Summary and Analysis

To a Butterfly cover image

The English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote at least two poems titled “The Butterfly.” In one of these, which begins with the line “I’ve watched you now a full half-hour,” the speaker describes his contemplation of a butterfly that sits quietly on a yellow flower in a garden. The speaker welcomes the butterfly as a reminder of his joyous youth.

Line 1 of the poem is typical of Wordsworth’s writings in various ways. It begins by emphasizing an individual speaker whose personal perceptions are of great interest and value. This emphasis on individual perception is one aspect of Wordsworth’s poetry that helps make it “Romantic.” The speaker’s willingness to contemplate a natural object for such a long time is also typical of Romantic writing, especially since the natural object is, in this case, also beautiful.

Line 2 stresses the beauty of the butterfly and of its natural habitat. It rests on a “yellow flower,” and it does so in a way that suggests that it is utterly at peace with its attractive environment. This kind of harmony in (and with) nature was a typical theme of Romantic poetry. Just as the butterfly is at peace with its natural surroundings, so is the Romantic speaker.

Line 3 mentions that the butterfly is “little”—one more aspect of the creature that makes it seem attractive and nonthreatening. It is harder to imagine (for instance) the speaker feeling as comfortable with, or attracted to, a snake, spider, wasp, or fly. Butterflies are among the least dangerous, and most beautiful, of any animals or insects, and it is partly this emphasis on the gentle, benign aspects of nature that can make some Romantic poems seem, at least to some readers, shortsighted, partial, and naïve. Certainly it is this aspect of Romanticism that led many later poets (especially in the early twentieth century) to reject Romantic writing, which they often saw as sentimental and simpleminded.

In line 4, the speaker continues to address the butterfly as if the butterfly were almost human—as if it were almost capable of intelligence and feeling of a human sort. On one hand, the butterfly seems somewhat mysterious (“I know not if you sleep or feed”); on the other hand, the speaker talks to the insect as if it were capable of understanding. In a sense, though, the speaker merely talks to himself (and to the reader). Romantic writers are often at least...

(The entire section is 982 words.)