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02 December 2011

Cocoon above! Cocoon below!

Cocoon above! Cocoon below!
Stealthy Cocoon, why hide you so
What all the world suspect?
An hour, and gay on every tree
Your secret, perched in ecstasy
Defies imprisonment!

An hour in Chrysalis to pass,
Then gay above receding grass
A Butterfly to go!
A moment to interrogate,
Then wiser than a "Surrogate,"
The Universe to know!

                                                                                  - F142 (1860)  129

Dickinson is a poet concerned with transformation and what better symbolizes transformation than the cocoon where within its gauzy walls a caterpillar is transformed into the ethereal butterfly. Dickinson’s Amherst garden was a haven for butterflies and birds and here the poet begins by discovering cocoons all around: up in the trees, in the shrubs and flowers, and even in the grass.
            Butterflies and moths typically emerge from their chrysalis, and then their cocoons (if they had a cocoon – not all do, most famously the Monarch) after months of metamorphosis and waiting. The “hour in Chrsalis to pass” that the poet refers to here is no doubt the time needed for the butterfly to emerge from either chrysalis or cocoon and then wait for its wings to dry and harden. (A wonderful 20-minute film showing the complete lifecycle of  the gorgeous crecopia moth can be seen here:
            The butterfly waits until its hardened wings can bear its weight and then “gay above receding grass” it leaves the ground behind and takes to the air. It has given us “a moment” to ask ourselves fundamental questions about the marvel of life and the life force, but then in its own special wisdom – better than ours which is often only indirect or “Surrogate,” it goes to explore the “Universe” in ways that we never could.
Spicebush butterfly emerging


  1. Just found your blog - a perfect place to indulge my Dickinson fascination!
    Your explanation of the "hour in Chrysalis" cleared up some confusion for me, but I still find "Surrogate" puzzling. Your interpretation makes sense, that natural beings will enter the Universe in a way that our thoughts can't, that the poem itself is a kind of surrogate for the thing it describes.

    On the other hand, I wonder if it could be flipped. Could the interrogator be the butterfly asking directions from a somewhat clueless narrator?

    1. Thanks for the comment. I just turned to the Dickinson Lexicon -- which I wasn't fully utilizing this early in Dickinson's opus, to my chagrin – and find that "Surrogate" means "Delegate of an ecclesiastical judge; judge". So perhaps it is just a simple conclusion: the butterfly takes a moment to catch its bearings (or something; I'm not sure about the interrogate part) before, wiser than a judge, taking off into the universe. Maybe the butterfly does question others about where to go but it turns out it is wiser even than a Surrogate.

  2. Surrogate as judge makes senses. I just noticed yesterday your link to the Lexicon; it looks like a very useful resource for some of her more obscure references. Again, thank you for this wonderful project. I will be visiting the blog often.

  3. I think it interesting that ED is marveling at the need of the butterfly to shed its cocoon so as to know [experience] the universe, but she is soon to construct her own cocoon because her universe is too painful to flutter about in.

  4. ED’s prescient conjecture about butterflies learning “the Universe” in a brief moment rings even truer today, now that we know monarchs go through several generations during their migration north. Each generation inherits the knowledge of where its progenitures spent the previous winter. The last generation of the summer lives eight times longer than its parents and grandparents and somehow migrates south to the exact location where its ancestors spent the previous winter. We have no idea how they do that.


  5. Someltimes a poem—a Dickinson poem, even—can be about what the poet says it’s about. This is apparently a good example. But we wonder (my wife and I) if maybe this poem at least parallels Dickinson’s thoughts or wishes about her poems.
    She hides most of them, most of the time, in a “cocoon” and we know she must have had some yearning that they would finally “escape” into the universe, carrying with them meaning that far exceeds normal knowledge. Just wondering,.