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Emily Dickinson's "Two Butterflies went out at Noon"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

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

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

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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.

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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