To a Butterfly Cover Image featuring William Wordsworth

To a Butterfly by William Wordsworth: Complete Analysis

As a child, I loved exploring the environment and whenever I see a stream, I start feeling nostalgic because the stream for me is a portal to my childhood days. Do you have a portal? A portal that gives you deja vu but it’s the only way of remembering something, something you loved but now is gone. 

William Wordsworth wrote the poem “To a Butterfly” in the year 1802, just after he and his sister had discussed the pleasure they felt at the sight of a butterfly as kids. What follows next is a poem about how a butterfly acts as a portal to his childhood days. Take a look at the poem:

To a Butterfly by William Wordsworth

Stay near me – do not take thy flight!

A little longer stay in sight!

Much converse do I find in thee,

Historian of my infancy!

Float near me; do not yet depart!

Dead times revive in thee:

Thou bring’st, gay creature as thou art!

A solemn image to my heart,

My father’s family!

Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days,

The time, when, in our childish plays,

My sister Emmeline and I

Together chased the butterfly!

A very hunter did I rush

Upon the prey:-with leaps and springs

I followed on from brake to bush;

But she, God love her, feared to brush

The dust from off its wings.

Meaning and Summary

When someone makes us feel good, we tell them to stay and not leave. Similarly, the poet tells the butterfly to stay and not take a “flight”. He wants the butterfly to be in his “sight”. He has so much to converse about and it reminds him of his childhood days.

The poet does not want the butterfly to depart, as the days are dead and gone, but it revives the memories that the poet cherishes. The poet is reminded of his father’s family, which brings a “solemn image” to his heart. Their image brings a sense of happiness and contentment to his heart.

The poet recalls the days as pleasant and remembers the “childish plays” where he and his sister Emmeline (Wordsworth called his sister Dorothy, Emmeline out of love) chased the butterflies.

In the next line, he calls himself a “hunter”, and butterfly the “prey” and says that he would leap and jump to catch the butterfly, unlike his sister who wouldn’t even dare to brush the dust off the wings of the butterfly. Here the poet has tried to draw a comparison between him and his sister, telling how gentle, calm, poised, and soft-hearted Dorothy was compared to William.

To a Butterfly Poem
To a Butterfly Poem by William Wordsworth

Analysis of the Poem

STAY near me–do not take thy flight!

A little longer stay in sight!

We understand through the title of the poem that the poet is referring to a butterfly. He tells the butterfly to “stay” and not fly away yet, it should wait a “little longer” and stay in “sight”. Maybe, the butterfly makes him feel at ease, therefore he tells it to wait. 

Much converse do I find in thee,

Historian of my infancy!

It is through these lines that we understand what the Butterfly meant to Wordsworth. There are several things to talk about with it, and Wordsworth feels that just like any human being, the butterfly would understand his emotions and wait and respond. The butterfly is a history of his childhood, the portal that takes him back in time.

Notice how he used phrases like “Historian of my infancy” to indicate complex ideas. The butterfly takes him back in time to when he was a child, it gives him a feeling of deep nostalgia. 

Float near me; do not yet depart!

Dead times revive in thee:

The poet tells the butterfly to float and flutter its wings near him and tells it to not depart yet. The butterfly is a way to revive the days that have passed, a way to cherish all the memories that have been buried deep inside him.

Thou bring’st, gay creature as thou art!

A solemn image to my heart,

My father’s family!

The butterfly reminds him of all the joyful, carefree, and bright people from his father’s family. It makes him happy and brings a “solemn image” to his heart. It seems that the poet was happy by being surrounded by such people during his childhood.

We all have had childhood memories when our relatives, cousins, and friends would come and gather. These halcyon days cannot be emulated in adulthood, no matter how happy your life is. There is a unique sense of joy in the moments of childhood, something that only the butterfly can bring out for Wordsworth.

Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days,

The time, when, in our childish plays,

My sister Emmeline and I

Together chased the butterfly!

