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.

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