‘The Butterfly’s Dream’ by Hannah Flagg Gould explores how excessive pride destroys oneself. To present this theme the poet presents an allegorical story of a butterfly and its dream.
Hannah F. Gould, a 19th-century American poet, presents a simple story of a haughty butterfly. Here, the poet portrays this creature as a dreamer, idler, and braggart. At the end of the poem, it meets with an ironic event that the poet links with its hamartia. However, the tragic incident at the end reminds readers of the classical concept of hamartia. It is a specific point in a dramatic plot when the tragic downfall occurs. In this poem, this point comes when the butterfly wakes up from its dream.
In this poem, the poet talks about a butterfly that takes a nap on a tulip. In its dream, the butterfly sees a swarm of bees coming out of their hive in search of winter’s provision. Thereafter, seeing them, it gets agitated for its excessive pride in itself. Hence the butterfly orders them to leave the place as they are mere “plebeians” below its dignity. Therefore those bees get angry and topple the butterfly from its metaphorical throne. Seeing this dream, the butterfly wakes up in frustration. Incidentally, there occurs a hailstorm and thrashes everything. At last, the butterfly finding no place to hide dies at the end of the poem.
This poem is a bit long but the flow of the poem is so smooth that one hardly starts to read the poem and it ends. However, the poem consists of 14 four-line stanzas. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is ABAB. Such a stanza is also known as the Simple 4-line stanza. Moreover, the poet uses caesura or metrical pauses throughout the poem. Still, the rhythm does not halt in the middle. Apart from that, the syllable count of each stanza is 12-8-12-8. The stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. Henceforth, the overall poem is written in alternative use of iambic hexameter and iambic tetrameter.
In ‘The Butterfly’s Dream’, Gould firstly uses personification. To be specific, here she uses zoomorphism for investing the butterfly with the ability to speak. Another important literary device found in this poem is alliteration. As an example, the phrase “gaudy and gay” contains a repetition of the “g” sound. Thereafter, the poet uses several metaphors throughout this piece. Readers can also find simile in this poem, such as in the line, “Their eyes seemed like little volcanoes, for fire.” Moreover, the poet uses anaphora in several instances. Readers can also find the use of onomatopoeia in the line, “Their hum, to a cannon-peal grown.” Some other literary devices such as metonymy and synecdoche can also be found in this poem.
A tulip, just opened, had offered to hold
A butterfly, gaudy and gay;
And, rocked in a cradle of crimson and gold,
The careless young slumberer lay.
For the butterfly slept, as such thoughtless ones will,
At ease, and reclining on flowers,
If ever they study, ’t is how they may kill
The best of their mid-summer hours.
Gould begins her poem, ‘The Butterfly’s Dream’ by depicting natural imagery. Firstly, a tulip opens its petals to warmly welcome a “gaudy and gay” butterfly. Thereafter it rocks the butterfly in “a cradle of crimson and gold,” a metaphorical reference to its petals. To be specific, here the poet uses metonymy.
The butterfly takes a nap on the petals like a thoughtless lad lazily sleeping at ease. Thereafter, the poet compares the butterfly to an absent-minded student who kills the “mid-summer hours” in daydreaming instead of studying. Here, the speaker thinks about what the butterfly would do if it studied in a school.
And the butterfly dreamed, as is often the case
With indolent lovers of change,
Who, keeping the body at ease in its place,
Give fancy permission to range.
He dreamed that he saw, what he could but despise,
The swarm from a neighbouring hive;
Which, having come out for their winter supplies,
Had made the whole garden alive.
In this section, the poet says the butterfly dreamt as is often the case with the “indolent lovers” that fear any kind of change. They always love to remain in one place and spend their time in fanciful thoughts. Here, the poet humorously says they remain active in fanciful thought and allows it to range wherever it can.
Thereafter, the poet refers to what the butterfly saw in its dream. What it saw, it despised the most. There was a swarm of bees coming from a neighboring hive. They had come out of their hive to collect supplies for the upcoming winter. Besides, their humming sound and activities made the whole garden come to life again. Here, the poet creates a contrast between laziness and activeness.
He looked with disgust, as the proud often do,
On the diligent movements of those,
Who, keeping both present and future in view,
Improve every hour as it goes.
As the brisk little alchymists passed to and fro,
With anger the butterfly swelled;
And called them mechanics – a rabble too low
To come near the station he held.
In this section of ‘The Butterfly’s Dream’, the butterfly became disgusted. According to the poet, the proud ones often become infuriated to see the lives of diligent men. As they give both the present and future similar importance and try to improve every hour of their life. It makes idlers agitated.
Thereafter the speaker compares the bees to “alchymists” as they also turn the nectar of flowers into honey. This comparison is interesting enough. However, as the bees moved and fro, their movement swelled the butterfly with anger. Therefore it insulted them as “mechanics” and they are a “rabble” too low to come near the station it held. Thus the butterfly becomes a symbol of medieval aristocrats.
‘Away from my presence!’ said he, in his sleep,
‘Ye humbled plebeians! nor dare
Come here with your colorless winglets to sweep
The king of this brilliant parterre!’
He thought, at these words, that together they flew,
And, facing about, made a stand;
And then, to a terrible army they grew,
And fenced him on every hand.
The angry butterfly ordered them to leave the place at once and go away from his presence. Moreover, referring to the bees as “humble plebeians,” he warned them not to come near him. As the butterfly has such bright and elegant wings, they seemed to him as “colorless winglets.” Moreover, it was also tense with the fact that as they were large in numbers they could topple him from that “brilliant parterre.”
Its haughtiness made the bees angry. To avenge the insult, they formed a group and made a stand. Thereafter their group emerged as a “terrible army” and they attacked the butterfly with their stings. Here, the poet compares their stings to fences. She depicts the scene as the bees fencing the butterfly on its every hand.
Like hosts of huge giants, his numberless foes
Seemed spreading to measureless size:
Their wings with a mighty expansion arose,
And stretched like a veil o’er the skies.
Their eyes seemed like little volcanoes, for fire,—
Their hum, to a cannon-peal grown,—
Farina to bullets was rolled in their ire,
And, he thought, hurled at him and his throne.
Those bees grew in size like the “hosts of huge giants.” It appeared to the butterfly that they were growing in a “measureless size.” Here, the poet uses hyperbole. However, as the butterfly was dreaming, the bees appeared to him like huge giants. Thereafter, the speaker remakes their wings expanded in size and stretched in a manner that veiled even the sky.
Their eyes seemed like volcanoes about to erupt lava. Moreover, their humming sounded like the cannon peal. According to the poet, their ire was like “farina” or gunpowder to bullets. Whatsoever after seeing the bees in such an infuriated state, it thought they were coming to hurl his throne.
He tried to cry quarter! his voice would not sound,
His head ached – his throne reeled and fell;
His enemy cheered, as he came to the ground,
And cried, ‘King Papilio, farewell!’
His fall chased the vision – the sleeper awoke,
The wonderful dream to expound;
The lightning’s bright flash from the thunder-cloud broke,
And hail-stones were rattling around.
Thereafter, in ‘The Butterfly’s Dream’, the butterfly cried out fearfully. But his voice could not sound. Moreover, having seen the bees, he got a headache. Eventually, his throne reeled and shattered. The creature beaming with excessive pride had come to the ground. His enemy cheered at the scene and cried victoriously, “King Papilio, farewell!” Here, “King Papilio” is none other than a kind of butterfly found in the African continent.
After that, the butterfly woke up. It started to recollect what he had just seen. In the meantime, “lightning’s bright flash from the thunder-cloud” amazed him. It had already started to hail. So, in its dream what he heard was the sound of the thunder.
He’d slumbered so long, that now, over his head,
The tempest’s artillery rolled;
The tulip was shattered – the whirl-blast had fled,
And borne off its crimson and gold.
’T is said, for the fall and the pelting, combined
With suppressed ebullitions of pride,
This vain son of summer no balsam could find,
But he crept under covert and died.
In the last section of the poem, the speaker sarcastically says as the butterfly had slumbered so long that he was unaware of reality. There came a tempest rolling like an artillery. Eventually, the tulip was shattered and the whirlwind had borne off its crimson and gold petals.
The last section contains the moral of this allegorical poem. Here, the poet refers to the popular saying. Those who have “suppressed ebullitions of pride” inside the heart, often such a tragic ending. That “vain son of summer,” a metaphorical reference to the butterfly, at last, concealed itself under the icy hands of death. To summarize, the moral of the poem is a transgression beyond the natural limits, always proves to be fatal.
Hannah Flagg Gould was one of the best American poets of the 19th century. In a critical commentary on Gould’s poetry, a writer of the Christian Examiner remarked:
It is so sweet and unpretending, so pure in purpose and so gentle in expression that criticism is disarmed of all severity and engaged to say nothing of it but good. It is poetry for a sober, quiet, kindly-affectioned Christian heart. It is poetry for a united family circle in their hours of peace and leisure. For such companionship, it was made, and into such it will find and has found, its way. (Source: The Classic and the Beautiful from the Literature of Three Thousand Years)
This poem, ‘A Butterfly’s Dream’ appears in the book of poetry, “She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.”
The following poems are similar to the themes present in Gould’s ‘The Butterfly’s Dream’.
- A Butterfly Talks by Annette Wynne – This short poem features the magnificence in simple things of nature through the metaphor of a butterfly.
- The Butterfly and the Bee by William Lisle Bowles – This poem contrasts the life of a bee and a butterfly.
- The Butterfly’s Day by Emily Dickinson – It’s Dickinson’s one of the best-known poems and here the poet presents the theme of vanity of life.
- Ode to a Butterfly by Thomas Wentworth Higginson – Here, Higginson glorifies the butterfly for its exceptional beauty.