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"Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos" By John Shade
The poem begins, "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the windowpane," and moves on to describe, in the first Canto, Shade's early life. He felt he was merely a duplicate of himself, a reflection in snow. He remembers dull colors, drifting snow, and a bird's footprints. His eyes "photographed" all he saw. In his mind's eye, he sees a favorite tree, his daughter's swing, and the changes in his household. His parents, both ornithologists, died when Shade was very young; since their deaths, he has pictured them a thousand ways. His bizarre, artistic Aunt Maud raised him, which may account for some of his literary talent and strangeness. Before she died, Aunt Maud had gone crazy.
Shade was a clumsy child and not like other children. One day, playing with a clockwork toy, he had a sudden realization, an orgasmic throb: "distributed through space and time," he became aware of the timelessness of himself and of his limitless boundaries and connection to all things. Although he became an atheist early in life, Shade began to wonder what lay beyond death. He also questioned the human condition.
In canto two, Shade explains his quest for proof of life after death. In fact, he has decided to devote his life to finding evidence of an afterlife. Now, at age sixty-one, he still does not have the answers. Despite his search, he realizes that birds still sing the same. The poet pares his nails and muses on the silly nature of guesses about the afterlife.
Canto three recalls the time when Shade was asked by the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter to speak on the afterlife. Shade says the organization, with its crazy ideas, helped him to develop his own ideas; he now makes fun of the organization, saying they taught nonsense, such as how to prepare for a freak reincarnation. The poet then comments on the possible weird and dreamlike quality of afterlife. He thinks that the dead are probably very different than imagined.
Another time, Shade gives a talk to a club on "Why Poetry is Meaningful to Us." Just as he begins to take questions from the audience, he has a heart attack. Shade believes he has died; he claims he felt a nothingness and saw a tall, white fountain, where something perpetual dwelt. He then comes back to earth and realizes that he is recovering from a heart attack. The doctor claims that Shade was only half dead; but he insists he has really seen "the other side." Then one day he reads a magazine story about a woman who claims to have died and returned to life; she says she saw a white fountain, too. Shade is now certain there is an afterlife. He calls the writer of the story and drives three hundred miles to see her. During his visit with her, the woman will not concentrate on her life-after-death experience, for she is too impressed about meeting a famous poet. Shade gives up on the woman and goes back to question the journalist who has written the story about her. The journalist tells Shade that the story contained a misprint: white fountain should have been white mountain. Shade wonders if life everlasting is really just a misprint.
Canto four, the conclusion, begins by explaining how the poet seeks literary beauty. He prefers summertime for writing, for he can watch the birds and enjoy the summer lawn. He muses on his methods of composition, which are both labored and spontaneous; he agonizes over his subject and then finds that the right words only come through accident. He goes into a long description of shaving in the morning, making it into a metaphor for writing poetry.
Shade explains all the things he hates in life: jazz, abstract painting, Freud, folk-masks, pools, bores, brutes, frauds, and sharks. Instead, he likes the simple harmony and rhythms of literature and life. He feels that his art has given him a greater understanding of living. He remembers the books he has written and their titles. He then names this poem "Pale Fire." He then regrets the fact that he has grown old and that his days are routine. Only his wife breaks the monotony.