By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Insects – flies, beetles, fleas, and the like – may not seem like an obvious subject for poetry, but in fact they’re flying and crawling everywhere in English verse, as this selection of ten of the greatest insect poems attests. If you have your fly-swatter at the ready, dive in among the insects and enjoy these ten classic entomologically inclined poems.
John Donne, ‘The Flea’.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do …
Like many great metaphysical poems, ‘The Flea’ uses an interesting and unusual conceit to make an argument – in this case, about the nature of physical love. Like Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (Marvell is another great Metaphysical poet), ‘The Flea’ is essentially a seduction lyric.
Since this flea has sucked blood from both me and you, the poet says to his would-be mistress, our blood has already been mingled in the flea’s body; so why shouldn’t we mingle our bodies (and their fluids) in sexual intercourse? Of course, this rather crude paraphrase is a world away from the elegance and metaphorical originality of Donne’s poem…
Andrew Marvell, ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’.
Ye Glo-worms, whose officious Flame
To wandring Mowers shows the way,
That in the Night have lost their aim,
And after foolish Fires do stray …
As the title of the poem suggests, ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’ is spoken by a ‘mower’ (traditionally, one who cuts the grass with a scythe), who addresses the glow-worms lighting the mower’s way through the field. This was one of a series of ‘mower’ poems Marvell wrote.
The mower praises the glow-worms (a species of beetle) for providing light, but laments the fact that their light is wasted because the speaker’s mind is not on the task of mowing the grass – his mind is distracted or ‘displac’d’ by thoughts of Juliana, the woman he loves.
Edward Taylor, ‘Upon a Wasp Chill’d with Cold’.
Lord, clear my misted sight that I
May hence view Thy divinity,
Some sparks whereof thou up dost hasp
Within this little downy wasp
In whose small corporation we
A school and a schoolmaster see,
Where we may learn, and easily find
A nimble spirit bravely mind
Her work in every limb …
Flies and beetles and bees may be fair enough, but surely wasps aren’t a fit subject for poetry? Well, Alexander Pope was nicknamed ‘The Wasp of Twickenham’, and the wasp-poetry connections don’t end there, as this classic poem attests. Taylor (c. 1642-1729) was English in origin but emigrated to America, where he wrote this poem.
The wasp offers an opportunity for the poet to observe God’s divinity – using the striped pattern of the insect as a way of suggesting the ladder of the Godhead is a nice Metaphysical touch.
William Oldys, ‘The Fly’.
Busy, curious, thirsty fly!
Drink with me and drink as I:
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short and wears away …
Modelled on an ancient Greek poem by Anacreon, this little-known classic by Oldys (1696-1761), an antiquarian and bibliographer who edited the Biographia Britannica, sees the poet inviting the ‘busy, curious, thirsty fly’ to drink from his cup – which is a nice sentiment so far as human-insect solidarity is concerned, but probably not advisable for hygiene reasons.
But then, as the poet says, a man’s lifespan – though considerably longer than the fly’s – is very short in the grand scheme of things, so perhaps it doesn’t matter who you share your cups with.
William Roscoe, ‘The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast’.
Come take up your Hats, and away let us haste
To the Butterfly’s Ball, and the Grasshopper’s Feast.
The Trumpeter, Gad-fly, has summon’d the Crew,
And the Revels are now only waiting for you …
We get two insects for the price of one in this poem. Roscoe (1753-1831) was an English historian, politician, and abolitionist, who also penned this wonderful children’s poem in 1802.
As the poem’s title suggests, a group of insects have a party, complete with a gadfly playing the trumpet and a bee providing some honey to eat (as is only proper). No list of the best insect poems should be without this charming poem – though we’re aware that there probably isn’t a great demand for ‘best insect poems’ in the wider world.
William Blake, ‘A Dream’.
Once a dream did weave a shade
O’er my angel-guarded bed,
That an emmet lost its way
Where on grass methought I lay …
In this poem we get not one but three insects: an ant (‘emmet’), a beetle, and a glow-worm, which is in fact a kind of beetle. Not only that, but these are talking insects: the emmet confides that she has lost her children, and the bright glow-worm offers to light the way for her through the night, so she can recover them.
John Keats, ‘On the Grasshopper and the Cricket’.
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed …
This poem is famous for supposedly having been written very quickly as part of a competition between Keats and his friend Leigh Hunt. Despite the haste with which it was written, it’s a perfectly good poem – even if it’s not up there with Keats’s very best work.
Emily Dickinson, ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’.
One of Dickinson’s best-known poems, this is one of several poems on this list which takes death as its theme. Death never seems to have been far from Emily Dickinson’s mind, and this poem, which muses upon the moment of death with everyone gathered around the speaker’s deathbed, also features a Dickinsonian favourite: the mysterious fly.
W. B. Yeats, ‘Long Legged Fly’.
This classic Yeats poem is one of the great poems about silence. Silence is found elsewhere in Yeats’s work – in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, for instance, he longs to escape to the tranquillity of the isle mentioned in that poem’s title – but ‘Long-Legged Fly’ is about, in Yeats’s own words, how the mind moves upon silence.
The poem takes in Julius Caesar, Helen of Troy, and Michelangelo, but throughout we find the refrain: ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream’.
William Empson, ‘The Ants’.
Empson (1906-84) is often grouped with the ‘Thirties Poets’ such as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice; he also has some affiliations with the modernists (like T. S. Eliot, he took his cue from the intellectual conceits of Metaphysical Poetry).
Empson himself characterised much of his poetry as being about ‘boy afraid of girl’. ‘The Ants’ is a difficult but powerful poem where the images of the ants, the garden, and the tube work together to suggest, among other things, the Garden of Eden, a woman’s womb, and workers in the Tube.
If you enjoyed these classic insect poems, check out our pick of the greatest bird poems and this fine posy of poems about flowers. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.