JULY
1994

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

7-28-94

'Flies Of Fire' Illuminate Poetry

Some call them fireflies. Others refer to them as lightning bugs. Technically these insects are neither flies nor bugs. They are beetles; beetles that through one of the miracles of nature are able to produce light. These light-producing insects are common in most parts of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. Fireflies can be seen decorating the nighttime skies from June through August.

Humans have always been fascinated by fireflies. Many of us have chased them as children. Kids sometimes catch and carry fireflies home in a jar to place on the windowsill overnight.

Many are the poets who have waxed eloquently in verse about these entomological light generators. C.V. Riley, one of the pioneer entomologists of North America took pen in hand and wrote about the firefly:

And lavishly to left and right,
The fireflies, like golden seeds,
Are sown upon the night.

Paul Fleischman, in his book “Joyful Noise,” includes a poem titled “Fireflies” and describes the insects in terms of writing and artistry. According to Fleischman, light is the ink they use, and night is their parchment. The insects are “six-legged scribblers of vanishing messages” that sign “the June nights as if they were paintings.”

Robert Frost saw a starlike quality in the twinkling of fireflies that he recorded in his poem “Fireflies in the Garden:”

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.

The cockroach “archie,” created by Don Marquis, once wrote in his free-verse style about fireflies. In his poem “the flattered lightning bug,” archie encountered a lightning bug that was a bit uppity about his ability to produce light — at least that's the way it appeared to a lowly cockroach. Ol' archie couldn't let the firefly get away with his conceit and had to take him down a peg or so and finally said:

“you've made lightning for two hours
little bug I told him
but I don t hear
any claps of thunder”

Jack Prelutsky wrote a poem on fireflies, which goes:

The firefly is a funny bug,
He hasn't any mind.
He blunders all the way through life
With his headlight on behind.

Even the romantic and harmless fireflies have to put up with a bit of poetic abuse from time to time. But what else would you expect from a poet who writes under the pseudonym of A Nonny Mouse?

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann