The Caged Skylark

Poem: The Caged Skylark
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins


Taking a break now from Hopkins’ terrible sonnets, here is Hopkins in his uplifting mode, so far as it goes. My attempt to scan the poem is below, with commentary following. As usual, an acute accent marks a primary stress, a grave accent marks a secondary stress, and underlining marks outrides (all outrides follow Hopkins’ own markings).

As a dáre-gàle skýlàrk scánted in a dúll cáge
….Màn’s móunting spírit in his bóne-hòuse, méan hòuse, dwélls—
….Thát bìrd beyónd the remémbering hís frèe félls;
Thís in drúdgery, dày-lábouring-óut lìfe’s áge.

Though alóft on túrf or pérch or póor lòw stáge,
….Both síng sòmetímes the swéetest, swéetest spélls,
….Yet bóth dròop déadly sómetìmes ín their célls
Or wríng their bárriers in búrsts of féar or ráge.

Nót that the swéet-fòwl, sóng-fòul, néeds nò rést—
Whỳ, héar hìm, héar hìm bábble and dròp dówn to his nést,
….But his ówn nést, wíld nést, nò príson.

Man’s spírit wíll be flésh-bòund when fóund at bést,
But úncúmberèd: méadow-dòwn is nót distréssed
….For a ráinbòw fóoting it nòr hé for his bónes rísen.

Sprung rhythm allows for four basic types of foot, and, because it is dipodic, ten sub-variations within these four types:

Monosyllable: (1) /
Trochee: (2) / u | (3) / \
Dactyl: (4) / u u | (5) / \ u | (6) / u \
First paeon: (7) / u u u | (8) / \ u u | (9) / u \ u | (10) / u u \

Examples from “The Caged Skylark”:

(1) dull; line 1
(2) mounting; line 2
(3) dare-gale; line 1
(4) –yond the re–; line 3
(5) That bird be–; line 3
(6) n/a
(7) scanted in a; line 1
(8) n/a
(9) meadow-down is; line 13
(10) drudgery, day; line 4

I want to focus on Hopkins’ use of feet of types (1), (3), and (10). He uses each to excellent effect, demonstrating the expressive power of sprung rhythm.

Foot type (3)

Foot type (3) (along with foot type (9)) is one of the anchors of a dipodic rhythm. Both (3) and (9) create a pleasant and balanced rocking motion, whereas all other dipodic feet ((5), (6), (8), (10)) are “unbalanced” because of how their stresses are distributed. Hopkins especially likes to place feet of type (3) back-to-back, as occurs several times in this poem:

Line 1: dare-gale skylark
Line 2: bone-house, mean house
Line 9: sweet-foul, song-foul, needs no
Line 10: hear him, hear him

The use in the first two lines is especially powerful. The poem is an extended comparison between man and the skylark. In line 1, “dare-gale skylark” (the first two feet of the poem following the opening anacrusis) establishes the latter of these as courageous and noble, daring to take on the gale. (And with only a little imaginative extension, we can imagine the rising and falling motion of these feet as the movement of the skylark in the gale.) In line 2, we get a similar rich introduction to man and his “mounting spirit.” The absence of secondary stresses here gives the feeling of a continuous upward movement, echoing rhythmically the mounting of man’s spirit. But this then hits a brick wall with “bone-house, mean house,” where the back to back dipodic feet introduce a sense of falling—falling, that is, into our bodies. That is, because of the way the rhythm (and sense) of the first half of the line contextualizes these two feet, they take on a very different feel from the corresponding two feet in the first line, despite being rhythmically identical. Moreover, this very contrast deepens our experience of the meanness of man, for it brings us to feel this meanness in contrast with the very bravery of the skylark.

The overall effect of the first two lines is thus two-fold. The primary sense of the lines draws a straightforward parallel: just as the “dare-gale skylark” is reduced to life in a “dull cage,” so too “man’s mounting spirit” is forced to reside in a “bone-house, mean house.” But the rhythm produces a kind of semantic counterpoint, creating a second comparison between the meanness of man’s bone-house and the skylark daring the gale. This comparison makes us feel more acutely man’s wretchedness.

Foot type (1)

The use of monosyllables (foot type (1)) in sprung rhythm inevitably leads to clashing accents (back to back stressed syllables). Because each foot in sprung rhythm should be of roughly equal duration, this means that monosyllables must be dwelt upon, slowing down the poem and concentrating a great deal of emphasis in a small space. For instance, “dull cage” in line one disrupts the rhythm established by “dare-gale skylark,” just as the cage itself disrupts the skylark’s flight.

But the really striking use of monosyllables comes in line 11, where Hopkins places three back-to-back, leading to four consecutive stressed syllables: “own nest, wild nest.” The emphasis concentrated in these four words is tremendous, corresponding to the heightened emotional pitch of this line. We have just seen, in the final lines of the octet, the skylark and the spirit of man drooping in their cages. In the sestet, Hopkins is quick to assure us that he is not saying that the wild bird does not struggle, does not escape the need for rest, but notice where it rests: in its own, wild nest. The comfort is not perpetual vigor, but the ability to be at home where one rests. This sets up the final tercet, where we see that man’s spirit, when found at its best, is in a similar position: flesh-bound, but uncumbered.

Foot type (10)

This discussion will focus less on meaning and more on simply pointing out a metrical curiosity of this poem. While all 10 metrical feet surveyed above are allowable in sprung rhythm, I find that two of them are especially rare: (8) and (10). Indeed, I often use a desire to avoid feet of type (8) as an aid in scanning Hopkins. The reason is that these feet are strongly unbalanced (the dipodic dactyls are also unbalanced, but less strongly so) in where they place the stresses. I find it hard to explain just why, but they sound less natural to my ear than (7) or (9).

In this poem, however, there are three instances of foot type (10). Interestingly, Hopkins marked the slack syllables in each case as outrides. Since outrides are extrametrical and not counted in the scansion, in a sense these feet are technically of type (3), but their rhythmic effect is dramatically different from genuine type (3) feet, so I’m going to treat them as type (10) feet. Here they are:

Line 4: drudgery, day
Line 10: babble and drop
Line 14: footing it nor

It is worth noting that an alternate scansion of line 10 would put a primary stress on “drop” and a secondary stress on “down.” I avoid this for three reasons. First and foremost, because I think it sounds less good. Second (and in a sense this is just an elaboration of the first reason), because it would create a foot of type (8) (“drop down to his”). Third, because it would leave no explanation for why Hopkins marked the slack syllables as outrides. Every other instance in the poem is in a four-syllable foot (two of type (10) and one of type (7)).

Ultimately, I don’t see that the use of these type (10) feet contributes noticeably to enhancing the meaning of the poem, but it is interesting that this rare foot appears three times in this poem, and that (though this is no surprise, for it is Hopkins we are discussing) each time it enhances the rhythm of the line in which it appears.

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