Analysis of Robert Frost’s My Butterfly: An Elegy

My Butterfly (1913)

Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too,
And the daft sun-assaulter, he
That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead:
Save only me
(Nor is it sad to thee!)
Save only me
There is none left to mourn thee in the fields.

The gray grass is not dappled with the snow;
Its two banks have not shut upon the river;
But it is long ago—
It seems forever—
Since first I saw thee flance,
With all the dazzling other ones,
In airy dalliance,
Precipitate in love,
Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above,
Like a limp rose-wreath in a fairy dance.

When that was, the soft mist
Of my regret hung not on all the land,
And I was glad for thee,
And glad for me, I wist.

Thou didst not know, who tottered, wandering on high,
That fate had made thee for the pleasure of the wind,
With those great careless wings,
Nor yet did I.

And there were other things:
It seemed God let thee flutter from his gentle clasp:
Then fearful he had let thee win
Too far beyond him to be gathered in,
Snatched thee, o’er eager, with ungentle grasp.

Ah! I remember me
How once conspiracty was rife
Against my life—
The languor of it and the dreaming fond;
Surging, the grasses dizzied me of thought,
The breeze three odors brought,
And a gem-flower waved in a wand!

Then when I was distraught
And could not speak,
Sidelong, full on my cheek,
What should that reckless zephyr fling
But the wild touch of thy dye-dusty wing!

I found that wing broken to-day!
For thou art dead, I said,
And the strange birds say.
I found it with the withered leaves
Under the eaves.

My Butterfly: An Elegy was Frost’s first professionally published poem. It was self-published privately in 1894 in Twilight, appeared in the November 1894 issue of the Independent, and was then collected in Frost’s first collection, A Boy’s Will. Frost claimed it as his “first real poem,” having recounted to Louis Untermeyer that he had read his first poem at 15, written his first at 16, and written his first published poem at 18 (Cramer, 26).

The poem is reminiscent of the English romantic poet William Wordsworth’s “To a Butterfly!” and is in many ways sentimentally written in the style of the romantics. It is one of several poems in Frost’s first volume where it is difficult to identify the Frost the young poet would later become. Frost is trying to find his own identity as a poet, but he appears unsure of himself, relying on the poetic language and style of his predecessors. The poem is overwrought with thee’s and thou’s and uses the awkward “I wist.” While Frost recalled in “The Imagining Ear,” his lecture at the Browne and Nichols School on May 10, 1915, “distinctly the joy with which [he] had the first satisfaction of getting an expression adequate for [his] thought” as being in the second stanza of this poem, and that he was “so delighted that [he] had to cry,” the natural speech rhythms and colloquial language that make his later poems so authentic are largely absent in this poem. Perhaps the public was not yet ready for the later Frost.


Some Frostian themes are present, however, even if the style is nearly unrecognizable. He is concerned with nature and transience as he is in so many of his best-known poems. The opening image is stark and arresting—“Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too”—and the poem continues in this vein until at last it closes with the broken wings of the butterfly being found “with the withered leaves / Under the eaves.” Nature gives beauty and life but just as dependably and predictably gives death and destruction. Two ideas follow from Frost’s depiction of these natural processes. First, they seem to be cyclical, amoral, and apathetic; second, people are the reason for value judgments about nature. They are the ones who give beauty to nature, and they are the ones who recoil from its seemingly malevolent processes and cycles.

Frost would continue to struggle with the forces of nature and what God let “flutter from his gentle grasp” throughout his career.



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Poetry

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