Poem of the Week: “The Caged Skylark” Gerard Manley Hopkins

In my New Year’s resolutions, I suggested I needed to read more poems, as I should focus more on “the wordiness of words”. Who better to start with than Gerard Manley Hopkins?

The Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844- 1889) might be said to be the most modernist of the Victorian poets. His taste for the texture of the English language was exceptional.  He studied the Classics at Balliol College and converted to Catholicism at the age of 24.  His poetry works best read aloud.


The Caged Skylark

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,

Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –

That bird beyond the remembering of his free fells;

This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.

Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage

Both sing sometimes the sweetest, sweetest spells,

Yet both droop deadly sometimes in their cells

Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest­

Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest,

But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best,

But uncumbered: meadow-down is not distressed

For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bones risen.

Form: The first thing to notice is the elegant containment of this sonnet: each stanza is its own sentence. The comparison between the skylark and the human is summarised in each separate half of the sestet.

What drew me to the poem were its song-like reformulated compound words the “bone-house, mean house”, “sweet-fowl, song-fowl”. Combine with frequent repetitions “sweetest, sweetest”, “hear him, hear him” they make the poem sound almost like a chant or a song. I also love the alliteration and the links it forms between the poem’s lines: in both of the quatrains line 3 contains an alliterating echo of line 2. In the first quatrain in line 2, we have:” Man’s”,”mounting”, “bone-house”, “mean house”; and in line 3: “bird”, “beyond”, remembering . The echoing “m” and “b” are immediately noticeable, emphasizing the link between the soul and the skylark. In the second quatrain, it is the “s”s that form the link between lines 2 and 3, again emphasizing the unity between the bird and the human spirit. Hopkins’s technical mastery has a very practical purpose.

Subject: The subject is also oddly familiar: I wrote at length as a Master’s student about Sterne’s imprisoned starling in A Sentimental Journey, and then about how Maria Bertram uses Sterne’s image of the starling in Austen’s Mansfield Park. Of course, there’s a great difference between a starling and a skylark ( although they alliterate nicely!). A starling is a bird known for memorizing short phrases of human speech. When Sterne talks about the starling saying, “I can’t get out”, he means it. The bird is actually talking. Here’s a youtube video of a chatty starling https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XXYcr0S4Ts

The skylark, on the other hand, is a songbird. It’s not only an analogy to the soul imprisoned in the body, but perhaps more particularly an analogy for the soul of the poet. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his To the Skylark 

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
But, of course, there is a great contrast between Hopkins’s skylark and Shelley’s skylark. Shelley’s skylark is close to Heaven, Hopkins’s is imprisoned in a cage.
Note that both poets take particular interest in the skylark’s tendency to sing in flight: for Shelley, this signifies the bird’s proximity to the heavens. For Hopkins, the bird is deprived of its source of proper respite: in the cage, it can only “droop deadly,” as its own nest is not there. One could be tempted to read the singing of the imprisoned skylark as a never-ending complaint.
Another reason why Hopkins might have felt drawn to the skylark is that it is traditionally known as the herald of the dawn. The final image of the last three lines of the poem is that of the apocalypse, which according to the Chrisitan tradition could be read as a dawn of a new time.
I had considerable trouble understanding those last three lines.
The first of those seems simple enough. The internal rhyme between “flesh-bound” and “found” suggests the completeness of man’s condition after the end of all things (after the apocalypse, the body will be resurrected and the soul will dwell in it again: thus the bound between body and soul is found). The last two lines dwell (I think, after much wondering) on the comparison between the condition of man after the resurrection and that of the skylark. The skylark, even when free, will tire of his singing eventually “hear him babble and drop down to his nest”. But man’s spirit, thanks to the glory of the resurrection will not tire.
I hope you like this beginning of “The Poem of the Week” series, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.
Note: The ideas in this blogpost are all my own, but I have not checked thoroughly as to whether anyone has uttered them before. The poem is out of copyright. 

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