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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982

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.

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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.

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Latest answer posted August 21, 2015, 6:05 pm (UTC)

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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 as interested in their own thoughts and feelings as they are in the external objects that provoke their thinking and their emotions.

In line 5, as in several other lines throughout the poem, strong emotion is implied by the use of exclamation marks. Romantic poems are often at least as much about emotion as they are about rational thought, and this poem is certainly Romantic in that sense, as in many others. The speaker’s reactions to the butterfly are almost childlike, but Romantic writers tended to welcome (rather than be embarrassed by) thoughts and feelings associated with children. They tended to regard children as innocent, moral, clear-eyed, and uncorrupted. Romantic writers in general (and Wordsworth in particular) wished to stay in touch with their childhoods and with the kinds of people they were as children, and this poem certainly exemplifies that tendency.

Just as the butterfly derives “joy” (6) from its pleasant interactions with the larger natural environment (here presented as involving a gentle “breeze” [6] rather than a dangerous, violent storm), so the same is true of the speaker and, implicitly, of the reader as well. Every aspect of the opening stanza implies a kind of natural harmony—a harmony of the butterfly with the flower, of the butterfly with the breeze, of the butterfly with the trees, of the speaker with all of these, and of the reader with the speaker. The breeze is personified in much the same way as the butterfly is: in Romantic poems, nature often resembles the positive aspects of humans, and humans often resemble the positive aspects of nature.

The poem’s second stanza elaborates on many themes introduced in the first stanza. Thus the speaker refers to an “Orchard-ground” (9), a small piece of territory organized, planted, maintained, and habitually enjoyed by human beings (another instance of the man-in-harmony-with-nature theme). In line 10, male and female are in harmony, just as trees are in harmony with flowers. In lines 11 through 14, the butterfly is again in harmony with humans, who not only welcome it but deliberately present no threat to it. If the first stanza emphasizes the speaker’s own relationship with the butterfly, the second emphasizes the relationship of the speaker, his sister, and the butterfly. The harmony widens as the poem develops, ultimately involving not only the insect and the two people but also the insect, the two people, and the two people’s earlier lives as children. The very last word of the poem (“now”) suddenly returns us to the present, but the present now seems more beautiful, more vivid and enriched, thanks to the presence of the butterfly and its evocation of fond memories of the past. Just as the butterfly has enhanced the beauty of the speaker’s world, so the speaker, through his poem, enhances the beauty of the reader’s mental and emotional environment.

Like much of Wordsworth’s writing, this poem is highly accessible. It would present few problems even for readers who are children, and part of its appeal, in fact, is that it returns the reader in several different ways to a kind of childhood as one reads it. The words are simple, the syntax (or sentence structure) is uncomplicated, the rhythm and meter (straight iambic) are smooth and completely predictable, and the rhyme scheme is highly conventional as well. This is the kind of poem that won for Wordsworth a wide and appreciative readership in his own day and often  later as well.

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