful and strange,
a bright sky above a mountain range
opal cloudlet in an oval form
the rainbow of a thunderstorm
in a distant valley has been staged--
we are most artistically caged.
there's the wall of sound: the nightly wall
by a trillion crickets in the fall.
Halfway up the hill
pause in thrall of their delirious trill.
Dr. Sutton's light. That's the Great Bear.
thousand years ago five minutes were
to forty ounces of fine sand.
the stars. Infinite foretime and
aftertime: above your head
close like giant wings, and you are dead.
regular vulgarian, I daresay,
happier: He sees the Milky Way
when making water. Then as now
walked at my own risk: whipped by the bough,
by the stump. Asthmatic, lame and fat,
never bounced a ball or swung a bat.
was the shadow of the waxwing slain
feigned remoteness in the windowpane.
had a brain, five senses (one unique),
otherwise I was a cloutish freak.
sleeping dreams I played with other chaps
really envied nothing--save perhaps
miracle of a lemniscate left
wet sand by nonchalantly deft
A thread of subtle
at by playful death, released again,
always present, ran through me. One day,
I'd just turned eleven, as I lay
on the floor and watched a clockwork toy--
tin wheelbarrow and pushed by a tin boy--
chair legs and stray beneath the bed,
was a sudden sunburst in my head.
then black night. That blackness was sublime.
felt distributed through space and time:
foot upon a mountaintop, one hand
the pebbles of a panting strand,
ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,
caves, my blood, and the stars, my brain.
were dull throbs in my Triassic; green
spots in Upper Pleistocene,
icy shiver down my Age of Stone,
all tomorrows in my funny bone.
one winter every afternoon
into that momentary swoon.
then it ceased. Its memory grew dim.
health improved. I even learned to swim.
like some little lad forced by a wench
his pure tongue her abject thirst to quench,
was corrupted, terrified, allured,
though old Doctor Colt pronounced me cured
what, he said, were mainly growing pains,
wonder lingers and the shame remains.