Shade declares that he will “spy on beauty” as nobody has done before, and cry out, and try what hasn’t been tried. He spells out two methods of writing: A, which happens in a poet’s mind while he occupies himself with another task, and B, which happens when he is actually writing with a pen. In B, the “hand supports the thought” by transforming images or ideas into words, while A is agonizing, because the writer cannot think of anything but the poem, even as he tries to do something else. In method A, everything has to be in the poet’s head at once, but it’s possible that this makes the poem better, since he cannot write down a false line and just leave it there—sometimes the right word comes only when he’s away from his desk.
Shade’s revelation about life and death has reinvigorated his commitment to using his poetry to evoke the world’s beauty and invent new forms and patterns in his art. The fact that he turns from such a momentous spiritual revelation at the end of the last canto to a prosaic description of his writing process at the beginning of this one shows how Shade implicitly connects his writing to his spirituality. Creating his poetry is, for him, a type of creation that mirrors the way that the “players” in the last canto create patterns and accidents that form the beauty of human life. This passage suggests that Shade is always writing, even when he’s not physically writing, and that some of his truest ideas come when he’s out in the world, rather than at his desk.
Shade writes best on midsummer mornings. Once, he was half-asleep and imagined that he was on the dewy lawn wearing only one shoe—but when he woke up, one shoe was on the lawn, which was a “mystery,” “mirage,” and “miracle.”
These are the kinds of inexplicable events that make Shade rejoice, because they point to mystery and coincidence, which he associates with proof that there is truth and order to the universe that human beings can never know.
Since his biographer might be too proper or uninformed to know that he shaved in the bath, Shade details how he shaves and describes his skin thinning and how that makes him nick himself more. The commercials where one-armed men shave perfectly seem impossible; Shade struggles to shave even with both hands. But sometimes, when he suddenly realizes the perfect image or phrase for a poem, his hairs stand on end in the way that the man’s hairs do in the commercials when they’re held up with shaving cream. The blade traveling across Shade’s cheek is like cars driving on the highway or like plowing “Old Zembla’s fields.”
Shade’s description of shaving being a struggle until, in a moment of inspiration, his hairs stand on end just like they do in the commercials echoes his previous description of how writing poetry in his head is a horrific struggle until, suddenly, it isn’t. This passage also contains the poem’s only reference to “Zembla,” which is significant because Kinbote believed that the whole poem was going to be about his imagined homeland of Zembla. Instead, he got only this throwaway line. What’s worse is that this isn’t a reference to Zembla in the way that Kinbote means it—Shade isn’t referring to the faraway country that Kinbote believes himself to be from, but is instead making a literary allusion to an Alexander Pope poem that invokes Zembla in reference not to Kinbote’s homeland, but to the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya (also called Nova Zembla). Shade has previously written a book on Pope, so this allusion would be readily available to him.
“Man’s life as commentary to abstruse/Unfinished poem. Note for further use,” Shade writes. As he dresses, he roams the house thinking about poetry; his “muse” is with him wherever he goes. But at every moment, Sybil is also there, too, “beneath the word, above/The syllable, to underscore and stress/The vital rhythm.” She is youthful and she makes his old words—which he wrote for her—alive again when she speaks them.
It’s possible that Shade means the line about man’s life being a commentary on an unfinished poem as a metaphor for the human condition: that humanity is a footnote to a divine poem that is still unfolding. However, like the previous passage in which Shade seems to forecast Kinbote staying in a prairie motel with an amusement park outside the window, here Shade eerily predicts what Kinbote will do with the manuscript of “Pale Fire” after Shade’s death: use the commentary on an unfinished poem to tell his own story. In this passage, Shade also entwines art and domestic life once again by suggesting that Sybil is literally present in the rhythm of his poetry—it’s not that his poetry depicts her, it’s that his poetry contains her in some sense. This recalls Shade’s vision of “cells interlinked within cells” (a vision he had when he “died” after his heart attack) in that it shows how the patterns of the divine players are mirrored in the rhythm of poetry which reflects his love for his wife. All of these things—the divine, poetry, and marriage—exist at different scales, with different levels of abstraction, but they’re all interlinked rhythms.
Shade’s first book was called Dim Gulf, and next came Night Rote, then Hebe’s Cup, but then he decided to simply call everything “Poems.” However, this particular poem requires a “moondrop” title—“Help me, Will!” Shade exclaims, and then he writes “Pale Fire.”
