More Light Than Heat

books burning

This week is Banned Books Awareness week, so I dutifully read some Nabokov. Ok, ok, it wasn’t Lolita, to be honest, but Pale Fire. Dutifully, did I say? With pleasure. It’s a jewel of an example of Menippean satire—self-reflective, digressive, allusive, macaronic (gently so), nonlinear, logophilic, indulgent, rambunctious, layered, reckless, precise, exasperating, lush. But this post is not about Pale Fire, oh no. It’s about an unexpected gift.

Whether this gift came from Bede or Brigid, patron saints of scholarship, or St. Philip Neri, patron of clowns, whether from Hermes or Theuth or Loki, whether from my guardian angel or my dear Wormwood, graphology has not yet been able to determine. Perhaps it came from some Nabokovian agent, perhaps from Pale Fire itself, for “Books are not absolutely dead things,” etc., etc. All I can say for sure is that when I opened my copy of Pale Fire, first UK edition, 1962, acquired in a used bookstore in Oxford for 4 quid, a gaunt and jaundiced letter slipped from the austere black hardcover of its dam like some reprobate fledgling Puritan runt, and fluttered to my feet with Cervantick gravity.

It was one of those windfalls of fate, as sometimes happens when a junior scholar is handed the Iliad in Homer’s own hand, or when a copy of Beowulf turns up signed by the author and unsinged by fire, or when the office of Dombey and Son accidentally mails you, and not the late departed Mr. Krook, a newly discovered authorized conclusion to a famously unfinished Victorian novel, dusty from the recesses of an old curiosity shop in The City. Fate sometimes throws scholarly melons at the feet of the unworthy. Apples of gold in settings of silver. Things yet unpublished in prose or rhyme. There it lay on the floor beside my bookcase, argent with the cold spirituality of moonbeams.

The letter, written in a bold hand, contained a complete copy of that singular poem we can now only ascribe to the “Palaverous Pedant,” a masterful devotee of the school of Ogden Nash and Julia A. Moore (poets so similar in technique, tone, and purpose that scholars have often pondered if one is a nom de plume of the other). This in itself was a priceless find, but in a much more timid script, behold! There were explanatory notes, written by one Aaron Theeph, notes which solved many of the hot debates surrounding Palaverous Pedant scholarship of the last century. I have reason to believe that this Aaron Theeph (a name I suspect to be pseudonymous, and belonging to one whose personality I cannot entirely reconstruct, due to the variety of ways he crossed his T’s) was granted access to the inmost recesses of the mind of the Palaverous Pedant. The notes are so coherent, and the luminous flux of his ideas so revelatory, that I could not bear to keep this treasure to myself. Rather than subject the world to a trial of patience, to the obstacle of having to pre-order a copy of this work while awaiting publication— verily, rather than subject myself to the onerous task of having to choose one publisher among a slough of equally reputable and solicitous academic houses (a task more epic and more inevitable than the judgment of Paris, had I chosen to go the traditional route of scholarly publication)— indeed I have decided a gift this rare and precious must be made freely available to all (or at least, all who read Reflection & Choice). When the British Library’s Treasures Gallery contacts me for permission to showcase the original manuscript, I will update my readers of this, as well. Dutifully and with pleasure.

With the patience of Griselda, I have scrutinized each mote, each heavenly serif launched from each stroke of each letter in the manuscript, and have compared the newfound manuscript with related holdings in the Bodleian and the Beinecke. Having attended to the slightest of textual variants, I am confident in affirming the authenticity of my good fortune. As for Aaron Theeph, he must have been a much younger but intimate friend of the P.P., who had begun adding his commentary shortly after the poem was written, but whose labors must have ended only recently, since the pages are yellow but some notes contain references to recently published works, since the notes are unevenly spaced, and since there are differences in the level of iron gall ink corrosion from note to note. What is most relevant, however (as the careful reader will undoubtedly discover), is the fact that the notes’ engagement with the poem obviously betrays a spiritual kinship between vatic poet and precocious commentator.

I admit, I had to curb the tide of my own ego to keep myself from too cheaply ensuring the posterity of my own name by forcibly wedding my own commentary, along with that of Mr. Theeph, to that most excellent of villanelles. I began to write, for at first the project of supplying the reader with notes on the notes seemed not only useful, but necessary, and I positively heard the call of the siren. “Meden Agan,” I told myself.

