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Poem of the week: Psyche by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Coleridge's meditation on the soul moves swiftly from the butterfly's exalted state to the mundane misery of the caterpillar

This week's poem, Psyche, is one of Coleridge's Visionary Fragments, brief but consciously crafted poems which, like sketches in a major artist's workbook, not only illuminate the larger-scale compositions but are complete and satisfying in themselves. One of the smaller Fragments, though not the shortest, Psyche was composed in 1808, first published in the Biographia Literaria (1817), and subsequently collected in Literary Remains (1836).

Some of these little pieces contain the germ, or vision, of a longer poem. This one is an "emblem", a self-contained meditation of the kind favoured by 17th century religious poets such as Francis Quarles and George Herbert, centring on a natural object. The seven-lined form suggests a miniature sonnet.

The commonly used Greek word for soul – psyche – also means butterfly, but Coleridge's meditation quickly shifts from "the soul's fair emblem" to the far less exalted condition of the caterpillar, bound to "the slavish trade/ Of mortal life". The soul merits association with the butterfly, the speaker insists, only when freed from the body.

Richard Holmes tells us in Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems, that Coleridge had made copious notes on the life-cycle of the caterpillar. The scientific textbook that was his source referred to "the great agony" of the physiological metamorphosis into "the winged state". However, the poem makes no reference to the transformation process. After the "turn" at the end of line 4, Coleridge's mind becomes firmly fixed on the misery of "the reptile's lot".

But the desolation of the thought is offset by the considerable energy and force of the writing. The alliterative pile-up of "Ms", beginning unobtrusively in line 4, has a strangely serpentine effect, twisting and turning, with consonantal slowness, across the line-break: "much toil, much blame/ Manifold motions making little speed … " There's even a visual effect in the letter "M", which suggests an angular but still reptilian, up-and-down movement.

Informal syntax gives the poem a conversational tone throughout, and contributes to a certain wry jokiness. Coleridge might be thinking of the serpent that brought catastrophe to the inhabitants of Eden. If so, there is a certain humour in the notion of his reduced state.

By repeating the long "a" vowel sound in his rhyme scheme, Coleridge ensures the clotted, halting sound effects dominate the poem and prevent it from spreading its butterfly wings. The reader is soon deflected from the musicality of the first two lines. In the last couplet, rhyming "speed" and "feed", there's a further echo of the "B" rhyme. The final alexandrine slows the pace still further and adds the last grim thrust. The caterpillar destroys the leaves it feeds on: humans do something similar. As Oscar Wilde later wrote in The Ballad of Reading Gaol: "Yet each man kills the thing he loves".


The butterfly the ancient Grecians made
The soul's fair emblem, and its only name –
But of the soul, escaped the slavish trade
Of mortal life! – For in this earthly frame
Ours is the reptile's lot, much toil, much blame,
Manifold motions making little speed,
And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed.

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