dark-blue sea, mirabilic year, insects & incest in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 10/01/2018 - 12:46

In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Van and Ada find out that they are brother and sister thanks to Marina’s old herbarium that they discovered in the attic of Ardis Hall:


The two kids’ best find, however, came from another carton in a lower layer of the past. This was a small green album with neatly glued flowers that Marina had picked or otherwise obtained at Ex, a mountain resort, not far from Brig, Switzerland, where she had sojourned before her marriage, mostly in a rented chalet. The first twenty pages were adorned with a number of little plants collected at random, in August, 1869, on the grassy slopes above the chalet, or in the park of the Hotel Florey, or in the garden of the sanatorium neat: it (‘my nusshaus,’ as poor Aqua dubbed it, or ‘the Home,’ as Marina more demurely identified it in her locality notes). Those introductory pages did not present much botanical or psychological interest; and the fifty last pages or so remained blank; but the middle part, with a conspicuous decrease in number of specimens, proved to be a regular little melodrama acted out by the ghosts of dead flowers. The specimens were on one side of the folio, with Marina Dourmanoff (sic)’s notes en regard.


Ancolie Bleue des Alpes, Ex en Valais, i.IX.69. From Englishman in hotel. ‘Alpine Columbine, color of your eyes.’

Epervière auricule. 25.X.69, Ex, ex Dr Lapiner’s walled alpine garden.

Golden [ginkgo] leaf: fallen out of a book’ The Truth about Terra’ which Aqua gave me before going back to her Home. 14.XII.69.

Artificial edelweiss brought by my new nurse with a note from Aqua saying it came from a mizernoe and bizarre’ Christmas Tree at the Home. 25.XII.69.

Petal of orchid, one of 99 orchids, if you please, mailed to me yesterday, Special Delivery, c’est bien le cas de le dire, from Villa Armina, Alpes Maritimes. Have laid aside ten for Aqua to be taken to her at her Home. Ex en Valais, Switzerland. ‘Snowing in Fate’s crystal ball,’ as he used to say. (Date erased.)

Gentiane de Koch, rare, brought by lapochka [darling] Lapiner from his ‘mute gentiarium’ 5.I.1870.

[blue-ink blot shaped accidentally like a flower, or improved felt-pen deletion] (Compliquaria compliquata var. aquamarina. Ex, 15.I.70.

Fancy flower of paper, found in Aqua’s purse. Ex, 16.II.1870, made by a fellow patient, at the Home, which is no longer hers.

Gentiana verna (printanière). Ex, 28.III.1870, on the lawn of my nurse’s cottage. Last day here.


'I deduce,' said the boy, 'three main facts: that not yet married Marina and her married sister hibernated in my lieu de naissance; that Marina had her own Dr Krolik, pour ainsi dire; and that the orchids came from Demon who preferred to stay by the sea, his dark-blue great-grandmother.'

'I can add,' said the girl, 'that the petal belongs to the common Butterfly Orchis; that my mother was even crazier than her sister; and that the paper flower so cavalierly dismissed is a perfectly recognizable reproduction of an early-spring sanicle that I saw in profusion on hills in coastal California last February. Dr Krolik, our local naturalist, to whom you, Van, have referred, as Jane Austen might have phrased it, for the sake of rapid narrative information (you recall Brown, don't you, Smith?), has determined the example I brought back from Sacramento to Ardis, as the Bear-Foot, B,E,A,R, my love, not my foot or yours, or the Stabian flower girl's - an allusion, which your father, who, according to Blanche, is also mine, would understand like this' (American finger-snap). ‘You will be grateful,’ she continued, embracing him, ‘for my not mentioning its scientific name. Incidentally the other foot — the Pied de Lion from that poor little Christmas larch, is by the same hand — possibly belonging to a very sick Chinese boy who came all the way from Barkley College.’

‘Good for you, Pompeianella (whom you saw scattering her flowers in one of Uncle Dan’s picture books, but whom I admired last summer in a Naples museum). Now don’t you think we should resume our shorts and shirts and go down, and bury or burn this album at once, girl. Right?

‘Right,’ answered Ada. ‘Destroy and forget. But we still have an hour before tea.’

Re the ‘dark-blue’ allusion, left hanging:

A former viceroy of Estoty, Prince Ivan Temnosiniy, father of the children’s great-great-grandmother, Princess Sofia Zemski (1755–1809), and a direct descendant of the Yaroslav rulers of pre-Tartar times, had a millennium-old name that meant in Russian ‘dark blue.’ While happening to be immune to the sumptuous thrills of genealogic awareness, and indifferent to the fact that oafs attribute both the aloofness and the fervor to snobbishness, Van could not help feeling esthetically moved by the velvet background he was always able to distinguish as a comforting, omnipresent summer sky through the black foliage of the family tree. In later years he had never been able to reread Proust (as he had never been able to enjoy again the perfumed gum of Turkish paste) without a roll-wave of surfeit and a rasp of gravelly heartburn; yet his favorite purple passage remained the one concerning the name ‘Guermantes,’ with whose hue his adjacent ultramarine merged in the prism of his mind, pleasantly teasing Van’s artistic vanity.

Hue or who? Awkward. Reword! (marginal note in Ada Veen’s late hand) (1.1)


At the beginning of The Corsair (1814), a tale in verse, Lord Byron (a poet who had a romance with his half-sister Augusta and whose daughter's name was Ada) mentions “the dark-blue sea:”


O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,

Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire and behold our home! (Canto One)


Byron’s Corsair was made into a tragedy (Korser, 1827) by Olin, a writer who criticized Pushkin’s poem Bakhchisarayskiy fontan (“The Fountain of Bakhchisaray,” 1823) for the absence of plan. There is Olin in Kolin, a character in VN’s novel Mashen’ka (“Mary,” 1926). The two ballet dancers, Kolin and Gornotsvetov are Ganin's neighbors in a Berlin boarding house. The name Gornotsvetov comes from gornyi tsvet (mountain flower). When she was pregnant with Van, Marina collected flowers in the Swiss Alps. The name Ganin (of the main character in "Mary") brings to mind Ganina Yama (Ganya's Pit), a pit near Ekaterinburg into which the bodies of the tsar Nicholas II and his family were thrown after their execution in July, 1918. Describing Aqua's torments, Van mentions soft black pits (yamy, yamishchi) in her mind:


It was now the forming of soft black pits (yamy, yamishchi) in her mind, between the dimming sculptures of thought and recollection, that tormented her phenomenally; mental panic and physical pain joined black-ruby hands, one making her pray for sanity, the other, plead for death. (1.3)


The characters of Ada include Marina’s lover Pedro, a Latin ballet dancer and actor (1.32 et passim). Don Pedro is a character in Aldanov’s trilogy “The Key” (1928), “The Escape” (1932), “The Cave” (1936). In his review of "The Cave" VN quotes a letter from Russia in which Nikonov (a character in Aldanov's novel) describes Lenin and his gang being photographed in the Kremlin for the posterity. The main character in Aldanov’s novella Mogila voina (“A Soldier’s Grave,” 1938) is Byron.


