IA Book of the Week: Beauty in Common Things

Every Monday the Fisher highlights its holdings on the Internet Archive. This week Rachael presents a lovely piece from the Biodiversity Collection.

“I’ve watch’d you now a full half-hour
Self-poised upon that yellow flower;
and, little butterfly! Indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless! Not frozen seas
More motionless! And then
What joy awaits you when the breeze
Hath found out among the trees,
And calls you forth again.”

These romantic words by William Wordsworth describing a butterfly come from one of many poems found in Beauty in Common Things, a book filled with short chapters on different plants, flowers, and the like found frequently throughout the United Kingdom.

From the cover: Beauty in Common Things is illustrated by “Twelve Drawings from Nature by Mrs. J.W. Whymper, Printed in Colors by William Dickes with descriptions by the Author of “Life Underground,” “Life in the Walls,” “Robin in the Bold.”

Written in the front of Fisher’s copy, the name Miss A.C. Chambers who is identified as the author. The book was published in 1874 under the Direction of the Committee of General Literature and Education. Beauty in Common Things contains a multitude of poems credited to different poets and writers. Following the Table of Contents a poem begins the book:

“Spake full well, in language quaint and olden
One who dwelleth by the castled Rhine
When he called the flowers, so blue and golden
Stars that in earth’s firmament do shine”

This segment by Henry Longfellow opens the first chapter on the blackberry, or common bramble as its described in the proceeding pages. A chapter on each plant or flower contains roughly the same information for the reader: its Latin name, a description of the plant, what it can be used for, poems either directly about the plant or one that can be applied, a history of the flower, and its etymology. In the case of the blackberry, the chapter also begins with a quoted description from John Gerarde, an English herbalist from the 16th century. Other plants and berries in the book include the wild strawberry, hazel nuts, the apple blossom, and even mushrooms just to name a few.

In addition to all the information and beautiful words about these ordinary plants, each chapter (except for the very first one on the blackberry) is accompanied by an intricate illustration of the plant in focus.

In each chapter, the picture is discussed, as well as anything else that may show up in the image such as a beetle seen with the strawberry flower or a bee which can be seen in more than one entry. In the illustration for the chapter on the common osier, a honeybee is seen at the base of the plant. The author writers, “the female humble bee is among the first of her kind who greets our ears with her welcome, familiar hum, telling us of the return of honey making days.” Much like the plants and flowers in this book, pollinators and other familiar insects that may go unnoticed in our everyday lives are treated with an entirely new perspective. 


The poem by William Wordsworth appearing at the start of this week’s blog appears in the chapter on the hazelnut and is used to punctuate the portion of the chapter’s description of a simple butterfly that is pictured with the plant. Wordsworth was one of many poets of the late 18th and early 19th century to be classified as part of the Romantic Era. These poems were characterized by their opposition to the disciplined scientific inquiry of the Enlightenment era preceding it. Romantic poetry expressed more of an emotional feeling and a turn towards nature. This propensity towards the modest beauty of nature is evident in Chambers’ description of the butterfly as a “bright-winged creature represented by our cluster of nuts, not less wonderful because it is a common object.” Here again, the commonality of the object is no less special because it is ordinary.

Chambers challenges us to slow down and to appreciate our surroundings. So next time you are out amongst the trees do not just stop and smell the roses, but take the time to appreciate the beauty in common things.

-Rachael Fraser, TAlint student