I hardly know what to say about "King of the Butterflies," except that until recently I would have called it uncharacteristic of my work. That is, I've always distrusted narrative as permitting a little too much verbal sloth. Nevertheless, I find myself involved in the writing of a number of these extended quasi-historical speculations. Who knows why? You write what you are given to write, follow your inclinations, even when they seem odd, maybe especially when they seem odd.
So, I came across this fact: the King of Poland abdicated the throne on June 1, 1668. My mild surprise at learning that Poland had a king at that time aside, why, I wondered, would he have abdicated? The poem grew from that question. I knew I could research the matter and arrive at a conventionally historicized answer. But that didn't, and in general doesn't, interest me. I wanted the answer no one could possibly guess ahead of time, the one that would affirm the greatest range of possibility.
Audiences at readings respond powerfully to the poem (as did, apparently, thanks be, the NEA Literature Panel), but not everyone likes it, some people have written me (no doubt scholars of Polish history) that it plays too loosely against the facts, whatever they are. Others have been moved to inform me that it too closely resembles fiction. I continue to feel warmly toward the poem: it took me someplace new, and I think it offers the same experience to others.
King of the Butterflies
In the last days of the reign of John II Casimer,
King of Poland, it was decreed that two million
butterflies, 100,000 for each of his years
upon the throne, should be captured and sent up
to God, an offering of Earth's bounty in praise
of his role in the establishment of true regality.
Thousands of peasants were set to the construction
of nets and the most delicate snares so that each
lovely animal could be brought perfect and alive
to the grace of sacrifice. Blackguards and blasphemers
were released from gaol, promised royal pardons
and gold should each deliver within seven days 1,000
of the brilliant fliers to Korbecki, Chancellor
of the Realm, Keeper of Keys and Lists.
Those who brought moths by mistake were impaled
and left to die screaming outside the Palace of Justice.
Those who brought dead or damaged goods were forced
to eat them, then to wrestle with the King's bull, Njok,
whose hooves were razors and who had never been bested.
Frequently, the butterflies were brought in little cages
such as one might build to house a cricket or a god
of those slim shadows wavering in out-of-the-way elbows
of a pond-side path. An entire corner of the King's
garden, jammed with nectar-bearing blossom, was netted
to contain the fluttering magnificence which, as the insects
grew in number, came more and more to resemble
a single dazzling experience, moving in undulant, serpentine
iridescence below the terrace where the King would
sometimes stand rubbing his hands as he watched.
On the seventh day the counters declared their collection
still 176,314 butterflies shy of numerical fulfillment,
which fact the Chancellor tremblingly reported to His
Majesty, who forgave him this failure and awarded him
three hours to make up the short fall
or else. Korbecki ran from the presence and pressed
virtually everyone he met into his personal service,
sending flocks of searchers into the meads
laden with cages and nets and nectarly enticements. The last
pennies of his fortune he spent bribing the counters (a small
army of dwarves in lace gloves) to announce that a sufficiency
of butterflies had at last been obtained. They took his money
but declined. Peasant after peasant returned with single
white admirals, or with woodland graylings almost
too small to be counted.
"What is happened, dear God?" Korbecki pleaded aloud,
at which words an old chandler approaching with a large
spotted fritillary in a reed cage said, "Excellency,
you have already nearly all the butterflies in Poland.
Would you have us bring Russian butterflies? Lithuanian
butterflies? Butterflies who do not even know our language?
Of course you would not! But happily, Sire," he said,
smiling, "I have captured the King of all Polish butterflies!"
Korbecki briefly considered having the man dismembered
and fed to the royal goldfish, but instead, taking a wild chance,
bent to the little cage and spoke to the fritillary, "Oh
small but mighty one, how may I find, within the little
meadow of an hour, 170,000 of your most beautiful brethren?"
and in a melodious voice the King of Polish butterflies
replied, "I have heard of this foolishness and, as you see,
have myself been caught in it. If you release me, I will send
what you desire, but this sacrifice," he said with the shadow
of a laugh, "will be quite impossible and will cost you
"If you do not send them," said the suddenly weary
and no longer astonished by anything Korbecki, "my life is forfeit,
in any case." And he opened the cage, saying, "Gather them, then."
And the bright creature flew off toward the forests.
Twenty minutes later a blizzard of color blew out of a cloud
and descended on the gatherers who plucked them, tenderly, every
one. And when the last painted lady was tipped into the enclosure,
huge crowds assembled to watch the sacrifice proceed
and were stunned into silence by the beauty of the swarm,
by the fragrance of the wind which two million sets of wings
brought to them. And when the King of Poland ordered Korbecki
to torch the enclosure, to send up to God the splendor of his
Kingdom's butterflies in the form of smoke, Korbecki
wept and could not be brought to do it and the King had him torn
and eaten by wild pigs. And when the next chancellor also refused,
the King had molten lead poured into his ears and anus. And when
the third still refused, the King raged and took up the torch
himself and marched to the immense cauldron of wheeling color,
and, finding even himself unable to take so much beauty
from the world, he cut the netting and the butterflies surged up
like an explosion of confetti, like all of the world's flowers
flung into the arms of God. And the King perceived
that this tribute was acceptable and complete.
It was June 1, in the year 1668. The next day John II Casimir
abdicated the throne and was carried off weeping and broken
in a cage of silver roses.
Christopher Howell was born in Portland, Oregon, and attended Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. He was a Navy Journalist during the Viet Nam War and afterward earned graduate degrees from Portland State University and the University of Massachusetts. He is author of six full-length books of poems, including Memory and Heaven (1997). His collection Sea Change won the Washington State Governor's Award in 1986, and he has been recipient of the Helen Bullis Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Vachel Lindsay prize, the Vi Gale Award, fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission and the Massachusetts Council for the Arts, and the Adrienne Lee Award. His work has twice been included in the Pushcart Prize anthology, most recently in 1999. Since 1975 he had been director and principal editor for Lynx House Press, and he is now editor of the bi-annual Willow Springs and director of the university press at Eastern Washington University where he is on the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing faculty. He lives in Spokane with his wife Barbara, his small son Evan, and sometimes his college-student daughter Emma.