To Olin's criticism of "The Fountain of Bakhchisaray" Pushkin responded with O tragedii Olina “Korser” (“On Olin’s Tragedy Korser,” <1828>), a MS article that ends in the exclamation “o miratores!” (“o admirers!”):


Что же мы подумаем о писателе, который из поэмы «Корсар» выберет один токмо план, достойный нелепой испанской повести, и по сему детскому плану составит драматическую трилогию, заменив очаровательную глубокую поэзию Байрона прозой надутой и уродливой, достойной наших несчастных подражателей покойного Коцебу? — вот что сделал г-н Олин, написав свою романтическую трагедию «Корсер»,— подражание Байрону. Спрашивается: что же в Байроновой поэме его поразило — неужели план? о miratores!..


A play on o imitatores (“o imitators,” a phrase used by Horace in Epistles, 1.19.19), o miratores brings to mind “a mirabilic year” and “a mirage in an emirate” mentioned by Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada):


The modest narrator has to remind the rereader of all this, because in April (my favorite month), 1869 (by no means a mirabilic year), on St George’s Day (according to Mlle Larivière’s maudlin memoirs) Demon Veen married Aqua Veen — out of spite and pity, a not unusual blend.

Was there some additional spice? Marina, with perverse vainglory, used to affirm in bed that Demon's senses must have been influenced by a queer sort of 'incestuous' (whatever that term means) pleasure (in the sense of the French plaisir, which works up a lot of supplementary spinal vibrato), when he fondled, and savored, and delicately parted and defiled, in unmentionable but fascinating ways, flesh (une chair) that was both that of his wife and that of his mistress, the blended and brightened charms of twin peris, an Aquamarina both single and double, a mirage in an emirate, a germinate gem, an orgy of epithelial alliterations. (1.3)


“A mirabilic year” hints at the Latin phrase annus mirabilis (miraculous year). Annus Mirabilis (1667) is a poem by John Dryden. Byron is the author of The Age of Bronze: or, Carmen Seculare et Annus haud Mirabilis (1823). Haud means in Latin “by no means” (and in Estonian “grave”). The society nickname of Van’s and Ada’s father seems to hint not only at Lermontov’s Demon, but also at Pushkin’s poem (1823) of the same title. In a letter of June 24-25, 1824, to Vyazemski Pushkin says that Byron’s genius paled with his youth and that in his tragedies he is not that fiery demon anymore who composed The Giaour and The Childe Harold:


Гений Байрона бледнел с его молодостию. В своих трагедиях, не выключая и Каина, он уже не тот пламенный демон, который создал «Гяура» и «Чильд-Гарольда». Первые две песни «Дон Жуана» выше следующих. Его поэзия видимо изменялась. Он весь создан был навыворот; постепенности в нём не было, он вдруг созрел и возмужал — пропел и замолчал; и первые звуки его уже ему не возвратились — после 4-ой песни Child Harold Байрона мы не слыхали, а писал какой-то другой поэт с высоким человеческим талантом.

Byron’s genius paled with his youth. In his tragedies, not excluding Cain, he is not that fiery demon anymore who composed The Giaour and The Childe Harold. The first two Cantos of Don Juan are better than the others. His poetry changed visibly. He was created completely topsy-turvy; there was no gradualness in him, he suddenly matured and attained manhood, sang his song, and fell silent; and his first sounds did not return to him.”


In Vyazemski there is Zemski (Van, Ada and their half-sister Lucette are the descendants of Prince Vseslav Zemski).


It is believed that in Pushkin’s poem Sobranie nasekomykh (“The Insect Collection,” 1829) chyornaya murashka (“the black ant”) is Olin:


Какие крохотны коровки!
Есть, право, менее булавочной головки.


Моё собранье насекомых

Открыто для моих знакомых:

Ну, что за пёстрая семья!

За ними где ни рылся я!

Зато какая сортировка!

Вот <Глинка> — божия коровка,

Вот <Каченовский> — злой паук,

Вот и <Свиньин> — российский жук,

Вот <Олин><?> — чёрная мурашка,

Вот <Раич><?> — мелкая букашка.

Куда их много набралось!

Опрятно за стеклом и в рамах

Они, пронзённые насквозь,

Рядком торчат на эпиграммах.


Bozhiya korovka (the ladybird, as Pushkin calls Fyodor Glinka, a minor poet) brings to mind a ladybird mentioned by Marina during Van’s first tea party at Ardis:


They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily. Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.

‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.

‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’

‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.

‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’

‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’

‘Pah,’ uttered Ada. (1.5)


"Queen Josephine" seems to hint at Josephine Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife. The characters of Ada include Kim Beauharnais, the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis whom Van blinds for spying on him and Ada and blackmailing Ada (2.11). In his poem K moryu (“To the Sea,” 1824) Pushkin pairs Napoleon with Byron.


In VN's story Sluchaynost' ("A Matter of Chance," 1924) old Princess Ukhtomski mentions a set of amusing plates with a mosquito in the center:


Ухтомская слегка придвинулась и продолжала -- ясно, слегка певуче, без грусти, будто знала, что говорить о хорошем можно только хорошо, по-доброму, не досадуя на то, что оно исчезло:
-- Вот... Тарелки были у нас. Золотая, знаете, каёмка, а посерёдке -- по самой серёдке -- комар, ну, совсем настоящий... Кто не знает, непременно захочет смахнуть...


The Princess moved a little closer and went on, in a clear, slightly lilting voice, without sadness, for she knew that happy things can only be spoken of in a happy way, without grieving because they have vanished:
“Let me tell you,” she went on, “we had a set of amusing plates—with a gold rim running around and, in the very center, a mosquito so lifelike that anyone who didn’t know tried to brush it off.” 


According to Van, Pushkin exclaimed sladko! (“sweet!”) when he was bitten by the mosquitoes in Yukon (1.17). In our world Pushkin exclaimed sladko! when he was bitten by the mosquitoes in Priyutino (the Olenins' estate near St. Petersburg) where the poet courted Annette Olenin. There is Lenin in Olenin.


Olin + Lenin + starover = Olenin + Stalin + Rover


starover - Old Believer; Starover Blue is a character in VN's novel Pale Fire (1962); describing the difference between Terra and Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth's twin planet on which Ada is set), Van mentions the New Believers:


Revelation can be more perilous than Revolution. Sick minds identified the notion of a Terra planet with that of another world and this ‘Other World’ got confused not only with the ‘Next World’ but with the Real World in us and beyond us. Our enchanters, our demons, are noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils, with the black scrota of carnivora and the fangs of serpents, revilers and tormentors of female souls; while on the opposite side of the cosmic lane a rainbow mist of angelic spirits, inhabitants of sweet Terra, restored all the stalest but still potent myths of old creeds, with rearrangement for melodeon of all the cacophonies of all the divinities and divines ever spawned in the marshes of this our sufficient world. (1.3)


In Demon's sword duel with Baron d'Onsky (Marina's lover) one of the two seconds is Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel (1.2). According to Ada, at Marina's funeral Demon and d'Onsky's son, a person with only one arm, wept comme des fontaines (3.8).


In his EO Commentary (vol. III, p. 202)  VN points out that Annette Olenin dubbed Pushkin "Red Rover" after the hero of James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Red Rover (1827). This is the name of a pirate ship flying a blood-red ensign and it is also the nickname of her captain, William Heidegger.


Describing the situation on Antiterra after the so-called L disaster, Van mentions the red-shirted Yukonets and the red-kerchiefed Lyaskanka:


The unmentionable magnetic power denounced by evil lawmakers in this our shabby country — oh, everywhere, in Estoty and Canady, in ‘German’ Mark Kennensie, as well as in ‘Swedish’ Manitobogan, in the workshop of the red-shirted Yukonets as well as in the kitchen of the red-kerchiefed Lyaskanka, and in ‘French’ Estoty, from Bras d’Or to Ladore — and very soon throughout both our Americas, and all over the other stunned continents — was used on Terra as freely as water and air, as bibles and brooms. Two or three centuries earlier she [Aqua] might have been just another consumable witch. (1.3)


In Canto the Tenth of Don Juan Byron says that a legal broom is a moral chimney-sweeper and mentions his dirty shirt:


A legal broom's a moral chimney-sweeper,
And that's the reason he himself's so dirty.

The endless soot bestows a tint far deeper
Than can be hid by altering his shirt; he
Retains the sable stains of the dark creeper,
At least some twenty-nine do out of thirty,
In all their habits; -- not so you, I own;
As Cæsar wore his robe you wear your gown.


There is konets (end) in Yukonets (inhabitant of Yukon). End is dne (Prepositional case of dno, "bottom," and den', "day") in reverse. In his poem Zabludivshiysya tramvay (“The Lost Tram,” 1921) Gumilyov mentions the executioner in a red shirt who cut off his head that lied together with others na samom dne (at the very bottom) of a slippery box:


Вывеска... кровью налитые буквы
Гласят: "Зеленная",- знаю, тут
Вместо капусты и вместо брюквы
Мёртвые головы продают.

В красной рубашке с лицом, как вымя,
Голову срезал палач и мне,
Она лежала вместе с другими
Здесь в ящике скользком, на самом дне.


A sign... Blood-filled letters
Announce: "Zelennaya," - I know that here
Instead of cabbages and rutabagas
The heads of the dead are for sale.

In a red shirt, with a face like an udder,
The executioner cuts my head off, too,
It lies together with the others
Here, in a slippery box, at the very bottom.


In Pushkin's EO (Six: VII: 12) Zaretski (Lenski's second in his duel with Onegin) plants cabages like Horace. In "The Lost Tram" Gumilyov mentions Mashen'ka:


Машенька, ты здесь жила и пела,
Мне, жениху, ковёр ткала,
Где же теперь твой голос и тело,
Может ли быть, что ты умерла?

Mashenka, you lived here and sang,
You wove me, your betrothed, a carpet,
Where are your voice and body now,
Is it possible that you are dead?

Yukonets rhymes with chervonets (a golden ten rouble piece; from chervonnyi, “red”). Describing his visit to Kalugano (where he fights a pistol duel with Captain Tapper, of Wild Violet Lodge), Van mentions the night porter in the Majestic (a hotel in Kalugano) who expertly palmed the expected chervonetz:


Van was roused by the night porter who put a cup of coffee with a local ‘eggbun’ on his bedside table, and expertly palmed the expected chervonetz. He resembled somewhat Bouteillan as the latter had been ten years ago and as he had appeared in a dream, which Van now retrostructed as far as it would go: in it Demon’s former valet explained to Van that the ‘dor’ in the name of an adored river equaled the corruption of hydro in ‘dorophone.’ Van often had word dreams. (1.42)


The hotel’s name brings to mind “the majestic touch” mentioned by Shade (the poet in Pale Fire) in Canto Three of his poem:


                                  I also called on Coates.
He was afraid he had mislaid her notes.
He took his article from a steel file:
"It's accurate. I have not changed her style.
There's one misprint--not that it matters much:
Mountain, not fountain. The majestic touch." (ll. 787-782)


In his poem Kak v Gretsiyu Bayron, o, bez sozhalen'ya... ("Like Byron to Greece, o without regret..." 1927) G. Ivanov mentions blednyi ogon' (pale fire). In his article V zashchitu Khodasevicha ("In Defense of Hodasevich," 1927) G. Ivanov calls Hodasevich "an assiduous pupil of Baratynski." In his poem K Baratynskomu (“To Baratynski,” 1826) Pushkin compares each verse of Baratynski’s poem Eda (1826) to chervonets and says that Baratynski’s chukhonochka (Finnish girl) is prettier than Byron’s grechanki (Greek girls):


Стих каждый в повести твоей
Звучит и блещет, как червонец.
Твоя чухоночка, ей-ей,
Гречанок Байрона милей,
А твой зоил прямой чухонец.


