Butterflies in Poetry


“ The uttered part of a man’s life, let us always repeat, bears to the unuttered, unconscious part a small unknown proportion. He himself never knows it, much less do others.”— Carlyle’s Essay on Scott.

IT was one of the proudest moments of my college life when I was deputed by Dr. Harris — the foremost naturalist then to be found in Harvard University, if not in the nation — to report upon the credentials of a foreign prince, and, if these proved authentic, to introduce him to academical society. That prince was and is — for his posterity still remains among us — the most superb among such potentates who had ever visited this region; for he was the Papilio philenor (now Laertias philenor), a tropical butterfly then first seen in Cambridge, and the largest ever found so far North, in America, bringing, moreover, an unwonted luxuriance in form and color. This butterfly was personally reared by Dr. Harris from a caterpillar found on a tropical plant at the Cambridge Botanic Garden ; and its posterity may well be called “large and magnificent” by Mr. Samuel H. Scudder, the present successor of Dr. Harris as dean of American entomology. It is akin to the great butterflies of the East Indies or of South America ; its color is a deep purple, with glossy tints of green and steel-color, and large greenish spots passing into strawcolor and orange. Such was the eminent foreigner arriving at Cambridge, in temporary disguise, in July, 1840, but destined to be the parent of a race now permanently acclimated there, and spread in a similar manner from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This gorgeous visitant I had the honor to receive; and I wrote thereon a report which may still perhaps survive among the documents of the Harvard Natural History Society.

In looking through an outdoor notebook of twenty years later I find that I was at that period reintroduced to my early prince.

“July 3 [1861]. — The eternal youthfulness of Nature answers to my own feeling of youth and preserves it. As I turn from these men and women around me, whom I watch gradually submerged under the tide of gray hairs — it seems a bliss I have never earned, to find bird, insect and flower renewing itself each year in fresh eternal beauty, the same as in my earliest childhood. The little red butterflies have not changed a streak of black on their busy wings, nor the azure dragonflies lost or gained a shade of color, since we Cambridge children caught them in our childish hands. Yesterday by a lonely oak grove there fluttered out a great purple butterfly, almost fresh from the chrysalis, and alighted just before me, waving its lustrous wings. It was the beautiful Papilio philenor, which Dr. Harris showed us in college, as having just been found, an entire novelty, in the Botanic Garden. I had not seen it for twenty years, and here it was, the same brilliant tropical creature, propagated through a series of unwatched generations, perhaps unnoticed till it reached this lonely grove. With a collector’s instinct I put my hat over it, but it got away and I was hardly sorry. It had come to link me with those vanished years.”

Looking back on those early days, it would seem that the butterfly world might have drawn from my banished prince something of its peculiar charm. Certainly this winged race has long been familiar with royal family titles ; at least, ever since Linnæus drew its scientific names from the Greek mythology, and later European entomologists from the Scandinavian, and our own native naturalists from the American Indian. Even these names are constantly changing, with new subdivisions and shifting connections ; while the simpler English word, drawn obviously, like “ butterfly,” from the yellow colors predominating in the meadows at midsummer, has yet been brought under a new interpretation, since a poet’s daughter, Sarah Coleridge, stoutly maintains that the word simply originated in the phrase “ better fly.”

After all, the chief charm of this race of winged flowers does not lie in their varied and brilliant beauty, nor yet in their wonderful series of transformations, — their long and sordid caterpillar life, their long slumber in the chrysalis, or the very brief period which comprises their beauty, their love-making, their parentage, and their death. Nor does it lie in the fact that we do not yet certainly know whether they have in the caterpillar shape the faculty of sight, or not, and do not even know the precise use of their most conspicuous organ in maturity, the antennæ. Nor does it consist in this, that they of all created things have furnished man with the symbol of his own immortality. It rather lies in the fact that, with all their varied life and activity, they represent an absolutely silent existence.

