Shades of Frost: A Hidden Source for
Nabokov's Pale Fire
Vladimir Nabokov's first, fumbling biographer, Andrew Field, almost found it, when he asked the author about the connection between John Shade, the fictional poet of Pale Fire, and Robert Frost. Nabokov teasingly replied, as he had before, that he really knew only one short poem by Frost. Although puzzled, Field didn't press the matter and apparently never asked precisely which poem of Frost's it was that Nabokov knew.
But Field was right to wonder. Nabokov gave two poetry readings with Robert Frost, in 1942 and 1945, and was, along with Frost, Archibald Macleish and T. S. Eliot, one of four speakers who appeared in Wellesley College's "Poets Reading" series in 1946. He also met Frost at least once socially but found him rude. Their second joint poetry reading was at Filene's Department Store in Boston, to an audience assembled to hear New England's leading poet, not Nabokov. Nabokov read his recently composed "An Evening of Russian Poetry," which is about the virtual impossibility of writing poetry in English as a Russian exile. This is, not coincidentally, closely related to the difficulty of serving as the warm-up act for Robert Frost before an American audience. The poem is, of course, a dazzling success:
Beyond the seas where I have lost a scepter,
"The Jack Frost House"
(Photograph by Gennady Barabtarlo)
Seven years later, in 1952, Nabokov and his wife even briefly rented Frost's house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They found it too cold to stay in, but amusing to later pun about ("the Jack Frost house"). It also troubled Nabokov that Frost had left the study at the center of the house locked. In short, Nabokov almost seemed to shadow the great American poet through his early years in America. So Field had grounds for suspecting that the relationship between John Shade and Robert Frost was more than superficial, but he did not pursue them very far.
Pale Fire is Nabokov's most allusive puzzle novel. The question of its relation to its sources is central both to its interpretation and the reader's enjoyment. As Mary McCarthy wrote in the opening lines of her famous early review, it is:
A Jack-in-the-Box. . .a chess problem, an infernal machine. . . . When the separate parts are assembled, according to the manufacturer's directions, and fitted together with the help of clues and cross-references, which must be hunted down as in a paper chase, a novel of several levels is revealed.McCarthy herself chased down several allusions and solved some intricate problems. Over the past five decades a fantastically ingenious body of Pale Fire scholarship has developed. But the seemingly simple question of the relationship between the fictional Shade and the actual Frost has been touched on only glancingly, and unsatisfactorily.
The four parts of Nabokov's infernal fiction machine are, in order: a foreword by the homosexual expatriate scholar Charles Kinbote who thinks he is the exiled King of Zembla; an all-but-finished 999-line poem called "Pale Fire," in four cantos, by Kinbote's neighbor, the great American poet John Shade; Kinbote's comically self absorbed commentary, and, finally, a similarly idiosyncratic index, salted with hidden clues. Each of these parts supplements and corrects, reflects and distorts the others, bringing out one character, thematic intricacy or narrative detail, while hiding another.
The fictional relation between Shade and Robert Frost is made explicit midway through the poem. While waiting for their awkward daughter, who will never, in this life, return from her first, disastrous date, Shade and his wife catch a bit of literary chatter on television:
I was in time to hear brief fameThe critical consensus in our own literary world has, if anything, been less generous. Michael Wood writes: "Shade resembles Frost a little: in looks; slow, sly style of wit; fund of wily common sense. He is a milder character than Frost though; kinder and a lot more than a footstep behind him as a poet." One could add that both Shade and Frost are regional poets with cool, climatic names, taught at distinguished universities, wrote poems with birds and butterflies, lost a child to suicide, bore a distinguished owlish look in old age, and so on. But, given all of this, not to speak of Nabokov's many unsatisfactory meetings and non-meetings with the poet, might there also be a closer literary connection between Robert Frost and Nabokov's (or is it Frost's?) Shade?
Wood does make a more substantive comparison between Frost and Shade a little later. In the fourth canto, John Shade detects (desperately, poignantly, but also trenchantly) signs of artistic design in the arrangements of his universe. His "feeling of fantastically planned,/richly rhymed life," together with certain coincidences, premonitions and ethereal hints give him an intimation of an afterlife which his daughter might inhabit. Shade goes on:
I feel I understandWood finds this aesthetic theodicy, which Nabokov certainly shared with Shade, profoundly unappealing, and compares it to Frost's famous sonnet of a spider and its prey:
Shade is several footsteps behind Frost here, who knew that even Nature's intricate arrangements, let alone ours, can 'apall' us; that a pattern of whitenesses, spider, flower, moth, may add up to a 'design of darkness.'Frost's "Design," ("What brought the kindred spider to that height/Then steered the moth thither in the night?") is also about the seeming artistry of nature and the problem of evil, though it comes to a conclusion that admits no shade of Nabokovian consolation. ("Read the poem "Design," and see if you sleep the better for it," Lionel Trilling told a shocked crowd gathered to celebrate Frost's birthday, in 1959.) But Wood's comparison is unduly harsh, almost as unfair as his re-use of that "more than a footstep," quip. Nature, in all its intricate "plexed artistry," can bear opposing interpretations, if anything can, and theodicy can be a deep recognition of the terrors of life as well as a retreat from them. Frost was a greater American poet than Nabokov (who could deny it?), but it wasn't because he was a homespun stoic and Nabokov a dandyish Neo-Platonist. In any event, the comparison brings us no closer to a source for Pale Fire in the poetry of Frost.
In his commentary, Kinbote adduces Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" when the comparison between Shade and Frost comes up, and describes it as "a poem that every American boy knows by heart." But every reader of Pale Fire knows not to trust mad Kinbote, who thinks that "Pale Fire" is a poem about his exile from the kingdom of Zembla (he imagines that he has really lost a sceptre, and longs for ephebic royal pages, not dappled nouns), and not about (among other things) a father's grief at his daughter's suicide. Kinbote even famously misses the Shakespearean allusion that gives the work its "moondrop title." The relevant lines from Timon of Athens (which Kinbote just happens to quote elsewhere, from a comically mangled Zemblan translation) are:
The sun's a thief and with his great attractionWhat, if any, pale fire did Nabokov snatch from Frost? The imagery, metre and mood of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" are glaringly absent from Shade's poem (though they are both wintry lyrics). Is there another "short poem" concealed behind Kinbote's misdirection? If there is, it might also reveal something of the improvised methods and secret stratagems by which Nabokov managed to enter, appropriate, and even command the poetic tradition to which Frost was heir, in which his Russian sceptre was powerless, his dappled nouns a distant memory.
Last year, in these columns, Michael Maar announced his discovery that there was an earlier fictional nymphet named Lolita, who had appeared in a 1916 German short story by Heinz von Lichberg, and argued that Nabokov had probably read but subsequently forgotten the story during his years in Berlin. Thus, his later coupling of name and theme was a case of "cryptomnesia" (April 2, 2004). With regard to Pale Fire and a particular short poem of Frost's--which is not "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"--I claim neither "cryptomnesia" nor, certainly, plagiarism, but rather a delicate but demonstrable network of inspiration and allusion. This discovery is both less surprising (every reader of Pale Fire knows that John Shade resembles Robert Frost) and more revealing, for it shows Nabokov in the act of conscious composition and similarly conscious camouflage.
"I am," Nabokov liked to say (especially after moving to Switzerland), "as American as apple pie." "Pale Fire," the poem, was his best evidence for the claim. Of all his narrators, only John Shade has the memories, cadences and (more or less) the vocabulary of an American. In Pale Fire, puzzles about doubles, ghostly shades and shadowy figures (who is reflecting whom?) abound. Here, as elsewhere, Nabokov's narrative play is underwritten by a deep interest in the existence of other worlds and their relationship to one another: that of the author and his artistic creation; of homeland and exile; of fictions within fictions, and of mortal life and its possible successor. Each of these paired worlds, and others, are present in the justly famous and thematically crucial opening couplets of "Pale Fire":
I was the shadow of the waxwing slainWe shall return to these lines, but it's worth noting that they also initiate the pervasive avian imagery of the Pale Fire. More than a dozen species of bird fly through its pages; Shade describes his favorite seat on the porch as "a nest," and his parents were ornithologists. This makes the book unique in the Nabokov corpus, where butterflies (which play a crucial, if less visible, role here as well) famously predominate. In an interview given in 1962, shortly after the publication of Pale Fire, Nabokov slyly underscored the importance of birds to his novel while pointedly avoiding discussing its origins:
All I know is that at a very early stage of the novel's development, I get this urge to gather bits of straw and fluff and eat pebbles. Nobody will ever discover how closely a bird visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the eggs in it.In fact, Nabokov had been blocked in the composition of Pale Fire, and collecting bits of literary debris, from 1957 to 1960. A letter to his editor Jason Epstein in March, 1957, describes a work in which, as Brian Boyd notes in his indispensable biography, "there is still no Shade, no homosexual king, no poem, commentary, and index." A few months later, in October of the same year, Nabokov jotted down the following note on an index card: "Waxwings: knocking themselves out in full flight against the reflected world of our picture window. Leaving a little gray fluff on the pane." But it was not until much later that he seems to have realized that the observation might be a part of his novel- in-progress.
The hints that some particular poem of Frost's was crucially important for Pale Fire actually begin in the second paragraph of Kinbote's Foreword, where he meticulously describes Shade's manuscript. "The short Canto One," he writes, "with all those amusing birds and parhelia, occupies thirteen cards." The reader may be excused for gliding over the obscure second term, especially since he has not, at this point, read the canto being described. The reader who knows that a parhelion is a mock-sun--a kind of pale fire--may connect it with any one of the many poetic allusions in the first canto (to Wordsworth's "Prelude," say, or to Pope). But the meteorological phenomenon in question is produced by the refraction of the sun's rays through the prism of an ice crystal. In short, it is a form of pale fire produced when the sun's light shines through a kind of atmospheric frost.
A year ago on NABOKV-L (an unusually productive web-based discussion forum), Kenneth Tapscott suggested Frost's "New Hampshire" as a possible source for "Pale Fire." This has some merit. Frost's 1923 poem mocks an institution dedicated to conversations with the dead, as does Shade's. Frost's is called "The S'ciety for Psychical Research," and Shade's is the "Institute (I) of Preparation (P)/For the Hereafter (H), or IF...." The former might have suggested the latter, but, unfortunately, nothing in the date, form or content of the poems tends to corroborate it. "New Hampshire" is one of Frost's first self-indulgent blank-verse rambles. Moreover, it is, at almost 500 lines, not the single short Frost poem Nabokov admitted to knowing.
Perhaps it is time to return to Kinbote, as unreliable as he is. In his commentary to the "oozy footstep" line, he writes:
The line displays one of those combinations of pun and metaphor at which our poet excels. In the temperature charts of poetry high is low, and low high, so that the degree at which perfect crystallization occurs is above that of tepid facility.Kinbote is, despite the madness, a perceptive reader of poetry and he is right to call our attention to the importance of temperature in these lines. Shade's self-deprecating play on Frost's name suggests, fairly or not, that his lines may be slushy in places where they aspire to the harder clarity of a frost crystal. And indeed, the standard of beauty throughout Pale Fire is that of literally crystalline symmetry, and the idea and image of an ice crystal recur throughout. When a snowflake settles on Shade's watch, he remarks "crystal to crystal." At the outset of the poem, Shade describes the winter view outside his window as a "crystal land," to which Kinbote remarks "Perhaps a reference to Zembla, my dear country," neatly superimposing his delusional world on Shade's artistic one. Perhaps most tellingly, Kinbote argues that the missing 1000th line of the poem must be a repetition of its opening line, "I was a shadow of the waxwing slain," by saying "I cannot imagine that he [Shade] intended to deform the faces of his crystal." (Thomas Bolt picks up on this ice-crystal aesthetic in his 1001-line homage to Pale Fire, Dark Ice.)
