Alice Freeman Palmer

The Butterfly by Alice Freeman Palmer

‘The Butterfly’ by Alice Freeman Palmer is one of the best poems concerning the beauty of a butterfly. This poem is a poetic longing for being like a butterfly, beautiful, and heavenly.

In ‘The Butterfly,’ Alice Freeman Palmer talks about a butterfly in this poem. This short and sweet poem captures an episode that happened in the poet’s life when she was a child. Moreover, in this poem, the poet presents vivid imagery to depict the scene revolving around the butterfly. Along with that, Palmer uses some innovative metaphors to highlight the beauty of this creature. The crux of the poem concerns the poet’s urge to be like a butterfly.

The Butterfly by Alice Freeman Palmer


‘The Butterfly’ by Alice Freeman Palmer is a short and pleasing poem that describes the heavenly beauty the speaker captured in a gracious butterfly as a child.

The speaker of the poem talks with a butterfly that has come to the linden tree. She was playing under the tree. After discovering that “exquisite” butterfly, she could not help but go near it. Thereafter, she held it with her hands carefully. Now, while she holds the creature in her hand, she can observe its marvelous beauty closely. She cannot decode the “eternal mystery” of the butterfly. Once it was a caterpillar creeping in the dust. But, now being a butterfly, it does not have its previous ugliness. This mystery enthralls the speaker and all she wants to break her chrysalis just like the butterfly.


This poem consists of four stanzas. Each stanza contains four rhyming lines. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABAB. This regular rhyme scheme goes on like this throughout the poem. However, in some instances, the poet uses slant rhymes. As an example, in the second stanza, “tree” and “shine” rhyme imperfectly. Apart from that, the overall poem is composed in iambic tetrameter. However, a few lines of the poem are in iambic trimeter and iambic pentameter too. Whatsoever, this poem is written by using the rising rhythm. The rhythm is also reflective of the subject matter of this piece.

Literary Devices

Palmer’s poem, ‘The Butterfly’ has several literary devices. Likewise, in the first stanza, the poet uses a metaphor in the line, “Exquisite child of the air.” Here, the poet compares the butterfly to an exquisite infant of the air. Thereafter, the last two lines of this stanza form a rhetorical question or interrogation. The second stanza contains synecdoche in the phrase, “delicious sweet”. Here, the poet refers to the nectar of the linden flowers. In the same stanza, Palmer uses personification. Thereafter, in the third stanza, she uses a metaphor in the line, “The eternal mystery.” Readers can also find alliteration in this poem. As an example, the phrase, “the shadow and shine” contains alliteration. However, the poem ends with a rhetorical exclamation.

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

I hold you at last in my hand,

Exquisite child of the air.

Can I ever understand

How you grew to be so fair?

The poem, ‘The Butterfly’ begins with an image of the poet-speaker holding a butterfly in her hand. The speaker of the poem says she has caught hold of the butterfly at last. So, something happened before in this context. Readers will get to know what has happened there in the following stanza. However, after holding the butterfly, the speaker refers to the creature as “Exquisite child of the air.” Here, the poet compares the butterfly to an exceptionally beautiful infant. However, this baby is not a human born. As the butterfly flies in the free air, the poet refers to it as the child of the air.

In the last two lines of this stanza, she asks a rhetorical question to the butterfly. She badly wants to know how it grew so fair. However, she wants to understand this phenomenon as she has some idea regarding its beauty.

Stanza Two

You came to my linden tree

To taste its delicious sweet,

I sitting here in the shadow and shine

Playing around its feet.

In the second stanza of the poem, the poet provides the background to the plot. That butterfly has come to the speaker’s linden tree to taste the flowers. Here, the poet employs synecdoche in the usage of the phrase “delicious sweet.” It refers to the sweet and delicious nectar of the linden flowers. While it came to taste the flowers, the speaker was sitting under the shadow of the tree. Moreover, the poet beautifully describes the sunlight in this section. To do that, she uses personification. Whatsoever, here the speaker remarks sunlight (referred to as “shine”) was playing around the feet of the tree at that time.

Stanza Three

Now I hold you fast in my hand,

You marvelous butterfly,

Till you help me to understand

The eternal mystery.

Thereafter, in the third stanza of ‘The Butterfly,’ the speaker again shifts to the present moment. Now she is holding the butterfly carefully in her hand. Here, the poet uses the adjective, “marvelous” to describe not only its physical features but also its internal features. For that inner ability, it can transform into such a beautiful state. However, the speaker says she will not set the creature free until it helps her to understand the “eternal mystery.” After reading the last line, it becomes clear that the creature is an “eternal mystery” in her eyes. She thinks it might have some magical powers bestowed directly to it from heaven. However, she somehow wants to decode that mystery regarding its beauty.

Stanza Four

From that creeping thing in the dust

To this shining bliss in the blue!

God give me courage to trust

I can break my chrysalis too!

The last stanza contains the essence of the poem. That butterfly was once a “creeping thing in the dust.” But now, it has transformed into that “shining bliss in the blue.” Here, the poet uses a metaphor and compares the butterfly to a blissful creature. Thereafter, she uses metonymy in the usage of the word “blue.” This color represents the sky. However, in the last two lines, the speaker presents her revelation. According to her, if the butterfly can break its chrysalis and comes out as such a heavenly creature, she can break her “chrysalis” too! Here, “chrysalis” is a symbol of impediments. Moreover, it is a reference to the psychological or emotional impediments that draw one backward.

Historical Context

The poet of ‘The Butterfly’, Alice Freeman Palmer was an American educator. She was a pioneer in the field of women’s advancement in educational as well as social spheres. A national figure portrayed herself as a “New Woman.” Moreover, she called for women to get a college education. Thus if they had to support themselves, they would have the necessary skills to do so. However, this biographical background will help readers to decode the meaning of “chrysalis” mentioned in the poem. It seems to be a reference to the factors that hinder a woman’s full development. But, the poetic persona wants to break out of that society-made “chrysalis” and be free like the butterfly!

Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that concern similar themes present in Palmer’s ‘The Butterfly’.

You can also read about 12 Poems About Butterflies and 9 of the Most Beautiful Poems About Flowers.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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