Poetry and science

In Western literature, the image of the butterfly recurs frequently, generally assumed as a symbol of beauty, grace, rebirth, metamorphosis. The Greek culture, as is known, used the same term (psyché) to refer both to human soul and to the butterfly, but already in the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations there is evidence of butterfly-themed funerary decorations: a sign of the link between the spiritual, otherworldly dimension of the human being and the form of this animal.

The myth of Psyche and Cupid, with its transformations, metamorphosis, beauty and immortality, is a classic ground for reflections upon the "butterfly" form. 

Within the Latin-language context, Apuleius, in the second century A.D., dedicates the core part of his Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass to the events of Psyche and Cupid (books IV, 28-VI, 24)

Psyche is a gorgeous girl, whose beauty equals that of the goddess Venus; for this reason, Venus - envious - decides to send her own son, Cupid, to hit her with one of his arrows and make her fall in love with the ugliest of mortals. Cupid, however, once arrived in the presence of Psyche, is enchanted by the grace of the girl, his mind is confused and, in the act of shooting the arrow, misses the target hitting himself. Thus, he ends up madly in love with her. To escape the wrath of his mother Venus, Cupid decides to keep his feelings for Psyche a secret: the two meet only at night and Cupid always keeps his head covered, so as not to be recognized. One night, however, Psyche takes advantage of Cupid's sleep to discover his face, contemplates his traits by the light of a lamp, but - so enraptured by his beauty - carelessly spills a drop of oil on Cupid, who wakes up and, realizing what happened, runs away. Venus, warned of the facts, immediately intervenes to punish Psyche. The young girl is forced to undergo a series of very difficult trials, including a descent into the Underworld, before being able to regain the chance to see her beloved and be with him. At the end of these trials - in a process of transformation, metamorphosis and rebirth which finally leads to the stage of an adult and truly beautiful "butterfly" - Psyche obtains immortality from the gods and thus the right to remain next to her Cupid forever.  

Through Greek and Latin mediation, this connection between the butterfly and the human soul is absorbed by Christianity and, more generally, by the medieval culture, which regards the butterfly as a symbol of rebirth, of the spirit's immortality, of the passage from the soul's condition of sin (the caterpillar or worm) to that of beatitude (the angelic butterfly). 

It is in these terms, for example, that we should understand the only occurrence of the term "butterfly" in Dante's Comedy, precisely in Purgatorio X 125: “Do ye not comprehend that we are worms / Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly / That flieth unto judgment without screen?” (“non v'accorgete voi che noi siam vermi / nati a formar l'angelica farfalla, che vola a la giustizia sanza schermi?”)

Here, Dante uses the term butterfly in a figurative sense; the images of the caterpillar/worm and of the butterfly, in fact, allow him to contrast the imperfection of the living man (the worm, which is immersed in the becoming world of the senses) with the perfection of the immortal soul, which without filters or shields has gained its own authentic blissful nature.

This section, which will be enriched with new additions and new bibliographic references, without any claim to exhaustiveness, seeks to account for the presence of the butterfly-image in modern and contemporary European literature both in prose and poetry, with particular reference to the literary production in Italian.

From cocoon forth a butterfly
As lady from her door
Emerged — a summer afternoon —
Repairing everywhere,

Without design, that I could trace,
Except to stray abroad
On miscellaneous enterprise
The clovers understood.

Her pretty parasol was seen
Contracting in a field
Where men made hay, then struggling hard
With an opposing cloud,

Where parties, phantom as herself,
To Nowhere seemed to go
In purposeless circumference,
As 't were a tropic show.

And notwithstanding bee that worked,
And flower that zealous blew,
This audience of idleness
Disdained them, from the sky,

Till sundown crept, a steady tide,
And men that made the hay,
And afternoon, and butterfly,
Extinguished in its sea.

Emily Dickinson

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!

Thou winged blossom, liberated thing,
What secret tie binds thee to other flowers,
Still held within the garden's fostering?
Will they too soar with the completed hours,
Take flight, and be like thee
Irrevocably free,
Hovering at will o'er their parental bowers?

Or is thy luster drawn from heavenly hues, -
A sumptuous drifting fragment of the sky,
Caught when the sunset its last glance imbues
With sudden splendor, and the tree-tops high
Grasp that swift blazonry,
Then lend those tints to thee,
On thee to float a few short hours, and die?

Birds have their nests; they rear their eager young,
And flit on errands all the livelong day;
Each fieldmouse keeps the homestead whence it sprung;
But thou art Nature's freeman, - free to stray
Unfettered through the wood,
Seeking thine airy food,
The sweetness spiced on every blossomed spray.

The garden one wide banquet spreads for thee,
O daintiest reveller of the joyous earth!
One drop of honey gives satiety;
A second draught would drug thee past all mirth.
Thy feast no orgy shows;
Thy calm eyes never close,
Thou soberest sprite to which the sun gives birth.

And yet the soul of man upon thy wings
Forever soars in aspiration; thou
His emblem of the new career that springs
When death's arrest bids all his spirit bow.
He seeks his hope in thee
Of immortality.
Symbol of life, me with such faith endow!

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

He was the last. Truly the last.
Such yellowness was bitter and blinding
Like the sun’s tear shattered on stone.
That was his true colour.
And how easily he climbed, and how high,
Certainly, climbing, he wanted
To kiss the last of my world.

I have been here seven weeks,
Who loved me have found me,
Daisies call to me,
And the branches also of the white chestnut in the yard.
But I haven’t seen a butterfly here.
That last one was the last one.
There are no butterflies, here, in the ghetto.

Pavel Friedman

Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too,
And the daft sun-assaulter, he
That frightened thee so oft, is fled or dead:
Save only me
(Nor is it sad to thee!)
Save only me
There is none left to mourn thee in the fields.

The gray grass is scarce dappled with the snow;
Its two banks have not shut upon the river;
But it is long ago,
It seems forever,
Since first I saw thee glance,
With all thy dazzling other ones,
In airy dalliance,
Precipitate in love,
Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above,
Like a linp rose-wreath in a fairy dance.

When that was, the soft mist
Of my regret hung not on all the land,
And I was glad for thee,
And glad for me, I wist.

Thou didst not know, who tottered, wandering on high,
That fate had made thee for the pleasure of the wind,
With those great careless wings,
Nor yet did I.

And there were other things:
It seemed God let thee flutter from his gentle clasp:
Then fearful he had let thee win
Too far beyond him to be gathered in,
Snatched thee, o'ereager, with ungentle gasp.

Ah! I remember me
How once conspiracy was rife
Against my life,
The languor of it and the dreaming fond;
Surging, the grasses dizzied me of thought,
The breeze three odors brought,
And a gem-flower waved in a wand!

Then when I was distraught
And could not speak,
Sidelong, full on my cheek,
What should that reckless zephyr fling
But the wild touch of thy dye-dusty wing!

I found that wing broken today!
For thou art dead, I said,
And the strang birds say.
I found it with the withered leaves
Under the eaves.

Robert Lee Frost

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!

This plot of orchard-ground is ours;
My trees they are, my Sister's flowers:
Here rest your wings when they are weary,
Here lodge as in a sanctuary!
Come often to us, fear no wrong;
Sit near us on the bough!
We'll talk of sunshine and of song,
And summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now.

Latest news

Ready to take the test?

Help us saving butterflies from the threat of extinction!