Sentences — March 6, 2009, 1:06 pm

Weekend Read: Three Kings

In my previous post, a few notes on D.T. Max’s piece on David Foster Wallace in the current New Yorker, I floated some preliminary ideas as to where the title of Wallace’s forthcoming posthumous unfinished novel, The Pale King, comes from.

Naturally, I’m making an assumption that the title does come from somewhere that precedes Wallace, and there are readers out there in the global interweb who wonder why I would do such a thing. Couldn’t Wallace have just “thought it up himself”? Sure, is one answer, but sparing us a Friday mini-essay on literary allusion I’ll just say that as Wallace’s previous novel, Infinite Jest, would seem to take its title from a play that treats, among other themes, the divided self, it’s not a big stretch to suppose that the title of the same writer’s next novel might have a source in his reading life as well.

I’ve already floated two possibilities, to which I’ll add a third, thanks to the eminent counsel of a friend, who wrote to say:

“the pale king” does appear (and more conspicuously than in the Tennyson example) in a famous suicide scene from a c-18th play by Hannah More, Percy.

This reference escaped me because, unlike my very widely-read friend, I had not read More–much less heard of her–before yesterday. One should always read more widely, and, apparently, More, widely. So for this edition of the weekend read, I offer you and allusive trifecta: the three sources (so far) from whence Wallace may have nabbed his title.

From More’s “Percy”—

Elwina: I wrought it for my love—there, now I’ve drest him.
How brave he looks ! my father will forgive him,
He dearly lov’d him once—but that is over !
See where he comes—beware, my gallant Percy !
Ah ! come not here, this is the cave of death,
And there’s the dark, dark palace of revenge !
See, the pale king sits on his blood-stain’d throne !
He points to me—I come, I come, I come.

(She faints, they run to her; DOUGLAS takes up his sword, and stabs himself.)

Douglas: Thus, thus I follow thee.

Edric: Hold thy rash hand.

Douglas: It is too late. No remedy but this Could med’cine a disease so desperate.

—the complete text of which you can download here.

As to those other sources mentioned before. There’s Edward Bulwer Lytton Lytton’s “King Arthur”—

Forests of emerald verdure spread below,
Through which proud columns glisten far and wide,
On to the bark the mourner’s footsteps go;
The pale King stands by the pale phantom’s side;
And Lancelot sprang—but sudden from his reach
Glanced the wan skiff, and left him on the beach.

—which you can download here.

And from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”—

…when the dolorous day
Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came
A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew
The mist aside, and with that wind the tide
Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle: but no man was moving there …

—which you can download here.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2016

Separated at Birth

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Priest in the Trees

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Lightness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

With Child

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Standing Rock Speaks

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Prose by Any Other Name

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
With Child·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley
Article
Swat Team·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views."
Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Escape from The Caliphate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"When Matti invited me on a tour of the neighborhood, I asked about security. 'The message has already been passed to ISIS that you’re here,' he said. 'But don’t worry. I guarantee I could bring even you in and out of the Islamic State.'"
Photograph (detail) by Alice Martins
Article
In This One·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Illustration (detail) by Shonagh Rae
Article
“Don’t Touch My Medicare!”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Medicare’s popularity, however, comes with almost no understanding of what the program is and how it works."
Illustration (detail) by Nate Kitch

Amount of sunscreen Bob Dole uses:

0

A study of wheat prices suggested that sunspots influence crop success.

Hundreds of Viagra pills were found in the office of the South Korean president, who is a woman; North Korean leader Kim Jong-un asked his country’s scientists to develop a cure for sexual dysfunction using snake extracts, mushrooms, and sea urchins.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today