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."
- "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.
- IMDB: Butterfly on a Wheel