Here, Shade is mocking his younger self for always choosing titles that came from another person’s work (all of these titles are references to other poems). Once he got over that phase, he decided to publish a book of poems simply called “Poems”—not a reference to anyone else. However, for “Pale Fire,” he decides that he needs a title from Shakespeare (“Will”), from whom he selects “Pale Fire.” But this is not a simple regression to Shade’s youthful need to borrow legitimacy from great poets by referencing them in his titles,—using “Pale Fire” as a title is a self-aware joke about borrowing artistic inspiration from others, since the passage of the play Timon of Athens in which the phrase “pale fire” appears is explicitly about getting inspiration from outside of oneself (the line is “the moon’s an arrant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun”). Shade has spent his whole life studying the poetry of others and writing his own poetry, and he feels intimately interconnected to the poets who have come before him. To feel confident enough to use “Pale Fire” as his semi-ironic title, Shade is acknowledging that all literature exists within a web of the language and literature that came before it and that he cannot separate his own poetry and inspiration from the work of others.
As the day fades, Shade feels tired and he lets go of some of the poetry he meant to write. He muses that maybe he loves the consonne d’appui because he believes that life itself is “fantastically planned” and “richly rhymed.” In this moment, he feels like he understands his existence only through his poetry. But the universe, like his poetry, “scans right,” and he believes that the poetry of galaxies is written also in iambic meter. He’s pretty sure that people survive death, and that his daughter is alive somewhere, just as he is “reasonably sure” that he’ll wake the next morning, July 22nd. With this, it’s time to put aside his poetry for the evening.
Consonne d’appui is a French term for “perfect rhyme”—that is, words like “pain” and “pane” that sound the same. In French poetry, it’s perfectly normal to have rhymed words that sound the same, but in English poetry this isn’t generally done (consonnes d’appui tend to strike English speakers as odd). As an English speaking poet, Shade would be expected to grimace at a consonne d’appui, but he loves them—and here he has a metaphysical theory as to why. To him, two unrelated words happening to sound the same is akin to the kinds of coincidences that show that the universe itself is planned and beautiful (“richly rhymed”). It’s actually through poetry itself that Shade can catch a glimpse of how he thinks the universe works—the way that he designs his poetry to be patterned and rhyming must resemble the way that the “players” design the universe. If people could decode the mysteries of the universe, they would find in it something similar to poetry—a sense that everything is orderly and beautiful, that the universe itself has been written in meter and rhyme. Shade takes great comfort in this insight—it suggests to him that his belief that his daughter still exists somewhere is no more absurd than his belief that he’ll wake up tomorrow, the 22nd of July. Of course, Shade does not wake up the next morning, since he dies right after writing these lines. Just like the mountain/fountain incident, it’s possible to interpret this as a grim and cynical indication that Shade’s theories of the afterlife are false, but it’s also possible to explain this line about waking up the next day as another uncanny and possibly prophetic aspect of Shade’s poem that suggests that he is, in some small way, in tune with aspects of the universe beyond himself.
The sun is setting, and Sybil is in the garden—Shade sees her shadow by the shagbark tree and hears a neighbor playing horseshoes. A Vanessa butterfly sweeps over the lawn, and “some neighbor’s gardener” walks by with a wheelbarrow.
The poem “Pale Fire” has no 1000th line—the final line (the 999th) is just one half of a couplet, with its rhyming pair missing. As Kinbote suggests, the first line (“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”) is a rhyming fit for the final line. It also fits in terms of the literal narrative of the poem; after 999 lines of exploring the interplay of life and death and the possibility of existence beyond death, Shade is killed in the moments after he sees his neighbor’s gardener—he is unexpectedly slain, like the waxwing. But the poem remains unfinished, and it’s not possible to know exactly what Shade would have done. There are a few things to note about this ending. First, the banal domesticity of these lines might seem a bit anticlimactic coming after the enormity of Shade’s revelations about life and death, but actually this ending fits with his beliefs—for Shade, the sublime patterns of the universe are everywhere, which means that the domestic is divine, and this ending is a quiet appreciation of what is, for Shade, the meaning of life: appreciating nature and his family. Second, the neighbor’s gardener pushing the wheelbarrow recalls the toy that Shade was playing with as a child in the moment that he had his first seizure (it was a tin man with a wheelbarrow). As a man with a wheelbarrow precedes both Shade’s first experience of death and his actual death just after writing this line, this is an example of the kind of patterning that Shade sees as evidence of a designed universe. Third, the Vanessa butterfly again appears in a moment that is weighted with associations of family and death—this time heralding Shade’s own death.