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28 March 2020

Some such Butterfly be seen

Some such Butterfly be seen
On Brazilian Pampas —
Just at noon — no later — Sweet —
Then — the License closes —

Some such Spice — express – and pass —
Subject to Your Plucking —
As the Stars — You knew last Night —
Foreigners — This Morning —
                                                            F661 (1863)   J541

This poem buries a sharp edge within its lilting meter. It seems at first like a poetical and philosophical comment on life: what is once beautiful, fragrant, and mysterious becomes lost, diminished, or altered over time. We are attracted to what is rare and ephemeral and should not even try to capture or categorize it.
A real Brazilian Pampas butterfly: Stichelia pelotensis
            Yet the 'Sweet' and the 'Your' suggest the speaker is writing to someone specific about herself and their  relationship. The speaker is reclusive, like a shy and rare butterfly. To see it requires diligence and patience. She offers a gentle warning to her 'Sweet' that if she seeks this butterfly she must be present at a certain place by a certain time – before 'the License closes'.  
            She also reminds Sweet to not be greedy. While Sweet might enjoy the fragrance of a flower on its stem for as long as the flower lives, distilling it for perfume kills the flower. It might be best to take what fragrance the flower freely gives.

Dickinson depicts perfume-making more explicitly, even brutally, a few years later:
Essential oils are wrung:  
The attar from the rose  
Is not expressed by suns alone,  
It is the gift of screws.                  (F772)    

In the last lines of the poem, the speaker suggests that what seemed true and real and present by night might be quite different by morning – or not seen at all. Sweet should take what is true in the moment and not build expectations into it – especially if the moment involves the night sky with its mysterious and romantic stars.

I'm not sure if trying to fit these images into Dickinson's biography is useful. I don't think they really fit, for one thing, and it isn't necessary to fit them for another. The seeker and the elusive sought, the perfumer and the used up petals, the nighttime lover versus the daytime are all common literary tropes. Dickinson would have encountered them in Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Wordsworth.  


  1. Ruben Santos ClaveriaAugust 19, 2020 at 1:37 PM

    I love your blog. Thank you so much for sharing this exquisite musings.

  2. Using ED’s first four alternative manuscript words [in brackets], Lines 3-6 take us from biography to shared experience:

    “Just at noon — no later — [Than] —
    Then — the [Vision] closes —

    “Some such [Rose] — express – and pass —
    [Present] to Your Plucking —”

    With these alternatives, ‘Some such Butterfly be seen’ becomes universal: we all have missed opportunities because we hesitated.

    Horace warns us, “carpe diem”:

    “Cut short long-term hopes. While we are speaking, envious life
    will have fled: seize the day, trusting the future as little as possible.”

    (Ode 11, Lines 7-8)