On Hopkins’ “The Caged Skylark”

The Caged Skylark
Gerard Manley Hopkins (from bartleby.com)

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 his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.

Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage,
Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sómetimes 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 bónes rísen.


“As” indicates a simile, a comparison, is in order. The human soul is not literally a skylark. Still, the comparison gets awfully close at times. The poet must establish a distinction.

The skylark dared strong winds. Now trapped, it is “scanted:” it is not only dishonored, but limited and not treated adequately. The soul is experiencing all three problems to a degree within the body; the first one we are presented with corresponds to the bird’s “free fells.”  Just like the bird would ascend to great heights and swoop down, the mounting spirit within the bone-house is only mounting. “Day-labouring-out” reinforces the “dull cage,” “bone-house:” it is always dark, always time to rest when one is limited in one’s tasks. Time “labouring” isn’t really one’s own. Why even remember one’s freedom?

There are moments, though, when the bird or the soul can be recognized (“turf or perch or poor low stage”). The honors received are only merited (“sometimes the sweetest, sweetest spells”). The repetition of “sweetest” reminds us that a bird isn’t the soul, and echoes a song itself. Honor that is only merited is a natural form of nobility, but a nobility that is a shell of itself. To be noble depends in some degree on how one is treated, not just how one responds to things. These are exhausting “opportunities,” for the environment is fundamentally against the full expression of the bird or soul. Instead of “free fells,” we are presented with “droop deadly;” offend what is higher, and the consequences are more than lost memories. “Fear or rage” exerted against some stupid bars would be comical, if it weren’t reality.

The difference between the human soul and the skylark is revealed ironically through repetition. The bird’s sweetness and singing are near identical. All we can do is listen and keep listening when he is free to choose his nest. The skylark is free because of his song. His neediness does not destroy his true freedom or being, as he is only needy because he is a truly free creature.

But while similar to the skylark, souls don’t choose their nests. What is adequate for the soul is that it is embodied, but “uncumbered.” This is not immortality simply; this is God’s promise (“rainbow”) that reverses the order of earth and sky. One wonders if a “rainbow footing” supports the meadow. The descent at the end is not that of a soul; the song of a bird is analogous to something else that speaks man.

1 Comment

  1. I bought two “tame” parrots to learn a bit about them. After a few weeks, I set them free in the oasis behind my villa (where I had noticed other parrots nesting). I cannot describe the sense I had when I watched them realize their freedom and fly away…(I think they looked back in gratitude). For the rest of the day I found myself unconsciously humming Beethoven’s Symphony no 9–Ode to Joy…probably because of Henry van Dyke’s poem…

    Freedom is rest. If one is resting in captivity, the “rest” is restless…

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