Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

2012 Book 161: Pale Fire

Written by Vladimir Nabokov, Narrated by Marc Vietor

Reason for Reading: November was Russian Reading Month, hosted by Tuesday in Silhouette


In this complex piece of literature, we explore the psyche of Charles Kinbote, an eccentric and obsessive man who is writing the introduction and notes to a 999-line poem entitled Pale Fire by a recently deceased poet with whom Kinbote has become enamored. Nabokov’s novel isn’t written in novel-form, though. It has four major parts: Kinbote’s introduction to Pale Fire, the poem itself, Kinbote’s prolific footnotes, and his index. This doesn’t really sound like an engrossing story, I know, but descriptions can be misleading. Kinbote’s notes are hilarious, sad, and frightening. As the book proceeds, we readers become more aware of the depth of Kinbote’s obsessions – we learn more about who he is (arguably, who he thinks he is) and, through the unreliable testimonies of Kinbote, we learn about the passions of the poet John Shade. This is the type of book that has so many layers, you’ll never find the core…but you’ll be fascinated and laughing in turns while you look. This was my first reading of the book, and I’d have to read it again to decide on my own interpretation. I was really impressed by the audiobook production…this isn’t the type of story that lends itself well to audio, but they did an admirable job. There were two readers, one for Kinbote’s thoughts and one for the poem of John Shade. Both readers did a fantastic job…especially Vietor with Kinbote. He put JUST the right emphasis on words so that I would catch the humor in the complex word-play. However, if I read it again, I’ll probably do it using the written-word so I can flip back and forth. This book is definitely worth a read if you like unique stories and complex psyches.

The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore

I just finished reading “The Philosophy of Composition,” by Edgar Allan Poe, which is an essay published in 1846 in response to nasty critiques and parodies of his poem “The Raven.” Keep in mind, Poe was himself a rather feisty critic, so he probably needed to take a little of what he’d been dishing out. The purpose of the essay was to show the modus operandi by which he assembled his poem. 

It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition–that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem [1].

If I hadn’t been forewarned by G. R. Thompson that this essay may have been half tongue-in-cheek [2], I might have been quite confused. In his essay, Poe provides a step-by-step description of the birth and growth of “The Raven.” 
  1. Consider length: “there is a distinct limit, as regards to length, to all works of literary art–the limit of a single sitting…can never properly be overpassed in a poem” [1] (Here, he inserts an aside suggesting that Paradise Lost, by John Milton, is half-poetry/half-prose, since it is too long for one sitting.) However, “a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.” Thus, approximately 100 lines was chosen for his new poem.
  2. Consider effect to be conveyed: Poem should be universally appreciable. “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of a poem.” 
  3. Consider tone: “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones.”
  4. Artistic piquancy: here, he realized that refrains as an artistic effect were vastly underused.
  5. Refrain choice: Limited to lyric verse. Depends on the force of repetition for its effect. Decides to diversify by changing the context, but leaving the answer the same. Refrain must be brief. Must form the end of each stanza. Must be “sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis.” The long “o” is the most sonorous vowel, and “r” is the most producible consonant. Hmmm, what word has a long “o” and an “r” in it, but keeps the tone of the poem? Oh, of course! “Nevermore!”
  6. Pretext for refrain: A human being wouldn’t say “nevermore” over and over again, but an unthinking being might. Like a talking parrot, or better, a raven (for they talk too, and ravens are fitting for the tone). 
  7. Subject: “I asked myself–‘Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death–was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?'” This was also obvious: “death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world–and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
  8. He then wrote the denouement because “nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.
And the poem continued to be written through the same process. Without Thompson’s forewarning, I would have been shocked and skeptical that Poe actually wrote his poems in this way. This mechanical process might pump out a poem-esque work, but would it have any soul? The whole process seems rather art-defying. According to enotes, critics have suggested that “The Philosophy of Composition” was anything from a deliberate hoax to “possibly half tongue-in-cheek [2].” However, I have also noticed quite a few people on the internet who find it inspirational and say that it really helps them to compose their own works. I’m sure these people really DO find the structure helpful. It is very sensible. But I imagine, if anything, that Poe came up with the idea of “The Raven” and THEN went through a rigorous process of refining it. 

That said, I think the essay is a fantastic look into the mind of Poe. It explains why the majority of his poems are about dead women–because he felt that melancholy is the most legitimate of poetic tones, and that the most melancholy of all themes is the death of a beautiful woman. My dad disagrees with Poe here and says that the death of a child is the most melancholy topic. Personally, I think that doubt in God’s existence or in his love for me would be the most melancholy. But I agree that the death of a child is more melancholy than the death of a beautiful woman. 

Out of curiosity, what do other people think the most melancholy theme is?

Find all of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for The Raven here:

[1] The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe. Reprinted in: The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp675-684. 

[2] The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp57.

The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe

Listen to The Bells

The first of Poe’s poems that I’ve read (recently) is The Bells (you might want to listen to it before reading my commentary). This poem was written in 1948, in the year following his wife Virginia’s death of consumption at the age of 25. Wikipedia suggests that the poem depicts a man mourning his lost wife. He courted her at Christmas to the sound of sleigh-bells in stanza one, married her in the second stanza, and then she dies in a fire as the husband watches in the third stanza. In the fourth stanza,  the grief-stricken husband goes mad. This is certainly an approachable interpretation. I think a life-cycle interpretation is more interesting though. In my opinion:

The first stanza is about the playful innocence of childhood. The merry tinkling of sleigh bells suggests a care-free mood–pure enjoyment of the moment. Even the Heavens twinkle with delight at the youthful merriment. But the poem also suggests that time is passing: 
              Keeping time, time, time
              In a sort of Runic rhyme 

“Runic rhyme” suggests an occult influence…perhaps a spell is cast over the innocents, trapping them in a ghoulish foreplay for the dance that lay ahead.

In the second stanza, the poem has matured. It is no longer care-free, since it is motivated by love for a new spouse, rather than by simple delight at existence. The bells are now “mellow” with “molten-golden notes.” These words suggest a sunset. Immediately following this symbolic sunset, the moon rises:

              What a liquid ditty floats
              To the turtle-dove that listens while she gloats
              On the moon!

Notice in this stanza the Heavens no longer join in the celebration, instead they are admired from afar. The universe has distanced itself from the poem. 

The third stanza tells of torture in the eve of death. This torture could represent a plethora of pains. To me, the fire recollected the turbulence of war and politics. Throughout Poe’s life he would have experienced the tortuous birth-pains of a new nation in a world at war. It could also symbolize the suffering of someone dying of disease–such as consumption, like his wife. Or the “deaf and frantic fire” could be the moral or religious guilt of a man who has lived a life of profligacy and regrets his youthful vices. He might be overcome by waves of self-abhorrence.

             Yet the ear, it fully knows,
             By the twanging 
             And the clanging,
             How the danger ebbs and flows–
In this third stanza the poet is “now to sit, or never / By the side of the pale-faced moon.” No longer does the poet admire the splendor of the moon. It is pale–it has lost its glory. Now, or never, he must sit and mourn by the Heavens which have deserted him.

In the final stanza Death (or perhaps Satan) triumphs. There are people–ah, the people! that dwell up in the steeple…all alone. These are spirits separated from their bodies. 

             They are neither man nor woman–
             They are neither brute nor human,
             They are Ghouls:

These ghouls have lost their identities. They are now simply servants of the king, Death. With finality they: “Feel a glory in so rolling / On the human heart a stone–” This is a tombstone, rolled over their hearts so they can no longer love. And the king’s merry bosom swells as he dances and yells

             Keeping time, time, time,
             In a sort of Runic rhyme
             To the throbbing of the bells–

Again, the “Runic rhyme” casts its spell over the ghouls. And they are captured for eternity.

