Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins ‘The Caged Skylark’

The name of our press is inspired by the opening lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet, ‘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 his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.

In Victorian Britain, and even until quite recent times, it was common to keep songbirds in cages. My grandparents in the East End of London had a number of small birds that they used on occasion to let fly freely around the house, and I remember vividly the numerous songbirds for sale in the Sunday market in Petticoat Lane, which was a marvel to a young boy. Dare-Gale Press

Skylarks have a mainly up and down flight, rising to a great height as they burst into song, which is one of the wonders of the South Downs where we live. Keeping them in cages was particularly cruel as they tried to rise and sing, so their more kindly ‘owners’ would suspend a cloth inside the roof of the cage to stop the bird from banging its head on the wood or metal bars.

Hopkins captures the caged bird’s miserable plight perfectly, and compares it’s imprisonment by humans with its previous glorious freedom in the wild:

Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

The capture and imprisonment of the free, fell-loving skylark, is a powerful metaphor for humanity’s exploitation and ruination of nature, and this poem shows why Hopkins, who was unknown and virtually unpublished in his lifetime, is very much a poet for our own times, when poetry has such a vital role to play in re-evaluating humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

The following lines from ‘Inversnaid’ seemed particularly poignant when you could read them while sitting (or usually standing) in the infernal darkness of the London Tube, when they were featured in the brilliant Poems on the Underground project:

from Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins ' What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In ‘The Caged Skylark’ there is a direct correlation between the imprisonment of the bird, and man’s own ‘mounting spirit’ languishing in an earth-bound ‘cell’. It is tempting for a contemporary reader to see this human alienation as the consequence of an abusive relationship with nature.

Hopkins of course is pointing to something else. He was a Jesuit priest who followed the instruction of that order’s founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, to find ‘God in all things’, and ‘care for the planet, our common home’ is a major focus of the Jesuit mission today. ‘Man’ in this poem has both a human and a divine nature and the ending is a plea to keep both matter and spirit, body and soul, in harmony, and for one not to burden, or encumber, or exclude the other. Our human spirit is ‘flesh-bound when found at best’. In other words, we are an integral part of the natural world, and not separate from it. This non-dualist thinking is essential if we are to rebalance our relationship with nature. Nature is not a resource for the benefit of humankind; we do not ‘own’ anything wild.

For Hopkins the ultimate freedom was eternal life as promised in the last line, but I also find in this poem a sense of hope that there is freedom to be found in the here and now: perhaps to release the skylark, in other words rebalance our relationship with the natural world, would also be to release our own ‘flesh-bound’ spirit, allowing both to rediscover the wild nest on the free fells.

 

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 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 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 uncumberèd: meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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