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05 July 2015

From Cocoon forth a Butterfly

From Cocoon forth a Butterfly
As Lady from her Door
Emerged — a Summer Afternoon —
Repairing Everywhere —

Without Design — that I could trace
Except to stray abroad
On miscellaneous Enterprise
The Clovers — understood —

Her pretty Parasol be seen
Contracting in a Field
Where Men made Hay —
Then struggling hard
With an opposing Cloud —

Where Parties — Phantom as Herself —
To Nowhere — seemed to go
In purposeless Circumference —
As 'twere a Tropic Show —

And notwithstanding Bee — that worked —
And Flower — that zealous blew —
This Audience of Idleness
Disdained them, from the Sky —

Till Sundown crept — a steady Tide —
And Men that made the Hay —
And Afternoon — and Butterfly —
Extinguished — in the Sea —

                                                                         F610 (F610)  J354

This lovely poem recalls Solomon's wisdom in the Biblical book Ecclesiastes: both the verse about eating, drinking, and being merry; as well as that about dust to dust. There is also a hint of Aesop's fable praising the hard-working ant in contrast to the pleasure-loving musical cricket.
            The poem begins as the butterfly, metaphorically compared to a Lady, emerges on a summer afternoon and begins flitting about without discernable purpose or pattern. While the narrator dismisses this activity as some "miscellaneous Enterprise", the wiser "Clovers – understood". It is pollinators such as butterflies, after all, that ensure clovers' continued presence in the meadow.
As the butterfly feeds and suns, wings upright, Dickinson zooms out so that we see laborers mowing the meadow. It's hard work, and Dickinson immediately and comically contrasts it with the butterfly "struggling hard" against an "opposing Cloud" to join other butterflies wheeling about. They are "Phantom", their destination "Nowhere", their flight patterns "purposeless". It seems to the narrator that they are just showing off their lovely colors and grace.
The Clover knows ...
            So far the poem seems as much commentary on ladies as it does on butterflies. Both groups of wandering idlers disdainfully watch the working population – here laborers, bees, and flowers (whose work is unclear, but who are tethered to the ground and must bow and blow with every puff of wind). But in the last stanza Dickinson reminds us that all are destined for oblivion. Converting the sky to sea (as she has in several previous poems), the approach of night becomes a relentless Tide that carries all in its path to the sea where they are "Extinguished". It is not just the haymakers and butterflies that are swallowed up, but time as well. The afternoon is extinguished by night as surely as the laborer and the idler.
            This last stanza forces us to re-think the rest of the poem. When darkness drowns the light, when life and time are over, what does it matter if we have laid up hay or honey, or been prudent like Aesop's hard-working ants; or, like lady and butterfly, flitted about, conducting miscellaneous Enterprise in the finery of our prime? (And I suspect Dickinson appreciated the ecological role of both butterfly and lady in their respective niches.)  "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity," writes Solomon in Ecclesiastes (12:8, King James Bible). "All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked…" (9:2). "There is nothing better for a man", Solomon concludes, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour (2:24).

Dickinson writes the poem in a quiet, observational tone. There are sixteen words of at least three syllables and this lends the poem a rather stately pace. They lead up to "Extinguished" in the final line, – a rich, iambic word that quietly puts to eternal bed the butterfly emerging from cocoon in the first line. Dickinson as observer can find "no Design" in the butterfly's movements that day, but as she contrasts it with the quotidian work going on in the meadow we see both as emblematic of a lovely and ephemeral summer's day.



  1. lovely can just hear the rush of the sea in the word "Extinguished"

    The "audience of idleness" in "purposeless circumference" "Disdained them, from the Sky"...I just love it. And the simile of the Lady in the second line is just perfect as the two images just swim in your mind as you read through the poem!

  2. It leaves an everlasting memory of sunshine, floating clouds, fluttering of colourful butterflies and a mesmerising nature all around which saunter in your leisurely mind to emulate a trace of heavenly pleasure.