On November 8, 1894, a poem by Robert Lee Frost, then a 20-year-old grammar school teacher in Salem, New Hampshire, appeared on the front page of the New York newspaper The Independent. The poem, titled “My Butterfly: An Elegy,” was the first poem Frost ever sold, and his first professionally published poem.
Readers of Frost’s better-known poetry will find “My Butterfly”—laden with traditional poetic elements and archaisms such as thine, thee, and ’twas—uncharacteristic of the poetry Frost would eventually come to write. Frost, though, had only recently been introduced to the world of poetry, and was still in the process of finding his voice. In a November 7, 1917, letter to Louis Untermeyer, Frost recalled that “I read my first poem at 15, wrote my first poem at 16, wrote My Butterfly at eighteen. That was my first poem published” (The Letters of Robert Frost, v. 1, p. 586).
During a May 19, 1959, interview with poet Randall Jarrell that took place in the Library of Congress’s Recording Laboratory during Frost’s final week as Consultant in Poetry, Frost discussed “My Butterfly” in relation to some of the other poems that appear in his first major book, A Boy’s Will (1913). The recording, part of the Library’s online Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, is embedded below.
It’s queer reading A Boy’s Will to find so many things quite like you, but then to find all the regular poetic inversions, and poetic license, and ’tis and o’er and the list and so on.
Frost acknowledges these “poeticisms,” indicting “My Butterfly” as the worst offender, though he also clearly feels the poem offers a glimpse of the poet he eventually became:
Yeah, Yeah. See they gradually eliminated themselves. I never did it on purpose. I just got a little shy about using poeticisms. Ashamed of them a little. Felt a false feeling about them. And the first one that’s kept in here, the butterfly, is the worst, you see, in that respect. The butterfly one I only kept it for one passage in it…. You see the passage that I liked was just—this was very young, I was 17 see when I wrote this.
Frost then begins reading the second stanza of the poem:
The gray grass is scarce dappled with the snow;
Its two banks have not shut upon the river;
But it is long ago—
It seems forever—
Since first I saw thee glance,
Frost here interrupts his reading to note of the above line: “You see, that there, I wouldn’t [do] that now.” He then continues reading:
With all the dazzling other ones,
In airy dalliance,
Precipitate in love,
Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above,
Like a limp rose-wreath in a fairy dance.
Frost concludes by praising this stanza, which he believes justified the poem’s inclusion in A Boy’s Will:
That’s good. You know, the rest of it isn’t so good, but I kept it for that, and I kept it because it was the first poem I ever sold.
Interestingly, The Independent wasn’t the first publication to print “My Butterfly.” The poem also appeared in a small collection of five poems Frost self-published through a printer in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Only two copies of the collection, titled Twilight—technically, Frost’s first published book—were printed: one for him and one for his future wife, Elinor. At the time, Frost was uncertain about Elinor’s feelings toward him, and he made a surprise trip to St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where she attended school, to gift her with a copy of Twilight. As recounted by Jon Stott in An Outline of the Poetry of Robert Frost:
[Frost] took one copy [of Twilight] to Elinor at school in an attempt to impress her and win her forever. Elinor accepted his gift but refused to break the rules of the house in which she was living and let him out at an early hour. Frost interpreted this as the final proof of her rejection. On his way back to Lawrence he destroyed the only remaining copy of Twilight. They were reconciled, though, by the time Elinor graduated in 1895. (p. 5)
The sole surviving copy of Twilight—the copy Frost had given to Elinor—today is held by the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library (University of Virginia), where it forms part of the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.
As I noted, “My Butterfly” was Frost’s first professionally published poem, for which he was paid $15. While a student, however, he published several poems in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, High School Bulletin. The first of these, appearing in the April, 1980, issue, was “Lo Noche Triste.”
The young Robert Frost had visions of poetic greatness, and even when he recognized the limitations of the poetry he had thus far written, fully expected his work to reach much greater heights. In an April 22, 1894, letter to Susan Hayes Ward, the poetry editor of The Independent (where “My Butterfly” had been recently accepted for publication), he wrote of the newly enclosed poems he was sending along for her review:
You must spare my feelings when you come to read these others, for I haven’t the courage to be a disappointment to anyone. Do not think this artifice of excess of modesty, though, for, to betray myself utterly, such an one am I that even in my failures I find all the promise I require to justify the astonishing magnitude of my ambition. (Letters, p. 28)
And on January 30, 1895, he wrote again to Ward, this time concerning “My Butterfly”:
If it is seriously I must speak, I undertake a future. I cannot believe that poem was merely a chance. I will surpass it. (Letters, p. 37)
As, indeed, he would.