William Wordsworth Questions and Answers

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What are the meanings in the poem "To A Butterfly"?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In the first stanza, the poet sees a butterfly sitting motionless on yellow flower. He talks to it as if it is a human being, personifying it, and calling it "little Butterfly." First, he wonders at the butterfly's stillness, repeating, "motionless!" twice, the repetition and the exclamation points revealing how much he marvels at the creature's ability to stay still. Then, still speaking to it, he informs the butterfly of the "joy" it will experience when the breeze comes, and it lifts off again.

In the second and final stanza, he turns from the butterfly to himself and his own memories. He mentions that the orchards are "ours," meaning belonging to his sister and him. He also mentions that the flowers belong to his sister. Nevertheless, he invites the butterfly to come to this "sanctuary" anytime, and "fear no wrong!" He asks the butterfly to sit on a bough and listen as he and sister talk about summer times past, days when they were young, and one day seemed as long as twenty do now.

The poem is characteristically Romantic in that it depicts a simple scene in nature and shows a deep appreciation for the natural world. It is also Romantic in its nostalgia for childhood, captured in the longing for the time when a day seemed far longer than now. Finally, the poem expresses the memory of the strong emotion the poet experienced while gazing at a butterfly—to convey emotions recollected in tranquility (calm) was a chief reason for poetry, Wordsworth believed. He experienced joy at seeing a butterfly, and he communicates this to us.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There are several thematic layers of meaning to this poem.  The most obvious meaning is the surface one, the speaker communicating with a butterfly he sees in his sister's garden.  From this, Wordsworth concocts several meanings that are based on the themes of Romanticism.  The first is that nature can provide levels of meaning to us, as humans.  The reverence of nature is seen when Wordsworth connects the flight of the butterfly to an opportunity to engage in reflection about who we are as humans and what we seek to represent.  This meaning makes the respect for nature an essential part to how humans should live their lives.  Wordsworth sees a connection to nature, and uses it as a portal to his own past and understanding of existence.  (See the line when he talks to the butterfly about "talk of sunshine and of song" and "pleasant days.")  In addition, Wordsworth strives to develop a meaning of urgency.  The second to last stanza discusses the idea of "carpe diem"- seizing the day, the moment right now.  The butterfly serves as the "historian" of the speaker's "infancy" and this time for nostalgia, a portal to the past, is passing.  This would be why the speaker demands to take this opportunity now, when it presents itself.

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