The balance of Kinbote's commentary on the "oozy footstep line" is comically fatuous, but indirectly revealing.
Robert Frost (b. 1874) . . . Frost is the author of one of the greatest short poems in the English language, a poem that every American boy knows by heart, about wintry woods, and the dreary dusk, and the little horsebells of gentle remonstration in the dull darkening air, and that prodigious and poignant end - two closing lines identical in every syllable, but one personal and physical, and the other metaphysical and universal. I dare not quote from memory lest I displace one small precious word. With all his excellent gifts, John Shade could never make his snowflakes settle that way.This is almost true--Kinbote's admirable scruples notwithstanding, he manages to replace Frost's descriptive "harnessbells" with meaningless "horsebells"--and almost fair. However, the judgement that "Shade could never make his snowflakes settle that way" is of little help in understanding the poetry before us (poems, like snowflakes, being unique). Suppose we take this as a clue, and focus on Shade's poetic snowfall rather than Frost's. The second stanza, which follows the slain waxwing, begins: "Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake / Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque." A few lines later, I read Nabokov as slyly underlining the question of the relation of Frost's brilliant verse to that of his apparent shade:
And in the morning, diamonds of frostKinbote's commentary leaves "the diamonds of frost" on "the blank page of the road" unremarked, but tells us, helpfully, that Sherlock Holmes was:
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 to here but suspect that our poet simply made up the Case of the Reversed Footprints.As many have noted, Shade didn't invent the backward-shoes image. It was Holmes himself who suggested the ruse as one way he might have left the impression that he had fallen over Reichenbach Falls together with Professor Moriarty. More to our point, the lines suggest both that there may be a mystery, and that Kinbote is an Anglo-American illiterate. His comment on Sherlock Holmes is of a piece with his remarks on "On Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." They both leave literary tracks in the wrong direction.
Before turning to the right one, I want to examine one more (almost) blind alley. In addition to supposed variants, Kinbote quotes several other poems of Shade's. None of these is clearly modeled on a poem by Frost, but the publication details of perhaps the most important of them is given. "The Nature of Electricity" was, Kinbote tells us, "sent to the New York magazine The Beau and the Butterfly, some time in 1958." Unfortunately, Frost did not publish in the New Yorker that year. Nonetheless, it is a likely time for a Frost poem to have caught Nabokov's eye. As we have seen, he was trying to write what would become Pale Fire, collecting "bits of straw and fluff and eating pebbles," and yet had not struck on almost any of the elements which would later comprise the novel. In particular, he did not have a poet (American or otherwise), a commentary, or an avian theme.
