(Poem #1498) On Discovering a Butterfly
I found it and I named it, being versed in taxonomic Latin; thus became godfather to an insect and its first describer -- and I want no other fame. Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep), and safe from creeping relatives and rust, in the secluded stronghold where we keep type specimens it will transcend its dust. Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss, poems that take a thousand years to die but ape the immortality of this red label on a little butterfly.
While idly surfing the Minstrels archives (and if you haven't tried out the 'random poem' feature, do!) I came again upon the excerpt from this poem which Dr A Giridhar Rao had posted as a comment to Poem #1250. Quoting from Dr. Rao's mail: But why a _red_ label? The biologist Stephen Jay Gould in a brilliant essay (in _I Have Landed_, 2002) gives the answer: Museum curators traditionally affix red labels only to "holotype" specimens -- that is, to individuals chosen as official recipients of the name given to a new species. The necessity for such a rule arises from a common situation in taxonomic research. A later scientist may discover that the original namer of a species defined the group too broadly by including speciments from more than one genuine species.... By official rules, the species of the designated holotype specimen keeps the original name, and members of the newly recognized species must recieve a new name. Thus, Nabokov tells us that no product of human cultural construction can match the immortality of the permanent name-bearer for a genuine species in nature. The species may become extinct, of course, but the name continues forever to designate a genuine natural population that once inhabited the earth. Dr. Rao noted that the poem reflected the "vanity of human wishes", but it speaks, too, of something more specific - the bid for immortality that motivates even the "purest" of scientists. Scientific biographers speak, often with palpable surprise, of the "pettiness" that scientists can display in their quest for the all-important Precedence, but that is merely due to an idealised notion of a scientist who is supposed to transcend all human emotions in his quest for Truth. In reality, Scientists are as alive to the seduction of fame as anyone else - and the brand of fame they seek makes "the glories of our blood and state" look positively ephemeral. Of course poets have long espoused the conceit that words are the surest form of immortality - "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme" quoth the Bard - but Nabokov trumps even that with his "thus became [...] its first describer -- and I want no other fame." And although he says "it will transcend its dust", the temptation is irresistible to read, superposed on the "it", a triumphant "I". martin [Note] The butterfly in question, incidentally, was a pug moth named 'Eupithecia nabokovi' - and in an interesting essay I found on the web: Be that as it may, on solving a couple more Nabokov charades, one is tempted to ask the otherworldly VN whether he himself has noticed that hiding in the scholarly name of his Eupithecia Nabokovi is a "good monkey", Gr. eu-pithekos (which, to an extent, is also true of the bluntly English label Nabokov Pug, as it is from Gr. simos [flat-nosed, pug-nosed] that Lat. simia [monkey, ape] is derived). He must have, for that particular butterfly, the act of labeling, and the image of aping all converge on the closure of the poem celebrating VN's most cherished lepidopteral catch: Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,/ poems that take a thousand years to die/ but ape the immortality of this/ red label on a little butterfly ("A Discovery", 1943; in reciting this poem, Nabokov especially stressed the word ape). -- http://www.usc.edu/dept/las/sll/eng/ess/nabpuzzl.htm [Links] Biography of Nabokov: http://www.booksfactory.com/writers/nabokov.htm http://campus.queens.edu/faculty/jannr/Botany/taxonomy.htm is a nice page on taxonomy - an excerpt: Groan-inspiring puns like Phthiria relativitae (a fly whose name sounds like "theory of relativity") and Ytu brutus (a beetle) suggest that some taxonomists might be drinking out of the specimen bottles. If someone has a link to a picture of the celebrated pug moth, do send it in. martin