Friday, February 22, 2008


Who Would You Be?

Robert Frost's poem To a Moth Seen in Winter opens thus:
Here's first a gloveless hand warm from my pocket,
A perch and resting place 'twixt wood and wood,
Bright-black-eyed silvery creature, brushed with brown,
The wings not folded in repose, but spread.
(Who would you be, I wonder, by those marks
If I had moths to friend as I have flowers?)
And now pray tell what lured you with false hope
To make the venture of eternity
And seek the love of kind in wintertime?
No one could answer Frost's second question, but I wonder if it is possible to answer his first question. From the description given, is it possible to identify the species of moth?

There is a species familiarly named winter moth, scientifically named Operophtera brumata. It's hard to see bright black eyes in this photograph of the moth, although by wishful thinking one could perhaps call it a "silvery creature, brushed with brown."

Operophtera brumata (©Entomart)

However Operophtera brumata is a comparatively new arrival in North America, first appearing in the 1940's or thereabouts. Frost's poem was first published in 1942, but a note attached to its publication says "Circa 1900." So either the composition of the poem or the event that gave rise to it antedates the appearance of the winter moth in North America. It occurred to me that Frost may have seen the moth when he lived in England, but he lived there too late also, from 1912 to 1915.

I don't know if an entomologist could identify the moth in Frost's poem from the description, but I'm fairly confident that it isn't Operophtera brumata.

Frost was interested in such matters. He was friendly enough with flowers, at least, to know their names. In my collection of Frost's poems, immediately preceding To a Moth Seen in Winter, is a poem entitled Time Out, in which the poet mentions the scientific plant name Maianthemum (May lily).

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