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On Discovering a Butterfly -- Vladimir Nabokov

(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.
-- Vladimir Nabokov
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

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".



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”).



Biography of Nabokov: 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


44 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Allen Edward said...


This isn't the whole poem. Perhaps this is an early draft. The actual
name of the poem in "A Discovery," and it's in Volume 2 of the NORTON
ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE. The whole poem is much longer, eight
or nine stanzas, I think. These are just the last three stanzas.

Ed Allen

Vermillion, South Dakota

William L. Overal said...

Comments by William L. Overal: The species cited in a comment is a moth and was not described by Nabokov but, rather, in his honor. It is unethical for describers to name species after themselves. Tuesday, February 26, 2008.

Max Barclay said...

As William points out, the 'essay from the web' cited above (in fact by Alexander Zholkovsky) gets it wrong. Eupithecia nabokovi was not described by Nabokov (who was an expert in butterflies, not moths) but by his friend McDunnough in 1946. The name was given to specimens collected by Nabokov in Alta, Utah.
The association of Eupithecia with monkeys, though compelling, is a red herring. The genus Eupithecia, to which the new moth Nabokov caught happened to belong, was named in England in 1825 by John Curtis!

Max Barclay said...

I frequently quote this fantastic poem in lectures and talks about entomology and taxonomy- though I tend to omit the middle stanza which for all sorts of reasons (I can't believe I am just on the verge of being critical about a literary and entomological genius!) is not up to the standard of the other two. The 'fast asleep' (as a euphemism for 'dead') always makes me flinch.

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