I believe it was my first year of college, when I took a Creative Writing
class where the first third was devoted to poetry. While I had been exposed
to poetry before (or so I thought), this time it inspired me. I loved it
(even though my grade for that class didn't show it), and it kept me
reading and writing poetry for the rest of my life.
One of my favorite poems that we studied was Moths, a song by Ian
Anderson (from Jethro Tull), and I became of a fan of the group after that
as well. While I can't remember anything the class said about this poem,
I've been wanting to re-read this poem to understand it better.
The first thing to strike you is the visual imagery painted with
watercolors in your mind… the old house with its heavy wooden windows and
a couple settling in for a romantic evening. They light a candle to enhance
the mood, but being an old house, they need to open a window to cool off
the room. This sets the stage for the supporting characters to enter… the
Moths and butterflies were not seen as distinct in many cultures and we're
viewed as symbols of rebirth (the caterpillar emerging from the cocoon),
and therefore as symbols of the soul. But a moth is a creature of the
night, and may not be the harbinger of rebirth to our poet and his upcoming
The poet's new relationship with this woman seems to be as green as the
buds in May, and he looks at the white shoulders of his love with sweet
tenderness. Many water lilies keep closed during the heat of the day, but
open up in the evening, and this image comes to his mind as the pastel
dresses float to the floor.
But the present ecstasy is interrupted with some foreboding from the
future. The poet gets wary and wonders whether their relationship will
last. While Spring is the time for new love, those loves often don't last
through the summer.
A "magic lantern slide" was a device that fit over the window of a lantern
projecting a design or picture on a wall. It often had a crank that would
alter the pattern, and was often used in nurseries. Perhaps the couple
found one of these antiques in this old house, and turned it on. But
instead of the colors, the man can only see its shadows. Even the term
"slide" seems to be a foreshadow of his feelings for the future.
But his attention returns to the moths that can't help but be as
distracting to their love as his thoughts-- indeed the moths are a symbol
of these distressing thoughts-- noisily fluttering and banging at the
ceiling and the table next to the candle.
But why are moths so attracted to the light? Why are we so attracted to
love? The candle, though desired, will kill the moth, and love so often
kills our heart. It seems that looking for the love that lasts is like the
adage of "looking for a needle in a haystack" and to him, this is akin to
The next image is of "treading water" during a tide that is dragging you
out to see. The ocean, along with being a symbol of the unconscious
mysteries, is also a motif for those mysterious emotions, and while the
shore can be seen and looks so bright and cheerful, we are really just
struggling against drowning in our sorrows.
While lemmings do not commit mass suicide, many people believe this
(probably based on Disney's quasi-documentary of Alaska), but it hardly
matters to our poet who feels irresistibly drawn to this woman and the risk
with drowning in the dark emotions that have accompanied such encounters in
For the two moths that were circling the light are now wed in death by
getting covered in the melted wax from the candle. Is this suffocation the
right image for our poet and his new love?
The poet now makes a refrain, and restates the images of the moths
re-entering the room, and asks the question, is love a form of worship? Is
the desire that seems so physical, a shadow of Plato's form of the divine?
To the moths, the brief life of the candle is longer than theirs, and
therefore eternal. But the capture of the present can also be eternal…
this moment, this ecstasy illustrated by two souls mirrored in the eyes of
Tell others about this article: