‘Ode to a Butterfly’ by Thomas Wentworth Higginson is a thoughtful meditation on nature’s one of the daintiest creations, the butterfly. Higginson glorifies this tiny insect by using several metaphors and symbols.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson talks about the butterflies in this poem. Being an ode, it is a poetic meditation on the beauty and magnificence of this creature. In ‘Ode to a Butterfly’, the poet not only focuses on a single butterfly rather he magnifies the species as a whole. Like the romantic poets, here, Higginson also romanticizes the creature by using vivid imagery, symbols, and metaphors. Moreover, the diction of the poem is so spontaneous that it can arrest a reader’s attention in no time. Such is the beauty of this poem!
This poem begins with a reference to the butterfly as the “spark of life”. Thereafter, the poet goes on comparing the butterfly with other creatures of nature. According to the poet, the butterfly symbolizes the essence of life and its lovely wings symbolize freedom. The speaker of the poem thinks it to be a fostering child of nature. It gets its hue from the heavens and feeds on the honey that soothes its soul, not inebriates it. At last, the poet describes it as a “Symbol of life” and seeks hope from the creature.
This poem consists of a total of six septets. It means each stanza of the poem contains seven rhyming lines. Moreover, the rhyme scheme of each stanza is ABABCCB. This rhyme scheme follows the rhyme royal model. Apart from that, the poet writes this poem using iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter. The first four lines of each stanza are composed in iambic pentameter. And the following two lines are in iambic trimeter. The last line of each stanza is in iambic hexameter. Thus, the metrical pattern of the poem is quite innovative yet conventional as well.
Higginson’s poem, ‘Ode to a Butterfly’ contains several literary devices. The poet uses several metaphors in this poem. As an example, in the first line, the “spark of life” is a metaphor for the butterfly. Thereafter the poet uses personification in the second line. This line also contains an antithesis. There is anaphora in the first two lines as well. Moreover, the second stanza contains a rhetorical question or interrogation in the third line. In the third stanza, the poet uses alliteration in, “heavenly hues” and “tree-tops”. Along with that, there is metonymy in the line, “Grasp that swift blazonry.” Thereafter the poet uses an apostrophe in the line, “O daintiest reveller of the joyous earth!” Last but not least, Higginson uses several hyperboles in this poem.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
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!
‘Ode to a Butterfly’ begins with a reference to the butterfly as the “spark of life” that waves its golden wings. According to the poetic persona in the poem, it is the “songless wanderer” among the “songful birds.” He thinks it has some “Nature’s secrets” in the marks on its tiny wings. Therefore, he compares the colorful mark to a “gorgeous cipher” that is past the reach of words.
Though being such a mysterious creature it is still dear to every child. However, in the last two lines, the poet remarks the butterfly’s “glad pursuit” beguiles one’s soul. Like an innocent child, it lives its “unspoiled days” amongst flowers, flocks, and herds. Here, the poet uses asyndeton.
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
Hovering at will o’er their parental bowers?
In the second stanza, the speaker compares it to a blossom having wings. Its flight has a liberating quality. Moreover, the poet asks the butterfly what the secret is that binds it to other flowers. Even after growing up, nature still keeps this creature in the “garden’s fostering”.
Thereafter, the poet asks whether the flowers and trees in the garden soar like the butterfly after their “completed hours.” Moreover, he asks whether they become “irrevocably free” and hover at their will over “their parental bowers.” Whatsoever, here the poet uses the butterfly as a symbol of free will.
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?
In the third stanza of ‘Ode to a Butterfly’, the poet goes on posing some thought-provoking questions to the butterfly. He asks the creature whether it has drawn its luster from “heavenly hues.” Thereafter, he compares the butterfly to a “sumptuous drifting fragment of the sky.” In the following lines, the poet presents how the butterfly gets such colorful wings. He thinks as if the high tree-tops grasped a lustrous fragment of the sky and imbued it with sudden splendor to form those tints of its wings. Thereafter the creature floats a few short hours before dying, resembling a human soul.
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.
In this stanza, the speaker contrasts birds and field mice with the butterflies. Birds have nests and they rear their eager young ones. They are always busy throughout the day. Besides that, a field mouse also prefers the comfort of a homestead. While the butterfly, “Nature’s freeman” freely wanders through the wood and seeks only “airy food.” All that a butterfly need is the sweet nectar present in every blossom. In the last line, the poet uses a repetition of the “s” sound.
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.
In the fifth stanza of ‘Ode to a Butterfly’, the poet thinks the garden spreads “one wide banquet” for the butterfly. Moreover, one drop of honey gives satiety to the “daintiest reveller of the joyous earth.” If it tries “a second draught” that would drug it past all mirth. However, this feast does not inebriate the creature. Rather it keeps its calm eyes ever opened. Therefore, the poet compares the butterfly to the soberest “sprite” or elf which is the offspring of the sun.
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
Symbol of life, me with such faith endow!
The last stanza upholds the creature’s significance. The soul of a man soars in aspiration upon the wings of a butterfly. It gives humankind hope and it is an emblem of the new career that springs after one’s death. Moreover, when “death” makes one’s spirit to bow, the butterfly infuses hope in a human being. It reminds one of the immortality of the soul. Lastly, the poet says it is a symbol of life and it endows him with faith.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the poet to ‘Ode to a Butterfly’, was an American poet and abolitionist. He was involved in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s. For this reason, in this poem, Higginson uses several ideals of the abolitionist movement. Moreover, the poet uses the butterfly as a symbol of life as well as a free spirit. In this way, this poem innovatively encompasses the importance of one’s wholesome freedom. Apart from that, Higginson was the mentor and preceptor of the famous American poet Emily Dickinson.
The following poems present similar kinds of themes present in Higginson’s poem, ‘Ode to a Butterfly’.
- The Butterfly by Alice Freeman Palmer – This poem describes the heavenly beauty of a butterfly that the poet observed as a child.
- To a Butterfly by William Wordsworth – Here, Wordsworth, one of the best 18th-century British poets, addresses a butterfly that reminds him of his childhood days.
- The Butterfly’s Day by Emily Dickinson – In this one of the best-known Emily Dickinson poems, the poet presents the nature of life through the metaphor of a butterfly.
- Blue-Butterfly Day by Robert Frost – Here, the poet describes the movements of a flock of blue butterflies. It’s one of Frost’s best poems.
Readers can also refer to the poems featuring the theme of freedom and confinement. You can also check out the best butterfly poems.