Nomination: Butterflies [Winter? 1938–9. From Philip Larkin Early Poems & Juvenilia]
The first time I read this poem I felt excited and baffled at the same time: excited because I am obsessed with butterflies as a symbol; baffled because I could not really grasp its meaning.
Years later, when I was not only reading Larkin’s poetry but also (alas!) studying it in order to write a thesis, I returned to ‘Butterflies’ and realized that my analysis of Larkin’s creative process should start from it. For several reasons, I was led to read the poem as a reply to one of Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne and, by doing so, I finally had an epiphany concerning its meaning.
Thematically, ‘Butterflies’ can be divided into two stanzas. In the first one, young Larkin gives shape to the butterflies as a possible object of desire, and he does so in an impersonal way (the lyric “I” is absent), as if recreating the verse of a chameleon-poet, who is able to elide his own self in order to be penetrated by the other. Like Keats, though, Larkin seems aware that a full relationship with the other is impossible. Accordingly, writing can hold, or rather ‘catch’ the butterflies only precariously: with a present participle, which both mirrors and is a temporary suspension of their evanescent transience.
In this view, the “I” that starts speaking with the apostrophe “Darling”, at the beginning of the second stanza, is clearly a desiring subject (wish) in relation to the preceding lines and their chameleon poetry. As in Keats, this “I” is doomed by a limit: no full identification with the other can be achieved, nor can solitude (alone) be transcended, as if the poet could do nothing but fail. Nevertheless, whereas in Keats there is always a tension towards desire, even if crossed by an awareness of the impossibility of its completion, here desire seems wilfully kept off: “I could wish [but I don’t]”.
The difference may help us perceive how Larkin’s lyric “I” has been defining itself so far. In his poetic utterance, we (communion with the other) and they (both the butterflies and chameleon poetry) are the objects of a resistance. Although acknowledged as a goal to aspire to they must be kept at distance. We are clearly a step beyond questioning the possibilities of recovering the fullness of poetic Vision. In Keats’s Sleep and Poetry the dream runs the risk of being forgotten (Could all this be forgotten?), while in young Larkin it has already been forgotten, or at least it must be forgotten (“like a forgotten dream”). For Larkin, loss is such an inevitable, matter-of-fact reality that even the faintest hope of transcending it must be resisted, in so far as ultimately illusory.