Robert Frost wrote a poem called Blue Butterfly Day. It’s a neat eight lines in two quatrains. (nice to get the jargon out of the way early, don’t you think?)

It’s one of those poems I cannot recall ever hearing mentioned, or seeing referred to in books on poetry, but out of the several hundred poems in his collected works, it’s probably among the top five on my list of favourites, and certainly in the top ten.

I’m not sure how popular Frost is these days, and frankly don’t much care. The half a dozen poems that I go back to again and again – not five then, or ten? – are sufficient to put him in my internal playlist of greats. Frost’s style of writing is perhaps not ‘in your face’ enough for the modern world. It’s vehemencies are not obvious enough, but I like to be offered the flower of the rose, with the thorn left for me to do my finding. Frost’s Blue Butterfly Day has all the flower I could ask for, and the thorn sticks deeper into your palm the more tightly you grip the poem – (might as well get the poetics out of the way too).

The simplicity of the description disguises the bleak subtlety of the meaning.

 

‘It is blue-butterfly day here in spring.’ What could be simpler than that? But a distinction has already been drawn between the butterfly day of the title and the one of the first line, for that title has carried an implication that Blue-Butterfly Day might be a capitalised ‘Day’ of something – of Blue-Butterflies, say! Is it a celebration of them? Is it some local feast or festival? Does it have some sort of signifigance? Have we heard of it? Do we have the T shirt – well yes, we probably do, but not the one we might expect at the title. And by the first line it has lost that significance: blue-butterfly day, without capitals is just a description. And then, though this opening foursome is a pair of ABAB rhyming couplets, we get a BAB rhyming trio, separated out by that first comma, echoing ‘flurry’ and ‘wing.’ These three lines paint a colourful picture as the butterflies become ‘sky flakes’ that will outshow the flowers.

Short poems have to show their colours quickly: rhyme, rhythm and repetition, all used here, do just that, to bring us to Frost’s second verse. The first line here, following the pattern of the first verse, is separated from the rest, but this time by a colon. It is joined to the sentiment of the first verse, by appearing to continue it, talking of ‘flowers that fly’ and of song. But that colon points us directly at the contrasting theme of the last three lines, where some unexpected imagery awaits us – the thorn of my rosy metaphor.

‘desire’ is the first shock, made more shocking by the graphic ‘ridden out desire,’ which is, I suspect, something that we are not expecting of our colourful butterflies. And having ridden, they now must ‘cling’ and no longer in the sky, but ‘Where wheels freshly slice’ and in the mud.

Frost’s abrupt switch from air and light and colour, and a senseless show, to ‘mire’ and clinging, and slicing wheels, and that oh so human riding is the power and purpose of this poem, and the sharpest of thorns. The butterflies’ lives have run their entire course within this single day, and our lives too, he implies, will be no more than that.

Reading it again today- faced with that white page of my title, and my self-appointed blog schedule only hours away, it popped into my head!- I’m suddenly struck with the fact that this poem might be where I took, unconsciously, the model for the poems of An Early Frost where a similar, but clumsier juxtaposition might be detected.

I found Blue-Butterfly Day in The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Latham and published by Vintage, in 2001.

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