Peter John Allan


  1. Biography
  2. Why Should We Read and Study Allan?
  3. Literature
    • “The Dead Butterfly”
  4. Questions and Considerations for Reflection
  5. Strategies for Teachers
  6. Further Reading
  7. Copyright


Born in York, England in 1825, Peter John Allan came to Fredericton in 1836 as a result of his father’s retirement from medicine. He attended King’s College (later UNB) with the intention of studying law but discovered that journalism was more to his liking. He began sending poems to local newspapers and caught the eye of important provincial publishers. A poet of great promise, he became ill at a young age and died at twenty-three, never realizing the potential that his early work suggested. His only collection of poems was published after his death.

For a much more detailed biography of Allan, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.

Why Should We Read and Study Allan?

  • The delicacy of Allan’s poetic sensibility brings us closer to what we recognize today as a literature native to this province, a literature written with more depth of feeling and insight than is possible when the observer is a casual witness. Allan’s love of the natural world of Fredericton and its environs would inspire the Fredericton School of the Confederation Poets, licensing them to write without shame or constraint about the sensual beauty of their immediate world. Allan, then, was an influential precursor to the poets who put the province on the world’s literary map. He is, in fact, the most direct literary antecedent of Roberts and Carman, New Brunswick’s best-known poets of the nineteenth century.


“The Dead Butterfly”

Farewell, poor little winged flower,
      Thy joyous life is o’er;
Thy sisters of the meadow now
      Shall welcome thee no more;
Those pinions that in liquid air
      Like sunbeams shone afar,
Now bruised, and dim, and motionless,
      As leaves in autumn are.

Hark! summer sends her voice of love
      Through all the gladsome earth,
And bird and insect echo her
      In many a song of mirth;
But thou wilt never hear again
      The zephyr’s balmy sighs,
Nor kiss away the crystal tears
      From drooping violets’ eyes.

Oh! when o’er valley, hill, and grove,
      The moonbeams glisten bright,
And all the fairy train come forth,
      To dance away the night,
Mayst thou, poor little butterfly,
      Among that elfin band,
Sport in the ever-blooming bowers
      Of far-off fairy-land.

Questions and Considerations for Reflection

► Readers will note in “The Dead Butterfly” a major imaginative advance: the creation of a recognizable local metaphor that stands the test of time and enables us as readers to feel part of the experience being related by the poet. The metaphor is in the last four lines of the first stanza where Allan compares the wings (“pinions”) of the dead butterfly to “leaves in autumn air.” That comparison enables us to know, without being told, that the dead butterfly is a Monarch whose black, yellow, and rust-coloured wings remind the poet (and us) of the spectacular colours of fall, as well as what those colours portend: a season of death and the suppression of lyricism. Is this the first genuine metaphor in New Brunswick literature? Probably not, but its appearance in the 1840s suggests the kind of familiarity upon which literature, as a universal and shared language, rests. The imaginative distance between Peter John Allan and Adam Allan, who had to reach for comparators outside the province to make his metaphors, is thus significant. This change should not suggest that literature evolves toward ideal language, as literature always responds to its own time and circumstance, but that imaginative capacities are enhanced as writers come to know their own places more intimately. Our expectations of rooted or “native” poets are thus different from our expectations of casual witnesses.

► Particularly because it is rooted in local experience, the poem above also suggests something important about attentiveness. Peter John Allan is clearly stopping to observe, which marks a significant departure from the imposition of values of a writer like Jonathan Odell. Odell’s aim was to propagandize, an objective that required very little attention to the local scene. To propagandize is to bring something from the outside into an environment, whereas to stop and observe patiently is to bring something from the inside out to readers. In the first instance, the poet speaks; in the second, he/she listens. The difference is significant for what literature can teach us about place and how place is embedded in creative circumstance.

Strategies for Teachers

Strategy 1: Compare to Adam Allan (“The Dead Butterfly”)

Have students read “The Dead Butterfly” alongside Adam Allan’s earlier “Grand Falls.” Ask students to compare the ease of expression in these two poems, perhaps using some of the following guiding prompts:

  1. Which poet seems more comfortable or “at home” in his environment? What makes you think so?
  2. When reading, are you able to imagine Grand Falls, or the dead butterfly, through the eyes of each speaker? If one scene or marker is easier to envision, why?
  3. Does one poet seem more observant than the other? What gives that impression?
  4. What effect does each poem have on you? For example, do you feel something or reflect on anything when you read either poem?
  5. If you were to inhabit the same scene as each speaker, how would your experience differ? Would you notice what the speaker notices? Were you to write about the experience, how would you express yourself differently?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints

  • Reading and Viewing: Describe, discuss, and evaluate the language, ideas, and other significant characteristics of a variety of texts and genres

Strategy 2: Poetic Butterflies (“The Dead Butterfly”)

Many poets have written about butterflies, including such New Brunswick poets as Charles G.D. Roberts (“Butterflies”) and Fred Cogswell (“The Butterfly”). Ask students to discuss how this poem would change if it were titled “The Dead Ant” or “The Dead Mouse.” What is it about butterflies that make them such a popular poetic subject? For the students, do they connote beauty? Fragility? Dramatic metamorphosis? The childhood experience of chasing butterflies? Etc. Does the fact that the Monarch butterfly is now approaching endangered status in our region have anything to do with their viewpoint?

Students might also be asked to find examples of butterflies/caterpillars/chrysalides in other pieces of writing, comparing how the authors see and use butterflies.

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements

Further Reading

Allan, Peter John. The Poetical Remains of Peter John Allan, Esq., Late of Fredericton, NB with a Short Biographical Notice. Ed. Henry Christmas. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1853.

Maxwell, Lilian M. Beckwith. The River St. John and its Poets. Sackville, NB: Tribune, 1947.

For more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Allan, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.


The work above has been in the Canadian public domain for 50 years after publication and 50 years after the author’s death. As such, it is no longer protected by copyright in Canada. However, the work may still be under copyright in some countries. Readers outside Canada must comply with the respective copyright laws of the country in which they live.

The Allan poem above appears in Stubborn Strength: A New Brunswick Anthology. Ed. Michael O. Nowlan. Don Mills, ON: Academic Press Canada, 1983. 6.

All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.