At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page. But perhaps the pleasure I imagined for myself, and the temptation I believed myself heroically eluding, would really have been a hopeless toil. It is any thing but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one’s intellect is dwindling away. Whether from indolence, incapacity, humility, complacent confidence in the expectation of eventually making a name for myself some other way, or altruistic eagerness to share my discovery with you without delay, the notes will go noteless for the nonce. Only, upon the recommendation of a colleague in the department of Lately Acquired Antiquities at my home university, after listening to his concern that the reader might not otherwise “get it” (the true value of the work I am sharing with the world, I believe he meant) I have permitted myself this one peccadillo of a preface. May the reader forgive.

 Portrait from an acrolith-statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian, from the Trajaneum in Pergamon, early 2nd century AD, Pergamon Museum Berlin

The Palaverous Pedant’s Villanelle on Conciseness

(To which is Added some Reflections on Redundancy and

 Intimations of the Poet’s Opinions on Derivative Discourse)

*A new edition with notes by Aaron Theeph, adhering to the text of the Houston manuscript.


Short retort


Cuts kin and kith

And all who consort


The Fustian Smith

Of the sentence. (I speak of the sesquipedalian sort.)


Equips me therewith

To laconically snort


Derision at all those palaverous pedants who fashion and fiddle with their acrolith

Of cadaverous middle. I cut to the point and this point I support:


Dispels the myth

That the worse is the short—so quadriplegize the thing you distort, and replace your loquacious pontifical sport




Line 1: With 

The introduction of a monosyllable as the A1 refrain of the villanelle is novel, if seemingly motivated by the indolence of the poet. Certainly the repetition of the versatile word with proved no great conundrum for the poet in the throes of composition. The single word supports the theme of conciseness promised (albeit disrupted) by the poem’s title. To begin the poem with a preposition, the part of speech whose purpose is to identify relationships, is to recognize the failures of insularity. No man is an island. No preposition, whatever virtues it may have in terms of concision, can stand alone. This is perhaps the most significant opening line of all poems in the English language.

Line 3: Pith

The Oxford English Dictionary records the 1398 translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum as one of the earliest occurrences of pith (here piþþe) in the English language: “In a harde tre is neisshe piþþe [L. medullam]… some men clepeþ þat piþþe þe moder of þe tre, for þer Inne þe semynal humour of þe tree is y-fedde.” The pith, the soft internal tissue of a plant, or the substance of the spinal canal in an animal, is used in the abstract sense to refer to the most essential, vital, or innermost part of a thing. Here pith refers to the sine qua non of the meaning of a sentence. Interestingly, it seems to the editor that pith is a difficult metaphor for the most substantial part of a thing, for the various concrete manifestations of pith are spongy, soft, or fluid in nature. Pith as an image of vitality is also problematic, for it is not only alive, but also vivifying. To reduce a sentence to its very core then cannot be done in a single pruning, for new growth, new verbal tendrils from the vine of the communicating power, will be cultivated by clipping. The work under our labor grows luxurious by restraint; what we by day lop overgrown; or prune, or prop, or bind, one night or two with wanton growth derides, tending to wild.

This emergent paradox becomes further problematized later in the poem, when the image of the acrolith is introduced (See note for lines 13-14).

Line 4: Kin and Kith 

The inversion of the idiom “kith and kin” is quite skillfully introduced. In a poem about breaking linguistic structures, the insertion of a recognizable cliché would serve at cross-purposes. The poet demands the reader’s attention by employing unexpected word ordering. Kith, etymologically derived from the Old English cýðð, cýð, held the now-obsolete meaning of “something known” before taking on its narrower meaning of “friend, acquaintance.” The word order is thus further significant in that it corresponds to readerly expectations regarding propinquity. The kin or blood relations of the Fustian Smith of the sentence must be excised first, and then the kith, or acquaintances, can be removed (The kin being, most probably, a reference to all overlong sentences either inspired by or serving as models for the Fustian Wordsmith). Concise, after all, comes from the Latin verb concidere, “to cut to pieces.” The best way to begin dealing with a too, too fleshly sentence in all its baroque flourish and unnecessary trimming is to first identify and cut to the root, the core, the pith, if you will, of the meaning of the proposition. With the phrase kin and kith thus semantically oversaturated, there is little reason to suspect that the inversion of this idiom was forced by the exigencies of rhyme attendant upon the form of the villanelle; one would rather suppose that the other corresponding rhymes were adjusted to fit with it.