After she was seduced by a hussar, Baratynski’s Eda is reading svyataya bibliya (the holy bible):


День после, в комнатке своей
Уже вечернею порою
Одна с привычною тоскою
Сидела Эда. Перед ней
Святая библия лежала.(ll. 288-292)

In his essay Nuzhny li stikhi? (“Do We Need Verse?” 1903) Anton Krayniy (Zinaida Hippius’ pseudonym) compares verse to molitva (a prayer) and quotes Baratynski’s definition of poetry:


Вопреки мнению усталых, злорадно-равнодушных людей, грустно заявляющих, что стихи отжили свой век и вообще более не нужны, — я утверждаю, что стихи необходимы, естественны и вечны. Я считаю естественной и необходимейшей потребностью человеческой природы — молитву. И каждый человек непременно молится или стремится к молитве, — всё равно, сознаёт он это или нет, всё равно в какую форму выливается у него молитва и к какому Богу обращена. Форма зависит от способностей и наклонностей каждого. Поэзия вообще, стихосложение, словесная музыка в частности — одна из форм, которую принимает в человеческой душе молитва. Поэзия, как определил её Баратынский, — «есть полное ощущение данной минуты». Быть может, это определение слишком обще для молитвы, — но как оно близко к ней!


According to Baratynski, poetry is “the full perception of a given moment.” In Hippius’s opinion, this definition is perhaps too general for a prayer but is still very close to it. In Pushkin’s poem Poet i tolpa (“The Poet and the Crowd,” 1828) the Poet mentions altar’ (the altar), metla (the broom) and, in the poem’s closing lines, says that we were born for inspiration, sweet sounds and prayers:


…Во градах ваших с улиц шумных
Сметают сор, — полезный труд! —
Но, позабыв своё служенье,
Алтарь и жертвоприношенье,
Жрецы ль у вас метлу берут?

Не для житейского волненья,
Не для корысти, не для битв,
Мы рождены для вдохновенья,
Для звуков сладких и молитв.


…Since on your sidewalk townfolk walk,
Sweeping it clean is useful work,
Yet do you ask the altar priests
To ply the broom and sweep the streets?

Not for worldly turmoil,

Not for profit, not for battles,

We were born for inspiration,

For sweet sounds and prayers.


On Antiterra Gibraltar is known as Altar:


A small map of the European part of the British Commonwealth - say, from Scoto-Scandinavia to the Riviera, Altar and Palermontovia - as well as most of the U.S.A., from Estoty and Canady to Argentina, might be quite thickly prickled with enameled red-cross-flag pins, marking, in her War of the Worlds, Aqua's bivouacs. (1.3)


There is Lermontov (the author of "The Demon," 1829-40) in Palermontovia. One of Lermontov's poems begins: Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy... ("No, I'm not Byron, I'm another..." 1832). In his prophetic poem Predskazanie ("Prediction," 1830) Lermontov predicts the 1917 Revolution and Lenin's October coup.


The Antiterran L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century that led to the ban of electricity seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS), in our world. In his book Tolstoy and Dostoevski (1902) Merezhkovski (Hippius’ husband) several times quotes Hippius' poem Elektrichestvo (“Electricity,” 1901):


Две нити вместе свиты,
Концы обнажены.
То "да" и "нет" не слиты,
Не слиты - сплетены.
Их тёмное сплетенье
И тесно и мертво;
Но ждёт их воскресенье,
И ждут они его:
Концы соприкоснутся,
Проснутся "да" и "нет".
И "да", и "нет" сольются,
И смерть их будет свет.


Two wires are wrapped together
The loose ends naked, exposed
A yes and no, not united,
Not united but juxtaposed.
A dark, dark juxtaposition-
So close together, dead.
But resurrection awaits them,
And they await what waits ahead
End will meet end in touching
Yes - no, left and right,
The yes and no awakening.
Inseparably uniting
And their death will be - Light.

In his Commentary to Shade's Pale Fire Kinbote (who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) quotes in full Shade’s poem "The Nature of Electricity" (that appeared in the New York magazine The Beau and the Butterfly after the poet’s death):


The dead, the gentle dead--who knows?--
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man's departed bride.


And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley's incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.


Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.


And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.


Science tells us, by the way, that the Earth would not merely fall apart, but vanish like a ghost, if Electricity were suddenly removed from the world. (note to Line 347)


John Shade is the son of Samuel Shade and Caroline Lukin. In 1812 (the year of Napoleon's invasion of Russia) Byron had an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. In The Age of Bronze Byron mentions Samuel's shade and Stoic Franklin's energetic shade robed in the Lightnings which his hand allayed:

Like Samuel's shade to Saul's monarchic eyes,
The Prophets of young Freedom, summoned far
From climes of Washington and Bolivar;
Henry, the Forest born Demosthenes,
Whose thunder shook the Philip of the Seas;
And Stoic Franklin's energetic shade
Robed in the Lightnings which his hand allayed;
And Washington, the Tyrant-tamer, wake,
To bid us blush for these old chains, or break. (ll. 381-389)


"The Philip of the Seas" brings to mind Philip Rack (one of Ada's lovers, Lucette's music teacher who was poisoned by his wife Elsie and dies in Ward Five of the Kalugano hospital, 1.42). In P. B. Shelley’s tragedy The Cenci (1819) Beatrice several times repeats the word "rack:"


Brother, lie down with me upon the rack,

And let us each be silent as a corpse;

It soon will be as soft as any grave.

'Tis but the falsehood it can wring from fear

Makes the rack cruel. (Act Five, scene III)


A Turco-Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane (1336-1405) is also known as Timur. On Ada’s sixteenth birthday Greg Erminin gives Ada a little camel of yellow ivory carved in Kiev in the days of Timur and Nabok:


Ada had declined to invite anybody except the Erminin twins to her picnic; but she had had no intention of inviting the brother without the sister. The latter, it turned out, could not come, having gone to New Cranton to see a young drummer, her first boy friend, sail off into the sunrise with his regiment. But Greg had to be asked to come after all: on the previous day he had called on her bringing a 'talisman' from his very sick father, who wanted Ada to treasure as much as his grandam had a little camel of yellow ivory carved in Kiev, five centuries ago, in the days of Timur and Nabok. (1.39)


At the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday Ada and Grace Erminin play anagrams and Grace suggests the word “insect:”


But whatever wrath there hung in the air, it soon subsided. Ada asked her governess for pencils and paper. Lying on his stomach, leaning his cheek on his hand, Van looked at his love’s inclined neck as she played anagrams with Grace, who had innocently suggested ‘insect.’

‘Scient,’ said Ada, writing it down.

‘Oh no!’ objected Grace.

‘Oh yes! I’m sure it exists. He is a great scient. Dr Entsic was scient in insects.’

Grace meditated, tapping her puckered brow with the eraser end of the pencil, and came up with:


‘Incest,’ said Ada instantly.

‘I give up,’ said Grace. ‘We need a dictionary to check your little inventions.’ (1.13)


The Erminin twins Greg and Grace are the children of Colonel Erminin (one of the three adult gentlemen who were invited to the picnic but never turned up):


Three adult gentlemen, moreover, were expected but never turned up: Uncle Dan, who missed the morning train from town; Colonel Erminin, a widower, whose liver, he said in a note, was behaving like a pecheneg; and his doctor (and chess partner), the famous Dr Krolik, who called himself Ada’s court jeweler, and indeed brought her his birthday present early on the following day — three exquisitely carved chrysalids (‘Inestimable gems,’ cried throatily Ada, tensing her brows), all of which were to yield before long, specimens of a disappointing ichneumon instead of the Kibo Fritillary, a recently discovered rarity. (ibid.)


In a letter of about/not later than June 27, 1834, to his wife Pushkin informs Natalie that Mme Smirnov (the Empress's lady-in-waiting) gave birth to the twins and calls Mr Smirnov krasnoglazyi krolik (a red-eyed rabbit):


Смирнова родила благополучно, и вообрази: двоих. Какова бабёнка, и каков красноглазый кролик Смирнов? — Первого ребёнка такого сделали, что не пролез, а теперь принуждены надвое разделить.


Pechen’ is Russian for “liver,” Pecheneg (“The Savage,” 1897) is a story by Chekhov. In 1901, when they meet in Paris, Van tells Greg Erminin that his father preferred to pass for a Chekhovian colonel:


Van was about to leave when a smartly uniformed chauffeur came up to inform’ my lord’ that his lady was parked at the corner of rue Saïgon and was summoning him to appear.
‘Aha,’ said Van, ‘I see you are using your British title. Your father preferred to pass for a Chekhovian colonel.’
‘Maude is Anglo-Scottish and, well, likes it that way. Thinks a title gets one better service abroad. By the way, somebody told me — yes, Tobak! — that Lucette is at the Alphonse Four. I haven’t asked you about your father? He’s in good health?’ (Van bowed,) ‘And how is the guvernantka belletristka?’
‘Her last novel is called L‘ami Luc. She just got the Lebon Academy Prize for her copious rubbish.’
They parted laughing. (3.2)


Guvernantka belletristka (governess-novelist) mentioned by Greg is Mlle Larivière (Lucette’s governess who at the picnic in “Ardis the First” reads her story La rivière de diamants, 1.13). Lebon is Nobel, Luc is cul (Fr., ass) in reverse. In a letter of June 7, 1824, to Vyazemski Pushkin mentions le cul de plomb (the lead ass):


Мы одни должны взяться за дело и соединиться. Но беда! мы все лентяй на лентяе — материалы есть, материалисты есть, но où est le cul de plomb qui poussera ça? где найдём своего составителя, так сказать, своего Каченовского? (в смысле Милонова — что для издателя хоть «Вестника Европы», не надобен тут ум, потребна только жопа).

In Paris Van meets Greg on the Avenue Guillaume Pitt:


On a bleak morning between the spring and summer of 1901, in Paris, as Van, black-hatted, one hand playing with the warm loose change in his topcoat pocket and the other, fawn-gloved, upswinging a furled English umbrella, strode past a particularly unattractive sidewalk café among the many lining the Avenue Guillaume Pitt, a chubby bald man in a rumpled brown suit with a watch-chained waistcoat stood up and hailed him.

Van considered for a moment those red round cheeks, that black goatee.

Ne uznayosh’ (You don’t recognize me)?’

‘Greg! Grigoriy Akimovich!’ cried Van tearing off his glove.

‘I grew a regular vollbart last summer. You’d never have known me then. Beer? Wonder what you do to look so boyish, Van.’

‘Diet of champagne, not beer,’ said Professor Veen, putting on his spectacles and signaling to a waiter with the crook of his ‘umber.’ ‘Hardly stops one adding weight, but keeps the scrotum crisp.’

‘I’m also very fat, yes?’

‘What about Grace, I can’t imagine her getting fat?’

‘Once twins, always twins. My wife is pretty portly, too.’

Tak tï zhenat (so you are married)? Didn’t know it. How long?’

‘About two years.’

‘To whom?’

‘Maude Sween.’

‘The daughter of the poet?’

‘No, no, her mother is a Brougham.’

Might have replied ‘Ada Veen,’ had Mr Vinelander not been a quicker suitor. I think I met a Broom somewhere. Drop the subject. Probably a dreary union: hefty, high-handed wife, he more of a bore than ever. (3.2)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): So you are married, etc.: see Eugene Onegin, Eight: XVIII: 1-4.


On Antiterra Paris is also known as Lute (short of Lutèce). In his “Ode to Count Khvostov” (1825) Pushkin mentions lyutyi Pit (ferocious Pitt, “the notorious enemy of Freedom” who trembles in the Styx) and compares Khvostov to Byron:


Султан ярится. (1)  Кровь Эллады

И резвоскачет, (2) и кипит.

Открылись грекам древни клады, (3)

Трепещет в Стиксе лютый пит. (4)

И се - летит продерзко судно

И мещет громы обоюдно.

Се Бейрон, Феба образец.

Притек, но недуг быстропарный, (5)

Строптивый и неблагодарный

Взнес смерти на него резец.


Певец бессмертный и маститый,

Тебя Эллада днесь зовет

На место тени знаменитой,

Пред коей Цербер днесь ревет.

Как здесь, ты будешь там сенатор,

Как здесь, почтенный литератор,

Но новый лавр тебя ждет там,

Где от крови земля промокла:

Перикла лавр, лавр Фемистокла;

Лети туда, Хвостов наш! сам.


Вам с Бейроном шипела злоба,

Гремела и правдива лесть.

Он лорд - граф ты! Поэты оба!

Се, мнится, явно сходство есть. -

Никак! Ты с верною супругой (6)

Под бременем Судьбы упругой

Живёшь в любви - и наконец

Глубок он, но единобразен,

А ты глубок, игрив и разен.

И в шалостях ты впрям певец.


А я, неведомый Пиита,

В восторге новом воспою

Во след Пиита знаменита

Правдиву похвалу свою,

Моляся кораблю бегущу,

Да Бейрона он узрит кущу, (7)

И да блюдут твой мирный сон (8)

Нептун, Плутон, Зевс, Цитерея,

Гебея, Псиша, Крон, Астрея,

Феб, Игры, Смехи, Вакх, Харон.


Pushkin’s poem begins: Sultan yaritsya (The sultan gets furious). Describing Demon’s death in an airplane disaster, Van compares himself to a sultan:


Idly, one March morning, 1905, on the terrace of Villa Armina, where he sat on a rug, surrounded by four or five lazy nudes, like a sultan, Van opened an American daily paper published in Nice. In the fourth or fifth worst airplane disaster of the young century, a gigantic flying machine had inexplicably disintegrated at fifteen thousand feet above the Pacific between Lisiansky and Laysanov Islands in the Gavaille region. A list of ‘leading figures’ dead in the explosion comprised the advertising manager of a department store, the acting foreman in the sheet-metal division of a facsimile corporation, a recording firm executive, the senior partner of a law firm, an architect with heavy aviation background (a first misprint here, impossible to straighten out), the vice president of an insurance corporation, another vice president, this time of a board of adjustment whatever that might be —

‘I’m hongree,’ said a maussade Lebanese beauty of fifteen sultry summers.

‘Use bell,’ said Van, continuing in a state of odd fascination to go through the compilation of labeled lives:

— the president of a wholesale liquor-distributing firm, the manager of a turbine equipment company, a pencil manufacturer, two professors of philosophy, two newspaper reporters (with nothing more to report), the assistant controller of a wholesome liquor distribution bank (misprinted and misplaced), the assistant controller of a trust company, a president, the secretary of a printing agency —

The names of those big shots, as well as those of some eighty other men, women, and silent children who perished in blue air, were being withheld until all relatives had been reached; but the tabulatory preview of commonplace abstractions had been thought to be too imposing not to be given at once as an appetizer; and only on the following morning did Van learn that a bank president lost in the closing garble was his father. (3.7)


"A Lebanese beauty" brings to mind Beirut (the capital of Lebanon) mentioned by Shade in Canto Four of his poem and by Gumilyov in "The Lost Tram:"


Поздно. Уж мы обогнули стену,
Мы проскочили сквозь рощу пальм,
Через Неву, через Нил и Сену
Мы прогремели по трём мостам.

И, промелькнув у оконной рамы,
Бросил нам вслед пытливый взгляд
Нищий старик,- конечно, тот самый,
Что умер в Бейруте год назад.


Too late. We had already turned the corner,
We tore through a forest of palms,
Over the Neva, the Nile, the Seine
We thundered across three bridges.

And slipping by the window frame,
A poor old man threw us an inquisitive glance-
The very same old man, of course,
Who had died in Beirut a year ago.


The surname Erminin seems to hint at Erminia, the nickname of Pushkin’s friend Eliza Khitrovo (Kutuzov’s daughter). In September of 1827 Pushkin translated into Russian Alexandrines André Chenier's poem Près des bords où Venisе est reine de la mer… (“Near the Shores Where Venice is Queen of the Sea…”) that mentions la belle Herminie (fair Erminia, a character in Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, 1581):


Près des bords où Venisе est reine de la mer

Le gondolier nocturne, au retour de Vesper,
d’un aviron léger bat la vague aplanie,
Chante Renaud, Tancrède et la belle Herminie...


Близ мест, где царствует Венеция златая,
Один, ночной гребец, гондолой управляя,
При свете Веспера по взморию плывёт,
Ринальда, Годфреда, Эрминию поёт...


In Chapter One (XLVIII-XLIX) of EO Pushkin mentions napev torkvatovykh oktav (the strain of Torquato's octaves) and gordaya lira Al’biona (the proud lyre of Albion, i. e. Byron):


С душою, полной сожалений,
И опершися на гранит,
Стоял задумчиво Евгений,
Как описал себя пиит. 9
Все было тихо; лишь ночные
Перекликались часовые,
Да дрожек отдаленный стук
С Мильонной раздавался вдруг;
Лишь лодка, веслами махая,
Плыла по дремлющей реке:
И нас пленяли вдалеке
Рожок и песня удалая...
Но слаще, средь ночных забав,
Напев Торкватовых октав!


Адриатические волны,
О Брента! нет, увижу вас
И, вдохновенья снова полный,
Услышу ваш волшебный глас!
Он свят для внуков Аполлона;
По гордой лире Альбиона
Он мне знаком, он мне родной.
Ночей Италии златой
Я негой наслажусь на воле,
С венецианкою младой,
То говорливой, то немой,
Плывя в таинственной гондоле;
С ней обретут уста мои
Язык Петрарки и любви.


With soul full of regrets,

and leaning on the granite,

Eugene stood pensive — as himself

the Poet9 has described.

'Twas stillness all; only night sentries

to one another called,

and the far clip-clop of some droshky

resounded suddenly from Million Street;

only a boat, oars swinging,

swam on the dozing river,

and, in the distance, captivated us

a horn and a brave song.

But, 'mid the night's diversions, sweeter

is the strain of Torquato's octaves.


Adrian waves,

O Brenta! Nay, I'll see you

and, filled anew with inspiration,

I'll hear your magic voice!

'Tis sacred to Apollo's nephews;

through the proud lyre of Albion

to me 'tis known, to me 'tis kindred.

In the voluptuousness of golden

Italy's nights at liberty I'll revel,

with a youthful Venetian,

now talkative, now mute,

swimming in a mysterious gondola;

with her my lips will find

the tongue of Petrarch and of love.

Pushkins note 9 reads:


Въявь богиню благосклонну
Зрит восторженный пиит,
Что проводит ночь бессонну,
Опершися на гранит.
(Муравьёв. Богине Невы)


Not in dream the ardent poet

the benignant goddess sees

as he spends a sleepless night

leaning on the granite.

Muravyov, “To the Goddess of the Neva.”

The name Muravyov comes from muravey (ant). In a draft of Domik v Kolomne ("A Small House in Kolomna," 1830), a mock epic in octaves, Pushkin calls Jean Racine (a French dramatist, 1639-99) bessmertnyi podrazhatel' (the immortal imitator) and Jacques Delille (a French poet, 1738-1813) parnasskiy muravey (the Parnassian ant):


О, что б сказал поэт-законодатель,
Гроза несчастных мелких рифмачей!
И ты, Расин, бессмертный подражатель,
Певец влюблённых женщин и царей!
И ты, Вольтер, философ и ругатель,
И ты, Делиль, парнасский муравей,
Что б вы сказали, сей соблазн увидя?
Наш век обидел вас, ваш стих обидя!


When Van leaves Ardis after his first summer there, Bouteillan (the French butler) quotes Delille's poem Les trois régnes de la nature (1809):


‘She rolls sweetly, sir,’ remarked Bouteillan in his quaint old-fashioned English. ‘Tous les pneus sont neufs, but, alas, there are many stones on the way, and youth drives fast. Monsieur should be prudent. The winds of the wilderness are indiscreet. Tel un lis sauvage confiant au désert —’

‘Quite the old comedy retainer, aren’t you?’ remarked Van drily.

‘Non, Monsieur,’ answered Bouteillan, holding on to his cap. ‘Non. Tout simplement j’aime bien Monsieur et sa demoiselle.’

‘If,’ said Van, ‘you’re thinking of little Blanche, then you’d better quote Delille not to me, but to your son, who’ll knock her up any day now.’

The old Frenchman glanced at Van askance, pozheval gubami (chewed his lips), but said nothing. (1.25)


At the picnic on Ada's twelfth birthday Bouteillan operates a red motocar as if it were some fancy variety of corkscrew:


Marina came in a red motorcar of an early 'runabout' type, operated by the butler very warily as if it were some fancy variety of corkscrew. (1.13)


In a letter of about (not later than) Dec. 20, 1824, from Mikhaylovskoe to his brother Lyov in St. Petersburg Pushkin asks Lyov to send him a corkscrew ("a spiral steel piercing the tarred head of a bottle," speaking à la Delille):


Пришли мне бумаги почтовой и простой, если вина, так и сыру, не забудь и (говоря по-делилевски) витую сталь, пронзающую засмоленную главу бутылки — т. е. штопер.


In the same letter to his brother Pushkin repeats his quip about the disastrous Neva flood of November 1824:


Получил ли ты письмо моё о Потопе, где я говорю тебе voilà une belle occasion pour nos dames de faire bidet?


Describing Aqua’s torments, Van mentions her hateful bidet:

Bathwater (or shower) was too much of a Caliban to speak distinctly — or perhaps was too brutally anxious to emit the hot torrent and get rid of the infernal ardor — to bother about small talk; but the burbly flowlets grew more and more ambitious and odious, and when at her first ‘home’ she heard one of the most hateful of the visiting doctors (the Cavalcanti quoter) garrulously pour hateful instructions in Russian-lapped German into her hateful bidet, she decided to stop turning on tap water altogether. (1.3)


Pushkin describes the great Neva flood of 1824 in his poem Mednyi vsadnik ("The Bronze Horseman," 1833). On Antiterra Pushkin's poem is known as "The Headless Horseman:"


The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive — somehow, somewhere!) was to prove to be the most retentive and talented one in his long, too long, never too long life. He was ten. His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes. With white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich, he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying major and minor Russian writers — and puzzling out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters. (1.28)


Van's Russian tutor, Andrey Andreevich Aksakov ('AAA'), has the same name and patronymic as Ada's husband, Andrey Andreevich Vinelander (whose legendary ancestor was the first Russki to taste the labruska grape, 2.8). In a letter of (not earlier than) Nov. 20, 1824, to his brother Pushkin quips about the Neva flood and asks Lyov “is there a Noah among you who would plant grapes:”


Что погреба? признаюсь, и по них сердце болит. Не найдётся ли между вами Ноя, для насаждения винограда?


In her last note poor mad Aqua mentioned Van's Darkblue ancestor and a lot of cute little ants queuing to get at her pretty pills:


Aujourd’hui (heute-toity!) I, this eye-rolling toy, have earned the psykitsch right to enjoy a landparty with Herr Doktor Sig, Nurse Joan the Terrible, and several ‘patients,’ in the neighboring bor (piney wood) where I noticed exactly the same skunk-like squirrels, Van, that your Darkblue ancestor imported to Ardis Park, where you will ramble one day, no doubt. The hands of a clock, even when out of order, must know and let the dumbest little watch know where they stand, otherwise neither is a dial but only a white face with a trick mustache. Similarly, chelovek (human being) must know where he stands and let others know, otherwise he is not even a klok (piece) of a chelovek, neither a he, nor she, but ‘a tit of it’ as poor Ruby, my little Van, used to say of her scanty right breast. I, poor Princesse Lointaine, très lointaine by now, do not know where I stand. Hence I must fall. So adieu, my dear, dear son, and farewell, poor Demon, I do not know the date or the season, but it is a reasonably, and no doubt seasonably, fair day, with a lot of cute little ants queuing to get at my pretty pills.

[Signed] My sister’s sister who teper’ iz ada (‘now is out of hell’)


In his story Zhenshchina s tochki zreniya p’yanitsy (“Woman as Seen by a Drunkard,” 1885) signed Brat moego brata (My brother’s brother) Chekhov compares girls under sixteen to aqua distillatae (distilled water). In a letter of Nov. 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov mentions Byron:

Ну-с, теперь об уме.
Григорович думает, что ум может пересилить талант. Байрон был умён, как сто чертей, однако же талант его уцелел. Если мне скажут, что Икс понес чепуху оттого, что ум у него пересилил талант, или наоборот, то я скажу: это значит, что у Икса не было ни ума, ни таланта.

And now as to intellect, Sir Grigorovich thinks that intellect can overwhelm talent. Byron was as smart as a hundred devils; nevertheless, his talent has survived intact. If we say that X talked nonsense because his intellect overwhelmed his talent or vice versa, then I say X had neither brains nor talent.


