The Butterfly and the Bee

William Lisle Bowles

‘The Butterfly and the Bee’ is a children’s poem written by the English poet William Lisle Bowles. This poem contrasts the life of a bee and that of a butterfly.


William Lisle Bowles

William Lisle Bowles was an English critic, poet, and priest who was born in 1762.

His Fourteen Sonnets was published in 1789.

As the title of the poem says, in this poem, William Lisle Bowles presents a conversation between two insects, a butterfly, and a bee. This poem represents two classes of humans. One that is ever showing off its pedigree and external appearance to magnify its importance. In contrast, the other class, not very familiar with the limelight, toils till the less of their life for the betterment of their others. Bowles highlights their importance through the metaphor of the bee. Whereas, the butterfly in his poem, ‘The Butterfly and the Bee’, gets ridiculed by the satirizing lashes of the hardworking bee.

The Butterfly and the Bee
William Lisle Bowles

Methought I heard a butterflySay to a labouring bee:'Thou hast no colours of the skyOn painted wings like me.'

'Poor child of vanity! those dyes,And colours bright and rare,'With mild reproof, the bee replies,'Are all beneath my care.

'Content I toil from morn to eve,And scorning idleness,To tribes of gaudy sloth I leaveThe vanity of dress.'

The Butterfly and the Bee by William Lisle Bowles


‘The Butterfly and the Bee’ is an allegorical poem by William Lisle Bowles that presents a contrast between two symbolic insects, a butterfly and a bee.

This poem is an allegory. Here, the poet captures the conversation between two characters. One is the “Poor child of vanity,” a butterfly. The other one is a “labouring bee.” At first, the butterfly tells the bee about its lustrous and colorful wings that resemble the hues of the sky. Hearing this statement, the bee teaches its counterpart a terse lesson regarding the real meaning of beauty. According to the bee, it toils hard without caring much about its outward appearance. Satisfaction is what it gets from its work. So it leaves the “vanity of dress” to the “tribes of gaudy sloth,” a metaphorical reference to the butterflies.


This poem consists of three short stanzas. Each stanza contains four lines. Moreover, each quatrain of this poem contains a regular rhyme scheme. It is ABAB and the poet maintains this rhyme scheme throughout the poem. The lines being short makes it a comparably fast-paced poem. Along with that the compactness and the set rhyme scheme make this poem an ideal poem for kids. As they can recall it easily. Apart from that, the metrical composition of this poem is also conventional. Each quatrain contains the 8-6-8-6 syllable pattern. Besides that, Bowles wrote this poem using iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter alternatively.

Literary Devices

In Bowles’ poem, ‘The Butterfly and the Bee’, readers can firstly find the literary device called zoomorphism. It is a kind of personification using which a poet invests an animal with the ability to speak. Thereafter, the poet uses a personal metaphor in “a labouring bee.” In the fourth line of the poem, one can find a simile.

In the second stanza, the poet uses a metaphor, “Poor child of vanity” for the butterfly. Thereafter, the poet uses irony in the last line of this stanza. The third stanza begins with an inversion or hyperbaton. Thereafter, the poet uses synecdoche by using the abstract idea of “idleness” instead of using “idle creatures”. The last two lines contain sarcasm and metaphors as well.

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

Methought I heard a butterfly

⁠Say to a labouring bee:

“Thou hast no colours of the sky

⁠On painted wings like me.”

The poetic persona of this poem, ‘The Butterfly and the Bee’, directly jumps into the main subject matter of the poem without any further ado. Firstly, he informs readers that he has probably heard a butterfly talking to a “labouring bee”. What he heard, he reports it to the readers.

In this poem, the butterfly tells the bee that it has no colors of the sky painted on its wings like a butterfly. Hence, it lacks the symbolic “colours” or the pedigree that differentiates a section of the society (here the insect’s society) from the other. However, in this poem, the poet uses the butterfly and the bee as two symbolic figures representing the showy class and the working class respectively.

Stanza Two

“Poor child of vanity! those dyes,

⁠And colours bright and rare,”

With mild reproof, the bee replies,

⁠”Are all beneath my care.

The second stanza begins with the reply of the bee to the butterfly. At first, the bee refers to the butterfly as the “Poor child of vanity.” From the previous section, one has understood the fact that the butterfly is excessively proud of its wings. Therefore the title given to it by the bee is apt. It is important to mention here that in the first line of this stanza the poet uses an apostrophe.

Thereafter the bee tells the vainglorious butterfly that those rare dyes on its wings are all beneath its care. Here, the poet contrasts the nature of those two insects. The butterfly is undoubtedly nature’s fairest creation. However, the bee is far above the butterfly. As it devotes its life to its future generation without frowning upon its state. Thus, in this section Bowles highlights the importance of hard work, diligence, and selfless service.

Stanza Three

“Content I toil from morn to eve,

⁠And scorning idleness,

To tribes of gaudy sloth I leave

⁠The vanity of dress.”

The last stanza of the poem also captures the bee’s admonition to the butterfly. Here, the bee remarks it is content with the daylong toil it does for its family. Most importantly it scorns idleness. To be specific, the bee hates those who are idle such as the butterfly. A butterfly only wanders from flowers to flowers in search of its sustenance. In contrast, the bees devote their life to the family.

In the last two lines, the poet uses a metaphor in “tribes of gaudy sloth.” Here, gaudy sloth means those who are lazy and extravagant at the same time. In the poem’s scenario, the butterfly belongs to such a tribe. Moreover, in the last line which is the cherry on top of this poem, the bee makes a satirical statement. According to the bee, it leaves the “vanity of dress” to the gaudy sloths. The bees do not need such extravagant wings as their life in itself is more valuable than that!

Historical Context

William Lisle Bowles, the poet of this fable-like poem, ‘The Butterfly and the Bee’, was an English poet, priest, and critic. He tried to incorporate nature in most of his poems and he found inspiration from there. Though he is most famous for his sonnets, his other types of poems also have some exceptional ideas. Likewise, in this poem, the symbolic representations of the butterfly and the bee interestingly hints at two opposing classes of society. Moreover, here the poet highlights the importance of the working class that devotes their life to the betterment of others.

Similar Poetry

The following poems are similar to themes present in Bowles’ poem ‘The Butterfly and the Bee’.

You can also find this list of beautiful poems about butterflies.

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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