Nabokov, of course, takes his title from Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene 3, lines 431-35:
“The sun’s a thief and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea’s a thief whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears . . .”
In lines 961-62 of John Shade’s poem-within-the-novel “Pale Fire,” he writes: “But this transparent thingum does require / Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.” Shade’s insane commentator, Charles Kinbote, glosses Shade’s lines like this: “But in which of the Bard's works did our poet cull it? My readers must make their own research. All I have with me is a tiny vest pocket edition of Timon of Athens — in Zemblan! It certainly contains nothing that could be regarded as an equivalent of `pale fire’ (if it had, my luck would have been a statistical monster).” The true “statistical monster,” of course, is that the only play he carries around is Timon of Athens, a minor work by anyone’s calculation, and written in a language that doesn’t exist except in Kinbote’s delusions of grandeur. In Pale Fire, Nabokov takes game-playing (“Word Golf”) and puzzle-solving, pleasures his critics find irritatingly trivial, and uses them in service to a profoundly sad and funny story. For its depiction of heart-broken grief in twentieth-century fiction, Hazel Shade’s suicide is rivaled only by Leopold Bloom’s vision of his dead son Rudy.
By happenstance, a reader last week sent me a passage from Timon of Athens as a comment on something I had written. I wrote back appreciatively and he replied with a story about his time in the airborne school at Fort Benning, Ga. He had three friends there, all, like him, university graduates and all humanities majors. Let him pick up the story:
“We played several literary games during our time together, the main one being `What poem is this line from?’ Another game was to pick the most beautiful passage from Shakespeare, an impossible chore, of course, but we pretended. It helped pass the time, and it was a lot of fun. In the Shakespeare game, I dug up the below lines from Timon of Athens. I remembered these men and our games when I quoted Timon…”
Here is the passage, spoken by Timon, my reader favored:
“Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood,
Who once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover; thither come,
And let my grave-stone be your oracle.”
My reader resumes:
“My pals, bright men all, agreed the passage was lovely, but, as you might expect, they had lines they thought more lovely—and their lines were at least as lovely. I have often thought, particularly now than I am older that no oracle speaks a greater truth, if truth can rest on gradients, than a grave-stone. I wonder after the four of us went our separate ways if any of the three were killed in Vietnam. I refuse to visit the wall and look.”
People like my colleague and my reader help make life endurable and rewarding. Poetry is not an academic recreation, a career move or a way to impress your friends with your sophistication. Here are the lines that follow the passage above, the final words spoken in the play by Timon:
“Lips, let sour words go by and language end:
What is amiss plague and infection mend!
Graves only be men's works and death their gain!
Sun, hide thy beams! Timon hath done his reign.”
Followed by a simple stage direction: “Retires to his cave.”