Sunday, 28 February 2010


The last day of a dismal February and, true to the spirit of the month, it's raining relentlessly, on already sodden ground. I don't remember ever feeling such a powerful longing for spring and sunshine - and the butterfly season - as I have felt these past few weeks... This morning I was leafing through Emily Dickinson - who seems greater, and stranger, every time I look at her - and came upon her butterfly poem -

THE BUTTERFLY’S assumption-gown,
In chrysoprase apartments hung,
This afternoon put on.

How condescending to descend,
And be of buttercups the friend
In a New England town!

Chrysoprase? This was a new one on me (though I remember Othello's 'one entire and perfect Chrysolite'). Apparently it's a green version of chalcedony - 'apple green' according to the OED - with (hem hem) remarkable properties, if you believe in that kind of thing. But what could Dickinson's butterfly be, with its 'chrysoprase apartments'? Greens are unusual in butterflies - certainly among British species, though we have this beauty. 'Apartments' suggests something like the beautiful hindwing of the Queen of Spain - but in green. I wonder if any of my American readers might have an idea what butterfly it was that Dickinson saw that afternoon, feeding on buttercups?


  1. I read is that the 'chrysoprase apartments' are the place where these butterflies are living, not that the butterflies are themselves green. Not sure what an 'assumption-gown' is, though...

  2. Then there's cryolite, a mineral found in Greenland's icy mountains.

  3. Hauntingly beautiful - and ‘chrysoprase’ is an absolutely magical word. I get the impression this poem is multi-layered, rather like the structural colour of a butterfly’s wings. But might these words describe the arrogance of mankind, the hypocrisy of societal convention versus the simple beauty of nature? The ‘apple’ green of chrysoprase seems curiously appropriate in many ways.

  4. I read as meaning the butterfly just metamorphised: 'chysoprase apartments' refering to the chrysalis and the 'assumption-gown' the imago's newly revealed wings, which had been 'hung' in the the chysalis.

  5. Nige - considering that Dickinson lived on the east coast, I would hazard a guess at the Spicebush Swallowtail - not only is it found exclusively on the eastern seaboard, it is suitably beautiful enough to look like it wouldn't condescend to descend, and the male of the species also has a chrysoprase colouring on its hind wing.

    photo here:

  6. nb. just found out the Spicebush Swallowtail is also known as the 'Green Clouded Swallowtail'

  7. Is there a language of butterflies in the same way there is a language of flowers? I was in a room in the local museum recently where there are around 100 paintings using the language of flowers, mostly from the Low Countries and dating from about 1590 to 1660. I noticed that quite a number of the paintings included a butterfly in their message, usually the same species - a red admiral, I think.

    A search on Google shows the spicebush swallowtail as having (spectacular) green caterpillars and a green or brown chrysalis.

  8. I read is that the 'chrysoprase lofts' are the spot where these butterflies are living, not that the butterflies are themselves green.
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