The Strange Case of Nabokov and W.F. Kirby

One of the perils and pleasures of Nabokov research comes from dipping a toe into what appears to be no more than a puddle, only to find a much deeper cavern lurking beneath the small ripples of the surface. This is one such case:

In Pale Fire, Kinbote’s note to line 79 gives us a line from Shade (“The evening is the time to praise the day”) which Kinbote asserts was inspired by his recitation of

…a charming quatrain from our Zemblan counterpart to the Elder Edda, in an anonymous English translation (Kirby’s?):

The wise at nightfall praise the day,

The wife when she has passed away,

The ice when it is crossed, the bride

When tumbled, and the horse when tried.

Though the Zemblan Elder Edda is fictional, the Kirby to whom Kinbote refers is a real man and a real translator, W.F. Kirby, though Kirby’s major work of translation was the Finnish epic The Kalevala, not the Elder Edda. Complicating things further, the Zemblan quatrain actually seems be a reworking not of Kirby’s work but of Olive Bray’s 1908 translation of Strophe 81 of the Havamal, a portion of the Elder Edda. It reads:

Praise the day at even, a wife when dead,

a weapon when tried, a maid when married,

ice when ’tis crossed, and ale when ’tis drunk.

So Nabokov, via Kinbote, has here constructed a rhyming English version of Bray’s English translation, in the guise of Kirby’s English translation of a Zemblan work akin to the Old Norse Elder Edda. Got it?

But the story doesn’t end there. This hash of the real, the fictional, translation, and pastiche, is oddly echoed in another connection between Nabokov and Kirby–their lepidopteral research. In addition to being a translator, William Forsell Kirby (1844-1912) was an important entomologist and the author of several scientific studies, including Manual of European Butterflies (1862) and Synonymic Catalogue of Diurnal Lepidoptera (1871). According to an article in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society (Higgins, 1985), Kirby, in this latter work, created the species name argyrognomon, which then became the accepted species name for the common European blue butterfly Lycaeides argyrognomon, the type species of which was collected by Bergstrasser in 1779. However, several other possible Lycaeides species were later discovered and described, and this initiated a long period of uncertainty about the proper name to use for each butterfly, culminating in an opinion in 1954 that there were two main species. When scientist sought out type species, they found that the more newly described species (actually the less common of the two) was in fact of the same type as the ones collected long ago by Bergstrasser, so it was decided that this blue should retain the name argyrognomon and the other species, more common and which also occurs in North America, should be called Lycaeides idas. And here is where Nabokov enters the picture. According to Higgins,

During the long interval after the Commission began its work and the Opinion in 1954, entomologists naturally continued to use the butterfly names with which they were familiar. It was during these years that V. Nabokov made many contributions, especially concerning the Lycaeides distributed in North America.

When discussing what should now be called L. idas he used the name “argyrognomon,” not invalid for much of that time, but after the announcement of Opinion 269 in 1954 the position changed radically. The name was restricted to a newly identified European butterfly. Applied to any other species (i.e. L. idas) would be to create a misidentification, and to use it so must be entirely against the rules.

Here is an example of the ambiguity to which Higgins testifies. It is the type species of a race of L. idas, since reclassified as Plebejus idas longinus, collected by Nabokov in Jackson Hole in 1949 (before the Opinion). You can see that he labeled it argyrognomon [idas], apparently uncertain of which name was the proper one.

nab blue

In this case, then, Nabokov has taken a name invented by Kirby and, via a chain of appropriations and discoveries by various scientists,  applied it to his own discovery in a different setting. And this seems appropriate, given the equally topsy-turvical relationship between Kirby and the various literary transmutations presented in Kinbote’s note.

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2 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Nabokov and W.F. Kirby

  1. nnyhav says:

    thx for explicating Kirby! visavis literary transmutations, I took the note to be in part tribute to Archer Taylor, author of The Proverb (1931): see

  2. dropstring says:

    Beautiful connection that perfectly chimes in with the novel’s mischievous play on its title (mis-)quote. “Pale Fire”s tendency to appropriate all sorts of art and life into Kinbote’s “creation” really encompasses (or at least plays into) each and every facet of the text, its fictional author, and also the real life of Vladimir Nabokov and his butterflies.

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