Wednesday, April 23, 2003

"His father was a Butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father's Trade, but when he kill'd a Calfe, he would doe it in a high style, and make a Speech....

This William being naturally inclined to Poetry and acting, came to London, I guesse, about eighteen. And was an Actor at one of the Play-houses, and did act exceedingly well.... He began early to make essayes at Dramatique Poetry, which at that time was very lowe; and his Plays took well. He was a handsome well shap't man: very good company, and of a very readie and pleasant smooth Witt."

--So recorded the indispensable John Aubrey. And today is this handsome William's birthday, his 439th by most accounts; somewhere, someone must be drinking a toast, someone else singing a song; the best present I can offer (help me, Will!) is one of his own poems, my current favourite sonnet, no. 29:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising,
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

And in one of literary history's most delightful coincidences, today is also the 104th anniversary of a somewhat celebrated, prodigiously talented Russian emigre writer (with a prose style as fancy as a murderer's), for whom I have long maintained a robust fondness; to commemorate which, I reproduce these lines from the great John Shade:

What moment in the gradual decay
Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?
Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another; therefore I'll not die.

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears. In this hive I'm
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird,
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!
("Pale Fire", ll. 209-220)

I feel obliged to append Charles Kinbote's note:

Lines 213-214: A syllogism
This may please a boy. Later in life we learn that we are those "others."

Meanwhile, prompted by Akiko Nakata of the Japanese Nabokov Society, a group of scholars & admirers (including Juan Martinez & Dmitri Nabokov himself) have created their own birthday gifts (jeux d'esprit, chess problems) & presented them here. Following their lead, I nervously offer this fragment, appropriate lepidopterously if in no other way:

The Dangers of the Parcel Post

On the morning of what was to be that fateful afternoon, the post arrived earlier than usual. He noticed a warm, kind scent in the daybreak air as he strode barefoot down the path to the letterbox at the gate. Two letters from friends and a postcard from an aunt, but what was this large bulging blue envelope? No return address; he ripped it open; and out poured a great cloud of butterflies, golden and green, which made a tipsy spiral round his head. He was delighted; he laughed out loud; who had sent them? No way to tell. The butterflies followed him up to the house; the sense of thrill lingered for hours. How could he know they were venomous; that they soon would grow bored?

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