Emily Dickinson's "Two Butterflies went out at Noon" - Owlcation - Education
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Emily Dickinson's "Two Butterflies went out at Noon"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson

Introduction and Text of "Two Butterflies went out at Noon"

In Emily Dickinson’s "Two Butterflies went out at Noon" (#533 in Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson), the speaker dramatizes an imaginary flight of two butterflies that ease out on an amazing journey.

Emily Dickinson's mystical vision is revealed in many of her poems, and this one serves as one of the finest examples of that vision. Her gift of mystical sight accompanies her gift for creating little dramas that feature snippets of that sight in poetic form.

Two Butterflies went out at Noon

Two Butterflies went out at Noon –
And waltzed above a Farm –
Then stepped straight through the Firmament
And rested on a Beam –

And then – together bore away
Upon a shining Sea –
Though never yet, in any Port –
Their coming mentioned – be –

If spoken by the distant Bird –
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman –
No notice – was – to me –

Dickinson's lyric rendered in song

Commentary

Emily Dickinson possessed the gift of mystic vision, and that vision is displayed brilliantly in this fantabulous little poem that offers a little drama of two butterflies on a mystical flight.

First Stanza: Suddenly at Noon

Two Butterflies went out at Noon –
And waltzed above a Farm –
Then stepped straight through the Firmament
And rested on a Beam –

The speaker reports, "Two Butterflies went out at Noon," and they "waltzed above a Farm." At this point, the speaker can observe the creatures, but from where they came is a mystery; they just suddenly appear at "Noon." They did not go out of any location; the only way the reader can locate the butterflies is by time, not place.

The mysterious report does not even locate the observer: was she outside when she perceived these butterflies? But if she had actually seen them, why does she not reveal where they "went out" from? The speaker/observer then claims that these butterflies, after completing their waltz above the farm, "stepped straight through the Firmament," where they "rested on a Beam." Just as the butterflies suddenly appear out of nowhere, they vanish into the sky.

The speaker can no longer see them with her physical eyes, but nevertheless, she reports that they "rested on a Beam." The speaker’s cosmic or mystic eye can see them as they recline on a ray of sunshine. The reader then understands that the speaker is not merely reporting about physical butterflies she has actually seen with her physical eyes; she is making a metaphorical comparison of the nature of thoughts, for it is only thoughts that have the power to appear out of nowhere and vanish beyond the sky with such felicity and velocity.

Second Stanza: Steal Away and Glide

And then – together bore away
Upon a shining Sea –
Though never yet, in any Port –
Their coming mentioned – be –

From their position beyond the vault of the sky, the butterfly-thoughts "bore away / Upon a shining Sea." As swiftly and seamlessly as they "stepped straight through the Firmament," they steal away and glide without a water vessel over the ocean.

The speaker remarks that although these amazing butterfly-thoughts took to the sea, they never stopped to visit "any Port." She is sure that if their presence had been detected, "their coming" would have been "mentioned," yet it never was. At this point, the little drama mounts, leaving the reader wondering where those itinerant butterflies will go next.

Third Stanza: They Are Ethereal

If spoken by the distant Bird –
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman –
No notice – was – to me –

But the speaker shrewdly evades the ultimate question of where the butterflies finally settle, proclaiming that if someone has ever seen them since, no one has ever reported their whereabouts. But the information revealed in her report of no information fills out the drama.

Who might have spoken of the whereabouts of these roaming butterflies? They might have been spotted by some "distant Bird"; surely that bird would have spoken up and reported on their whereabouts. Or if folks in a ship or even a "merchantman" might have seen them, they surely would have reported.

But the unlikely prospect of meeting these creatures is, of course, that they are ethereal; they are invisible, and go unseen through the air, sky, and sea. They go swiftly, quietly and even the one doing the thinking, the one entertaining those butterfly-thoughts will have to admit that she might take no notice of them—unless, of course, she fashions a poetic drama to display them.

Emily Dickinson

The retouched version of the famous daguerrotype of Dickinson at about age 17

The retouched version of the famous daguerrotype of Dickinson at about age 17

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I'm going, all along.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publications of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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