William Roscoe wrote The Butterfly's Ball for his 10 children, and particularly for his son Robert who is actually named in the text. The poem tells the story, in lively and light-hearted rhyming couplets, of a procession of insects and small animals who, accompanied by Robert, make their way to a ball being held by the butterfly. The guests range from a blind mole who is helped by a dormouse, to a wasp and hornet, both of whom promise not to use their stings during the evening. When they have eaten supper and watched the spider’s acrobatics, everyone returns home.
Roscoe, MP for Liverpool, was an early advocate of the abolition of slavery, as well as an historian and botanist, but this poem is the work for which he is best known today. It is an early example of fantasy writing for children, that uses absurdity and anthropomorphism, and aims to amuse its readers rather than to educate them.
The poem was first published in the November 1806 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine
. Proving popular, it was published in book form by John Harris on 1 January 1807. This is the second edition, published in 1808, in which the text was slightly re-worked and William Mulready’s original illustrations were replaced by the work of an uncredited engraver. Its popularity led to many imitations, including The Peacock ‘at Home’
and its sequel The Lion’s Masquerade
, and The Elephant’s Ball
, all published in 1807.