Line 5: Fustian Smith

Most scholars have identified this Fustian Smith as Weland or Wayland, the Germanic or Norse blacksmith god. The reasons for this are trifold.

Line 8: Sesquipedalian

On first glance one might be susceptible to the charming idea that the word sesquipedalian has the virtue of being exactly what it means—a word a foot and a half long. The phrase sequipedalia verba is first found in Horace’s Ars Poetica, but the metaphor is in fact arbitrary beyond its vague intimation of extraordinary length. More precisely and in terms of prosody, the metrical rhythm of the word sesquipedalian is clearly dactylic dimeter, and therefore, having two complete metrical feet, the word sesquipedalian is in fact not sesquipedalian in the prosodic sense. The line therefore deconstructs itself.

Line 11: Laconically Snort

Choice instances of Spartan snorting may be found in Caroline Dale Snedeker’s The Spartan (Doubleday, 1912), p. 294; Xenophon’s Constitution of the Spartans as retold in Ernle Bradford’s Thermopylae: The Battle for the West (Open Road Media, 2014), no pp.; and Michael Emmerich’s 100 Things Michigan State Fans Should Do Before They Die (Triumph Books, 2013), no pp. Accessed on Google Books, September 3, 2014.

Line 13: Palaverous Pedants

This is the moment where the poet’s true spirit of linguistic play is revealed. The poet has created a speaker who laments the infiltration of palaverous pedants upon our language. But in the process of this jeremiad, the poet-prophet falls into the very cistern whose filth he derides with the fixed bayonet of his pointed finger. The speaker of the poem (whose identity ought to be severed from the poet’s own voice) becomes a redundancy, a palaverous pedant himself. There are Foucauldian and Sapphic verbal echoes here.

Pedant has an ambiguous etymology here. The OED notes that the word could derive from a form of pedagogue, or one who teaches, and presumably leads, children (Gk. παιδ- , παῖς ); it could also be associated with the Italian pedante, foot soldier, pedestrian (and thereby perhaps not entirely unaligned with the peripatetic school of philosophy). A chiastic structure emerges among infantry (walkers), infants (non-talkers), palaverous pedants (talkers) and pedestrians (walkers).

Lines 13-14: Acrolith / Of cadaverous middle 

See note for line 3.

Line 14: Cut to the point and this point I support

The poet has determined that the point cannot stand by itself, and must be supported, even if it must first be reached through incisive methods. The point is like the topmost portion of a Gothic arch… lofty and significant, but never self-enclosing. For a good pointed arch must point somewhere (viz., to heaven) and it must be supported with flying buttresses (directing its weight to earth). Similarly, the semantic point of the villanelle must be an adornment, it must be supported, and it must direct the reader’s attention to something beyond itself. Sentence in Middle English denotes meaningful instruction, and a sentence in today’s English requires both subject and predicate. Pith alone is insufficient to form any sentence whatsoever; verbs are needed, and in this poem the verbs are transitive—pointing to the need for an additional element: the direct object. Pith cuts, equips, and dispels some-other-thing. It is significant that the last two stanzas contain the longest lines of the poem. The speaker cannot keep himself from elaboration.

Line 16: Myth

Further evidence that the Fustian Smith of the Sentence is Weland.

Line 17: Quadriplegize

An ill-conceived and uncomfortable metaphor using a neologism that has none of the authority of the OED behind it. If the poet meant “cut off all four limbs” (with reference to the acrolith with stone extremities and a cadaverous middle), then the coined verb “quadriplegize” is certainly wrongly applied here, for quadriplegia involves paralysis, not necessarily the removal of limbs. “Tetramputate” would be a more suitable alternative, but the image itself is still distasteful.


This is a direct reference to Shelley’s famous description of poets not only as the legislators of the world but foremost as the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration.


The surprising intrusion of the word sport here undercuts the ostensible, authoritarian message of the poem: Concise language is desirable. The playful connotations of sport identify the flourishes of language, the nonessential additions to the core message, to be an arena for diversion, if not joy. As Johan Huizinga masterfully articulated in Homo Ludens, the element of play is essential and significant to human nature and development, and to culture at large. With respect to linguistic play, cf. Derrida’s Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences and Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop.

Postscript: The author respectfully requests that any comments begin with the word “Actually.” Not that she demands you read any of these 2550 words.

4 responses

  1. Hey, I belong to the Nabokov List, but I can’t figure out how to reply to it. Anyway, you asked where else you might find novels written in the style of Pale Fire. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips is an excellent example of this.

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