Love, and its complexity, in a butterfly’s name

Images: The red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta; © Kristian Peters, CC BY-SA 3.0. Portrait, “Vanessa”, 1868, by John Everett Millais, collection of Sudley House, Liverpool; public domain.

Last week I shipped off the final revision of my forthcoming book, The Strangest Tribute: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels.*  You know how you just finish a piece of writing, and immediately stumble across something you wish you’d put in?  Well, the very next day, I happened to be skimming an old set of short book reviews, looking for – well, I’m not going to tell you what, because I’m keeping the idea for my next book under wraps for now.  But serendipity struck, as it does; my eye slid by, then arrested on, a one-paragraph review of Maitland Emmet’s book The Scientific Names of the British Lepidoptera: Their History and Meaning (1991).**  And from that one paragraph I learned how the butterfly genus Vanessa got its name.  It’s a fascinating story – and it explains not just the butterfly Vanessa, but every other Vanessa in the world.

Vanessa butterflies are probably familiar to you, even if the name isn’t.  The 22 species are distributed almost globally and include the painted lady and red admiral butterflies (one of the latter is in the photo above).  The genus was named by Johann Fabricius in 1807 – one of about 10,000 Latin names he authored for insects.  (That’s impressive, but believe it or not, it isn’t a record.)  Fabricius adopted the woman’s name “Vanessa” when he needed a name for the genus.  But surprisingly, “Vanessa” wasn’t (then) a very old name.  Nobody had been named “Vanessa” before 1726, because the name was invented by Jonathan Swift in a poem published in that year.

Swift invented the name “Vanessa” in a long (5500 word) poem, Cadenus and Vanessa, which begins:

The shepherds and the nymphs were seen
Pleading before the Cyprian queen.
The counsel for the fair began
Accusing the false creature Man.
The brief with weighty crimes was charged,
On which the pleader much enlarged;
That Cupid now has lost his art
Or blunts the point of every dart;—

Esther Vanhomrigh (Portrait, not from life)

“Cadenus” is Swift himself (it’s an anagram for “Decanus”, Swift’s title as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin); and “Vanessa” is Esther Vanhomrigh – “Van” from her last name, and “Essa” as a pet diminutive of “Esther”.  Swift wrote the poem in 1713 for Esther, who was madly in love with him.  It’s a little hard to puzzle out, but the poem seems to be a long explanation of why he can’t return her love.  Among other things, he was 22 years older than she was:

As years increase, she brighter shines;
Cadenus with each day declines:
And he must fall a prey to time,
While she continues in her prime.

Swift’s demurral isn’t entirely convincing, though.  For one thing, if he genuinely didn’t return her love, he could have said so much more easily and clearly than by writing her a 5,500-word poem that repeatedly extols her virtues.***  Exactly what form their relationship took is unclear; but it was intense, went on for 17 years (10 of them after the writing of the poem), and involved the exchange of many fraught letters and clandestine visits.  Swift’s dance toward and away from Esther (and Esther’s dance toward and away from Swift) ended only with her death from tuberculosis in 1723, at just 35 years old.  It’s a story, at best, of the complexity of love; at worst, a sad one of love unfulfilled.

Back to Fabricius, and the butterfly Vanessa. Fabricius frequently used mythological and other cultural references to name genera and species – but why Vanessa in particular?  Evans (1993) suggests it’s because of the frequent references to nymphs in the poem, including in the opening couplet.  Vanessa is closely related to the previously-named genus Nymphalis.  That may well be true, although Fabricius doesn’t explain his etymology.  I like to think there’s one thing more.  In Swift and Esther’s fluttering about each other over the years, one can see the flight of a pair of butterflies: dancing and twirling, approaching closely and pulling away, apparently drawn by fascination but unsure of commitment.****  Courtship in butterflies is complex; as Esther Vanhomrigh and Jonathan Swift discovered, so is love in humans.

One more thing.  Even from the snippets I’ve quoted here, you might take Cadenus and Vanessa as a clue to why Swift is better remembered as a prose satirist than as a poet.  Except that I’m an entomologist, so I have to close by pointing out that Cadenus and Vanessa is not, in fact, Swift’s poetic masterpiece.  What is?  Clearly, On Poetry, A Rhapsody.  In that poem, Swift unleashes his satiric wit on poets who try to ingratiate themselves with royalty. More importantly, he includes these classic lines:

  So, naturalists observe, a flea
  Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
  And these have smaller still to bite ’em;
  And so proceed ad infinitum.
  Thus every poet, in his kind,
  Is bit by him that comes behind.

Now that’s poetry for an entomologist.

© Stephen Heard  May 21, 2019

Care to read more?  There’s a detailed version of the story in Evans (1993); and if you have time to spare, there’s the full poem Cadenus and Vanessa. If you have even more time, Leo Damrosch’s Jonathan Swift: His Life and World speculates at length on the nature of Swift’s relationship with Vanessa.  Oh, and if you want to read about some science-related poetry I really like, there’s Caribou Run and A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.

*^But I’m still on the lookout for a better title, so if you have a suggestion, fire away.

**^I know, it’s no Game of Thrones.  In fact, I learned from the Amazon sales ranking of this book that Amazon sells, and tracks sales of, at least 14,021,091 different books – 14,021,090 of which are currently outselling The Scientific Names of the British Lepidoptera.

***^It may be relevant that Swift may (or may not) have been secretly married to a woman named Esther Johnson – although the fact that he was 15 years older than this Esther rather undercuts the poem’s age-gap rationale.

****^Although in Vanessa atalanta, at least, many pairs of dancing butterflies are not courting but in fact pairs of males engaging in territorial disputes.


3 thoughts on “Love, and its complexity, in a butterfly’s name

  1. sleather2012

    I am so, so jealous of your speedy book writing – I’m having a bit of a block on my Very Short Introduction at the moment but hope that two weeks in my French retreat (roll on Saturday) will get the creative juices running and stimulate the connection between brain and finger tips and keyboard 🙂


  2. Pingback: Red Admiral Butterfly, nectaring – Liz's World

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