Many of you may be familiar with this title from a children’s picture book of a similar title published in 1973, or as the title of a rock concept album which was released in 1974. But did you know that both of these works trace their origins to a poem written by a man from Liverpool for his many children just after the turn of the nineteenth century? This enchanting poem so captured the public imagination that it remained extremely popular throughout the Regency and well into the reign of Queen Victoria. It is fair to say that the majority of children who lived during the Regency took great delight in this story of the insects’ lively entertainment.
As begins this charming children’s poem, let us
Come take up your hats, and away let us haste
To the Butterfly’s Ball, and the Grasshopper’s Feast.
Most scholars believe that The Butterfly’s Ball was probably first written about 1802. It was the work of William Roscoe, of Liverpool. Roscoe had trained as a lawyer and while practicing that profession, he had married Jane Griffies, the daughter of a local tradesman. They had seven sons and three daughters. William Roscoe opposed slavery and spoke out against it, despite the fact that the economy of Liverpool was heavily dependent upon the slave trade. By 1796, Roscoe had given up the practice of law and by 1800, he was involved with agriculture and farm reclamation. At about that same time, he and a group of botanists in Liverpool were at work on the development of a botanic garden. Roscoe was also an avid student of history and had been writing poetry since he was in his teens. He wrote a long poem against the slave trade, called The Wrongs of Africa, which was published in two parts in 1787 and 1788. And, in 1796, he published The Life of Lorenzo de’ Medici, which garnered him an impressive reputation among other historians of the day. His biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici was frequently reprinted and was soon translated into French, German and Italian and those editions sold well throughout Europe.
In the spring of 1799, William Roscoe purchased Allerton Hall, a country estate about a half dozen miles outside Liverpool. Here, he intended to engage in agricultural pursuits and spend his leisure time in the study of history and botany. He also believed a country environment would be beneficial to his large family. But only year later, he was pulled back into the hustle and bustle of commerce when the bank of his friend, William Clark, who was then living in Italy, began having difficulties. Roscoe devoted himself to setting the situation at the bank to rights, which took him the remainder of that year. He was finally able to take up his studies again in the winter of 1801. He was then working on a biography of Pope Leo X. He was also working on a prospectus for a botanical garden in Liverpool while maintaining an active correspondence among a wide circle of literary and learned friends.
Despite his busy, active life, William Roscoe was a devoted family man and he loved to find ways to amuse his young children. On the occasion of the birth of his son Robert, in the year 1802, probably while the family was at Allerton Hall, Roscoe wrote a poem about a grand evening entertainment to which a host of insects and other small creatures traveled. Once they arrived, they feasted and frolicked the night away, to be given light on their homeward journey by the night watchman, a glow-worm. For the next few years, Roscoe’s poem was read and enjoyed only by his children. The full text of the poem can be read at the Poet Hunter web site. This poem is generally considered to be the first story written simply for the amusement of children, with no lesson or moral message incorporated into the text. However, early in the Regency, one Quaker lady who could not accept that the story was just for fun, wrote to a friend that it " … must have been written to remove the dread and disgust of insects so prone to fasten upon the youthful mind … . "
In 1806, William Roscoe was persuaded to stand for Parliament from Liverpool. To his surprise and some chagrin, he was elected and in November of that year, he had to travel to London to take his seat in the House of Commons. He could not afford to take his large family with him, so he had to travel to the metropolis without them. Perhaps it was because his missed his family that he submitted the poem he had written for his children to a couple of London magazines. What is certain is that in November of 1806, The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast was published in both the Gentleman’s Magazine and the Lady’s Monthly Museum. Curiously, the texts of the two versions are slightly different, but in both, in the first line of the second verse, he included the phrase "little Robert," the son for whom the poem had originally been written. Since the Gentleman’s Magazine was issued earlier in the month, it is usually given as the first appearance of The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast in print. But it would not be the last.
The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast was immediately popular with all who read it, including the Royal family. At the request of King George III and Queen Charlotte, William Roscoe sent his verses to the musician and composer, George Thomas Smart, who set them to music as a glee. This glee was performed by the Royal Princesses Mary, Elizabeth and Augusta, for their Royal parents, during a visit to the seaside resort of Weymouth. It is believed that William Roscoe edited the verses which he sent to George Smart, removing the reference to his son, Robert, as these verses are in his handwriting and there is no mention of young Robert. The Lady’s Monthly Museum also noted that the poem was later sung to Smart’s music at the annual dinner of the New Musical Fund.
The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast had become so popular, so quickly, that in January of 1807, John Harris published it as a book. Harris was the successor to the great publishing house of John Newbery, considered "The Father of Children’s Literature." Harris also owned stock in the Gentleman’s Magazine, so he took the text of the poem from that publication for his version of it in book form. It was a small book, only 5 x 4 inches in size, and was issued in a simple printed paper wrapper. Harris had commissioned a set of copperplate engravings based on the drawings of the tale which had been made by the young painter, William Mulready, before he went on to become a member of the Royal Academy and a noted genre painter. Each page included one of the engravings, with the lines of the verse to which it pertained inscribed above it. Some of the creatures were shown in almost human form, while others were depicted with humans riding on their backs. Many copies of this book had hand-colored pictures, and is believed to be the first children’s book to have any color illustrations. However, those illustrations appear to have been colored by children working in an assembly line fashion, with each child responsible for painting in one color on all the engravings.
This book was so popular that it was reprinted several times through the course of 1807. It also became the first volume in a series of similar stories published for children called Harris’s Cabinet. In 1808, John Harris published a brand new edition of The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast. All new illustrations were commissioned for this edition, in which the insects were depicted more realistically, if with somewhat less charm than the original copperplate engravings. In this new edition, the illustrations appeared on separate pages from the text. In addition, the poem itself was revised and expanded by William Roscoe. This 1808 edition is now considered to be the complete and definitive version of Roscoe’s poem. Harris’s 1808 edition of The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast remained in print through at least 1850. A facsimile of the 1808 edition was published in 1883, and that edition, which includes all of the 1808 illustrations, is available at the Internet Archive.
John Harris’s version of The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast was certainly the most well-known, best quality and the most expensive edition of the poem available during the Regency. However, in an age when there were no real copyright laws, many other printers published their own versions of this popular children’s poem. It was also printed as an inexpensive chapbook, making it available to children at nearly all income levels. As a matter of fact, it was one of these other editions which first brought this poem to my attention. A couple of years ago, the Boston Public Library had an exhibition of miniature books and included in that exhibition was a miniature edition of The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast. It was an adorable little book, barely 2 x 1 3/4 inches, in a red leather and gilt stamped binding. Imagine my delight to see that the label said it had been published in 1816, right in the middle of the Regency. Small as it was, this lovely little book was also illustrated with tiny engravings showing scenes from the story. Any Regency child who received such a gift must surely have been enchanted.
From 1807 through 1809, as part of his Harris’s Cabinet, John Harris published a number of other children’s tales populated by various animals in long poem form. The most successful of these was The Peacock at Home, a sequel to The Butterfly’s Ball, the two of which combined sold 40,000 copies in the first year. Based on that success, Harris also published The Elephant’s Ball, The Lion’s Masquerade, The Lobster’s Voyage to the Brazils, The Lioness’s Ball, The Cat’s Concert, The Fishes’ Grand Gala, Madame Grimalkin’s Party, The Jackdaw’s Home, The Lion’s Parliament, The Water King’s Levée and the final book in the series, Three Wishes, or Think Before You Speak, which was published near the end of 1809. Though these later titles did not sell in the same numbers as had The Butterfly’s Ball and The Peacock at Home, they all remained in print throughout the Regency. The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast had become a children’s classic by the end of the reign of George IV, and remained in print through most of the nineteenth century, often in anthologies of children’s stories. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, it was largely forgotten.
In 1973, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast was revived with new illustrations by the noted artist Alan Aldridge, and a new version of the text written by William Plomer. This new edition of the book won the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1973. The following year, Roger Glover, late of the band Deep Purple, produced a rock concept album entitled The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast based on Aldridge and Plomer’s version of the story. In October of 1975, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast was performed live as a rock opera in the Royal Albert Hall in London. One can only wonder what William Roscoe would have thought of these versions of the poem he wrote for his children.
During the Regency, The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast was one of the most popular stories published for children. Unlike most of the children’s stories available at this time, it was a whimsical tale, meant only to amuse and entertain. Despite that Quaker lady’s opinion, there was no intent to banish children’s fear of insects. Nor did it try to convey an educational or moral lesson, it was just imaginative and fun. And, its success spawned a number of sequels and similar stories which were all published as part of the Harris’s Cabinet series. Thanks to William Roscoe’s wish to divert and beguile his children, as well as celebrate the birth of a son, many children throughout the nineteenth century, including the Regency, were delighted by the tale of the insects’ evening of frolic.
Dear Regency Authors, should you have children in any of your novels, with a scene which calls for one of your characters to read them a story, might it be The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast? Or perhaps the child might be given a copy of the book for their very own. Will it be a chapbook edition, a copy of Harris’s illustrated edition, or might this child receive a gift of a miniature edition of this delightful tale? Certainly, a light-hearted heroine, taking up a post as a governess, is very pleased to find a full set of Harris’s Cabinet stories on the nursery room bookshelf. Mayhap a heroine has a miniature edition of The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast which she has treasured since it was given to her as a child, by a beloved relative. Her copy has a tiny slipcase and one day, while she it toying with the slipcase, she notices a very small slip of paper crumpled inside. What might she find written on that paper when she is able to gently pull it out?
Author’s Note: Though the Regency-era miniature edition of The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast which I saw in the miniature book exhibition at the Boston Public Library was the property of a private collector, there is a modern miniature edition which is just as delightful. Bromer Booksellers of Boston was one of the sponsors of the miniature book exhibit, and they also sell miniature books, both rare and modern. They have a lovely modern miniature of William Roscoe’s version of The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast which is not only illustrated with whimsical images, it has several more loose illustrations tucked into a tiny pocket inside the back cover. You can take a look at this lovely little treasure at Bromer’s web site.