From Butterfly to Spider


Zhou Xiao-tian


Professor Cao Ya-jun

January 21, 2005


From Butterfly to Spider


 Ј­An Image Approach to Emily DickinsonЎЇs search for identity


Abstract: Emily Dickinson, a riddle-like poetess in American literature, thinks much over the problem of an individualЎЇs identity in an alien society. In her opinion this is a serious issue not only to a woman poet as herself but also to human beings in general. Through a close reading and with a focus on the imagery of the six butterfly and spider poems by her, this essay intends to do some exploration to DickinsonЎЇs meditation on this question.


Key words: butterfly; spider; image; identity


Emily Dickinson once described herself as Ў°the only Kangaroo among the BeautyЎ±(qtd. in Bennett 215). Her awareness of the predicament she was in is obvious in this expression. Paula Bernat Bannett concluded in her study of Dickinson Ў°at a period when, it seems, virtually every woman poet in the United States failed to rise above the limitations imposed on womenЎЇs poetry by womenЎЇs complicity in a system that oppressed them, Emily Dickinson sought Ў®taller feet.ЎЇЎ±(qtd. in Bennett 215). Dickinson grounded her Ў°taller feetЎ± on both what she wrote and how she wrote. Besides the frequently discussed issues as love and death in her poetry, she puts much thought on another important topicЈ­identity. This essay tends to do some exploration on her searching for this identity through analysis of images in six of her poems about the butterfly and spider. These six poems are deliberately chosen for thematic consideration. The three butterfly poems under discussion are No. 129(1859), 173(1860) and 1099(1866) and the three spider poems are No. 605(1862), 1138(1869) and 1275(1873). Generally speaking, the butterfly poems precede the spider ones in time sequence.


Dickinson has a singular determination to juggle her utter immersion in domestic life and her obsessive quest for literary immortality (Bennett 218). In the butterfly poems she begins her meditation over this existential problem. Her mixed feelings for the butterfly are first exemplified in the change of speech of person through the three poems. In the first poem, the poet speaks directly to the creature.


Your secret, perched in ecstasy

Defies imprisonment!



 Ў°It (The apostrophe) reflects the need of man to reach out and relate to creatures or to inanimate things of this world [Ў­]Ў± (Thompson 73). Here comes the question: does she just pity on the captured Ў°butterfly-to-beЎ± as a friend or is she in fact comparing herself to the creature? The question passed on to poem No. 173 which depicts a caterpillarЎЇs life from cocoon to butterfly. In this poem, the Ў°fuzzy fellowЎ± is introduced as a Ў°heЎ± to the reader. Then in the third poem, we finally see the butterfly appears in first person. The sympathy with the imprisoned creature, which underlies in previous two poems, is obviously stated now.


My Cocoon tightens -- Colors tease --

I'm feeling for the Air --

A dim capacity for Wings

Demeans the Dress I wear ЁC



As a prominent image of imprisonment, the cocoon appears repeatedly in the three poems. In poem No. 129, the word Ў°cocoonЎ± appears three times in the first two lines:


Cocoon above! Cocoon below!

Stealthy Cocoon, why hide you so


Then we find a rather beautiful prison:


He taketh Damask Residence --

And struts in sewing silk!



In poem No. 1099, as can be seen in previously quoted lines, the cocoon becomes even stifling that Ў°IЎ± have to reach for Ў°airЎ±. What the cocoon stands for to Dickinson? It is tempting to read through some DickinsonЎЇs biographies and tick out several events or issues that prevented her from doing this or that. Wendy Martin argued that DickinsonЎЇs poetry Ў°expresses her struggles with her faith, with her father, with mortality, and with the challenges of being a woman and a poetЎ± (Martin I). This statement is true to some extent. However, we will soon find out that Dickinson is indeed addressing her problems to human in general. Ў°In a letter to her Ў®preceptorЎЇ Thomas Wentworth Higginson she explains, Ў®When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse, it does not meanЈ­meЈ­but a supposed personЎЇ and in the same letter she proclaims, Ў®My Business is CircumferenceЎЇЎ±(White 91). This evidence shows that DickinsonЎЇs meditation over the issue of identity and existence is no longer personal. There is a wider scope for her searching.