Victor Hugo has indeed somewhere pronounced the whole insect world to be, with hardly an exception, a world of silence. We feel, he says, as if life involved noise, but the most multitudinous portion of the race of living things — fishes and insects — is almost absolutely still. The few that buzz or murmur are as nothing compared to the vast majority which are born and die soundless. If this is true of insects as a whole, it is of butterflies that it is eminently truest. All the vast array of modern knowledge has found no butterfly which murmurs with an audible voice, and only a very few species which can even audibly click or rustle with their wings ; Darwin first observing these in South America, and others recording them at long intervals of years in Europe, and, finally, in the United States. Mr. Scudder has not only detected a soft sound in one or two cases, proceeding from the wings, and sounding like the faint rustling of sandpaper, but he hazards the opinion that many of the quivering or waving motions of the wings of these bright creatures, although inaudible to us, may be accompanied by sounds which the butterflies themselves or their kindred might hear.

If they can be thus heard without sound, why do we not at least hear more of them by fame in literature? They contribute much of the summer grace of the universe: they are of all beings the most picturesque in their lives, having three different phases of existence, each peculiar, and all frequently gorgeous, — the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the imago, or fully developed creature. They are incomparably more numerous and more varied than birds, — the number of species far larger, and the swarms incomparably greater, where swarming is their practice; when they enter poetry they do it with yet more grace ; but fewer authors describe them, and those few more charily. Thoreau, for instance, rarely mentions them, and in some ways seems singularly ignorant of them. Thus in his MS. diary (1853-54, page 395) he describes himself as bringing home from the marshy meadows the great paper cocoon of the gray sphinx moth (Attacus cecropia), and as carrying it unrecognized to Dr. Harris, to learn about it, — an object which every schoolboy knows, one would suppose, and which is at least of kindred to the butterflies.

The butterflies being thus silent, it is not, perhaps, strange that we do not interpret them better, but that each observer finds his own interpretation, or his own sympathetic response, varying, it may be, from any other. Thus Austin Dobson, writing poetry on a fan that had belonged to the Marquise de Pompadour, finds delineated upon it, “ Courtiers as butterflies bright;” while Bryant in his June finds the creatures quite too indolent to be approved as courtiers : —

The idle butterfly Should rest him there.

Edmund Gosse, meanwhile, finds in their mien, as he views them while lying in the grass, no trace of idleness, but rather the fatigue due to arduous labor : —

The weary butterflies that droop their wings.

Percy Mackaye in his blithe book, The Canterbury Pilgrims, complicates the matter by obliging the butterfly to keep off the attentions of the moth-miller: —

Mealy miller, moth-miller,
Fly away !
If Dame Butterfly doth say thee nay,
Go and court a caterpillar !

And Keats, always the closest of observers, acquits his winged creatures of all care when he says of Endymion,

His eyelids
Widened a little, as when Zephyr bids
A little breeze to creep between the fans
Of careless butterflies.

But when we turn to that marvelously gifted family into which so much of the descriptive power of Keats has passed, we find Charles Tennyson weaving the butterfly’s wing and the human heart’s love into a cadence so exquisitely delicate that his laureate brother never surpassed it: —


To“On Accidentally Rubbing the Dust from a Butterfly’s Wing.

The light-set lustre of this insect’s mail
Hath bloom’d my gentlest touch — This first of May
Has seen me sweep the shallow tints away
From half his pinion, drooping now and pale!
Look hither, coy and timid Isabel!
Fair Lady, look into my eyes, and say,
Why thou dost aye refuse thy heart to stay
On mine, that is so fond and loves so well?
Is beauty trusted to the morning dews,
And to the butterfly’s mischanceful wing,
To the dissolving cloud in rainbow hues,
To the frail tenure of an early spring,
In blossoms, and in dyes ? and must I lose
Claim to such trust, all Nature’s underling ?

Mrs. Piatt, our American poet, reached a profounder, if less exquisite, touch when she thus reproved her adventurous boy for reversing the usual insect development by removing the wings of a butterfly : —


This was your butterfly, you see, —
His fine wings made him vain :
The caterpillars crawl, but he
Passed them in rich disdain. —
My pretty boy says, “ Let him be
Only a worm again! ”
O child, when things have learned to wear
Wings once, they must be fain
To keep them always high and fair :
Think of the creeping pain
Which even a butterfly must bear
To be a worm again !

And elsewhere she moralizes, as is her wont:—

Between the falling leaf and rose-bud’s breath;
The bird’s forsaken nest and her new song
(And this is all the time there is for Death) ;
The worm and butterfly — it is not long !

More thoughtful still, and in the end more uplifted, is this fine poem by Mary Emily Bradley, a poet from farther West: —


My little Mädchen found one day
A curious something in her play,
That was not fruit, nor flower, nor seed ;
It was not anything that grew,
Or crept, or climbed, or swam, or flew ;
Had neither legs nor wings, indeed ;
And yet she was not sure, she said,
Whether it was alive or dead.
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.
So then I told her what would be
Some day within the chrysalis;
How, slowly, in the dull brown thing
Now still as death, a spotted wing,
And then another, would unfold,
Till from the empty shell would fly
A pretty creature, by and by,
All radiant in blue and gold.
“ And will it, truly ? ” questioned she —
Her laughing lips and eager eyes
All in a sparkle of surprise —
“ And shall your little Mädchen see ? ”
“ She shall! ” I said. How could I tell
That ere the worm within its shell
Its gauzy, splendid wings had spread,
My little Mädchen would be dead ?
To-day the butterfly has flown, —
She was not here to see it fly, —
And sorrowing I wonder why
The empty shell is mine alone.
Perhaps the secret lies in this:
I too had found a chrysalis,
And Death that robbed me of delight
Was but the radiant creature’s flight!

The extraordinary gifts of the butterfly race have always excited the wonder not only of naturalists, but of the most ignorant observers. Note their silent and unseen changes ; the instinct by which they distinguish their favorite plant-food, as, for instance, among the scarcely differing species of the complex race of asters, where they show themselves, as Professor Asa Gray said, “ better botanists than many of us ; ” their skill in depositing their eggs unerringly on or near the precise plant on which the forthcomingcaterpillars are fitted to feed, although they as butterflies have never tasted it. To these should be added their luxurious spread of wings, giving opportunities for those curious resemblances of color which protect them during the few days of their winged state ; and, finally, the brief time when, if ever, their eggs must be laid and the continuance of the race made sure. The whole realm of animal “ mimicry,” as it is now termed, reaches its highest point in them, and leads to some extreme cases ; as in the fact that, while butterflies are ordinarily monogamous, there is yet one species in Africa which has departed so widely from this rule that the male has not one mate only, but actually three different wives, each so utterly unlike him in appearance as to have long been taken for wholly different species.

Even in winter, Agassiz tells us, the changes in the eggs of insects go on through the season, protected by the shell, and this is still more true of the chrysalis. Living butterflies prepare for spring freedom by nestling away in great numbers during the previous autumn. This is especially true of the early “ Mourning Cloak ” (Euvanessa antiopa), called in England the “ Camberwell Beauty,” which has been recorded in every month of the year in our Northern states. No one really knows where these butterflies may go, but they may be seen by scores around favorite windows, following their instinct of retreat. One of them lived all winter in the cellar of a house near mine in Cambridge, Massachusetts, changing its position halfa-dozen times during that period. Yet butterflies of the same or kindred species have been known to spend all of two winters in the chrysalis, leaving the intermediate summer also a blank. This is one of the few butterflies which lay their eggs in extremely methodical clusters, usually on the under side of a leaf ; and sometimes a hundred may thus be hatched side by side, bending down the branches.

Let me turn again to my early outdoor journal (1861) for this brief meditation on a box containing chrysalids. “ There is something infinitely touching in the thought that these creatures which have been leading a life so free, even if low and sordid, have now utterly suspended all the ceaseless action and gone to sleep in this little box of mine, each inclosed in a yet smaller self-made tomb, patiently awaiting resurrection to an utterly new life. When I think of the complete suspension of their active existence during this dark time, and of the quiet invariable way in which all the generations of insect life have gone through the same slumber and transfiguration ever since the universe began, it makes our human birth and death seem greater mysteries than ever.”

Reverting again to my old notebook, I read this confession which I still cannot retract: “ I find that to me works of art do not last like those of nature. I grow tired of pictures — never of a butterfly.” There is doubtless among these airy creatures something akin to the mind’s visions, else why in various nations and under varying religions should the same insect have represented immortality ; or why, when the most gifted of recent French writers of fiction lost control of his mind and said perpetually, “Où sont mes idées?” should he have fancied that he found them in butterflies ? Or how else can we explain so fine a strain of profound thought as in this sonnet by an else unknown English poet, Thomas Wade, writing in 1839 : —


What lovely things are dead within the sky,
By our corporeal vision undiscern’d —
Extinguish’d suns, that once in glory burn’d ;
And blighted planets mouldering gloomily
Beyond the girdle of the galaxy ;
And faded essences, in light inurn’d,
Of creatures spiritual, to that Deep return’d
From whence they sprang, in far Eternity —
This e’er to know is unto us forbidden ;
But much thereto concerning may we deem,
By inference from fact familiar :
Beneath those radiant flowers and bright grass
Withers a thing once golden as a star
And seeming unsubstantial as a dream.

In passing from the transformations of the butterfly to its higher affinities and analogies, we find them suggested well in this finely touched poem by Miss Ina Coolbrith of California : —


Insect or blossom ? Fragile, fairy thing,
Poised upon slender tip, and quivering
To flight! a flower of the fields of air;
A jewelled moth ; a butterfly, with rare
And tender tints upon his downy wing,
A moment resting in our happy sight;
A flower held captive by a thread so slight
Its petal-wings of broidered gossamer
Are, light as the wind, with every wind astir,—
Wafting sweet odor, faint and exquisite.
O dainty nursling of the field and sky,
What fairer thing looks up to heaven’s blue
And drinks the noontide sun, the dawning’s
dew ?
Thou wingëd bloom ! thou blossom-butterfly !

A similar range of affinities is touched less profoundly, yet with finished grace, by Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton: —


Roses and butterflies snared on a fan,
All that is left of a summer gone by ;
Of swift, bright wings that flashed in the sun,
And loveliest blossoms that bloomed to die!
By what subtle spell did you lure them here,
Fixing a beauty that will not change, —
Roses whose petals never will fall,
Bright, swift wings that never will range ?
Had you owned but the skill to snare as well
The swift-winged hours that came and went,
To prison the words that in music died,
And fix with a spell the heart’s content,
Then had you been of magicians the chief;
And loved and lovers should bless your art,
If you could but have painted the soul of the
thing, —
Not the rose alone, but the rose’s heart!
Flown are those days with their winged delights,
As the odor is gone from the summer rose ;
Yet still, whenever I wave my fan,
The soft, south wind of memory blows.

We should not overlook, moreover, the fact that our most wayward American poet, reverting for once unequivocally to the prose form, has given the best and the most graphic butterfly-picture easily to be found in that shape. The many critics of Whitman, who have expressed the opinion that he marred and perhaps shortened his fame by choosing an habitual measure neither prose nor verse — as did the once admired author of Proverbial Philosophy before him — may find their conviction strengthened, perhaps, by the peculiar attractiveness of this outdoor reverie in prose.

