There is poetry everywhere in the natural world, but for me nowhere more so than in butterflies. What is poetic about butterflies? Poetry is a heightened form of writing that plays on our emotions and imagination. Poems use imagery, beautiful or expressive words, rhythms, rhymes and sounds that encourage us to see the world a little differently, as if through a lens. At their best, poems inspire an intensity of perception that changes the way we think and feel.
Butterflies can have similar effects on people, and have done so for thousands of years. In the foreword to my new book Papiliones, published on 2nd December 2017 by Choir Press, the author and naturalist Matthew Oates writes about this:
“Butterflies have long been in the poet’s eye. This fascination flows back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that the human soul departs from the body on the wings of a butterfly.They created Psyche, the goddess of the soul, from their word for a butterfly – psyche. There is also the symbolism of metamorphosis, which from a poetic angle is deeply profound, offering myriad possibilities and analogies with the human condition.”
He goes on to remind us that the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote about butterflies and that a few years ago some modern poets published a collection entitled Shropshire Butterflies: A Poetic & Artistic Guide to the Butterflies of Shropshire, published by Fair Acre Press in 2011. T.S.Eliot, Edward Thomas the war poet, Vladimir Nabokov and many other poets and novelists have written about butterflies and their symbolism.
In my own case, I was originally drawn to butterflies by my children when they were young. On our country walks together I found that trying to stalk and spot birds with noisy toddlers was very frustrating because the birds would just fly away, and butterflies were less scared of us. Besides, they did not fly as fast. So we searched for them instead. They are so colourful, and occur in such beautiful places, that we were all captivated. My daughter and son now have children of their own and I am sure they will enjoy butterflies just as much.
Butterflies soon became a passion; then I realised that without friendly habitats they could not flourish, and that they represent a highly sensitive barometer of the natural world. Pollution, pesticides, reckless building development, loss of green spaces, and reduction of plant diversity, all result in the death or even extinction of butterflies.
Since the age of about fourteen I had always also loved poetry, and had written some of my own from time to time. My two passions for butterflies and poetry started to converge and the idea formed in my mind of writing a poem about every one of the sixty or so butterflies regularly seen in this country. As far as I could tell from my researches no-one had, or for that matter has now, ever done such a thing. When I had finished thirty-three of the poems I decided to publish those, with the intention of writing the rest in due course. I am trying to live a healthy life so that I have a chance of living long enough to finish the task!
My book Papiliones contains my thirty-three poems and one written by a poet friend, Mick Escott. Each of the butterflies featured in the book has a passage telling the story of its names in English and Latin. Some of these are poetic in themselves. The Small Blue butterfly for instance, which is scarcely bigger than a thumbnail bears the scientific Latin name “Cupido Minimus”, which roughly translates as “Tiny Cupid”. There is also a photograph of each butterfly in a natural setting. Here is the Small Blue story, quoted from my book:
“Known as Eros by the ancient Greeks, Cupido carried off the beautiful maiden Psyche, who then became his wife and a goddess. Psyche is also the Greek word for soul and, by happy coincidence, for butterfly. Cupido is traditionally depicted in art as a winged cherub carrying a bow and arrow to fire love-darts. In this case he is minimus because the Small Blue butterfly is tiny…”
My poem imagines a Small Blue butterfly needing only a tiny meal – a drop of nectar – to satisfy its “cupidity”, that is desire, appetite or even lust, and refers to the ancient concept of angels dancing on pinheads. Here is the poem, with a picture:
Cupido minimus in the book
is small enough to overlook
and in the field
is well concealed
it’s a shy
a dullish hue
of muddy blue
a twinkle in its eye
and winking antennae
it indulges in
a monstrous meal –
a tiny nectar drop
would perch atop
for minute angels
to light on
take flight from
like a new Small Blue.
In some ways butterflies lead ambivalent lives. On the one hand, they suffer the melancholy fate of decline or even extinction because of an implicit trust in human beings, who should be their guardians but have betrayed them. On the other hand they have a way of fighting back and surviving against the odds: they colonise railway embankments and vegetable gardens.
I feel that butterflies are part of the poetry of nature, and a world without butterflies would, in the end, be a world without people. The poems are about butterflies and about people; we depend on each other. Though they may not be aware of it, butterflies give us enormous pleasure, and in my case the inspiration to write about them. I very much hope that my book will help readers to enjoy the beauty and poetry of butterflies.
Jonathan Bradley, December 2017