Thursday 12 November 2020

Vanessa and Atalanta

 I've written before about the surprising origins of the name Vanessa – invented by Jonathan Swift, no less – but I hadn't fully realised the Swiftian origins of the Latin name for the Red Admiral until I read about it in Peter Marren's excellent Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies
It was not the Swede Linnaeus but the Dane Johann Christian Fabricius who gave the Red Admiral its grand binomial, Vanessa atalanta. He clearly took 'Vanessa' from Swift's poem 'Cadenus and Vanessa', which Marren describes pithily as 'an autobiographical love poem dressed up as a fairy story of nymphs and shepherds'. ('Cadenus' is an anagram of Decanus, a Dean, Swift's ecclesiastical rank.) But what of Atalanta? She is a figure from Greek mythology, a formidable virgin huntress and athlete who was notably reluctant to marry – and her name appears once with Vanessa's in 'Cadenus and Vanessa' – 
'When lo! Vanessa in her bloom
Advanced, like Atalanta's star.'
Surely Fabricius happened on those lines and had his inspiration – there was Vanessa atalanta, ready-made.
Handel wrote an opera Atalanta. Here is a rather lovely aria from it : 'Care Selve' (dear woods) –

As it happens, I saw a handsome Red Admiral this morning, in a local byway that in my boyhood was known (for no good reason) as Murder Alley. The Admiral was taking a quick hit of nectar from a very late bramble flower before flying off and away. It might be my last butterfly of the year – but I've already thought that about a Peacock in Derbyshire and a local Small White, so who knows?



  1. Couldn't read this Nige, without giving you a nudge toward (or reminder of) Samuel Barber's great 50's opera Vanessa. He didn't write much, but everything he did write has the polished beauty hinted at in this short aria. America's greatest composer? Hard to say no

  2. Gosh yes, that is lovely – I must look into Vanessa. Everything I've heard of Barber's I've found impressive. Thanks, Mm.