The Moth
By Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication
Tone
Summary
Text of the Poem
Interpretation, Theme
Structure
Rhyme
Alliteration
Personification
Questions, Writing Topics
Author's Biography

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012

Type of Work

.......
"The Moth" is a lyric poem about a moth attracted to a flame. A lyric poem presents the author's imaginative or emotional response to a person, a place, a thing, an event, or an idea. Unlike a narrative poem, a lyric poem does not tell a story.

 
 
Publication

.......
"The Moth" was published in 1919 in an illustrated collection entitled Flora. J. B. Lippincott published the collection in Philadelphia, and William Heinemann published it in London. 

Tone

.......The tone is dark and secretive.

Summary

.......Like a light on a tiny island, a flame sends out its midnight glow. “Come,” it says, inviting a moth to rendezvous with it in the darkness. A moth awakens to the light, arrayed in makeup and fluttering a fan (her wings). She stares at the light for a moment, then responds to its allure, flying off in in a springtime breeze to meet her paramour—and death.

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The Moth
By Walter de la Mare

Isled1 in the midnight air, 
Musked
2 with the dark's faint bloom,
Out into glooming and secret haunts
The flame cries, 'Come!'

Lovely in dye and fan,
3
A-tremble in shimmering grace,
A moth from her winter swoon
Uplifts her face:
4

Stares from her glamorous eyes;
Wafts her on plumes like mist;
In ecstasy swirls and sways
To her strange tryst.
5

Notes

1.
. Isled: Isolated, like an island in an ocean of darkness.
2
.. Musked: (1) Giving off a strong odor. Many animals secrete musk, which is used in the manufacture of perfumes. Elephants secrete musk when they are ready to mate. In the poem, the word may indicate that the fire wants to "mate" with the moth.
3
..dye and fan: Many types of moths have colorful markings with wings resembling fans. Click here to view pictures of moths.
4
..A moth . . . face: Moths emerge from cocoons at the end of winter.
5
..tryst: Secret meeting between lovers.

Interpretation and Theme

.......Fatal love is the theme of the poem. De la Mare compares the flame and the moth to lovers. Like a man seeking the company of a woman, the flame invites the moth—described as lovely (line 5), shimmering with grace (line 6), and having glamorous eyes (line 9)—to a midnight rendezvous. The moth flies in an ecstasy to the flame. The poem does not say what happens next. But one can assume that as she hovers near him, he consumes her.
.......The poem can serve as a metaphor for a romantic relationship between a woman and a man who is wrong for her (or vice versa). The man may have fire—a dynamic personality, a shiny car, money, power, etc. But he may also have a dark side that causes him to abuse his wife or even murder her.
.......The poem can also serve as a metaphor for other types of relationships, such as those between employees and employers. For example, a high salary and prestige may attract a lawyer to a particular firm, but the stress of the daily routine and workload could debilitate or kill him over time.
.......Other examples of people with a fatal attraction are alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts, and misers.

Structure

.......Stanza 1 begins with three introductory phrases, then announces the presence of the flame in line 4. Stanza 2 begins with two introductory phrases, then announces the presence of the moth in line 3. Line 4 of the second stanza introduces the third stanza, which tells what the moth does after seeing the flame.

Rhyme

.......De la Mare uses internal and end rhyme to unify the images and harmonize the sounds. The rhyming syllables include air and stares; bloom, glooming, swoon, and plumes; dye and eyes; grace and face; and mist and tryst.

Alliteration

.......Alliteration plays a major role in making the poem pleasing to the ear. Examples of alliteration are the following:
Isled1 in the midnight air, 
Musked . . . . . . . . . . .

The flame cries, 'Come!'

Lovely in dye and fan,
A-tremble in shimmering grace,
A moth from her winter swoon
Uplifts her face:
Personification

.......
Personification is another important figure of speech in the poem. De la Mare uses it to compare the flame to a man (first stanza) and the moth to a woman (second stanza).

Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Write a short poem about someone you know who is or was attracted to a fatal flame.
  • Identify an example of a simile in the poem.
  • Write an essay presenting theories that attempt to explain why moths are attracted to sources of light. Use Internet and library research.

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