The cover of The Saturday Review of Literature for April 12, 1958 featured a close-up of the by-now iconic Frost, looking much as Nabokov would later describe John Shade, staring out from under "a hoary forelock," with "all his wrinkles beaming." At the time, the Saturday Review was still just a step behind the New Yorker in icy wit, literary reputation and sophisticated readership. Nabokov regularly read it along with the New Yorker and the Atlantic, and continued to do so even after he moved to Montreux in Switzerland. Inside this particular issue was a commentary by John Ciardi (an acquaintance of Nabokov's) on Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," which was reproduced at the beginning of the piece. The essay is characteristically shrewd and Kinbote's remarks on the poem seem to have profited from it. Ciardi also remarked on a characteristic of Frost's compositional habits, which Nabokov shared and made sure to give to Shade: "Robert Frost is the sort of artist who hides his traces. I know of no Frost worksheets anywhere. . . . Frost would not willingly allow anything but the finished product to leave him." Finally, in the back of the magazine was a new short poem by Frost, about a bird and a sky-reflecting window:
This, I submit, is the "one short poem of Frost's" that Nabokov truly "knew," in the intimate sense of having appropriated it for his art. Frost's poem, "Of a Winter Evening" (only a step away from the much more famous title), depicts the near collision of a bird with a sky-reflecting window, features a neat reversal of perspective, and is in heroic couplets. Both Kinbote and Michael Wood emphasized the metaphysical lightness of Shade's verse in comparison to Frost, but here something like the opposite seems to be the case. Frost's poem displays one of his great themes (the confrontation between humans and nature) in miniature, and is performed with characteristic dexterity. It is a minor poem from a major poet. The first stanza of "Pale Fire" takes a similar scenario and poetic form in a much more elaborately discursive, metaphysical direction. Frost's striking description of "glassed-in children" also seems to have acted on Nabokov's imagination. Figures are repeatedly glassed-in in Pale Fire, from the narrator who identifies with the waxwing from behind the fatal pane to Kinbote discussing the posthumous publication of Shade's poem with a publisher while encased "in a cell of walnut and glass." Shade's Aunt Maud spent her last days in a sanitarium sitting in Pinedale's "glassed sun." After her death, we learn that she left among her effects a paperweight "of convex glass, enclosing a lagoon." Each of these images is what Robert Alter has called an "ideogram of the novel," which exhibits in miniature what Shade senses about his world, that we are "most artistically caged" by some higher authorial being.
In the Spring of 1958, Nabokov was still in the midst of his seemingly endless commentary on Pushkin's great verse novel Eugene Onegin, which also included a foreword and an index. He had already observed misguided waxwings crashing against his window, and even composed a narrative in heroic couplets, "The Ballad of Longwood Glen," which he had recently revised and published in the New Yorker, though it was a much lighter poem than his eventual "Pale Fire." He was also contemplating a novel which involved an exiled king (though he was neither a homosexual nor a literary commentator) and the question of immortality. When Nabokov read "Of a Winter Evening," after almost two decades of American exile in which he seemed to be always shadowing Frost, it combined with these and other elements in his kaleidescopic imagination. As Charles Kinbote says of Shade:
I am witnessing a unique physiological phenomenon: John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, recombining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image music, a line of verse.What Kinbote omits is precisely the question of literary influence--that the world is always transformed in the light of earlier transformations--but, then, even the moon's a thief. On November 29, 1960, in Nice (the date preserved in his manuscript), Nabokov began his poetic parhelion about a bird:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slainNabokov was, like Frost and Shade, the sort of artist who hid his traces, and the manuscript of Pale Fire now in the Library of Congress is a fairly clean fair copy with few signs of "the fluff and pebbles" with which he began. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that both Shade's Sherlock Holmes couplet (which was, at first, uncharacteristically clumsy: "Fellow in Sherlock Holmes tried to confuse / Pursuit by putting on backwards his shoes") and Kinbote's comment on Frost, Shade and the "temperature charts of poetry," are thoroughly reworked. It was clearly important to Nabokov to leave a telltale hint of Holmesian mystery in those footprints on the "diamonds of frost," even before the perfect couplet came to him, and later to handle the Frost-frost-Shade connection in Kinbote's comment with precision.
Nineteen sixty-two, when Pale Fire was published, was also the year that Frost published In the Clearing, his final book. "Of a Winter Evening" was included, though it was re-titled "Questioning Faces." Frost had unknowingly helped to erase the paper trail to the poem whose reflected light shines from the opening lines of "Pale Fire," and without which Nabokov's novel is almost unimaginable.
(Originally published in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), July 1, 2005, and reprinted with its permission. This version restores 2 paragraphs which were excised for reasons of space and includes a few other minor additions.)
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