Churchillisms: Twelve Million Feathers on a Butterfly’s Wings

Churchillisms: Twelve Million Feathers on a Butterfly’s Wings

Dragonfly or butterfly?

I came across an alleged say­ing by Churchill along the lines of: “There are 13 mil­lion feath­ers on a dragonfly’s wing yet it is but a mouth­ful for a bird.” I can’t find it. Could he have meant ‘but­ter­fly’? He was say­ing that only in humans does one find sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, sad­ness or com­pas­sion for dread­ful things that hap­pen to nature’s crea­tures. —R.H.

I searched our Hills­dale Col­lege dig­i­tal archive of Churchill’s 20 mil­lion pub­lished words. Noth­ing came up for “dragonfly’s wing.” Your guess that he meant “but­ter­fly” was a good one. I searched for “mil­lion feath­ers” and sure enough. Thought­ful quo­ta­tion. Sor­ry I missed it in Churchill by Him­self, but it appeared in the sequel, The Defin­i­tive Wit of Win­ston Churchill. Here is the reference:

India, 1898

On 10 Jan­u­ary young Win­ston wrote to his moth­er, Lady Ran­dolph Churchill, from Ban­ga­lore, where was sta­tioned. He was implor­ing her to help him join the Sudan Cam­paign as a war cor­re­spon­dent. He had been hop­ing to do like­wise with the Tirah Expe­di­tion on the Indi­an fron­tier, but that war fiz­zled to a rapid end. Lady Ran­dolph did help him get to Sudan lat­er the same year.

His remarks about the but­ter­fly are in Ran­dolph Churchill, ed., The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 2, Young Sol­dier 1896-1901 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2006), 856. Churchill wrote:

Oh how I wish I could work you up over Egypt! I know you could do it with all your influ­ence and all the peo­ple you know. It is a push­ing age and we must shove with the best. After Tirah and Egypt then I think I shall turn from war to peace and pol­i­tics. If that is I get through all right. I think myself I shall, but of course one only has to look at Nature and see how very lit­tle store she sets by life. Its sanc­ti­ty is entire­ly a human idea. You may think of a beau­ti­ful but­ter­fly 12 mil­lion feath­ers on his wings, 16,000 lens­es in his eye, a mouth­ful for a bird. Let us laugh at Fate. It might please her.

“A push­ing age…shove with the best…sanctity of life…let us laugh at Fate.” This is indeed a cor­nu­copia of Churchillian thought. WSC was a keen col­lec­tor of but­ter­flies in India, but in lat­er life he couldn’t bear to kill them or even keep them cap­tive. One day after vis­it­ing his chrysalis house at Chartwell, he left the screen door open. Sec­re­tary Grace Ham­blin asked, “Did you mean to do that?” Yes, he replied, “I can’t bear this cap­tiv­i­ty any longer.”

Butterflies at Chartwell

For a pho­to of Churchill’s but­ter­fly house and their pro­lif­er­a­tion at Chartwell, click here.

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