Thursday 27 October 2016


You live and learn - at least, it's a good idea to carry on learning if you're going to carry on living.
 I'd always thought that Vanessa was one of those names that had been around for ever, perhaps with classical origins, maybe earlier - but no: today I learned that the name was invented by none other than Jonathan Swift. It was his nickname for Esther Vanhomrigh, the unfortunate woman who was the object his obsessive love for 17 years, until he abandoned her in favour of another Esther, Esther Johnson ('Stella'). Swift arrived at 'Vanessa' by conflating the Van from the first Esther's surname with 'Esse', a pet form of Esther.
 The name caught on, and it was only a few decades after its first appearance in print (Swift's Cadenus and Vanessa) that Linnaeus used it in naming two butterflies - Vanessa atalanta (Red Admiral) and Vanessa cardui (Painted Lady).
 Vanessa atalanta is the butterfly that haunts Nabokov's Pale Fire, associated both with John Shade's adored wife -
   'Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed,
    My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest,
    My Admirable butterfly!'
- and with his impending death. At the end of the poem, Shade looks for his wife just before catching sight of the Red Admiral that will be among the last things he sees:
   'Where are you? In the garden. I can see
    Part of your shadow near the shagbark tree.
    Somewhere horseshoes are being tossed. Click. Clunk.
    (Leaning against its lamppost like a drunk.)
    A dark Vanessa with a crimson band
    Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
    And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.'


  1. Came across the origin of Vanessa in Leo Damrosch's rather dull biography of Swift. Curiously I too opined on the subject of Vanessa Atalanta just a few days ago.

  2. ...and let us not forget the scandalously neglected operatic masterpiece by Samuel Barber, Vanessa, composed almost 60 years ago and, after a bright start, mostly collecting dust these days, save a magnificent recent revival in Wexford. The two other American 20th Century 'biggies' were prolific, Barber writing very little - but nearly everything he did write has a polished beauty. Time to blow the dust off this Vanessa? I think so.

  3. Thanks for the lead, MM. I have liked all the Barber I've heard...