Pale Fire | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire | Canto 4 | Summary



Shade announces his ambitions for his poetry, or for this poem. He will "spy on beauty as none has/Spied on it yet." He will "cry out as /None has cried out." He describes two writing methods. Method A "goes on solely in the poet's mind," while B involves pen and paper. Then he describes scenes from his everyday life, including an episode of sleepwalking and his habit of shaving in the bathtub. He catalogs the things he loathes, including "jazz," "progressive schools," and "music in supermarkets." He also loathes "Philistines, Freud, Marx,/Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks." But he praises the affection and support of his wife, Sybil.

Shade wonders if his affection for certain poetic techniques is "based upon/A feeling of fantastically planned,/Richly rhymed life." There is a harmony like rhyme between his "private universe" and "the verse of galaxies divine." He also feels he understands "existence, or at least a minute part/Of [his] existence, only through [his] art." The poem in couplets ends on line 999, an unrhymed, odd-numbered line: "Trundling an empty barrow up the lane."


Shade's poem and Kinbote's commentary often seem lightyears apart. However, in this canto Shade's poem foretells the narrative of the commentary. He comes up with an idea: "Man's life as commentary to abstruse/Unfinished poem. Note for further use." He is perhaps telling himself to note this for further use, or the italicized text is a note he made. He will not be able to make any further use of this idea, but this is the form of Pale Fire, the novel. In Pale Fire, one man's life, King Charles's, unfolds in the commentary to an unfinished poem. (Shade's poem is missing its final line.)

However, Shade's idea is also broader than the story of King Charles. His idea is about "Man's life," not aman's life. Thus, every life, in all humankind, might be the pendant or elaboration of some poem still being written. It is clear Shade thinks of the universe as a poem—designed, written, rhymed—even though he believes there is no God. He sees a parallel or rhyme between his life and the shape of the universe. He writes, "If my private universe scans right,/So does the verse of galaxies divine." Here he uses the language of prosody, the study of poetry's rhythm. When a line of poetry "scans right," it fits the rhythmic pattern set for it. The poem ("verse") of the "galaxies divine" also scans, according to Shade—he suspects its rhythmic pattern is "an iambic line." Thus, Shade's poem has a divine form.

At the end of the poem, Shade uses an image foreshadowing his death. The last lines are "Some neighbor's gardener, I guess—goes by/Trundling an empty barrow up the lane." The "barrow" is, of course, the gardener's wheelbarrow. But a barrow is also a grave, or rather, a mound of earth or stones heaped over a dead body. The barrow in the poem is empty because Shade is not yet in it—he is still alive at the end of the unfinished draft. The line Kinbote supplies for the unfinished couplet will complete the poem and put Shade in the barrow, in the grave: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain."

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