Vladimir Nabokov

Eros qui prend son essor in Ada

By Alexey Sklyarenko, 7 May, 2021

Describing his nights at Ardis, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) says that his only contribution to Anglo-American poetry is a dactylic trimeter ‘Ada, our ardors and arbors:’


He would fall asleep at the moment he thought he would never sleep again, and his dreams were young. As the first flame of day reached his hammock, he woke up another man — and very much of a man indeed. ‘Ada, our ardors and arbors’ — a dactylic trimeter that was to remain Van Veen’s only contribution to Anglo-American poetry — sang through his brain. Bless the starling and damn the stardust! He was fourteen and a half; he was burning and bold; he would have her fiercely some day! (1.12)


But, as he waits for Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister who visits Van at Kingston and brings him a letter from Ada), Van composes three more lines (which makes a whole quatrain):


As he awaited her, walking the whole length of his brown-carpeted suite and back again, now contemplating the emblazed trees, that defied the season, through the northeast casement at the end of the passage, then returning to the sitting room which gave on sun-bordered Greencloth Court, he kept fighting Ardis and its orchards and orchids, bracing himself for the ordeal, wondering if he should not cancel her visit, or have his man convey his apologies for the suddenness of an unavoidable departure, but knowing all the time he would go through with it. With Lucette herself, he was only obliquely concerned: she inhabited this or that dapple of drifting sunlight, but could not be wholly dismissed with the rest of sun-flecked Ardis. He recalled, in passing, the sweetness in his lap, her round little bottom, her prasine eyes as she turned toward him and the receding road. Casually he wondered whether she had become fat and freckled, or had joined the graceful Zemski group of nymphs. He had left the parlor door that opened on the landing slightly ajar, but somehow missed the sound of her high heels on the stairs (or did not distinguish them from his heartbeats) while he was in the middle of his twentieth trudge ‘back to the ardors and arbors! Eros qui prend son essor! Arts that our marblery harbors: Eros, the rose and the sore,’ I am ill at these numbers, but e’en rhymery is easier ‘than confuting the past in mute prose.’ Who wrote that? Voltimand or Voltemand? Or the Burning Swine? A pest on his anapest! ‘All our old loves are corpses or wives.’ All our sorrows are virgins or whores. (2.5)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): qui prend etc.: that takes wing.


Ada, our ardors and arbors!

Eros qui prend son essor!

Arts that our marblery harbors:

Eros, the rose and the sore.


"The Burning Swine" hints at Swinburne. In his poem Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs) Algernon Charles Swinburne famously says:


Time turns the old days to derision,

      Our loves into corpses or wives;

And marriage and death and division

      Make barren our lives.


Van turns Swinburne's amphibrachs into anapest (hence "a pest on his anapest!").


Eros in Van’s dactylic rhymes seems to hint at Swinburne’s poem Eros:



Eros, from rest in isles far-famed,
With rising Anthesterion rose,
And all Hellenic heights acclaimed


The sea one pearl, the shore one rose,
All round him all the flower-month flamed
And lightened, laughing off repose.


Earth’s heart, sublime and unashamed,
Knew, even perchance as man’s heart knows,
The thirst of all men’s nature named



Eros, a fire of heart untamed,
A light of spirit in sense that glows,
Flamed heavenward still ere earth defamed


Nor fear nor shame durst curb or close
His golden godhead, marred and maimed,
Fast round with bonds that burnt and froze.


Ere evil faith struck blind and lamed
Love, pure as fire or flowers or snows,
Earth hailed as blameless and unblamed



Eros, with shafts by thousands aimed
At laughing lovers round in rows,
Fades from their sight whose tongues proclaimed


But higher than transient shapes or shows
The light of love in life inflamed
Springs, toward no goal that these disclose.


Above those heavens which passion claimed

But higher than transient shapes or shows
The light of love in life inflamed


At the beginning of his poem A Baby’s Death Swinburne uses the phrase “takes wing:”



A little soul scarce fledged for earth

Takes wing with heaven again for goal

Even while we hailed as fresh from birth

A little soul.


Our thoughts ring sad as bells that toll,

Not knowing beyond this blind world's girth

What things are writ in heaven's full scroll.


Our fruitfulness is there but dearth,

And all things held in time's control

Seem there, perchance, ill dreams, not worth

A little soul.



The little feet that never trod

Earth, never strayed in field or street,

What hand leads upward back to God

The little feet?


A rose in June's most honied heat,

When life makes keen the kindling sod,

Was not so soft and warm and sweet.


Their pilgrimage's period

A few swift moons have seen complete

Since mother's hands first clasped and shod

The little feet.



The little hands that never sought

Earth's prizes, worthless all as sands,

What gift has death, God's servant, brought

The little hands?


We ask: but love's self silent stands,

Love, that lends eyes and wings to thought

To search where death's dim heaven expands.


Ere this, perchance, though love know nought,

Flowers fill them, grown in lovelier lands,

Where hands of guiding angels caught

The little hands.



The little eyes that never knew

Light other than of dawning skies,

What new life now lights up anew

The little eyes?


Who knows but on their sleep may rise

Such light as never heaven let through

To lighten earth from Paradise?


No storm, we know, may change the blue

Soft heaven that haply death descries

No tears, like these in ours, bedew

The little eyes.



Was life so strange, so sad the sky,

So strait the wide world's range,

He would not stay to wonder why

Was life so strange?


Was earth's fair house a joyless grange

Beside that house on high

Whence Time that bore him failed to estrange?


That here at once his soul put by

All gifts of time and change,

And left us heavier hearts to sigh

'Was life so strange?'



Angel by name love called him, seeing so fair

The sweet small frame;

Meet to be called, if ever man's child were,

Angel by name.


Rose-bright and warm from heaven's own heart he came,

And might not bear

The cloud that covers earth's wan face with shame.


His little light of life was all too rare

And soft a flame:

Heaven yearned for him till angels hailed him there

Angel by name.



The song that smiled upon his birthday here

Weeps on the grave that holds him undefiled

Whose loss makes bitterer than a soundless tear

The song that smiled.


His name crowned once the mightiest ever styled

Sovereign of arts, and angel: fate and fear

Knew then their master, and were reconciled.


But we saw born beneath some tenderer sphere

Michael, an angel and a little child,

Whose loss bows down to weep upon his bier

The song that smiled.


As he speaks to Lucette, Van says “we don’t want any baby serpents around:”


Van noticed a long, blue, violet-sealed envelope protruding from the bag.

‘Lucette, don’t cry. That’s too easy.’

She walked back, dabbing her nose, curbing her childishly humid sniffs, still hoping for the decisive embrace.

‘Here’s some brandy,’ he said. ‘Sit down. Where’s the rest of the family?’

She returned the balled handkerchief of many an old romance to her bag, which, however, remained unclosed. Chows, too, have blue tongues.

‘Mamma dwells in her private Samsara. Dad has had another stroke. Sis is revisiting Ardis.’

‘Sis! Cesse, Lucette! We don’t want any baby serpents around.’

‘This baby serpent does not quite know what tone to take with Dr V.V. Sector. You have not changed one bit, my pale darling, except that you look like a ghost in need of a shave without your summer Glanz.’

And summer Mädel. He noticed that the letter, in its long blue envelope, lay now on the mahogany sideboard. He stood in the middle of the parlor, rubbing his forehead, not daring, not daring, because it was Ada’s notepaper. (2.5)


In his translation of Henry Swinburne’s Travels in the two Sicilies. 1777-1780 (1783-85) La Borde uses the phrase prendre son essor:


Cinq ou six fois de suite le flot de cette matiere retomboit et se relevoit , mais sans pouvoir prendre son essor ; à la sixieme ou septieme il s'enlevoit à une telle hauteur , qu'il inondoit de clarté tout le pays d'alentour.


Describing the torments of poor mad Aqua (the twin sister of Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother Marina), Van mentions Palermontovia (a country that blends Palermo, the capital of Sicily, with Lermontov):


Actually, Aqua was less pretty, and far more dotty, than Marina. During her fourteen years of miserable marriage she spent a broken series of steadily increasing sojourns in sanatoriums. 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. She had plans at one time to seek a modicum of health (‘just a little grayishness, please, instead of the solid black’) in such Anglo-American protectorates as the Balkans and Indias, and might even have tried the two Southern Continents that thrive under our joint dominion. Of course, Tartary, an independent inferno, which at the time spread from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean, was touristically unavailable, though Yalta and Altyn Tagh sounded strangely attractive... But her real destination was Terra the Fair and thither she trusted she would fly on libellula long wings when she died. Her poor little letters from the homes of madness to her husband were sometimes signed: Madame Shchemyashchikh-Zvukov (‘Heart rending-Sounds’). (1.3)


Van published his novel Letters from Terra under the penname Voltemand:


Letters from Terra, by Voltemand, came out in 1891 on Van’s twenty-first birthday, under the imprint of two bogus houses, ‘Abencerage’ in Manhattan, and ‘Zegris’ in London.

(Had I happened to see a copy I would have recognized Chateaubriand’s lapochka and hence your little paw, at once.) (2.2)


The famous palindrome (composed by Fet) A roza upala na lapu Azora (and the rose fell on the paw of Azor) brings to mind both Chateaubriand’s lapochka (little paw) and “Eros, the sore and the rose” (the last line of Van’s rhymes). Describing his dinner with Ada and Lucette in ‘Ursus,’ Van mentions Fet’s poem Siyala noch’ ("The night was radiant"):


Here Van stood up again, as Ada, black fan in elegant motion, came back followed by a thousand eyes, while the opening bars of a romance (on Fet’s glorious Siyala noch’) started to run over the keys (and the bass coughed à la russe into his fist before starting).


A radiant night, a moon-filled garden. Beams

Lay at our feet. The drawing room, unlit;

Wide open, the grand piano; and our hearts

Throbbed to your song, as throbbed the strings in it... (2.8)