Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026943, Tue, 12 Apr 2016 00:38:59 -0300

Dainty jellies and warm gules
Jansy Mello:
In RLSK, John Keats' poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is mentioned directly (
I found more information on line about VN's deep interest in this balad with
a link to a work by S.Shvabrin:
http://complit.dukejournals.org/content/65/1/101.abstract ) and, of course,
we cannot forget "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" in PF but, on the
whole, Nabokov seems to have been rather economical in his praise (the
British Romantic poets in ADA are more often victims of his critical
There's one long poem by Keats that could have been specially appealing to
Nabokov's sensuous apprehension of nature by its verbal imagery, its
rendering of miraculous visions, and by the emphasis on the color effect of
stained-glass windows, but I cannot remember finding any direct indication
of "The Eve of Saint Agnes" anywhere in his novels.
I was reading it again today (spurred by a quote found in a forthcoming
British novel) and the selected lines about "spiced dainties" and "jellies"
(candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd...) led me, in their turn, to
one of VN's short-stories.
"And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon."
In "Signs and Symbols", we find:
"After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten
him (anything in the gadget line for instance was taboo), his parents chose
a dainty and innocent trifle: a basket with ten different fruit jellies in
ten little jars."
And there are so many things to wonder and interpret in this story that I
must confess that I only noticed that, although the number of little jars of
fruit jellies is ten, Nabokov has detailed only five or them: "His clumsy
moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum,
quince. He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang again."
For Nabokov these jellies carried "eloquent" labels indicating how the name
of the selected fruits, itself, could be as valuable as their flavor or
color. With the exception of "gourd" found in Keats' verses all the other
"dainty trifles" were cited in SS. Nevertheless, I could find no other
"logical" connection to justify a deliberate link for the two sets of
proffered seductive gifts.
Perhaps Keats was closer to VN's heart than to his conscious mind - for I'm
thinking now about an uncommon word, mainly employed in heraldry, which
appears in Keats' poem when he describes emblazoned stained glass
reflections ( "warm gules"*) - not too far from the list of Porphyro's
offerings just quoted - and that also appears in "Pale Fire":
"From far below mounted the clink and tinkle of distant masonry work, and a
sudden train passed between gardens, and a heraldic butterfly volant en
arrière, sable, a bend gules, traversed the stone parapet, and John Shade
took a fresh card." (CK on Line 408).
Even closer to Keats' specific employ of "gules"- when he blends heraldic
motifs and colored vitraux [also in association to the emblems and wings of
a (heraldic) tiger-moth**] - we find it again. In "Spring in Fialta":
"At the beginning of his career, it had been possible perhaps to
distinguish some human landscape[ ] through the stained glass of his
prodigious prose... but with every new book the tints grew still more dense,
the gules and purpure still more ominous; and today one can no longer see
anything at all through that blazoned, ghastly rich glass and it seems that
were one to break it, nothing but a perfectly black void would face one's
shivering soul."
*[ ] A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,
All garlanded with carven imag'ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings;
And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings.

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon [ ] John Keats.

** Butterflies and Moths In Nabokov's Published Writings. Dieter Zimmer
tiger moth: any member of the family »Arctiidae
<http://www.d-e-zimmer.de/eGuide/Lep2.1-A.htm> .
In The Gift (p. 110), there is mention of "the small resonant tympanum of
certain tiger moths" [ ] The Tigermoth of Lolita ("I picked her up one
depraved May evening somewhere between ... Toylestown and Blake, at a
darkishly burning bar under the sign of the Tigermoth, where she was amiably
drunk") is a double reference: (1) To the neon sign of some bar displaying
what looks like an Arctia species. (2) To William Blake's famous poem "The
Tyger" (1794): "Tyger tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night
..." *Gift 110; Lol 258; SelLet 414

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