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04 September 2019

He parts Himself — like Leaves —

He parts Himself — like Leaves —
And then — He closes up —
Then stands upon the Bonnet
Of Any Buttercup —

And then He runs against
And oversets a Rose —
And then does Nothing —
Then away upon a Jib — He goes —

And dangles like a Mote
Suspended in the Noon —
Uncertain — to return Below —
Or settle in the Moon —

What come of Him — at Night —
The privilege to say
Be limited by Ignorance —
What come of Him — That Day —

The Frost — possess the World —
In Cabinets — be shown —
A Sepulchre of quaintest Floss —
An Abbey — a Cocoon —
                                                                                            J 517 (1863)  Fr655

This riddle poem charms me. And I learned, well, relearned, something. By the final stanza of the poem I was visualizing butterflies – and why not? they are one of Dickinson's "B" triad along with Bees and Birds – but once I started thinking (and looking stuff up, let's face it) about that last line, I realized the creature had to be a moth. Butterfly caterpillars pupate as a chrysalis; it is the moth caterpillar that creates cocoons for its pupa. All that being said, however, since we usually see butterflies in the day, behaving just as Dickinson describes, and most moths come out at night, I don't think she was focusing on taxonomy here.  

I love the beginning of the poem: "He parts Himself – like Leaves –". It not only has a soft, lilting quality, but introduces a note of mystery. With "He," Dickinson plants the notion of a person parting himself. I lingered over the line before moving on. The idea of parting myself makes me think of body and soul, or two different personas. There's a fascination in the image, the leaf simile gentle and lovely.
            In the next line He is closing up. Still a mystery. But when the creature is revealed to be atop a buttercup, I knew it for a butterfly. We've all seen them among the flowers opening and closing their wings. It's a beautiful sight.

So begins a day in the life of a butterfly/Moth. It balances upon the buttercup to sip nectar. It must be fairly big, something in the order of the Cecropia silkmoth or an Eastern swallowtail, for when it flies to a rose it bowls it over. Undaunted, it heads for the sky, its triangular silhouette when it closes its wings reminiscent of a jib sail on a racing boat.

High in the air it pauses, "Suspended in the Noon" (such a wonderful phrase!) while contemplating whether to flutter back down to earth or fly up to the moon. Light as spirit, poised between two realms, the creature gives us a focal point to contemplate the same choice. Do we flit about the flowers, doing nothing if we choose – but oh so alive! Or do we follow the beckoning amber hands of the moon?


Photo by Srithern, on Wikimedia Commons

In the fourth stanza Dickinson waves away the bulk of lepidopteran life: moth laying eggs, eggs hatching, caterpillars pillaging the garden and, finally, weaving silken cocoons for shelter as they deconstruct and reconstruct themselves at the cellular level. She skips over all this, I think, because it's the last stanza's distilled image of the moth in its cocoon that is what she's after. The cocoon itself might be found either in the cabinets of collectors (and perhaps Dickinson was one) or in a protected cabinet-like nook outside.
             Moth-to-cocoon is a simple story, one of hibernation or even rebirth rather than transformation: the moth, it is implied, is ensconced in its silken swaddling, hopefully to emerge in spring.

It's the "hopefully" that Dickinson hints at in the last two lines. She uses two metaphors for the cocoon: "Sepulchre" and "Abbey". The first is an image of death and burial. The second, a church that typically has tombs, but also where resurrection and the afterlife are taught. Is the insect – are we – to be thought of as moldering in a grave or awaiting rebirth?

It's easy to skip over this rather somber reflection. Dickinson may have wanted to simply emphasize the cosiness of the cocoon and the pleasing image of the free-flying butterfly/moth tucked up for the night. But the poem ends with winter, its secret inside the cocoon inside a cabinet.