Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
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. The quotation is used to suggest someone is "[employing] superabundant effort in the accomplishment of a small matter".
The quotation is sometimes misquoted with "on" in place of "upon".
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:
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 male slave favoured by Emperor Nero, was, according to Suetonius, castrated by the emperor, and subsequently married. 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. As first published the verse referred to Paris, but was changed to Sporus when republished a few months later.
"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. "Ass's milk" was at that time a common tonic, and was part of a diet adopted by Hervey. "This painted child" comments on make-up such as rouge used by the handsome Hervey.
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."
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.
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."
The British rock band, The Mission, enjoyed a no. 12 hit in the UK Top 40 (no. 1 in South Africa) in January 1990 with a song entitled 'Butterfly On A Wheel'.
The British rock band, Coldplay, used the lyric “The wheel breaks the butterfly” in the 2011 song ‘Paradise’.
The British rock band, Oasis used the lyric “Catch the wheel that breaks the butterfly” in the 2008 song ‘Falling Down’.
- "Expressions& Sayings (W)". Scorpio Tales. Retrieved 2 August 2012.
- Brewer, E. C. (1 June 2001). Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Wordsworth Editions Ltd. p. 173. ISBN 1840223103.
- Representative Poetry Online – Alexander Pope: Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot: complete poem and commentary
- Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum—Nero, c. 110 C.E.
- AMPHIBIOUS THING, The Life of Lord Hervey, Lucy Moore – Author, Penguin Books. Line 326 of Pope's poem: "Amphibious thing! that acting either part,"] Archived 11 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
- "Gay Love Letters through the Centuries: Town and Country". rictornorton.co.uk.
- "Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: Pope's Caricature of Lord Hervey". rictornorton.co.uk.
- Booth, Stanley (2000). The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (2nd edition). A Capella Books. pp. 271–278. ISBN 1-55652-400-5.
- Gene Juggling Mary Midgley, 1979. Philosophy 54, no. 210, pp. 439–458.
- Roach, Martin; Perry, Neil (1993). The Mission : names are for tombstones, baby. London: Independent Music Press. p. 272. ISBN 1-897-78301-9.
- IMDB: Butterfly on a Wheel