Sunday, April 04, 2010

The butterfly obtains by Emily Dickinson

After yesterday's post, I was positive I'd not be choosing another Frost poem today - after all, I included not one, but two, poems: "The Tuft of Flowers" and "Mowing". I considered selecting a sonnet, but both "Mowing" and the one from the day before, "It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free" by William Wordsworth. I felt ready to move on from rhymed couplets, at least for a day, so that left me with the themes and ideas in the poems - so many from which to pick, but as for the speaker in "The Tuft of Flowers", it was the butterfly that caught my eye.

My immediate thought was to talk about The Gentian Weaves Her Fringes by Emily Dickinson (which closes "In the name of the Bee-/And of the Butterfly-/And of the Breeze-/Amen!"), but I've talked about that poem more than once before, including during last year's "Building a Poetry Collection", so I opted for a different Dickinson poem mentioning a butterfly - there are so many from which to choose.

The butterfly obtains
by Emily Dickinson

The butterfly obtains
But little sympathy
Though favorably mentioned
In Entomology —

Because he travels freely
And wears a proper coat
The circumspect are certain
That he is dissolute —

Had he the homely scutcheon
Of modest Industry
'Twere fitter certifying
For Immortality —


Form: Like so many of Dickinson's poems, this one is based on a hymn form, and within each stanza, the short lines rhyme - or do they? sympathy/Entomology and Industry/Immortality seem just fine, but she goes to slant-rhyme in the middle stanza with coat/dissolute. This is the sort of rhyme that Dickinson's earliest editors considered an error or tried to "fix", thinking she didn't know what she was doing - foolish, foolish people.

Discussion: Dickinson was writing about the Puritan view of butterflies - such profligate creatures - so needlessly colorful and showy, without any obvious job. Dickinson loved the butterfly, and wrote quite a number of poems about butterflies (along with bees and other creatures). She seems to have appreciated their beauty and their freedom to come and go. Whereas butterflies are said to represent the soul in some cultures, and rebirth in others (based on observation of the caterpillar entering into a cocoon and coming out a butterfly), Dickinson's butterfly didn't hold those sorts of connotations, but was representative of the beauty of nature.

Here's hoping that at least some of you are able to see butterflies this Easter day, whatever they mean to you.

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