Similarity to Paradise Lost:

While writing my interpretation of The Bells, I was reminded of my studies of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In lecture 18 of his series Why Evil Exists, Professor Charles Mathewes suggests that the difference between Satanic sin and human sin is that Satan sins out of a self-aware wish to rebel against God; Adam’s sin is that he loves Eve more than he loves God. He eats the forbidden fruit because Eve has already partaken. If he denies her, she will be “dead” to him, and he can’t handle that loss. So human sin ropes in feelings about other people. (See my full summary of the lecture here.)

While I was pondering how to express my feelings on Stanza II, I thought that this second stanza could represent Adam’s choice of Eve over God. It represents his marriage to her, and his subsequent separation from the Heavens–which, now, he could only admire from afar instead of living in its presence as in the first stanza. Following this train of thought, the third stanza would represent a human’s life on earth after the fall–filled with waves of earthly disaster. The final stanza would be the torment of Hell. 

Of course, I’m not suggesting that this is what Poe had in mind when he wrote the poem. But I think it’s interesting how such themes recur in literature. They are very powerful images that resound throughout time. Perhaps I’ll even wax Jungian and suggest that they are an archetype of our collective consciousness. 😉

Another issue that struck me while I was reading this poem is thematic similarities between Poe’s poem and Quasimodo’s song about his bells in Notre Dame de Paris. I wonder if the playwright was influenced by Poe when he wrote this song? 🙂

Image taken from:

The Green Man, by Michael Bedard

2012 Book 81: The Green Man, by Michael Bedard (5/27/2012)

Reason for Reading: LibraryThing Early Review

My Review 4/5 stars
When her father temporarily moves to Italy, O is sent to live with her reclusive aunt Emily–so that O can take care of her aunt after a heart attack, and Emily can take care of O. In her eccentric way, Emily encourages O to get in touch with her inner poet, and O helps out by cleaning up her aunt’s dusty used book shop. However, there is a deeper evil that is creeping in to town…The Green Man was a very interesting specimen since it defies genres. In some ways, it’s a psychological mystery, in others a fantasy, and in others magical realism. Its deeper message is to encourage the poets in its readers–though you don’t have to appreciate poetry to enjoy the book. I think this book would be enjoyable to adults and budding young cerebrals of ages 10-13ish.

Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston

2012 Book 71: Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston (5/1/2012)

Reason for Reading: It was there

My Review 4.5/5 stars
Katrina Katrell suffers under the spiteful eye of her guardian Mrs. Krabone. When Krabby decides to get Katrina a lobotomy to get rid of her wild imagination, she runs away. She find Mortimer Yorgle, who is (unwillingly) on a quest to save the Yorgles of Zorgamazoo who have mysteriously vanished. They team up and have many fun adventures. This book is written entirely in rhyme—reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. It’s the kind of book that really ought to be read aloud. I was lucky enough to get it in audiobook form, which was VERY well read. Some of the rhymes were rather clever, and the book was lighthearted and silly. Very enjoyable!

The Surrender Tree, by Margarita Engle

2012 Book 44: The Surrender Tree, by Margarita Engle (3/5/2012)

Reason for Reading: It was there

My Review 4/5 stars
The Surrender Tree is a fictional set of narrative poems by actual historical figures in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain. The storyline was interesting and educational, and I was pleased that I’d taken the time to read this little book.

A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis

2012 Book 41: A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis (2/29/2012)

Reason for Reading: Wanted to better understand Paradise Lost. I’m not very good at poetry.

My Review: 4/5 stars
In this preface, Lewis first outlines what an epic poem is and what Milton was trying to do with Paradise Lost. Then he discusses his views on how Milton’s theology played a role in this epic. Lewis debunks the view that Milton had compassion for Satan. It was a good introduction, which I read before the poem because I thought it might help me comprehend the poem while I’m reading it. It was helpful, though it managed to make me more skeptical that I’ll comprehend Paradise Lost.