Wordsworth recalls the days as “pleasant” when he and his sister had chased butterflies together. He calls it “childish plays” because he was so carefree and enjoyed each part of it along with his sister. The focal point of the poem is not a butterfly, but the memories of his sister Emmeline. 

A very hunter did I rush

Upon the prey:–with leaps and springs

I followed on from brake to bush;

But she, God love her, feared to brush

The dust from off its wings.

He calls himself a “hunter” and refers to butterflies as “prey”. He would jump and leap and follow the butterfly from “brake to bush”. However, he says that his sister was even afraid to brush the dust off from the wings of the butterfly because she was so sensitive. The beautiful memory of playing in the open with your sister, on carefree days, is something that binds the poet to the butterfly. 

Form and Theme

The poem is written in a simple and conventional form, maybe a connotation to describe his childhood days that were simple but joyous. Moreover, the rhyming pattern in the first stanza is AABBCBCCB and the second stanza follows a similar pattern.

The central theme in the poem “to a butterfly” is the passage of time. When the poet sees the butterfly, he is reminded of his childhood days, therefore the butterfly is referred to as the revival of the dead times.

Though the days have long passed now, and the poet and his sister have grown up, a butterfly takes them back to the days, the days that made his “solemn heart” happy.

Additionally, the second theme is nature. William Wordsworth was one of the founders of English Romanticism and in almost all of his poems, he emphasized the importance of nature to an individual’s intellect and development.

Similarly, in this poem, the poet calls the butterfly a “historian of my infancy”, relating nature with his childhood days, and reliving those days by conversing with a “butterfly”, which is a part of nature.

Nostalgia is another theme that is very prominent in the poem. The poet feels nostalgic by looking at the butterfly, though it makes him feel emotional and is a reminder of all the members of his father’s family which makes him obligated to converse more with the butterfly. 

Here, we are reminded of the bittersweet nature of nostalgia because sometimes we get emotional and know that those days won’t come back, but we don’t want to miss the chance of relishing and cherishing those days.

Yet the most important thing that is quite easy to miss is the importance of Dorothy or Emmeline, Wordsworth’s sister. The butterfly is just a portal to his childhood days when he spent most of his time playing with his sister. 

Literary Devices

The literary devices used in the poem “to a butterfly” include:

Apostrophe – The poet has used an apostrophe to address a butterfly by indicating its importance and significance in his life. Moreover, he has also expressed his internal thoughts or feelings to a creature that is not able to respond to human words or feelings.

Alliteration – Few examples of alliteration from the poem include:

STAY near me–do not take thy flight!

A little longer stay in sight!

Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days,

Personification – the poet has tried to personify the butterfly by giving it human qualities. For example:

Much converse do I find in thee,

Historian of my infancy!

Dead times revive in thee:

Thou bring’st, gay creature as thou art!

Palilogy – Palilogy is the repetition of a word for emphasis. For example:

Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days,

Conclusion

After reading this poem, I was taken back to my childhood days. I was trying to remember what is my portal to go back to the passage of time. It is only through little things that we can relive and cherish those days and memories that have been concealed for a long time.

I feel the poet has tried to relive those days through the poem and maybe wanted us to experience the same. This poem explains a lot about how our childhood plays a major role in our development and how those simple days of running behind a butterfly can inspire us to write about it.

Some things cannot be emulated, even if those things are still present. For example, as shown in the poem, even though Wordsworth and Dorothy were not separated, once the childhood is gone, that essence is gone too. 

You might have experienced something similar. While your brothers or sisters are still here, the days you spent with them playing in the garden can never be emulated because childhood had a different feel. It was carefree and happy.

If you sit and think, you can feel a distinct feeling of happiness mixed with nostalgia when something that takes you back (a portal) is found. A familiar scene, or a scent, or a memory. But that’s all you have now, a cherish-able memory.

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