“Aug. 4 [1880]. — A pretty sight! Where I sit in the shade — a warm day, the sun shining from cloudless skies, the forenoon well advanc’d — I look over a ten-acre field of luxuriant clover-hay, (the second crop)—the livid ripe red blossoms and dabs of August brown thickly spotting the prevailing darkgreen. Over all flutter myriads of lightyellow butterflies, mostly skimming along the surface, dipping and oscillating, giving a curious animation to the scene. The beautiful spiritual insects! strawcolor’d Psyches ! Occasionally one of them leaves his mates, and mounts, perhaps spirally, perhaps in a straight line in the air, fluttering up, up, till literally out of sight. In the lane as I came along just now I noticed one spot, ten feet square or so, where more than a hundred had collected, holding a revel, a gyration-dance, or butterfly good-time, winding and circling, down and across, but always keeping within the limits. The little creatures have come out all of a sudden the last few days, and are now very plentiful. As I sit outdoors, or walk, I hardly look around without somewhere seeing two (always two) fluttering through the air in amorous dalliance. Then their inimitable color, their fragility, peculiar motion — and that strange, frequent way of one leaving the crowd and mounting up, up in the free ether, and apparently never returning. As I look over the field, these yellow-wings everywhere mildly sparkling, many snowy blossoms of the wild carrot gracefully bending on their tall and taper stems — while for sounds, the distant guttural screech of a flock of guinea-hens comes shrilly yet somehow musically to my ears. And now a faint growl of heat-thunder in the north — and ever the low rising and falling wind-purr from the tops of the maples and willows.

“ Aug. 20. — Butterflies and butterflies (taking the place of the bumblebees of three months since, who have quite disappear’d) continue to flit to and fro, all sorts, white, yellow, brown, purple — now and then some gorgeous yellow flashing lazily by on wings like artists’ palettes dabb’d with every color. Over the breast of the pond I notice many white ones, crossing, pursuing their idle capricious flight. Near where I sit grows a tall-stemm’d weed topt with a profusion of rich scarlet blossoms, on which the snowy insects alight and dally, sometimes four or five of them at a time. By-and-by a humming - bird visits the same, and I watch him coming and going, daintily balancing and shimmering about. These white butterflies give new beautiful contrasts to the pure greens of the August foliage (we have had some copious rains lately), and over the glistening bronze of the pond-surface. You can tame even such insects ; I have one big and handsome moth down here, knows and comes to me, likes me to hold him upon my extended hand.

“ Another Day, later. — A grand twelve-acre field of ripe cabbages with their prevailing hue of malachite green, and floating-flying over and among them in all directions myriads of these same white butterflies. As I came up the lane to-day I saw a living globe of the same, two or three feet in diameter, many scores cluster’d together and rolling along in the air, adhering to their ball-shape, six or eight feet above the ground.”

This white butterfly described is doubtless the cabbage butterfly (Pieris rapœ) already mentioned. It was too early in the season for its full practice of that swarming propensity in which it surpasses all others, and which a poet thus puts on record ; but Mr. Scudder tells us of an occasion when Dr. Sehultze found himself in a dead calm in the Baltic Sea, and “ steamed for three hours and a distance of thirty miles through a continuous flock of the Cabbage butterfly, from ten to thirty miles from the main land, and only five miles less than that from the nearest island; afterward the shore was found strewn with their dead bodies.”

If only to show that others, twenty years before Whitman, had written for their own pleasure some outdoor records of butterflies, I will venture to print from my old notebook the memoranda of a walk in Princeton, Massachusetts, a mountain village which I have never seen surpassed as a nursery of butterflies and birds.

“July 16 [1862]. — In the morning went to visit Miss舒’s school. Often as I have dreamed of a more abundant world of insects than any ever seen, I never enjoyed it more vividly than in walking along the breezy upland road, lined with a continuous row of milkweed blossoms and white flowering alder, all ablaze with butterflies. I might have picked off hundreds of Aphrodites by hand, so absorbed were they in their pretty pursuit; and all the interspaces between their broader wings seemed filled with little skipper butterflies, and pretty painted-ladies (Pharos) and an occasional Comma. The rarer Idalia and Huntera sometimes visit them also and a host of dipterous, hymenopterous and hemipterous things. The beautiful mountain breeze played forever over them and it seemed a busy and a blissful world.”

