Part One, Chapter 23
Now that Van and Ada’s love has moved from private emotion to frantic action, it runs a new risk: public observation. Lucette, freed by Mlle Larivière’s taking to her bed, is the first to see them after “the machine which our forefathers called ‘sex’” (129) has begun to operate smoothly.
Until recently, Van and Ada have been frustrated by the distance between them. Now that closeness has replaced distance, a new but comically lighter frustration faces them: their need to escape Lucette’s prying and almost omnipresent eyes. The flimsiness, extravagance and diversity of their impromptu ploys, in the five days Lucette is on the loose, amusingly testify to the urgency, frequency and desperate inventiveness of their passion.
142.01-02: All went well until Mlle Larivière decided to stay in bed . . . : she had sprained her back: Cf. 374.11-12: “It was the summer Belle sprained her backside, and we were left to our own devices. . . . ”
142.02-03: at the Vintage Fair: Cf. 140.03: “the Vendange Festival at Brantôme near Ladore.”
142.03-05: which, besides, she needed as the setting for a story she had begun (about a town mayor’s strangling a small girl called Rockette): Darkbloom: “corresponds to Maupassant’s La Petite Rocque.” Once again (see her “La Rivière de Diamants,” Maupassant’s “La Parure,” at 83.06-87.31 and nn.) a new Larivière work confirms her as the Antiterran Maupassant. Rivers and Walker 280: “The title of the story by Guy de Maupassant is ‘La Petite Roque’ (‘Little Roque’; 1885), not ‘La Petite Rocque,’ as in the Darkbloom note. The distortion is slight but perhaps intentional. ‘Roque’ is the family name of the girl in the Maupassant story; rocque is the French word for the rook in chess, thus giving Maupassant’s title a Nabokovian twist. The name given the girl in Mlle Larivière’s version of the story, ‘Rockette,’ means ‘little rock’ and may be intended whimsically to recall the capital of Arkansas or, perhaps, the famous dancing troupe at Radio City Music Hall [in New York], the Rockettes.” And once again Mlle Larivière’s story involves a river (in the earlier story, the title “La Rivière de Diamants,” here, the riverine setting); and as will increasingly be the case, her story reflects the reality of Ardis’s ardors, even though she is blissfully unaware of them: in her story, a sexual crime on the bank of a river, and in Ardis’s “real life,” an unrestrained sexual impulse by the bank of a river will much later lead to fatal consequences for the little girl Lucette.
For more details of Mlle Larivière’s story, see 142.15-16 and 154.32-155.02 and nn.
142.05-06: knew by experience that nothing kept up the itch of inspiration so well as la chaleur du lit: Darkbloom : “bed warmth.” Two French writers famous for their liking to reflect and write in bed are philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) and novelist Marcel Proust. Rivers and Walker 281 note Proust, and Nabokov’s own declaration that “Thirty years ago I used to write in bed, dipping my pen into a bedside inkwell” (SO 139).
142.07: the second upstairs maid, French: Cf. 44.09-10: “The servants’ quarters (except those of two painted and powdered maids who had rooms upstairs).”
142.11-12: “Well, if Master Van lets you come”: A French maid’s uncertain confusion of the paired English verbs “come” and “go” (with them) leads into a pun on “come” as orgasm, anticipating both 1) Lucette’s own plethora of sexual puns, including “when you had completed the rearrangement, you and she came simultaneously, si je puis le metre comme ça (Canady French), came falling on the black carpet in a paroxysm of incomprehensible merriment” (379.07-10, when the letters in the Scrabble groove form the Russian for “clitoris”), and 2) the fact that in this sense Lucette in later life would dearly like to have Van “let her come” with him.
142.13: mushroom-picking: Ada likes botanical rambles, and the first time she touches the glans of Van’s penis, she observes “The cap of the Red Bolete is not half as plushy” (119.25). A photograph by Kim Beauharnais captures Van and Ada in the first days of their making love: “The magnifier . . . clearly showed, topping the daisies in an upper picture, the type of tight-capped toadstool called in Scots law . . . ‘the Lord of Erection’” (405.23-27). Cf. also the erotic resonance of Clare Quilty’s play The Strange Mushroom in Lolita (I.8: 31). MOTIF: fungus.
142.15-143.04: While the comfortably resting lady was describing the bank of a brook where little Rockette liked to frolic, Ada sat reading on a similar bank . . . Lucette . . . on the brink of the brook . . . a fetus-sized rubber doll: The comic overlaps between the governess’s own writing and the action at Ardis, of which she seems serenely unaware, continue.
Apart from the echo of her version of Maupassant’s “La Petite Roque,” there is also an echo of Rimbaud’s “Mémoire,” which Ada’s governess has made her learn by heart (64.17-18): l.20, “des enfants lisant dans le verdure fleurie” (“children reading in the flowery greenery”) of another river-bank. (For text and translation of “Mémoire,” see 64.15-65.03n.)
Four years later Ada sits “with a book on her lap. . . . She was not really reading, but nervously, angrily, absently flipping through the pages of what happened to be that old anthology—she who at any time, if she picked up a book, would at once get engrossed in whatever text she happened to slip into ‘from the book’s brink’ with the natural movement of a water creature put back into its brook” (208.15-23). This is the anthology of English poems that Van gives Lucette and that she keeps in the Ardis nursery (see 145-46 below and nn.)
MOTIF: art-life; brook-brink.
142.16: little Rockette: MOTIF: little Lucette.
142.18: evergreens: A “dark grove of conifers” (143.19-20), but not the larches (152.16) through which Lucette peeps (larches, although conifers, are deciduous).
142.19: our lovers: MOTIF: our lovers.
142.20-143.02: wristwatch . . . forget-me-nots (but which Ada, he forgot, was wearing): Cf. 94.19-20: “She was wearing his wristwatch.” Cf. 589.04-05: “a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook.”
Forget-me-nots, fifty species of flowering plants of the genus Myosotis, found in woods, meadows, swampy soils, and at pond margins in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Most familiar are M. sylvatica, with their tiny, fragrant, sky-blue flowers. The species implied here is most likely M. palustris (cf. 63.21-22: “the common Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris”), the Water Forget-Me-Not, a marginal aquatic perennial with bright blue flowers, whose commonest cultivated variety is “Mermaid.” The name “forget-me-not”—similar in many European languages, including French, ne m’oubliez pas, and Russian, nezabudka—derives from its ready flowering the following spring, although according to a German legend “the flower takes its name from the last words of a knight, who was drowned while trying to pick some from the riverside for his lady” (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable). Forget-me-nots have long been a symbol of loving remembrance.
I.10 incorporates the souci d’eau (marsh marigold) into the narrative as a way to include Rimbaud’s poem “Mémoire.” The last section of “Mémoire” introduces (ll. 42-43) two flowers, a yellow one, already named earlier in the poem as a “souci d’eau” (and identified by Ada as Caltha palustris), and a blue one, most probably that other waterside plant, the Water Forget-me-not, Myosotis palustris. (See 64.15-65.03n.)
Forget-me-nots and forgetting are loosely linked in Nabokov’s story “Khvat” (“A Dashing Fellow”).
MOTIF: flowers; forget-me-nots.
143.01-08: among the forget-me-nots. . . Lucette had abandoned her skipping rope to . . . float a fetus-sized rubber doll. . . . the doll managed to get swept away by the current: Van will later imagine Lucette’s thoughts as she drowns: “She did not see her whole life flash before her as we all were afraid she might have done; the red rubber of a favourite doll remained safely decomposed among the myosotes of an unanalyzable brook” (494.22-25). MOTIF: Lucette: prolepsis.
143.03: skipping rope: It has red knobbed grips (143.21). Kim Beauharnais photographed Lucette skipping shortly after Van’s first arrival at Ardis (399.28); she still skips rope, in a way that once again threatens to intrude on Van’s and Ada’s amours, in the summer of 1888 (212.18).
143.04: fetus-sized rubber doll: Aqua at one time “believed that a stillborn male infant half a year old, a surprised little fetus, a fish of rubber that she had produced in her bath . . . had somehow been saved” (25.25-29).
143.09: under a willow: In Maupsassant’s La Petite Roque the pool in which the heroine swims is surrounded by thick willows, from which the mayor, Renardet, spies on the naked girl. MOTIF: under tree; willow.
143.16-17; MOTIF: willow.
143.20-22: Lucette . . . seemed to have almost disentangled herself when dragon and knight . . . returned: See 152.12-16: “Ada had made her confess, that it was, as Van had suspected, the other way round—that when they returned to the damsel in distress, she was in all haste, not freeing herself, but actually trying to tie herself up again after breaking loose and spying on them.” Similarly Blanche spies on Van and Ada, at an even earlier phase of their relationship, but feigns not to have done so when Van returns: “Van . . . discovered Blanche in his room feigning to make the made bed, with the unlocked diary lying on the stool beside it” (96.13-15).
143.21: red knobbed grips: A comically overt sexual joke.
143.23-28: governess who, completely misconstruing the whole matter . . . told him to refrain from turning Lucette’s head . . . : MOTIF: Larivière unobservant.
143.25-26: from her screened bed, through a reek of embrocation and sweat: Cf. Nabokov’s recollection of his own French governess, “Mademoiselle O” (Cécile Miauton): “Mademoiselle’s room, both in the country and in town, was a weird place to me—a kind of hothouse sheltering a thick-leaved plant imbued with a heavy, enuretic odor. Although next to ours, when we were small, it did not seem to belong to our pleasant, well-aired home. In that sickening mist, reeking, among other woollier effluvia, of the brown smell of oxidized apple peel . . . ” (SM 107).
143.27-28: a fairy-tale damsel in distress: Cf. “damsel in distress” (152.13-14). MOTIF: fairy tale.
143.29-31: Lucette badly needed a bath . . . whether her governess liked it or not: Van has noted that “morning baths [are] unknown under Mlle Larivière’s regime” (77.12-13).
143.31: Horosho: Darkbloom: “Russ., all right.”
143.32-33: getting ready to receive a neighbor and his protégé, a young actor: There will be a similar “prof push” for the actress Cordelia O’Leary, “a budding Duse,” brought by Demon Veen to the home of Cordula de Prey’s mother, “an overripe, overdressed, overpraised comedy actress” (164.01-06).
143.33: her best Dame Marina style: Among the leading British actresses to have been made Dame, Ellen Terry (1848-1928) stands out. The greatest English actress of her time, she first performed in 1856 and remained on stage for more than fifty years, and hence throughout Marina’s career. She was made a dame in 1925. Others Nabokov would have known include Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976, DBE 1931), Edith Evans (1888-1976, DBE 1946), Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972, DBE 1967).
143.33-144.01: temperature . . . exactly twenty-eight . . . since the eighteenth century: 28° Réaumur, a temperature scale popular in Europe and especially France, devised by René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683-1757); it has been superseded by Celsius. 28° Réaumur is 35° Celsius or 95° Fahrenheit.
144.05-06: in her ninth year and rather underdeveloped: Seeing Lucette topless in 1888, Van “recalled with mixed feelings how much more developed her sister had been at not quite twelve years of age” (198.14-16).
144.07-08: red-haired little girls . . . copper: MOTIF: red hair.
144.08: dusted with copper: MOTIF: copper.
144.08-145.04: The liquid prison was now ready . . . calling resonantly from the tub: MOTIF: Lucette: prolepsis.
144.14-16: “I’m Van,” said Lucette, . . . with the mulberry soap between her legs: Cf. 60.15: “a big mulberry-colored cake of soap.” When Ada tells Van she has made Lucette confess that she was retying herself to the willow in the previous scene, not trying to untie herself, Van exclaims: “Good Lord, . . . that explains the angle of the soap!” (152.16-17).
144.22-23: Here’s your doll: Apparently the red rubber doll with vaginal perforation, retrieved by Van the previous day (143.09)
144.26: And remember: Cf. 109.11-14:“ ‘And do you remember, a tï pomnish’, et te souviens-tu,’ (invariably with that implied codetta of ‘and,’ introducing the bead to be threaded in the torn necklace).” MOTIF: remember.
144.27-28: or you’ll die, because that’s what Krolik said: In his capacity as family doctor.
144.30-31: L-shaped bathroom: MOTIF: L.
144.32-145.03: chest of drawers . . . empty medicine bottle idiotically beating time on a shelf: In 1901, Lucette recalls “that distant day, that day somewhere tinkling on its shelf like an empty little bottle” (146.23-24). Describing the night of Lucette’s suicide, Van notes: “He understood her condition or at least believed, in despair, that he had understood it, retrospectively, by the time no remedy except Dr. Henry’s oil of Atlantic prose could be found in the medicine chest of the past with its banging door and toppling toothbrush” (485.11-15).
144.33: sea-green eye: Green is associated with Lucette (her eye color, her favorite clothes) and her envious espials (“the keyhole turned an angry green,” 213.30-31; “while Lucette considered with darkening green eyes,” 278.28-29); sea-green with her death in the sea, and the movie that precedes the fatal Don Juan’s Last Fling, “featuring a cruise to Greenland, with heavy seas in gaudy technicolor” (487.18-19, italics added). MOTIF: green [Lucette].
144.34-145.03: barely had they finished . . . when Lucette was already calling resonantly: The timing implies that if Lucette has not been able to see them, despite peering in the mirror, she has certainly been listening intently to their rhythms.
145.18-19: composed in tears forty years ago by the Poet Laureate Robert Brown: On Earth, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was Poet Laureate forty years before 1884. The poet Robert Browning (1812-1889), although one of the two dominant bards of Victorian England, was never the laureate, unlike his counterpart, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), poet laureate from 1850 until his death, and therefore, if he exists on Antiterra, at the time Lucette is challenged to learn this poem. Another poet laureate with a name not unlike Robert Brown, Robert Bridges (1844-1930) held the office from 1913 until his death, and thus throughout the years Nabokov lived in England, 1919-1922. Another referent may be the botanist Robert Brown (1777-1858), who named many species of orchid; see notes to I.16 and I.17.
Jansy Berndt de Souza Mello notes (Nabokv-L, 27 June 2016) that Nabokov could also have had in mind John Keats’s close friend Charles Armitage Brown (1787-1842). A nightingale nesting in the orchard of the house in Hampstead that Brown and Keats shared in the spring of 1819 inspired Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (April-May 1819). For another famous Keats ode, see 50.16n.
145.19-21: 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: Perhaps in 1881, when in the spring Van spent a few months “at his grandmother’s villa near Nice” (152.26-27), which has at least one cypress in its garden (500.08).
There may be a hint here of one of the most famous of Victorian poems, “Dover Beach” (1867) by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), where “the cliffs of England stand, / Glimmering and vast . . . ”
Cf. “Ultima Thule” (1940): “leading you to the very edge of the Riviera precipice, ladies don’t look” (SoVN 512).
145.22-23: ‘Peter and Margaret’: Invented. For its text, see 146.26-33; for identifications of Peter, Margaret, and the poem’s echoes of real Victorian poets, see 146.26-33nn.
145.23-34: Now you have, say" . . . a full hour to learn these eight lines by heart. . . . "if, my sweet you can recite it . . . "it's a bit harder.") MOTIF: memory test.
145.25: Mironton, mirontaine: Darkbloom : “burden of a popular song” (see for instance 289.26-28: “Mon page, mon beau page, / —Mironton-mironton-mirontaine— / Mon page, mon beau page . . . ”). River and Walker 281 gloss Darkbloom: “Not the burden of a particular song but one that frequently occurs in popular songs in France.”
145.27-28: little Lucette: MOTIF: little Lucette.
145.28-29: lightly brushing her bobbed hair with his lips: On the night of her death, Lucette, sitting next to Van in the shipboard cinema, “brushed his cheek with her lips in the dark” (488.07).
145.30-31: the ‘here-there’ and the ‘this-that’: See 146.26-29.
145.33-34: the one about finding a feather and seeing Peacock plain . . . it’s a bit harder: Browning’s “Memorabilia” (pub. 1855) is an apt poem for a memory test, especially in view of its last line, a joke now doubled:
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you,
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!
But you were living before that,
And also you are living after;
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter.
I crossed a moor, with a name of its own,
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
’Mid the blank miles round about:
For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather!
Well, I forget the rest.
Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) was a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who formed the basis of the character Scythrop Glowry in Peacock’s satirical novella Nightmare Abbey (1818). Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1821) is a reply to Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820).
Lucette as an art history student will later identify “a pair of the Pear Peacock in copula, the male with feathery antennae, the female with the plain threads” (400.17-18), oddly echoing Ada’s “feather . . . Peacock plain.”
A1: “Browning on ‘seeing Shelley plain.’ ”
146.01: little ballad: Cf. 23.26: “ballatetta” (little ballad).
146.08: drawings in ink—a black aster (evolved from a blot): In Marina’s herbarium is a “[blue-ink blot shaped accidentally like a flower, or improved felt-pen deletion] Compliquaria compliquata var. aquamarina” (8.07-09), marking the substitution of Van for Aqua’s still-born child. MOTIF: flower drawing/painting.
146.11: Cheshcat, Zogdog, Fancytart: “Cheshire, the rugby ace” at Van’s school, Riverlane (32.30), fused with the Cheshire Cat in Ch. 7 of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (see 53.25-28n.); Zographos, another schoolmate (33.14); and, presumably, the “hysterical lad from Upsala, cross-eyed, loose-lipped, with almost abnormally awkward limbs, but with a wonderfully tender skin texture and the round creamy charms of Bronzino’s Cupid,” 32.24-27). Zographos may owe something to King Zog I of Albania (Ahmed Bey Zogu, 1895-1961), who was much in the news in the 1930s. MOTIF: Greek and English.
146.11: Fancytart: In part a play on the surname “Vansittart.”
Cyril Vansittart (1852-1887) was a renowned English-Italian chess player. The
most famous to bear the name was Robert Vansittart, 1st Baron Vansittart
(1881-1957), a senior British diplomat, Permanent Under-Secretary at the
Foreign Office, 1930-1938, and a prominent critic of appeasement with Germany
before World War II and such a resolute champion of harsh responses to Germany
during and after the war that “Vansittartism” became a common noun (OED: “The foreign policy advocated by
Sir Robert (later Lord) Vansittart, spec. with regard to the
demilitarization of Germany,” first recorded 1941). Also a poet, novelist,
playwright and screenplay writer, Robert Vansittart had been a student at Eton
College, represented in Ada as Note, whose
exclusivity and practices provided cues for Riverlane (cf. 348.23-25: “Eric,
though frenziedly heterosexual, had enjoyed some tender ersatz fumblings with
schoolmates at Note (a notorious preparatory school in that respect)”)
146.11: Ada-like Van: MOTIF: like Ada.
146.12: Van hastened to join Ada in the attic: Apparently the scene in the attic described in I.1 (the connection seems to be confirmed by the pointed echo in 146.08 of the ink-modified herbarium “flower”).
146.12-16: was to recall it with a fatidic shiver . . . ‘just in case’: MOTIF: Lucette: prolepsis.
146.15: his Kingston address: Van appears to live in Kingston, Mayne, from 1892 (when he resides at Voltemand Hall, Kingston University: 365.01ff.) to 1922.
146.15: June 2, 1901: Lucette dies three days later.
146.16: “just in case”: “I sent you a silly note to Kingston, just in case you didn’t turn up” (478.16-17).
146.17-18: I kept for years—it must be in my Ardis nursery—the anthology you once gave me: A “shelf above a cretonne-covered divan held some of the child’s old ‘untouchable’ treasures among which was the battered anthology he had given her four years ago” (207.08-11).
146.17: my Ardis nursery: Cf. “a little book in the Ardis Hall nursery” (588.02).
146.17-18: the anthology you once gave me: Impatient to make love, Van and Ada in 1888 take advantage of Lucette’s being “audibly absent” (207.07) at a piano lesson to retreat to an upstairs dressing room. Interrupted, Van returns to find Ada “with a book in her lap. . . . not really reading, but nervously, angrily, absently flipping through the pages of what happened to be that old anthology” (208.15-20).
146.22: in Brown: MOTIF: Brown.
146.23-24: that distant day, that day somewhere tinkling on its shelf like an empty little bottle: See 145.02-03 and 485.14-15.
146.26-33: “Here, said the guide . . . she is by my side”: Nabokov wrote a third-person note for Bobbie Ann Mason: “The poem Peter and Margaret is of course Nabokov’s own composition. Not a single reader (as far as he knows) has understood that it is a stylized glimpse of a mysterious person visiting the place, open to tourists, where in legendary times (‘legendary’ in Antiterra terms) a certain Peter T. had his last interview with the Queen’s sister. Although he accuses the old guide of being a ‘ghost,’ it is he, in the reversal of time, who is a ghostly tourist, the ghost of Peter T. himself. It is a very beautiful little poem, it should send a tingle down the spine of the reader” (Mason 185).
Nabokov’s explanation confirms that Peter and Margaret are Group Captain Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret of England, whose romance was a major news story in the 1950s. Peter Townsend (1915-1995), who had been a decorated Royal Air Force fighter pilot and Battle of Britain flying ace, was selected for the Royal Service in 1944 under the “equerries of honor” scheme. He first met Princess Margaret (1930-2002) at this time, when she was fourteen. In 1952, after his wife had an affair, Townsend sued for divorce. Meanwhile he had become equerry to the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, who together moved their official London residence to Clarence House in 1953. By now Townsend and Princess Margaret were deeply in love and wished to marry, but Queen Elizabeth II asked her sister to wait a year, and Townsend was given a two-year posting in Brussels. Until the age of 25, Princess Margaret needed the Queen’s approval of her marriage; after that, she required Parliament’s permission. The lovers were reunited at Clarence House on October 13, 1955, and still hoped for a future together, but when it became clear that Parliament would not approve and that they could marry only if Princess Margaret forfeited all her rights, privileges and income, they both agreed to renounce their hopes of marrying. On October 31, 1955, just after he had left Clarence House, Princess Margaret issued a statement: “I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry group captain Peter Townsend. Mindful that Christian marriage is indissoluble and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others. I have reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend.”
Clarence House is at the southwest angle of St. James’s Palace, reconstructed by John Nash from the lodgings of Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence (later William IV) on the late 1820s. It is located on Stable Yard Road, at the southwest angle of St. James’s Palace, close to St. James’s Park: hence, perhaps, the poem’s “oats and oaks.” Currently the official London residence of Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Clarence House is usually opened to the public only in late summer and early autumn.
When Nabokov’s lawyers expressed concern that the poem’s evocation of Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret could somehow occasion legal action (although their story had sparked headlines for several years in the 1950s), Véra Nabokov wrote back under her husband’s instructions that this was “a nice romantic poem that could be as easily related to Pierre Finville and Marguerite de Valois as to Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret” (unpublished letter, Véra Nabokov to Joan Daly, February 6, 1969, VNA).
An uncanny relationship between the living and the dead is not uncommon in Romantic and post-Romantic verse, as in Sir Walter Scott’s “William and Helen” (1797), for instance, a ballad in imitation of the ballad “Lenore” (1774) by Gottfried Bürger (1747-1794), which in turn imitated the Scottish ballad “Sweet William’s Ghost.” Helen is carried off on horseback by what turns out to be the specter of her lover, who has been killed in the Crusades, and finds herself clasped in his embrace as he reenters the grave.
