Search This Blog

23 January 2012

A fuzzy fellow, without feet,

A fuzzy fellow, without feet,
Yet doth exceeding run!
Of velvet, is his Countenance,
And his Complexion, dun!

Sometime, he dwelleth in the grass!
Sometime, upon a bough,
From which he doth descend in plush
Upon the Passer-by!

All this in summer –
But when winds alarm the Forest Folk,
He taketh Damask Residence –
And struts in sewing silk!

Then, finer than a Lady,
Emerges in the spring!
A Feather on each shoulder!
You'd scarce recognize him!

By Men, yclept Caterpillar!
By me! But who am I,
To tell the pretty secret
Of the Butterfly!
                                                                 -  F171 (1860)  173

A charming description of a caterpillar and it’s eventual metamorphosis into a butterfly, Dickinson begins the poem as a riddle but then gives the answer away in the last stanza. I have to quarrel a bit, though. It seems the “fuzzy fellow” does have little feet-like bits. And run? Well, scoot, maybe.
Who says a caterpillar
doesn't have feet?
            The “gait” of the poem is a bit “spasmodic” (as Dickinson herself admitted of her poetry). While most of the poem is in common ballad or hymn form – iambic meter in alternating tetrameter and trimeter – the third stanza goes haywire. It begins with the spondee “All this” and is a catalectic trimeter (missing one syllable) rather than a tetrameter line. But there’s a reason for this as the line is a pivot – we are going to now see the caterpillar begin his dramatic change. The next line is in catalectic trochaic pentameter. There’s a reason for this, too! Dickinson put the “But” in that line that should have been, metrically speaking, in the first. This would have made the first line trimeter and the second tetrameter – still a variance from  the ballad form, but more regular. However, the critical emphasis would be lost. Dickinson wants that line break there, and for good reason, as it further emphasizes the break: the break in the life cycle and the break in the poem. Clever, no?
            I love the “Feather on each shoulder” of what once was the caterpillar. “You’d scarce recognize him!” he’s such a fine dandy now. The poet modestly ends by saying she shouldn’t really reveal the lovely butterfly’s humble beginnings, as if she were talking about a regal beauty who began as a scullery maid and then had plastic surgery.  


  1. Ah, great observation in the mirroring of the metrical change with the caterpillar change. I love those moments in Dickinson and they are easy to miss. That would be another great book, cataloging these form/content moves. One of my favorites of this sort is "After great pain a formal feeling comes" when the "feet" begin to trip.

  2. Aside from its metrical and morphological gymnastics, ED must have intentionally placed this cute riddle (F171) back to back in Fascicle 8 with the darkly stoical 'Tis so much joy!’ (F170). Thanks ED! We needed a little comic relief.

  3. I found the following 2004 comment on another blog and think there’s merit to it

    “[ED] could be relating this [story of metamorphosis] to herself also; sometimes as humans we feel we go through a phase until we have reached our true beauty.” By 1860, ED was hoping to join the ranks of immortal poets, at least in the long run. Otherwise, why would she have carefully copied her poems in ink and stitched them into fascicles?

    This blogger also commented, “One word which i wasnt sure how to even pronouce was yclept, which i never really heard before. It actually is a middle english word that means called, or to call out.”

    Was ED strutting her middle English or does “yclept” add something to the poem? Even in 1860 “yclept” was considered way archaic. Perhaps, this was a game of one-upwomanship with Charlotte Bronte:

    C. Brontë. 1849. Shirley (I. xi. 276), “The old and tenantless dwelling yclept Fieldhead.”