Longwood Glen Revisited

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 10/01/2021 - 15:50

In VN’s poem The Ballad of Longwood Glen (1957) Art Longwood, a local florist, climbs a tree and gets lost in it:


That Sunday morning, at half past ten,
Two cars crossed the creek and entered the glen.

In the first was Art Longwood, a local florist,
With his children and wife (now Mrs. Deforest).

In the one that followed, a ranger saw
Art's father, stepfather and father-in-law.

The three old men walked off to the cove.
Through tinkling weeds Art slowly drove.

Fair was the morning, with bright clouds afar.
Children and comics emerged from the car.

Silent Art, who could stare at a thing all day,
Watched a bug climb a stalk and fly away.

Pauline had asthma, Paul used a crutch.
They were cute little rascals but could not run much.

"I wish," said his mother to crippled Paul,
"Some man would teach you to pitch that ball."

Silent Art took the ball and tossed it high.
It stuck in a tree that was passing by.

And the grave green pilgrim turned and stopped,
The children waited, but no ball dropped.

"I never climbed trees in my timid prime,"
Thought Art; and forthwith started to climb.

Now and then his elbow or knee could be seen
In a jigsaw puzzle of blue and green.

Up and up Art Longwood swarmed and shinned,
And the leaves said yes to the questioning wind.

What tiaras of gardens! What torrents of light!
How accessible ether! How easy flight!

His family circled the tree all day.
Pauline concluded: "Dad climbed away."

None saw the delirious celestial crowds
Greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds.

Mrs. Longwood was getting a little concerned.
He never came down. He never returned.

She found some change at the foot of the tree.
The children grew bored. Paul was stung by a bee.

The old men walked over and stood looking up,
Each holding five cards and a paper cup.

Cars on the highway stopped, backed, and then
Up a rutted road waddled into the glen.

And the tree was suddenly full of noise,
Conventioners, fishermen, freckled -boys.

Anacondas and pumas were mentioned by some,
And all kinds of humans continued to come:

Tree surgeons, detectives, the fire brigade.
An ambulance parked in the dancing shade.

A drunken rogue with a rope and a gun
Arrived on the scene to see justice done.

Explorers, dendrologists – all were there;
And a strange pale girl with gypsy hair.

And from Cape Fear to Cape Flattery
Every paper had: Man Lost in Tree.

And the sky-bound oak (where owls had perched
And the moon dripped gold) was felled and searched.

They discovered some inchworms, a red-cheeked gall,
And an ancient nest with a new-laid ball.

They varnished the stump, put up railings and signs.
Restrooms nestled in roses and vines.

Mrs. Longwood, retouched, when the children died,
Became a photographer's dreamy bride.

And now the Deforests, with four old men,
Like regular tourists visit the glen;

Munch their lunches, look up and down,
Wash their hands, and drive back to town.


Before climbing the tree, silent Art (who can stare at a thing all day) watches a bug climb a stalk and fly away. Having climbed the oak tree, Art Longwood turns into a butterfly and flies away ("How accessible ether! How easy flight!"). By performing that feat, Art Longwood inverts Chekhov’s aphorism: “In nature a repulsive caterpillar turns into a lovely butterfly. But with human beings a lovely butterfly turns into a repulsive caterpillar.”


In a letter of Apr. 23, 1890, to his sister Chekhov (who was on his way to Sakhalin) describes his journey on a Volga steamer from Yaroslavl to Nizhniy Novgorod and compares the steam-tugs to some fine young intellectual trying to run away while a plebeian wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and wife’s grandmother hold on to his coat-tails:


Холодновато и скучновато, но в общем занятно.

Свистит пароход ежеминутно; его свист — что-то среднее между ослиным рёвом и эоловой арфой. Через 5—6 часов буду в Нижнем. Восходит солнце. Ночь спал художественно. Деньги целы — это оттого, что я часто хватаюсь за живот.

Очень красивы буксирные пароходы, тащущие за собой по 4—5 барж; похоже на то, как будто молодой, изящный интеллигент хочет бежать, а его за фалды держат жена-кувалда, теща, свояченица и бабушка жены.


It’s rather cold and rather dull, but interesting on the whole.

The steamer whistles every minute; its whistle is midway between the bray of an ass and an Aeolian harp. In five or six hours we shall be in Nizhniy. The sun is rising. I slept last night artistically. My money is safe; that is because I am constantly pressing my hands on my stomach.

Very beautiful are the steam-tugs, dragging after them four or five barges each; they look like some fine young intellectual trying to run away while a plebeian wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and wife’s grandmother hold on to his coat-tails.


In VN’s poem Art Longwood manages to escape from the American poshlost’ (vulgarity). At the end of Chekhov’s story Uchitel’ slovesnosti (“The Teacher of Literature,” 1894) Nikitin writes in his diary that he must escape from vulgarity that surrounds him:


Мартовское солнце светило ярко, и сквозь оконные стекла падали на стол горячие лучи. Было еще только двадцатое число, но уже ездили на колесах, и в саду шумели скворцы. Похоже было на то, что сейчас вот войдет Манюся, обнимет одною рукой за шею и скажет, что подали к крыльцу верховых лошадей или шарабан, и спросит, что ей надеть, чтобы не озябнуть. Начиналась весна такая же чудесная, как и в прошлом году, и обещала те же радости... Но Никитин думал о том, что хорошо бы взять теперь отпуск и уехать в Москву и остановиться там на Неглинном в знакомых номерах. В соседней комнате пили кофе и говорили о штабс-капитане Полянском, а он старался не слушать и писал в своем дневнике: «Где я, боже мой?! Меня окружает пошлость и пошлость. Скучные, ничтожные люди, горшочки со сметаной, кувшины с молоком, тараканы, глупые женщины... Нет ничего страшнее, оскорбительнее, тоскливее пошлости. Бежать отсюда, бежать сегодня же, иначе я сойду с ума!»


The March sun was shining brightly in at the windows and shedding its warm rays on the table. It was only the twentieth of the month, but already the cabmen were driving with wheels, and the starlings were noisy in the garden. It was just the weather in which Masha would come in, put one arm round his neck, tell him the horses were saddled or the chaise was at the door, and ask him what she should put on to keep warm. Spring was beginning as exquisitely as last spring, and it promised the same joys. . . . But Nikitin was thinking that it would be nice to take a holiday and go to Moscow, and stay at his old lodgings there. In the next room they were drinking coffee and talking of Captain Polyansky, while he tried not to listen and wrote in his diary: "Where am I, my God? I am surrounded by vulgarity and vulgarity. Wearisome, insignificant people, pots of sour cream, jugs of milk, cockroaches, stupid women. . . . There is nothing more terrible, mortifying, and distressing than vulgarity. I must escape from here, I must escape today, or I shall go out of my mind.


Quercus being Latin for “oak-tree,” the sky-bound oak in VN’s poem brings to mind Quercus, the novel that Cincinnatus reads in the fortress in VN’s novel Priglashenie na kazn’ (“Invitation to a Beheading,” 1935). In VN’s novel there is a butterfly that the jailer Rodion brings to feed the spider (official friend of the jailed) and that manages to escape. In the fortress Cincinnatus is visited by his wife Marthe and her entire family, including her old grandparents and two children: lame Diomedon and obese little Pauline. M’sieur Pierre (the executioner in The Invitation to a Beheading), no doubt, helped to fell and search the oak tree in VN’s ballad.


In a letter of Feb. 18, 1889, to Leontiev-Shcheglov (a fellow writer who nicknamed Chekhov Potyomkin) Chekhov says that he is not Potyomkin, but Cincinnatus:


Голова моя занята мыслями о лете и даче. Денно и нощно мечтаю о хуторе. Я не Потёмкин, а Цинцинат. Лежанье на сене и пойманный на удочку окунь удовлетворяют моё чувство гораздо осязательнее, чем рецензии и аплодирующая галерея. Я, очевидно, урод и плебей.


In his letter Chekhov says that poymannyi na udochku okun’ (a perch caught with an angle) satisfies his feeling much more tangible than reviews and (a theater’s) applauding gallery. M’sieur Pierre’s hobbies are photography and fishing. Art Longwood is a florist. Chekhov liked to plant flowers.


After Chekhov's death a huge black butterfly (peacock moth, no doubt) flew into the room through the open window:


Пришёл доктор, велел дать шампанского. Антон Павлович сел и как-то значительно, громко сказал доктору по-немецки (он очень мало знал по-немецки): "Их стербе". Потом взял бокал, повернул ко мне лицо, улыбнулся своей удивительной улыбкой, сказал: "Давно я не пил шампанского…", покойно выпил всё до дна, тихо лёг на левый бок и вскоре умолкнул навсегда… И страшную тишину ночи нарушала только, как вихрь, ворвавшаяся огромных размеров чёрная ночная бабочка, которая мучительно билась о горящие электрические лампочки и металась по комнате...