This searching and meditation get a further discussion over a phenomenon Dickinson takes much interest inЎЄthe transformation of an insect from a caterpillar to a cocoon and then to a butterfly. The key conceptions in the process of transformation in her descriptions are: imprisonment, emerging and ciphering. The three stages are a poetic reflection of Jacques LacanЎЇs looking glass phase theory, which explains how an individual finds its own identity. This state of captivity is hard to endure. The following lines show the impatience:


An hour, and gay on every tree


An hour in Chrysalis to pass



But this experience is a must for growth. As the transformation symbolizes the secrete of Nature, the getting-through of this state of existence indicates the insight in to the secrete of Life. In the earliest poem, the answer is rather confident:


A Butterfly to go!

A moment to interrogate,

Then wiser than a "Surrogate,"

The Universe to know!



In the next poem composed one year later, doubt and uncertainty grows:


By Men, yclept Caterpillar!

By me! But who am I,

To tell the pretty secret

Of the Butterfly!



Then the doubt becomes assuredness and holy bravery:


So I must baffle at the Hint

And cipher at the Sign

And make much blunder, if at least

I take the clue divine --



ThereЎЇs always something that muffles her like a cocoon. She tries to fight a way out. What follow the pain are gayness, grace, and majesty:


An hour in Chrysalis to pass,

Then gay above receding grass 



Then, finer than a Lady,

Emerges in the spring!

A Feather on each shoulder!

You'd scarce recognize him!



A power of Butterfly must be --

The Aptitude to fly

Meadows of Majesty implies

And easy Sweeps of Sky --



After a period of suffering and struggling in the cocoon, the plain or even ugly caterpillar could change into a beautiful and elegant butterfly that goes freely and proudly in the sky. This transformation seems to be a miracle and Dickinson is in a sense waiting for the realization of this miracle. Here the desire to be a butterfly is in essence the desire for acceptance and admiration. To Dickinson this means the recognition of her poetry and thoughts. By 1866, when the last butterfly poem of the three was written, she had seen at least ten, probably more, of her poems in print. Ў°According to her description of her own response to the printing, such editorial interference "defeated" her poetic objectives and dissuaded her from conventional publication via mechanical reproductionЎ± (Smith).  Therefore, a desire for freedom appears strongly in the form of the struggle in the cocoon and:


A dim capacity for Wings

Demeans the Dress I wear --



Ў°Politically speaking, Dickinson is no progressive in her verse. In her letters, she savagely mocks those women writers who are, scornfully referring to their efforts as attempts to Ў®extricat[e] humanity from some hopeless ditchЎЇЎ± (Bennett 218). After experiencing the phases of life of a butterfly, Dickinson becomes much more sober-minded in her meditation on poetic value and personal identity. This is not to conclude that she doesnЎЇt care for things like fame or public opinion. A family acquaintance, Mrs. Ford wrote in a letter to Mabel Todd, Ў°I think in spite of her seclusion, she was longing for poetic sympathy and renown, ungratified desire for distinction.Ў±(Reynolds 167).  Dickinson herself also expressed to Susan Dickinson, Ў°Could I make you and Austin ЁCproud ЁC sometime ЁC a great way off ЁCЎ®twould give me taller feetЈ­ЎЇЎ± (qtd. in Reynolds 167). The spider poems are a case in point for her frustrated desire for popularity and her calmness after struggle.

An abundance of visually amazing image in the spider poems contributes to build up an elegant atmosphere. There is more peace in the spider poems than the comparatively hysteric butterfly poems. Here the spider is personified as Ў°an ArtistЎ± and the Ў°Neglected Son of GeniusЎ±. Upon an Ў°Arc of WhiteЎ±, the little genius Ў°dancing softly to HimselfЎ± creates his Ў°rear supremeЎ± and Ў°Continents of LightЎ±. The color appeared is as simple as only white, but the scene is graceful and noble: Ў°a Silver BallЎ±, Ў°Yarn of PearlЎ±, Ў°Continents of LightЎ±, Ў°Arc of WhiteЎ±, Ў°ruff of DameЎ±, Ў°Shroud of GnomeЎ±. The scene is also dark and silent as the spider weaves secretly:


In unperceived HandsЎЄ

And dancing softly to Himself



A Spider sewed at Night

Without a Light



The Spider as an Artist

Has never been employedЎЄ


Neglected Son of Genius




He works diligently in isolation. However, isolation doesnЎЇt mean loneliness to him. Because he looks for immortality and:


Of immortality

His Strategy

Was Physiognomy.



