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20 December 2014

Two butterflies went out at Noon

Two butterflies went out at Noon 
And waltzed upon a Farm —
And then espied Circumference
And caught a ride with him –
Then lost themselves and found themselves
In eddies of the sun
Till Gravitation missed them –
And both were wrecked in Noon –
To all surviving Butterflies 
Be this Fatuity
Example – and monition
To entomology
                                                     F571 (1863)  J533

Alternate versions of this poem have engendered many papers and discussions, which I won't address here. Johnson's version comes from fascicle 16, written in 1862; an incomplete revision, filled with alternative words and phrases, was written in 1878. Franklin takes his version from Fascicle 25, dated 1863. I limit my discussion to Franklin's version but do include Johnson's below because there is quite a discrepancy.  

This poem seems something of a parable – a light-hearted version of the Icarus and Daedalus legend, a warning not to fly too high or too close to the sun. On the other hand, it seems a nature poem along the lines of "A Bird came down the Walk" (F359) where Dickinson contemplates the natural world with a cosmic twist. I find it easy to read it metaphorically with the butterflies as thoughts and an entomologist/poet waving her butterfly net in hot pursuit. 

           The story is simple: two butterflies venture out at noon, dancing about the flowers – no doubt mating and sipping nectar. I'm not sure what they "espied", "Circumference" being ambiguously abstract here, but it might have been the wind pushing clouds along the curved top of the sky. Such a wind would surely cause little butterflies to lose their way, pulled higher and higher as the heat of the sun creates rising eddies in the wind. The story has a sad ending for "both were wrecked in Noon". Their little excursion lasted less than an hour. 
          Dickinson ends the poem by citing the butterflies' foolishness as a warning to "all surviving Butterflies" and to entomologists. Don't fly so high that the earth can no longer hold you; don't go chasing off after something that will lead you too far astray.

The poem is written in regular ballad or hymn form. You have to like a poet that rhymes "fatuity" with "entomology". I also like the internal rhyme of "espied" with "caught a ride". 

Johnson's version:

Two butterflies went out at Noon –  
And waltzed upon a Farm —
Then stepped straight through the Firmament
And rested, on a Beam —

And then — together bore away
Upon a shining Sea —
Though never yet, in any Port —
Their coming, mentioned — be —

If spoken by the distant Bird —
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman —

No notice — was — to me —      


  1. And I really have to like a poet who can convey a message and it's converse in the same poem: observe your measureable limits and fall in love without limit or boundary. In the second version, the butterflies seem to have found a different path.

    1. Yes, this reading seems to me to be one way to get at just what ED means when she says her business is circumference. "...observe your measurable limits and fall in love without limit or boundary." Ah, to be wrecked IN noon, in eddies of the sun, waltzing in circumference. A waltz is a lovely metaphor for circumference, as it is two people dancing around each other in time all the while making a larger circle, circles within circles. (It is also, of course, in 3/3 time, which makes you wonder why this poem isn't in trimeter. Maybe that would be too on the nose.) The ending, if read as the "converse", might mean, let this be an example of a positive foolishness (fatuity) , and a warning not to the butterflies, but to the entomologists, to those who try too hard to "study" these insects.

  2. This poem is one of the most revised poems I've come across yet with many alternate lines and words. I like "then chased themselves and caught themselves" as an alternate for line 5. Also for "eddies of" the sun we have "gambols with" and "for frenzy of" and "antics in" and "rapids of" and "fathoms in". All good choices and really shows her process of thought. Line 7 you get "Till Rapture missed Peninsula" (which is the line she wrote in the fascicle according to Christanne Miller), "till rapture missed her footing" "until a Zyphyr pushed them" (chased, flung, spurned, scourged), "till gravitation grumbled" (foundered, humbled).

  3. A perfect opening for a children’s fairytale poem:

    “Two butterflies went out at Noon
    And waltzed upon a Farm —
    And then espied . . . ”

    Egad, “Circumference” rears her curly hair, again. ED Lexicon helps too much: 13 definitions, 389 words. Tossing a singular die: “eternity” (Definition “E”),

    They “caught a ride” with eternity,

    “Then lost themselves and found themselves
    In eddies of the sun”,

    AKA, they found themselves in love,

    “Till Gravitation missed them –
    And both were wrecked in Noon – ”,

    AKA, reality caught up, and they lived unhappily ever after, in ED’s imagination.

    Let this be a lesson to you, children.

    ED’s butterfly lover shall remain unnamed, but I suspect CW.

  4. Even though F571 is a sad poem, what a welcome respite after the doom of the previous poem (F570).