These names have all doubtless suffered what may be called a land-change, in the more than half century since their bestowal, — so constant are the shiftings of insect family names in the hands of the scientists, — but they bring back, to one person at least, very pleasant memories of summer friends.

It is a curious fact, yet perhaps not wholly inappropriate to our broad and sunny American continent, that while England far exceeds us in the thorough and patient study of the habits of the insect world, yet butterflies figure less, on the whole, in English poetry than in American. Looking somewhat carefully, for instance, through the nearly six hundred pages of Sir M. E. Grant-Duff’s recent Anthology of Victorian Poetry I find but one allusion of this kind, namely, in Mrs. Norton’s couplet, taken from The Lady of La Garaye : —

The butterfly its tiny mate pursues
With rapid fluttering of its painted hues.

Yet Mr. Stedman in his volume of American poetry — a book of about the same size — has a number of poems on this precise subject, several of which have here been quoted ; while other fine passages he omits, as that in which Alfred Street speaks of

the last butterfly,
Like a wing’d violet, floating in the meek,
Pink-color’d sunshine, sinks his velvet feet
Within the pillar’d mullein’s delicate down,
And shuts and opens his unruffled fans.

Does this difference come from our more varied landscape, or from our brighter sunshine, lending a more brilliant tint to the waving wings ? Of course this comparison may be regarded as accidental, since no butterfly allusion is more familiar than that of Wordsworth,—

My sister Emmeline and I
Together chased the butterfly ;

although in this, undoubtedly, the human interest is predominant, and the insect furnishes only an excuse for it. Bayly’s “ I ’d be a butterfly ” is hardly worth mentioning, or Rogers’s too didactic “ Child of the sun ! ” but no four lines present this winged world with more solemn impressiveness than where Lord de Tabley in his Circe writes, —

And the great goblin moth, who bears
Between his wings the ruin’d eyes of death;
And the enamell’d sails
Of butterflies, who watch the morning’s breath.

Yet this is only a single stanza, and I know of no sustained poem on the butterfly so full of deep thought and imagination — despite some technical defects — as this, by an author less known than she should be, Mrs. Alice Archer James, of Urbana, Ohio. With it this series of quotations and reminiscences may well enough end, the writer fearing lest he may, after all, have only called down upon himself the reproach of Chaucer, — Swiche talkying is nat worth a boterflie.


I am not what I was yesterday,
God knows my name.
I am made in a smooth and beautiful way,
And full of flame.
The color of corn are my pretty wings,
My flower is blue.
I kiss its topmost pearl, it swings
And I swing too.
I dance above the tawny grass
In the sunny air,
So tantalized to have to pass
Love everywhere.
O Earth, O Sky, you are mine to roam
In liberty.
I am the soul and I have no home, —
Take care of me.
For double I drift through a double world
Of spirit and sense ;
I and my symbol together whirled
From who knows whence ?
There’s a tiny weed, God knows what good, —
It sits in the moss.
Its wings are heavy and spotted with blood
Across and across.
I sometimes settle a moment there,
And I am so sweet,
That what it lacks of the glad and fair
I fill complete.
The little white moon was once like me ;
But her wings are one.
Or perhaps they closëd together be
As she swings in the sun.
When the clovers close their three green wings
Just as I do,
I creep to the primrose heart of things,
And close mine, too.
And then wide opens the candid night,
Serene and intense ;
For she has, instead of love and light,
God’s confidence.
And I watch that other butterfly,
The one-winged moon,
Till, drunk with sweets in which I lie,
I dream and swoon.
And then when I to three days grow,
I find out pain.
For swift there comes an ache, —I know
That I am twain.
And nevermore can I be one
In liberty.
O Earth, O Sky, your use is done,
Take care of me.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson.