The Butterfly

Pavel Friedmann

In this heartbreaking poem, Friedmann writes about the last butterfly he saw and uses it as a symbol for loss and approaching death during the Holocaust.


Pavel Friedmann

Pavel Friedmann was a Jewish and Czechoslovak poet who died during the Holocaust in 1944.

Posthumously, he came to fame for his poem ‘The Butterfly.’

In ‘The Butterfly’ the poet taps into themes of freedom and confinement as well as hope and despair. These contradictory themes are at the heart of this poem and embodied through the image of the butterfly.

The Butterfly by Pavel Friedmann

Summary of The Butterfly 

The Butterfly’ by Pavel Friedmann is a beautiful and haunting poem that uses the image of a butterfly to symbolize the loss of freedom. 

The poem is brief, swiftly taking the reader into the world of the speaker and the fear and terror of the new world that has found himself in. Living in a ghetto in Nazi Germany the speaker has seen his last butterfly. It rose up and out of sight, away from the darkness all around him. 

Structure of The Butterfly 

The Butterfly by Pavel Friedmann is a German poem that was translated into English. There are at least two different translations of the poem, with slight differences in word choice and arrangement. These versions of the poem also make use of different arrangements of the lines and stanzas as the translators try to convey Friedmann’s intentions as clearly as possible in a new language.  You can read the different versions of the poem here.

Additionally, the fact that this poem was translated from another language means that the rhyme or metrical pattern, if these things existed in the original, were lost. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t literary devices that a close reader can seek out and analyze. 

Literary Devices in The Butterfly 

Friedmann makes use of a few literary devices in ‘The Butterfly’. Those which exist no matter if the poem is in English or German are repetition, imagery, and juxtaposition. The first of these, repetition, is seen through the use and reuse of words, phrases, images, emotions, and more, within one poem. In this case, Friedmann repeats words like “climbed” and repetitively returns to images of nature to depict emotional and mental change.

The emotions of this piece are seen primarily through the images and a reader’s knowledge of the context. Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. In this case, the colors of the butterfly and lines like “Like the sun’s tear shattered on stone” (which is itself an example of personification).

Juxtaposition is when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to emphasize a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. The brightness and inherent freedom of the butterfly is juxtaposed against the impossibly terrible situation that the speaker is in.

Analysis of The Butterfly

Lines 1-4 

The last, the very last,
against a white stone…

In the first lines of ‘The Butterfly,’ the speaker uses repetition to emphasize the fact that he knows he saw “the very last” butterfly. It was a powerful and beautiful moment. The butterfly was everything that his current life is not. It was dazzling and vibrant against a darker background. He uses a metaphor to compare it to the “sun’s tears” that “sing  / against a white stone”. The yellow stands out brightly and clearly. But, this brightness and clearness are no more. 

Lines 5-11

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.

He describes in the next lines how the butterfly flew up and away from him, out of the world that he is forced to inhabit. It was easy, light, and it kissed “the world goodbye” from its position in the sky. The speaker believes that the butterfly chose to fly away from him and from the ghetto that he’s been forced to live in. It wants nothing to do with this terribly dark, human world. 

Lines 12-17

The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto.

Despite the fact that there are no more butterflies in the ghetto, there are things to bring him hope. He uses the images of a dandelion to speak on the love he has found in his “people here”. There is some light to be seen. It is in their faces, their hearts, and in their comradeship in the face of terror. 

The poem comes around again to the butterfly, reasserting it as a symbol of a life lost. It stands in for a world that the speaker can’t go back to. There are no butterflies in the ghetto, he concludes, they “don’t live in here”. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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