On Discovering a Butterfly
February 27, 2012 § 1 Comment
all rocks and lavender and tufted grass,
where it was settled on some sodden sand
hard by the torrent of a mountain pass.
The features it combines mark it as new
to science shape and shade — the special tinge,
akin to moonlight, tempering its blue,
the dingy underside, the checkered fringe.
My needles have teased out its sculptured sex;
corroded tissues could no longer hide
that priceless mote now dimpling the convex
and limpid teardrop on a lighted slide.
Smoothly a screw is turned; out of the mist
two ambered hooks symmetrically slope,
or scales like battledores of amethyst
cross the charmed circle of the microscope.
I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer — and I want no other fame.
Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep)
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.
Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.
– Vladimir Nabokov
Often truncated to its last three stanzas, this poem is a good one to illustrate Nabokov’s own declaration that a writer must have “the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” If the first three stanzas take a clinical approach to language—the butterfly’s “checkered fringe,” “dingy underside,” “sculpted sex”—then the tone turns with the turning of the screw in stanza four to romanticized description: “battledores of amethyst,” the microscope’s “charmed circle,” the “ambered hooks” peeking from the mist. The poem ends with my favorite list in all of poetry.