 The word Ў°physiognomyЎ± gives the poem an oriental touch. The busy spider sews in isolation and void, his work is as mysterious as DickinsonЎЇs poetic practice in reclusion. The year the first spider poem, poem No. 605, was written is the same year Ў°Dickinson begins, by correspondence, her lifelong friendship with Higginson, her only literary relationshipЎ± (Rubinstein 58). In her latter letters, Ў°Dickinson thanked Hingginson in general terms for his criticism and advice, but she never mentions or adopts any of his specific suggestionsЎ± (Rubinstein 60). She believes in her own Ў°strategyЎ±. When she writes the latter two spider poems, Dickinson is getting into reclusion gradually. Conard Aiken commented that DickinsonЎЇs choice of reclusion is a wise decision of self-planning in shaking off the fetter for a Victorian woman poet (Li 38). Ў°Emerson admitted when speaking of Shakespeare, writers are not, in fact, isolates, nor like spiders, do they draw the material for their art solely from inside themselvesЎ± (Bennett 232). Though there is some truth in this statement, it is not applicable in DickinsonЎЇs case. Dickinson Ў°depicts herself in her poetry as alone, a spider spinning delicate webs out of a secret self, a self know, finally, only to GodЎ± (Bennett 219). Staying by her own, she feels self-contained as the spider thinks of his own work.


If Ruff it was of Dame

Or Shroud of Gnome

Himself himself inform.



The works of the spider are exquisite. When admiring the gifted spider Dickinson is actually analogizing to her poetic endeavor:


Supplants our Tapestries with His --

In half the period --



Though his surpassing Merit

Is freely certified



However superb the works of the spider is, it is an Ў°unsubstantial TradeЎ±. It is delicate and fragile:


An Hour to rear supreme

His Continents of Light ЁC

Then dangle from the Housewife's Broom --

His Boundaries -- forgot ЁC



Here we could feel DickinsonЎЇs worrying about the recognition of her work by the future generations and the anxiety for fame after death: would her poetry, however appealing, be easily excluded by earthy critics like the web of the spider be swept off by the housewife. Later in poem No.1138 and 1275, this attitude changed into a self-sufficient pursuit of immortality. She no longer sighs for the impermanency of the work of the spider but alliances with the genius:


Neglected Son of Genius

I take thee by the Hand --



An interesting fact worth mentioning in the butterfly and spider poems is that both of the creatures are referred to as male. There is a fellow Ў°finer than a LadyЎ±, an Ў°artistЎ± Ў°dancing to himselfЎ± and Ў°Son of GeniusЎ±. This kind of description is quite contradictory to the traditional image of the butterfly lady and the spider weaver. DickinsonЎЇs letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson makes clear that literary immortality, like personal immortality, obsessed her (Bennett 217). To this extent, her presentation of the butterfly and the spider as male is indeed her attempted searching for equal recognition. Through this imagery, Dickinson is aligning herself with the (largely, male) literary immortals.



Written within a time span of fourteen years, the six butterfly and spider poems provide us with a perspective to DickinsonЎЇs pilgrimage to an ideal self. Her definition of a proper identity is completed and confirmed in this continuous search. Through personification and vivid image, she takes the readers with her to another courageous exploration to so many serious and unfathomable questions she talked about in her short poems. Her problem and question provides much food for thought. In this sense, she writes not for her day but for all the time. People may find lines, which express with uncanny accuracy just what they feel but cannot say. These questions are perhaps more valuable than the answers. Ў°She formulated no philosophy and founded no school but for many her poetry provides, in Robert FrostЎЇs words, Ў®a stay against confusionЎЇЎ± (Rubinstein 66).































Works Cited

Martin, Wendy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2004.

Thompson, Ruth, and Marvin Thompson. The Total Experience of Poetry. New York: Random House, 1970.

Annette T. Rubinstein, American Literature Root and Flower . Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press,1988.

Reuben, Paul P. Ў°Chapter 4: Nineteenth Century to 1865: Emily Dickinson.Ў± PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A research and Reference Guide.

Martha Nell Smith, The Importance of a Hypermedia Archive of Dickinson's Creative Work, The Emily Dickinson Journal, 4.1 (1995) 15 Jan. 2005 <>.