Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

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"Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" is a quotation – sometimes misquoted with "on" in place of "upon" – from Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" of January 1735. It alludes to "breaking on the wheel", a form of torture in which victims had their long bones broken by an iron bar while tied to a Catherine wheel.[1][better source needed]

Pope's satire[edit]

The line "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" forms line 308 of the "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" in which Alexander Pope responded to his physician's word of caution about making satirical attacks on powerful people by sending him a selection of such attacks. It appears in a section on the courtier John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey, who was close to Queen Caroline and was one of Pope's bitterest enemies. The section opens as follows:[2]

Let Sporus tremble –"What? that thing of silk,
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?"
Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys,
Yet wit ne'er tastes, and beauty ne'er enjoys,

Sporus, a homosexual favoured by Emperor Nero,[2] was, according to Suetonius, castrated by the emperor, and subsequently married.[3] Pope here refers to accusations made in Pulteney's Proper reply to a late scurrilous libel of 1731 which led to Hervey challenging Pulteney to a duel. Hervey's decade long clandestine affair with Stephen Fox would eventually contribute to his downfall.[4][5] As first published the verse referred to Paris, but was changed to Sporus when republished a few months later.[6]

What? that thing of silk uses a metaphor of a silkworm spinning that Pope had already used in The Dunciad to refer to bad poets. The then common tonic ass's milk was part of a diet adopted by Hervey. This painted child comments on make-up such as rouge used by the handsome Hervey.[2]

Another graphic instance of the usage can be found in An Introduction to Harmony by William Shield (1800), wherein he writes: "Having brought this Introduction to Harmony before that awful Tribunal, the Public, without first submitting it to the inspection of a judicious friend, I shall doubtless merit severe correction from the Critic; but as my attempt has been rather to write a useful Book, than a learned Work, I trust that he will not break a Butterfly upon the wheel for not being able to soar with the wings of an Eagle."[7]

Modern use[edit]

William Rees-Mogg, as editor of The Times newspaper, used the "on a wheel" version of the quotation as the heading (set in capital letters) for an editorial on 1 July 1967 about the "Redlands" court case, which had resulted in prison sentences for Rolling Stones members Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.[8]

The philosopher Mary Midgley used a variation on the phrase in an article in the journal Philosophy written to counter a review praising The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, where she cuttingly said that she had "not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel."[9]

Variations of the phrase also appear in pop music. The Mission recorded a track titled "Butterfly on a Wheel" for their album Carved in Sand changing the quote slightly to "Love breaks the wings of a butterfly on a wheel." The hard rock song "Soul Asylum" from The Cult's Sonic Temple album opens with the line "Who would break a butterfly on a wheel?". Coldplay rephrased the quote as "The wheel breaks the butterfly" in their 2011 single "Paradise." Oasis also made a reference to the line with the lyric "Catch the wheel that breaks the butterfly", in their song "Falling Down".[10] In 2013, the Scottish band Biffy Clyro released a b-side entitled "Break A Butterfly On A Wheel", an obvious reference to the quote, on their single for Victory Over The Sun. In 1997, the Britpop band The Verve released a song titled "Catching The Butterfly", on their album Urban Hymns.

A film titled Butterfly on a Wheel was released in 2007. In the USA the title of the movie was changed to Shattered.[11]

References[edit]