To a Moth Seen in Winter (1942)
There’s first a gloveless hand warm from my pocket,
A perch and resting place ‘twixt wood and wood,
Bright-black-eyed silvery creature, brushed with brown,
The wings not folded in repose, but spread.
(Who would you be, I wonder, by those marks
If I had moths to friend as I have flowers?)
And now pray tell what lured you with false hope
To make the venture of eternity
And seek the love of kind in winter time?
But stay and hear me out. I surely think
You make a labor of flight for one so airy,
Spending yourself too much in self-support.
Nor will you find love either nor love you.
And what I pity in you is something human,
The old incurable untimeliness,
Only begetter of all ills that are.
But go. You are right. My pity cannot help.
Go till you wet your pinions and are quenched.
You must be made more simply wise than I
To know the hand I stretch impulsively
Across the gulf of well nigh everything
May reach to you, but cannot touch your fate.
I cannot touch your life, much less can save,
Who am tasked to save my own a little while.
Similar to Frost’s “My Butterfly: An Elegy,” this is an ode to a moth. Both are reminiscent of the English romantic poet William Wordsworth’s “To a Butterfly!” Frost is concerned, as he is elsewhere, with nature, transience, and the human condition.
The speaker takes his gloveless hand, warmed by his pocket, and extends it to a moth in winter as a “perch and resting place ’twixt wood and wood.” The moth does not fold its wings in “repose” but keeps them spread, prepared to fly. The speaker describes the creature and wonders what type of moth it is. If only he knew the marks of moths as well as he does the marks of flowers, he would be able to tell. The moth’s repose allows him a moment of reflection. He wonders what “lured” the moth “with false hope” to venture toward “eternity” and to alight on his own hand, “the love of kind in wintertime.”
He asks the moth to stay and listen to him and then sets about describing its plight. He explains how its flight at this time, in this climate, is a great labor compared with the usual effort a moth puts forth. He speaks of how the moth will not find love, nor will love find it. It is well outside the human condition. But the moth is to be pitied for its “something human,” the possibility that it longs for the same things the speaker does. That human thing he pities in the moth is “old incurable untimeliness,” which he calls the “begetter of all ills that are.” Everything depends on timing, and time is responsible for everything. The longing for love will always be untimely.
He tells the moth to take flight, to go, as he knows that having pity is not enough to change circumstances or to help. He sends it off, hoping it will fly until it can fly no more. He imagines that the moth has a knowledge he does not himself possess. He imagines that the moth knew the hand stretched toward him would be a resting place only but would not be able to “touch [its] fate.” He concludes, “I cannot touch your life, much less can save, / Who am tasked to save my own a little while.”
The slightest repose and rest of a moth in the dead of winter, when it strives against time and nature to survive, has offered the speaker a moment in which to reflect on his own condition. The two struggle against the same forces: nature, time, and the long sleep of death that nature and time eventually bring. The speaker can “touch” the moth but cannot fully touch its life, not with his love or his kindness, as he cannot save the moth from the inevitable any more than he can save himself. George F. Bagby asserts that “[e]very creature, whether human being or moth, is irrevocably locked in the prison of his own yearnings, and none can reach out to touch any other with life-giving warmth.” He further identifies a “barrier between poet and moth—and implicitly between man and man” (103).
The poem was first published in the spring 1942 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review and later collected in A Witness Tree. According to Jeffrey Cramer, Frost once commented to his early biographer Robert Newdick that he composed the poem while “walking down a foggy icy mountain one thaw in March the year we were at Plymouth” and added “Not everything is as easy to date as that” (137).
Bagby, George F. Frost and the Book of Nature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993, 102–103.
Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1996.