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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.


  1. I love this poem! The subject is nearly the same as one of my favorites: Drab Habitations of Whom?

    Your observations about the differences between moth and butterfly are very good. I wish that ED paid more attention to a detail like this -- it would have made the poem stronger and more precise.

  2. Great analysis. I would have never (ever) thought of a moth here. Terrific observation. But, more important, you strum on the chord of mystery in the poem. Maybe it's right that we can't tell if it's a butterfly or a moth because, despite it being right before us, we can't really know it all. It flies about "opon a jib" without any apparent purpose or design according to the speaker who doesn't know what it's doing or where it's headed (poem 610 says something very similar about a butterfly).

    I agree with you about the beauty of the "Suspended in the Noon" image. It captures the eternal nature of the single moment in the butterfly's life (I'm giving myself away as part of the butterfly camp, I guess). The line about "settling" on the moon is gloriously paradoxical (one "settles" downward not upward and, besides, one can hardly "settle" for the moon). Anyway, the speaker doesn't know what is up or what the Frost will mean for the butterfly--or, as you say, for us at death. A sepulchre of death or a cocoon of life? Dickinson, "limited by ignorance," characteristically doesn't give us her vote. But I think she's more attracted to the rose-hopping day than the unknowable night.

    1. Thanks! Rereading the poem after reading your interesting comments I noticed the second stanza's "And then does Nothing —
      / Then away upon a Jib — He goes —". The first line there is the third in the stanza and so should be iambic tetrameter to be in keeping with the ballad form of the rest of the poem. But it isn't. It's quite slow: I read three stressed syllables in "then does –Noth..." with the "ing" of nothing, a feminine unaccented syllable. The line slows way down and then trails away... until the quick uptake of the follwing line: "away upon a jib - he goes". Fun.

  3. Found your blog in one of my Google search, very helpful, for I'm doing translations on Emily Dickinson. Keep it up, and thank you!

  4. I like the wordplay in the first line – “parts” may mean departs, like a flying leaf, or - opens its wings and thus looks like a symmetrical leaf, and then closes up again – certainly, this is what butterflies do!

  5. ED does indeed seem indifferent to the difference between cocoon and chrysalis. Butterflies do not make cocoons. As you point out, only moths do. But in other poems, e.g., From cocoon forth a Butterfly, and Cocoon above! cocoon below! it's obvious that she is referring to butterflies when she writes of cocoons. I do love your reading of her 'fun' metric play on "Nothing" and your description of the triangular shape of the wings as a jib. I had thought that the "sepulcher" and "cabinet" of the last stanza indicated death, but I see now that the "abbey" and "cocoon" indicate that the pupa could be hibernating. Thus our "ignorance" and the delicious mystery. This stanza also reminds me of ED's own seclusion in her upper-story room. As for ED collecting cocoons, see her poem Drab Habitation of whom? which was sent along with a cocoon to her 3-year-old nephew (as Preest points out, he hardly could have the vocabulary to comprehend this jewel of a poem).

    1. Just read the Drab Habitation poem -- so clever! I imagine if Emily had her way butterflies would make cocoons, too; so much more poetic fodder.

  6. As you noticed, ED doesn’t distinguish between moth and butterfly, but may have known that the butterfly/moth stage is the very last (and very brief) stage before death. A male butterfly/moth mates and dies, it’s purpose accomplished. It never re-enters a cocoon or chrysalis to hibernate.
    Collectors of insects like to gently euthanize, carefully set, and then catalog, label and display specimens in “cabinets”, and will often also display whatever other stages they can find. A preserved intact chrysalis/cocoon is a butterfly/moth that never happened, so it IS a “sepulcher”. The “cabinet” is also a “sepulcher” so it’s just another delightful ED double meaning, I guess. Moths often dress up their cocoons (which are holding the chrysalis) with bits of leaves and debris and twigs stuck to the silk, and can be quite beautiful on their own, but that’s another whole poem’s worth.
    I write ED-inspired poems, and these riddle poems make such great prompts I can’t resist!


  7. I love the triple negative of the opening, a kind of inifinite receding. He parts, he leaves and then he closes up. And what comes next? standing upon a hat on top of a flower. It makes me want to try it and see where I end up. Couldn't do much better than on top of a buttercup!

    Then as if hovering in some great balance between heavily overtaking a rose (and all of the connotation therein) and sailing lightly into the ether, doing nothing, suspended in noon, between lower registers like earth and upper fantastic ones like the moon. We hover in this poem too, balanced in nothingness, suspended in noon.

    Can't say what's going to happen at night (later, or even after death) can't even say what is happening NOW, today, we are uspended in time as well as suspended in space.

    And then the glorious idea that in the frost of winter, the frost of death, in cabinets, shut up; the cocoon. In the "night", the place of darkness, the butterfly is born to spring, or rebirth, or heaven, like a little phoenix. A phoenix/butterful reborn to dangle there midair between there and here, between then and now. He parts himself again and leaves, closes up, and there he is again, on the buttercup.

  8. In ‘Smiling back from Coronation’ (F651), ED contrasts her former gay self, coronated Queen of Calvary, with her present self, descended into depression after Wadsworth abandoned her for San Francisco. Now, four poems later, she writes a life-affirming nature poem, ‘He parts Himself — like Leaves —’ (F655).

    Her secret? She writes poetry: “I had a terror-since September - I could tell to none - and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground - because I am afraid” (L261, 25 April 1862, ED’s second letter to Higginson).