In the same letter to Suvorin Chekhov modestly compares his story "Ward No. 6" (1892) to lemonade and says that the works of modern artists lack the alcohol that would intoxicate the reader/viewer:

Вас нетрудно понять, и Вы напрасно браните себя за то, что неясно выражаетесь.
Вы горький пьяница, а я угостил Вас сладким лимонадом, и Вы, отдавая должное лимонаду, справедливо замечаете, что в нем нет спирта. В наших произведениях нет именно алкоголя, который бы пьянил и порабощал, и это Вы хорошо даете понять. Отчего нет? Оставляя в стороне «Палату № 6» и меня самого, будем говорить вообще, ибо это интересней. Будем говорить об общих причинах, коли Вам не скучно, и давайте захватим целую эпоху. Скажите по совести, кто из моих сверстников, т. е. людей в возрасте 30—45 лет дал миру хотя одну каплю алкоголя? Разве Короленко, Надсон и все нынешние драматурги не лимонад? Разве картины Репина или Шишкина кружили Вам голову? Мило, талантливо, Вы восхищаетесь и в то же время никак не можете забыть, что Вам хочется курить. Наука и техника переживают теперь великое время, для нашего же брата это время рыхлое, кислое, скучное, сами мы кислы и скучны, умеем рождать только гуттаперчевых мальчиков, и не видит этого только Стасов, которому природа дала редкую способность пьянеть даже от помоев. Причины тут не в глупости нашей, не в бездарности и не в наглости, как думает Буренин, а в болезни, которая для художника хуже сифилиса и полового истощения. У нас нет «чего-то», это справедливо, и это значит, что поднимите подол нашей музе, и Вы увидите там плоское место. Вспомните, что писатели, которых мы называем вечными или просто хорошими и которые пьянят нас, имеют один общий и весьма важный признак: они куда-то идут и Вас зовут туда же, и Вы чувствуете не умом, а всем своим существом, что у них есть какая-то цель, как у тени отца Гамлета, которая недаром приходила и тревожила воображение. У одних, смотря по калибру, цели ближайшие — крепостное право, освобождение родины, политика, красота или просто водка, как у Дениса Давыдова, у других цели отдаленные — бог, загробная жизнь, счастье человечества и т. п. Лучшие из них реальны и пишут жизнь такою, какая она есть, но оттого, что каждая строчка пропитана, как соком, сознанием цели, Вы, кроме жизни, какая есть, чувствуете еще ту жизнь, какая должна быть, и это пленяет Вас.

It is easy to understand you, and there is no need for you to abuse yourself for obscurity of expression. You are a hard drinker, and I have regaled you with sweet lemonade, and you, after giving the lemonade its due, justly observe that there is no spirit in it. That is just what is lacking in our productions — the alcohol which could intoxicate and subjugate, and you state that very well. Why not? Putting aside “Ward No. 6” and myself, let us discuss the matter in general, for that is more interesting. Let ms discuss the general causes, if that won’t bore you, and let us include the whole age. Tell me honestly, who of my contemporaries — that is, men between thirty and forty-five — have given the world one single drop of alcohol? Are not Korolenko, Nadson, and all the playwrights of to-day, lemonade? Have Repin’s or Shishkin’s pictures turned your head? Charming, talented, you are enthusiastic; but at the same time you can’t forget that you want to smoke. Science and technical knowledge are passing through a great period now, but for our sort it is a flabby, stale, and dull time. We are stale and dull ourselves, we can only beget gutta-percha boys ["The Gutta-Percha Boy" is a story by Grigorovich], and the only person who does not see that is Stasov, to whom nature has given a rare faculty for getting drunk on slops. The causes of this are not to be found in our stupidity, our lack of talent, or our insolence, as Burenin imagines, but in a disease which for the artist is worse than syphilis or sexual exhaustion. We lack “something,” that is true, and that means that, lift the robe of our muse, and you will find within an empty void. Let me remind you that the writers, who we say are for all time or are simply good, and who intoxicate us, have one common and very important characteristic; they are going towards something and are summoning you towards it, too, and you feel not with your mind, but with your whole being, that they have some object, just like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing. Some have more immediate objects — the abolition of serfdom, the liberation of their country, politics, beauty, or simply vodka, like Denis Davydov; others have remote objects — God, life beyond the grave, the happiness of humanity, and so on. The best of them are realists and paint life as it is, but, through every line’s being soaked in the consciousness of an object, you feel, besides life as it is, the life which ought to be, and that captivates you.


An empty void under our muse's robe brings to mind the forty daughters of tsar Nikita in Pushkin's frivolous poem "Tsar Nikita and his Forty Daughters" (1822). In the “Fragments of Onegin’s Journey” ([XVII]: 13-14) Pushkin confesses that he has admixed a lot of water unto his poetic goblet:


Какие б чувства ни таились
Тогда во мне — теперь их нет:
Они прошли иль изменились...

Мир вам, тревоги прошлых лет!
В ту пору мне казались нужны
Пустыни, волн края жемчужны,
И моря шум, и груды скал,
И гордой девы идеал,
И безыменные страданья...
Другие дни, другие сны;
Смирились вы, моей весны
Высокопарные мечтанья,
И в поэтический бокал
Воды я много подмешал.

Whatever feelings then lay hidden
within me — now they are no more:
they went or changed....
Peace unto you, turmoils of former years!
To me seemed needful at the time
deserts, the pearly rims of waves,
and the sea's rote, and piles of rocks,
and the ideal of “proud maid,”
and nameless pangs.
Other days, other dreams;
you have become subdued,
my springtime's high-flung fancies,
and unto my poetic goblet
I have admixed a lot of water.


In The Odyssey Homer (a blind bard) mentions oinops pontos (the wine-faced sea).

Olin + Korsar + Dar = Kolin + ardor + ars = oil + rak + Ronsard


Olin – the author of Korser (1827), a tragedy based on Byron’s Corsair

KorsarThe Corsair (1814), a tale in verse by Lord Byron

Dar The Gift (1937), a novel by VN

Kolin – a character in VN’s novel Mashen’ka (“Mary,” 1926)

ardor – cf. Ada or Ardor: a Family Chronicle (1969)

ars – Lat., art

rak – crawfish; cancer

Ronsard – Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85), a French poet (one of his sonnets was translated by VN)