Van assigns “Peter and Margaret,” however, to the Victorian era. The poem appears not to echo any particular text, but it does match features and intonations of both the longest-serving Victorian poet laureate, Tennyson, and the Browning who lends most of his name to “Robert Brown” and is the real author of the poem that Ada alludes to at 145.33-34.
“Peter and Margaret” has the clarity, smooth flow and sound-play (“oats and oaks”) of Tennyson; the two names in its title are a feature of his (much longer) tales in Idylls of the King, worked on between 1833 and 1891(“Geraint and Enid,” “Merlin and Vivien,” “Lancelot and Elaine,” “Pelleas and Etarre”); and its stressed and italicized pronouns have their counterpart in Tennyson’s early sonnet “She took the dappled partridge fleckt with blood” (1825-1830?), whose sestet, describing the woman holding a partridge, pheasant and hare freshly killed, runs:
Hers is the fairest Life that breathes with breath,
And their still plumes and azure eyelids closed
Made quiet Death so beautiful to see
That Death lent grace to Life and Life to Death
And in one image Life and Death reposed,
To make my love an Immortality.
But despite the misleading “clue” of “Poet Laureate,” and the poem’s Tennysonian fluency, “Peter and Margaret” especially evokes Browning. “Guide,” the only comparatively infrequent word appearing in both stanzas, is a favorite term of Browning’s. Indeed, Herbert Tucker, to whom I am indebted (private communication) for the following precise suggestions, notes that Browning “at times—his influence on H[enry] James is heaviest here—seems to have thought our love lives have a lot in common with museum tours.”
In “Peter and Margaret” we can hear the intonations of Browning’s 1855 poem “Misconceptions,” especially the opening lines of each stanza: “This is a spray the Bird clung to / . . . / This is a heart the Queen leant on.”
In Browning’s 1845 “Garden Fancies,” the first line of the first section, “The Flower’s Name,” anticipates the first line of “Peter and Margaret”: “Here’s the garden she walked across.”
The stress on “she” and the speaker (“she is by my side”) recalls Browning’s “Never the Time and Place” (written 1882?, pub. 1883), with its haunting memory of a long-dead love, and the confidence that they will be somehow together: “Oh, close, safe, warm sleep I and she, / —I and she!”
“I and she” is in fact a common phrase in Browning. At the end of the 1855 poem “The Last Ride Together,” the poet asks “What if heaven be that,”
What if we still ride on, we two,
With life for ever old yet new,
Changed not in kind but in degree,
The instant made eternity, --
And heaven just prove that I and she
Ride, ride together, for ever ride?
Nabokov had a strong interest in both Browning and the Lilith theme (about which he wrote a poem in 1928 and a novel of some renown), so it is likely he would have noted Browning’s “Adam, Lilith, and Eve” (written late 1882?, published 1883), where two of the four stanzas begin “Said This, ‘Do you mind the morning,’” and “Said That: ‘We stood to be married’” (Lilith and Eve, respectively), as if prefiguring “Here, said the guide, was the field” and “No, the visitor said” beginning the two stanzas of “Peter and Margaret”; Browning’s closing rhyme also matches the closing rhyme of the poem by “Brown”: “ ‘I saw through the joke!’ the man replied / They re-seated themselves beside.”
The reminiscences of Browning’s “Saint Martin’s Summer” (1876) are not so much verbal as situational and thematic. “Ay, dead loves are the potent! / . . . / Mere semblance you, but substance they!” anticipates the last three lines of “Peter and Margaret,” and the word “ghost” tolls six times through the poem.
In composing “Peter and Margaret,” Nabokov appears not to have a particular Tennyson or Browning work in mind, but he does capture Tennyson’s verbal mellowness in a recurrent Browningesque situation, where different voices contend in a space that evokes multiple times and states, and a love no longer present proves somehow not absent.
Afternote to Part One, Chapter 23