The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Butterfly,” written in free verse, consists of sixteen lines arranged in three groups of six, six, and four lines. At the core of the poem is a typical nature reverie, except that here the processes of observation and abstraction are reversed. In conventional nature poetry, observation of a concrete object inspires the poet to achieve a deeper insight, but in this poem the actual butterfly is embedded in interpretive associations. As the poet contemplates the butterfly, two different images are summoned. The first image, a visionary flight from the center of the earth, can be regarded as an association inspired by the second image, a butterfly lighting on a rose.

The poem begins with the poet directly addressing the butterfly and admiring its beautiful colors. Paradoxically, its colorfulness is tied to the image of dust and the concept of “aftermath.” The presence of dust is easily explained in terms of a natural phenomenon—when one lightly brushes a butterfly’s wings, a powdery residue remains. Yet dust connotes death as well: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). In view of this second interpretation of dust, the connection to “aftermath” and the implied destruction is clearer.

The poet’s subsequent observation is equally contradictory on the surface. The reader is told that the butterfly has made the journey from the earth’s flaming core, passing through the stony outer layer. These...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Butterfly” contains no traditional metrical patterns, but the poem achieves a lyrical quality through its evocative associations and descriptions. It opens with a direct address to the butterfly and continues as an extended apostrophe. The poet’s one-sided discourse consists of admiring epithets and descriptions.

The principal poetic device used by Nelly Sachs is the metaphor. This poem provides an excellent example of how she expands and adapts a metaphor, creating an all-inclusive symbol. The multiple possibilities of her metaphor’s meaning exist somewhere between conventional references and a highly personal system of associations inspired by biographical experiences and a study of mysticism—both Jewish and Christian.

The butterfly traditionally evokes spring, renewal, and hope. Deeply bound to the sun for survival, it is connected to the symbolism of light, representing optimism and enlightenment. Its vibrant coloring is another aspect of this connection to the positive symbolism of light; hence, the butterfly is ascribed yet another abstract dimension. In many Western cultures it also serves as an icon for the soul, capturing visually the moment of the soul’s separation from the body in death. So, too, does Sachs’s butterfly carry a message that speaks to the human condition.

For the most powerful implications of this metaphoric butterfly, one must turn to the biological fact that the butterfly is a creature of metamorphosis. Its beautiful, evocative form is but a phase; indeed, it already has one “death” behind it—the death of the pupa. The butterfly carries a dual association: It symbolizes at once death (or the transient quality of life) and a hopeful cycle of renewal. The English version of this poem inclines one to favor the more pessimistic interpretation of the butterfly, for it translates the word Jenseits as “aftermath,” which has decidedly negative connotations. Jenseits literally means “beyond” and indicates the afterlife or immortality. In one other instance the English translation opts for a darker view: The rose “withers,” when in the original language it “wilts” in the fading sun. A wilting rose is part of a cycle of regeneration, as is the setting sun, while withering implies a more permanent state of decay. In the German text, then, the concepts of death and renewal do not form a duality of opposition; rather, they coexist as aspects of natural life and allow for a transcendence beyond its limitations.