Butterflies and points of time

The Lepidopterist
Photo by Nabok. Creative Commons license.

 Vladimir Nabokov, who was a collector of  butterflies as well as an author,  alludes to this butterfly, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) in many of his writings. For example, 

“Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed,/ 

My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest/ 

My Admirable butterfly” (Pale Fire, line 269-271). 

Interviewed about it, Nabokov said “Its coloring is quite splendid and I liked it very much in my youth. Great numbers of them migrated from North Africa to Northern Russia, where it was called the ‘Butterfly of Doom’ because it first appeared in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and the markings on the underside of its two hind wings seems to read ‘1881’”. 


The Poet 

It’s not clear when he wrote it, but sometime in his long life (1899-1977), Vladimir Nabokov wrote about a summer rain in 1914 “when the numb fury of verse making first came over me….” 

He was in a pavilion in a park in St. Petersburg, where a thunderstorm had just passed with all those wonderful phenomena that attend the ending of a storm: steaming fields, a rainbow, fast flying clouds, the shimmering of the forest…. 


A moment later my first poem began. What touched it off? I think I know. Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief – the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes: I say “patter” intentionally, for when a gust of wind did come, the trees would briskly start to drip all together in as crude an imitation of the recent downpour as the stanza I was already muttering, resembled the shock of wonder I had experienced for a moment heart and leaf had been one. 

Nabokov's boyhood home in St. Petersburg

The moment passed, but he didn’t stop trying to compose his bit of verse. An encounter with the neighborhood schoolmaster, the singing of a cuckoo, passing awareness of a lost pedometer, the “savor of the grass stalk he was chewing” — all these distractions caused the words of his poem not to seem quite so “lustrous” as they had before, but they all came back again, nearly as glowing and alive as they’d been. 

That magical moment is what writing is about. In a sense, says Nabokov, “all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better. Tentacles, not wings, are Apollo’s natural members….” 

In the same piece Nabokov quotes a friend of his on a philosophical point. The scientist, he says “sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time.” 

Vladimir Nabokov

No matter what age we are, odd to say, I think we have many of those “points of time” left to us.



Author: latefruit

I am forever writing the great American novel, practicing the piano (in hopes of joining an amateur string quartet someday), gardening, and now, since I've gotten old when I wasn't looking, trying to figure out what that means.

One thought on “Butterflies and points of time”

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