‘Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.’ So wrote Vladimir Nabokov, who, as well as being a giant of twentieth-century literature, was also a notable lepidopterist or butterfly-collector. But perhaps, even more than Nabokov, it was the Romantic poet John Keats who made the case for a deep-rooted connection between the poet and the butterfly.
Writing to his would-be sweetheart, Fanny Brawne, Keats sighed, ‘I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.’
Clearly, then, the butterfly is an inherently poetic creature. And sure enough, many poets, from the Romantics onwards, have written great poems about butterflies. But what are the very best butterfly poems? Let’s flutter off and take a look …
1. Matsuo Bashō, ‘A Caterpillar’.
this deep in fall –
still not a butterfly.
The Japanese poet Bashō (1644-94) is now regarded as the supreme master of the haiku or hokku form. In this three-line poem, Bashō homes in on the development of the caterpillar into a butterfly, a development that is here arrested or withheld.
Haiku are always strictly speaking about nature, but of course, the poetic significance of the butterfly still struggling to be born, to grow and take its wings, can be extended to the pathos of all undeveloped promise, in humans as in insects.
2. William Wordsworth, ‘To a Butterfly’.
I’ve watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly! indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless!–not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again …
The Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) liked butterflies so much that he composed not one but two poems about them. This, for our money, is the better of the two. Composed on 20 April 1802, it sees the poet addressing the butterfly as it remains motionless on top of a yellow flower until the breeze ‘calls’ it ‘forth’ once more.
Much Romantic poetry is about man’s kinship with the natural world, and here we find Wordsworth sweetly inviting the butterfly to share his garden, and his trees, with him whenever it pleases.
3. Emily Dickinson, ‘From Cocoon Forth a Butterfly’.
From cocoon forth a butterfly
As lady from her door
Emerged – a summer afternoon –
Repairing everywhere …
Emily Dickinson (1830-86) wrote so often about butterflies that we have included two of her fabulous poems on this list. In this first poem, she begins by describing a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, idly emerging into the summer afternoon like a lady of leisure stepping out of her front door.
However, as the poem develops, we realise that the butterfly’s idleness is just a sham: it is hard at work, pollinating the flowers, just as the bees will take that pollen and produce honey from it. The final stanza of the poem also reminds us that all of this will pass: butterfly, bee, labourers working in fields, nothing in nature lasts.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘The Butterfly Obtains’.
The butterfly obtains
But little sympathy
Though favorably mentioned
In Entomology –
This poem, the second butterfly poem from Emily Dickinson on this list, presents a similar message to the first: the butterfly looks ‘dissolute’, flitting colourfully through the air without a care in the world.
But this poem seems rooted in the strict religious upbringing of the poet: it is wrong to admire the butterfly, which is not industrious like the bee or the ant, but is a mere gaudy thing.
5. Mary Emily Bradley, ‘A Chrysalis’.
She brought it in her tiny hand
To see if I would understand,
And wondered when I made reply,
‘You’ve found a baby butterfly.’
‘A butterfly is not like this,’
With doubtful look she answered me …
Here’s a sad poem which draws on the parallel between a young girl and a butterfly developing from its chrysalis.
Mary Emily Bradley (1835-98) writes here about her daughter finding a ‘baby butterfly’ or chrysalis. However, her daughter will die before she gets to see the butterfly grow and fly away. What can Bradley learn from this tragedy? She ponders the ‘secret’ of it in the poem’s final stanza.
6. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, ‘Ode to a Butterfly’.
Thou spark of life that wavest wings of gold,
Thou songless wanderer mid the songful birds,
With Nature’s secrets in thy tints unrolled
Through gorgeous cipher, past the reach of words,
Yet dear to every child
In glad pursuit beguiled,
Living his unspoiled days mid flowers and flocks and herds!
In this poem, the American poet Thomas Wentworth Higginson praises the butterfly for its beauty, colour, and ‘gorgeous cipher’. He views the butterfly, rather like Emily Dickinson, as ‘Nature’s freeman’: bound not by the earth or by the ‘errands’ which other creatures are bound to run.
7. W. H. Davies, ‘The Example’.
Here’s an example from
That on a rough, hard rock
Happy can lie;
Friendless and all alone
On this unsweetened stone.
Now let my bed be hard
No care take I;
I’ll make my joy like this
Whose happy heart has power
To make a stone a flower.
Many of the best butterfly poems focus on the carefree and joyous nature of the insect, and the Welsh poet W. H. Davies (1871-1940) offers another example of this association, in a poem titled, fittingly enough, ‘The Example’.
The title refers to the fact that man can learn from the butterfly’s example: it is happy reclining on a stone, as happy as if it were a beautiful flower. Perhaps we, too, can stoically approach life in such a way: when given a less desirable situation, we can view it as sufficient and still be happy with our lot.
8. Robert Frost, ‘Blue-Butterfly Day’.
The American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) was a contemporary of the modernists, but he rejected their focus on free verse and preferred to write more directly about the world of nature and his own place within it, using rather than dismissing traditional forms.
In this poem, Frost describes the spring day when swarms of blue butterflies fill the air with colour as they fly: for the poet, they are ‘flowers that fly’, and would sing if they could, so joyous is their flight.
9. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Butterfly’.
Butterfly, the wind blows sea-ward, strong beyond the garden-wall!
Butterfly, why do you settle on my shoe, and sip the dirt on my shoe,
Lifting your veined wings, lifting them? big white butterfly …
The poems of the English poet and novelist D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) are often written in sprawling and exuberant long lines which stride across the page. Here, this form is well-suited to the exultant life of the white butterfly, which settles on the poet’s shoe. But Lawrence’s observation of the insect is somewhat different from Wordsworth’s …
10. Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Mariposa’.
Butterflies are white and blue
In this field we wander through.
Suffer me to take your hand.
Death comes in a day or two …
Let’s conclude this pick of great butterfly poems with something from the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950).
Not for the first time on this list, Millay’s poem uses the butterflies as a memento mori, reminding us of the brevity of our own lives. The butterfly itself is ‘transient’. All the more reason, then, for the poet’s beloved to take her hand and for them to share this brief moment together.