In "Ardis the First" Van makes Lucette (in VN’s novel Ada, 1969, Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) learn by heart a little poem by the Poet Laureate Robert Brown, the old gentleman whom Demon Veen (Van's and Ada's father) once pointed out to Van up in the air on a cliff under a cypress, looking down on the foaming turquoise surf near Nice:
They tried all sorts of other tricks.
Once, for example, when Lucette had made of herself a particular nuisance, her nose running, her hand clutching at Van’s all the time, her whimpering attachment to his company turning into a veritable obsession, Van mustered all his persuasive skill, charm, eloquence, and said with conspiratory undertones: ‘Look, my dear. This brown book is one of my most treasured possessions. I had a special pocket made for it in my school jacket. Numberless fights have been fought over it with wicked boys who wanted to steal it. What we have here’ (turning the pages reverently) ‘is no less than a collection of the most beautiful and famous short poems in the English language. This tiny one, for example, was composed in tears forty years ago by the Poet Laureate Robert Brown, the old gentleman whom my father once pointed out to me up in the air on a cliff under a cypress, looking down on the foaming turquoise surf near Nice, an unforgettable sight for all concerned. It is called "Peter and Margaret." Now you have, say’ (turning to Ada in solemn consultation), ‘forty minutes’ (‘Give her a full hour, she can’t even memorize Mironton, mirontaine’) — ‘all right, a full hour to learn these eight lines by heart. You and I’ (whispering) ‘are going to prove to your nasty arrogant sister that stupid little Lucette can do anything. If’ (lightly brushing her bobbed hair with his lips), ‘if, my sweet, you can recite it and confound Ada by not making one single slip — you must be careful about the "here-there" and the "this-that", and every other detail — if you can do it then I shall give you this valuable book for keeps.’ (‘Let her try the one about finding a feather and seeing Peacock plain,’ said Ada drily — ‘it’s a bit harder.’) ‘No, no, she and I have already chosen that little ballad. All right. Now go in here’ (opening a door) ‘and don’t come out until I call you. Otherwise, you’ll forfeit the reward, and will regret the loss all your life.’
‘Oh, Van, how lovely of you,’ said Lucette, slowly entering her room, with her bemused eyes scanning the fascinating flyleaf, his name on it, his bold flourish, and his own wonderful drawings in ink — a black aster (evolved from a blot), a doric column (disguising a more ribald design), a delicate leafless tree (as seen from a classroom window), and several profiles of boys (Cheshcat, Zogdog, Fancytart, and Ada-like Van himself).
Van hastened to join Ada in the attic. At that moment he felt quite proud of his stratagem. He was to recall it with a fatidic shiver seventeen years later when Lucette, in her last note to him, mailed from Paris to his Kingston address on June 2, 1901, ‘just in case,’ wrote:
‘I kept for years — it must be in my Ardis nursery — the anthology you once gave me; and the little poem you wanted me to learn by heart is still word-perfect in a safe place of my jumbled mind, with the packers trampling on my things, and upsetting crates, and voices calling, time to go, time to go. Find it in Brown and praise me again for my eight-year-old intelligence as you and happy Ada did that distant day, that day somewhere tinkling on its shelf like an empty little bottle. Now read on:
‘Here, said the guide, was the field,
There, he said, was the wood.
This is where Peter kneeled,
That’s where the Princess stood.
No, the visitor said,
You are the ghost, old guide.
Oats and oaks may be dead,
But she is by my side.’ (1.23)
'I dug, beneath the cypress shade' is a poem by Thomas Love Peacock:
I dug, beneath the cypress shade,
What well might seem an elfin's grave;
And every pledge in earth I laid,
That erst thy false affection gave.
I pressed them down the sod beneath;
I placed one mossy stone above;
And twined the rose's fading wreath
Around the sepulchre of love.
Frail as thy love, the flowers were dead,
Ere yet the evening sun was set:
But years shall see the cypress spread,
Immutable as my regret.
On his first night on Admiral Tobakoff (the ship on which Van and Lucette cross the Atlantic) Van dreams of an aquatic peacock:
At five p.m., June 3, his ship had sailed from Le Havre-de-Grâce; on the evening of the same day Van embarked at Old Hantsport. He had spent most of the afternoon playing court tennis with Delaurier, the famous Negro coach, and felt very dull and drowsy as he watched the low sun’s ardency break into green-golden eye-spots a few sea-serpent yards to starboard, on the far-side slope of the bow wave. Presently he decided to turn in, walked down to the A deck, devoured some of the still-life fruit prepared for him in his sitting room, attempted to read in bed the proofs of an essay he was contributing to a festschrift on the occasion of Professor Counterstone’s eightieth birthday, gave it up, and fell asleep. A tempest went into convulsions around midnight, but despite the lunging and creaking (Tobakoff was an embittered old vessel) Van managed to sleep soundly, the only reaction on the part of his dormant mind being the dream image of an aquatic peacock, slowly sinking before somersaulting like a diving grebe, near the shore of the lake bearing his name in the ancient kingdom of Arrowroot. Upon reviewing that bright dream he traced its source to his recent visit to Armenia where he had gone fowling with Armborough and that gentleman’s extremely compliant and accomplished niece. He wanted to make a note of it — and was amused to find that all three pencils had not only left his bed table but had neatly aligned themselves head to tail along the bottom of the outer door of the adjacent room, having covered quite a stretch of blue carpeting in the course of their stopped escape. (3.5)
Describing his novel Letters from Terra, Van mentions Professor Counterstone as one of his greatest forerunners and a Counterstonian type of intermediate environment between sibling galaxies:
There were good reasons to disregard the technological details involved in delineating intercommunication between Terra the Fair and our terrible Antiterra. His knowledge of physics, mechanicalism and that sort of stuff had remained limited to the scratch of a prep-school blackboard. He consoled himself with the thought that no censor in America or Great Britain would pass the slightest reference to ‘magnetic’ gewgaws. Quietly, he borrowed what his greatest forerunners (Counterstone, for example) had imagined in the way of a manned capsule’s propulsion, including the clever idea of an initial speed of a few thousand miles per hour increasing, under the influence of a Counterstonian type of intermediate environment between sibling galaxies, to several trillions of light-years per second, before dwindling harmlessly to a parachute’s indolent descent. Elaborating anew, in irrational fabrications, all that Cyraniana and ‘physics fiction’ would have been not only a bore but an absurdity, for nobody knew how far Terra, or other innumerable planets with cottages and cows, might be situated in outer or inner space: ‘inner,’ because why not assume their microcosmic presence in the golden globules ascending quick-quick in this flute of Moët or in the corpuscles of my, Van Veen’s —
(or my, Ada Veen’s)
— bloodstream, or in the pus of a Mr Nekto’s ripe boil newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton. Moreover, although reference works existed on library shelves in available, and redundant, profusion, no direct access could be obtained to the banned, or burned, books of the three cosmologists, Xertigny, Yates and Zotov (pen names), who had recklessly started the whole business half a century earlier, causing, and endorsing, panic, demency and execrable romanchiks. All three scientists had vanished now: X had committed suicide; Y had been kidnapped by a laundryman and transported to Tartary; and Z, a ruddy, white-whiskered old sport, was driving his Yakima jailers crazy by means of incomprehensible crepitations, ceaseless invention of invisible inks, chameleonizations, nerve signals, spirals of out-going lights and feats of ventriloquism that imitated pistol shots and sirens. (2.2)
Van's novel comes out on January 1, 1891, Van’s twenty-first birthday:
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. (ibid.)
In VN's novel Zashchita Luzhina (The Luzhin Defense, 1930) the action begins on Friday, August 28, 1908, Leo Tolstoy's eightieth birthday. Little Luzhin buries his father's precious box of chessmen in the darkest and mossiest corner of the dense coppice behind the garden:
А рано утром, в густой роще за садом, в самом темном и мшистом углу, маленький Лужин зарыл ящик с отцовскими шахматами, полагая, что это самый простой способ избежать всяких осложнений, благо есть теперь другие фигуры, которыми можно открыто пользоваться. Его .отец, не совладев с любопытством, отправился к угрюмому доктору, который играл в шахматы куда лучше его, и вечером, после обеда, смеясь и потирая руки, всеми силами стараясь скрыть от себя, что поступает нехорошо,- а почему нехорошо, сам не знает,- он усадил сына и доктора за плетеный стол на веранде, сам расставил фигуры, извиняясь за фиолетовую штучку, и, сев рядом, стал жадно следить за игрой. Шевеля густыми, врозь торчащими бровями, муча мясистый нос большим мохнатым кулаком, доктор долго думал над каждым ходом и порой откидывался, как будто издали лучше было видно, и делал большие глаза, и опять грузно нагибался, упираясь руками в колени. Он проиграл и так крякнул, что в ответ хрустнуло камышевое кресло. "Да, нет же, нет же,- воскликнул Лужин старший.- Надо так пойти, и все спасено,- у вас даже положение лучше". "Да я же под шахом стою",- басом сказал доктор и стал расставлять фигуры заново. И когда он вышел его провожать в темный сад до окаймленной светляками тропинки, спускавшейся к мосту; Лужин старший услышал те слова, которые так жаждал услышать, но теперь от этих слов было тяжело,- лучше бы он их не услышал.
And early next morning in the darkest and mossiest corner of the dense coppice behind the garden little Luzhin buried his father's precious box of chessmen, assuming this to be the simplest way of avoiding any kind of complications, for now there were other chessmen that he could use openly. His father, unable to suppress his interest in the matter, went off to see the gloomy country doctor, who was a far better che
ss player than he, and in the evening after dinner, laughing and rubbing his hands, doing his best to ignore the fact that all this was wrong--but why wrong he could not say--he sat his son down with the doctor at the wicker table on the veranda, himself set out the pieces (apologizing for the purple thingum), sat down beside the players and began avidly following the game. Twitching his bushy eyebrows and tormenting his fleshy nose with a large hairy fist, the doctor thought long over every move and from time to time would lean back in his chair as if able to see better from a distance, and make big eyes, and then lurch heavily forward, his hands braced against his knees. He lost--and grunted so loudly that his wicker armchair creaked in response. "But look, look!" exclaimed Luzhin senior. "You should go this way and everything is saved--you even have the better position." "Don't you see I'm in check?" growled the doctor in a bass voice and began to set out the pieces anew. And when Luzhin senior went out into the dark garden to accompany the doctor as far as the footpath with its border of glowworms leading down to the bridge, he heard the words he had so thirsted to hear once, but now these words weighed heavy upon him--he would rather not have heard them at all. (Chapter 4)
In his poem poem Up at a Villa-Down in the City Robert Browning (the author of Memorabilia) mentions "yon cypress that points like death's lean lifted forefinger:"
All the year long at the villa, nothing to see though you linger,
Except yon cypress that points like death's lean lifted forefinger.
Some think fireflies pretty, when they mix in the corn and mingle,
Or thrid the stinking hemp till the stalks of it seem a-tingle.
Late August or early September, the stunning cicala is shrill,
And the bees keep their tiresome whine round the resinous firs on the hill.
Enough of the seasons,—I spare you the months of the fever and chill.