Sunday, January 10, 2021

'Velvety-black, With a Warm Tint of Ripe Plum'

For Christmas I was given a putatively squirrel-proof bird feeder to place in the front garden so I can watch the goings-on while reading. I haven’t done tramping-in-the-woods, binoculars-around-the-neck birding in a good twenty years, so let the birds come to me. We set up the feeder Christmas morning – one tube of seeds, another of suet – and waited. The only visitors were squirrels, but the feeder’s design thwarted them while we watched their futile gymnastics.


Saturday morning, after fifteen birdless days, they discovered the goodies. First, pine warblers, three of them. Then a male cardinal followed by a female, a Northern mockingbird, a cedar waxwing and black-capped chickadees, all in less than an hour. Now the front-yard television is always on. In the winter, we stay tuned to birds and squirrels; in the warmer months, butterflies and seasonal avian visitors, hummingbirds. The cats love it and stare for hours through the big bay window, emitting the occasional low growl and twitching their tails.    


Speaking of butterflies, on January 10, 1921, Vladimir Nabokov, twenty-one years old and a sophomore at Cambridge University, wrote a poem in Russian, “Babochka (Vanessa antiopa),” translated by his son Dmitri Nabokov and Gavriel Shapiro as “A Butterfly (Vanessa antiopa)”:  


“Velvety-black, with a warm tint of ripe plum,

here it opened wide; through this live velvet

delightfully gleams a row of cornflower-azure grains,

along a circular fringe, yellow as the rippling rye.

It has perched on a trunk, and its jagged tender wings breathe,

now pressing themselves to bark, now turning toward the rays . . .

Oh, how they exult, how divinely they shiver! One would say:

A blue-eyed night is framed by two pale-yellow dawns.

Greetings, oh greetings, reverie of northern birch grove!

Thrill, and laughter, and love of my eternal youth.

Yes, I’ll recognize you in a Seraph at the wondrous meeting,

I’ll recognize your wings, their sacrosanct design.”


Vanessa antiopa, also known as Nymphalis antiopa, in the U.S. is called the mourning cloak and in Great Britain the Camberwell beauty. When I was collecting butterflies as a boy, I commonly found mourning cloaks in sunny patches in an oak grove. As usual, Nabokov’s color sense is precise: “a warm tint of ripe plum” can’t be bettered. The same goes for “A blue-eyed night is framed by two pale-yellow dawns.”


[The poem can be found in Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (eds. Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, Beacon Press, 2000).]

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