Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







To Err is Poetic

Insects are everywhere—even in poetry!  It's probably not too surprising that animals as common as insects might have attracted the attention of a poet or two through the ages.

Poets use insects in a variety of ways. In a line from “Haunted House,” poet Thomas Hood created a sense of the supernatural:  “And on the wall, as chilly as a tomb, The death's-head moth was clinging.”

Frequently, insects are used to make philosophical comment or to teach a moral lesson. Such an approach was used by Solomon in his admonition:  “Go to the ant, though sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”  Shell, in “Adonais,” pens these worm-eaten verses:

“We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.”

But in spite of their assumed wisdom, poets frequently make mistakes about the insects that are the target of their valued pens. For instance, many poets ascribe the wrong sex to the insects in their writings. This is especially true of bees. Ingelow, in “Parnell,” refers to the industry of the honey bee:  “From sun to sun, from bank to bank he flies, With honey loads his bag, with wax his thighs.”  Of course we all recognize that it is the female honey bee that does that work!

Even the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, made an entomological error when he assumed the head of the honey bee colony was a male. In “Henry V,” we read:  “They have a king, and officers of sort.” And: 

“To the tent-royal of their emperor:
Who, busied, in his majesty, surveys,
The singing masons building roofs of gold;”

In this case, the head man turns out to be a woman. On the other hand, some poets made female insects out of males. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

“Thou art a female, Katydid!”
I know it by the trill
That quivers through they piercing note
So petulant and shrill.”

Holmes failed to recognize—or at least admit—that it is only the male katydid that sings!

Thirty years before scientists confirmed it, Longfellow alluded to the relationship between mosquitoes and malaria. In “Hiawatha,” Nokomis urges Hiawatha to:

“Slay this merciless magician,
Save the people from the fever
That he breathes across the fen-lands
And avenge my father's murder!”

Longfellow was partially correct. The merciless magician was the mosquito; however, in true poetic fashion, Longfellow blames the male mosquito for transmitting the disease. It is the female that bites and, thus, carries the malaria.

We, of course, are obliged to excuse the entomological errors of poets—just call it poetic license!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Carol McGrew