by Leonie Sachs

Start Free Trial

The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

“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 cataclysmic images of fire and stone conflict with the butterfly’s fragility. If one remains on the level of visual association, one can picture how the butterfly has caught some of the fire’s luminosity in the vibrant coloring of its wings. One might also appreciate the lapidary quality of its markings, like brilliant enamels fired in a kiln. The final line of this section, however, “Webs of farewell in the transient measure,” invites one to consider the butterfly’s journey in metaphoric terms. One is confronted with the concepts of death and transition.

Next the poet hails the butterfly as a creature of night, not in a demoniac sense, but a blessed one. This is a highly unusual label for the butterfly, which depends on sunlight for its survival. It has been suggested by Matthias Krieg that the butterfly’s positive connection to the night lies in its being an image of dreams. If one considers the dream state as one of transition between consciousness and unconsciousness, then the projection of life’s and death’s burden onto the butterfly’s delicate wings follows logically. Finally one arrives at the concrete image of the butterfly coming to rest on a rose. For a moment the butterfly is only a butterfly, not an abstract fusion of life and death, stasis and transition.

These ideas, however, permeate the poem’s atmosphere and are transposed onto the wilting rose and fading sun in the last line of the second section.

Lines 13 and 14 repeat the opening pair of lines. Here the butterfly’s colorful designs become abstract as they are transposed into the realm of metaphor and are transformed into a system of signs. The grammatical ambiguity of the final lines deliberately leaves the reader alternating between viewing the butterfly as a royal sign or as bearing a royal sign. The question is unresolved, but the reverential implication of “royal” bespeaks an optimistic faith in the order of the world. The butterfly becomes the ultimate symbol of signs and their meanings, carrying on its wings a mysterious, yet kingly, system of ciphers.

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

“Butterfly” contains no traditional metrical patterns, but the poem achieves a lyrical quality through its evocative...

(This entire section contains 392 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.