The Caged Skylark by Gerard Manley Hopkins

In the sonnet, The Caged Skylark, Hopkins makes an elaborate comparison between the human spirit and a skylark. There are two stages of this comparison: in the octave the human spirit of a living human being is compared to a caged skylark; in the sestet the human spirit of the same human being, when resurrected after death, is compared to a free skylark.

 

Theme of The Caged Skylark

Man has a spirit which aspires upwards, which rises to soar to heaven but is kept back by the prison of the body, just as a skylark, imprisoned in a cage, finds it impossible to fly upwards to the sky. The skylark, who is free, sings gaily and, when tired, drops to rest in his own nest (not in any cage). The human spirit, too, will be glorified and attain immortality after the death and resurrection of the individual. Thus, the theme of the poem is Resurrection. Similar to the caged skylark, the human individual reacts against his confines, aspires above them, and is frustrated by them. But after Resurrection the individual will no longer feel encumbered by the flesh or the body.

Before we start with the poem, let me tell you that the idea of the spirit being a prisoner in the body was a familiar one during the Renaissance. In John Webster’s play, The Duchess of Malfi, there is a passage with which the octave of this sonnet shows a striking similarity: “Didst thou ever see a lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body: this world is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven over our heads, like her looking-glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison.”

Besides, this poem is also said to be personal allegory of Hopkins’s life which was restricted and cramped by his routine duties and by the constant frustration of his creative impulse. The religious life to which he had dedicated himself placed a great mental strain upon him. He never wavered in his devotion, but he had to pay heavily for it. He suffered terrible fits of depression and the torments of self-disgust which came upon him from time to time.

All this is reflected in the following lines in the present poem: “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age./ Yet both droop deadly sometimes in their cells/Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.”

 

The Caged Skylark Analysis

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 the poem, The Caged Skylark, the poet compares the spirit of man to a caged skylark, which though possessing the courage to face a storm, may be confined within the bars of a dull cage, so the spirit of man, which has the courage to soar to heaven, is confined within the dwelling of the body which is a mean house of bones. Further, just as the skylark can no longer remember the time of his freedom to fly over the wild mountain scenery, so the spirit of man endures the drudgery of a slave, spending his long life on earth toiling and sweating.

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.

Continuing the comparison, the poet now says that there are times when both the man and the skylark, despite their confinement, experience a secret joy and sing the sweetest songs, the skylark sitting aloft on the turf-covered floor of the cage or on its perch in the cage, and  the man below on the poor, humble stage of this world. But there are also times when both the man and the bird experience the weight of this weary world and droop as though in death, or else they grow desperate in their efforts to break out of their prison, with alternating outbursts of fear and anger.

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

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

But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

The poet then turns his attention to a skylark that is free. In spite of his freedom, this singing bird too needs rest sometimes. After this bird has babbled his song up there in the sky, he must drop down to his nest. What makes all the difference, however, is that the free bird can rest in his own nest, amid the wildness of Nature, not in a cage where he would be deprived of his freedom.

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.

The poet, in this last stanza of the poem, says that in the same way, the human spirit, in the final state of resurrection, will be bound by flesh, for such is man’s nature (composed of body and soul). But then man will feel no hindrance from the flesh just as the down or fluff of dandelions, growing to seed in a meadow, feels no weight from a rainbow. The ‘bones risen’ or the resurrected human body is compared to the down in a meadow, while the human spirit is compare to a rainbow.)

 

Imagery used in The Caged Skylark

The aptness and vividness of images presented in this poem must also be admitted. The comparison made by the poet in the poem of the soul being held a prisoner in the body with a skylark held as a prisoner in a cage is most appropriate, though not new or original. The disparagement of the earthly life of human beings is expressed in forceful language. ‘This is drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.’ The picture of a free skylark ‘babbling’ his gay songs and then dropping into his nest for rest is vividly presented. The metaphor with which the poem closes is, however, somewhat elusive because it contains an unfamiliar image; ‘meadow-down is not distressed/For a rainbow footing.’

 

Use of Words and Phrases in The Caged Skylark

The phrase “dare-gale” has been coined on the analogy of “dare-devil”. The phrase “beyond the remembering” is intended to convey the sense of “unable to remember any longer” or “forgetful of”. The word “spells” has been used to mean “magically sweet melodies or songs”. “When found at best” is to be interpreted as referring to the resurrected human life. “For his bones risen” too means the same thing. All such usages create difficulties for the reader, though the poet’s daring in this regard cannot be doubted.

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  • Avatar Rippi says:

    How does the caged skylark relate it to hopkin’s poetic methods and concern what is the effect on the reader

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Hopkins uses plosives and alliteration, as well as rhyme in this poem. A lot of her description is very provocative, designed to create a tension, which almost runs in opposition to the rhyme. This discord I think is designed to represent the struggle of a soul (The skylark is a metaphor for the soul” escaping its mortal stresses.

  • Avatar Michael Shapiro says:

    Wonderful explanation – better than in my 4th year Eng. Lit class, long ago. I see several small typo’s you may or may not be interested in fixing: under “Imagery used…(2nd to last para of review), you have ‘meadow-down is NO[T] distressed’ & “it” is omitted. Your bio, I think should say “and continuously readS poems…” (3rd person & present). [Correcting a few typo’s of my own.] Thank you for this GREAT explication of G.M. Hopkins’ poem.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your feedback. I have amended this.

  • Avatar Debby says:

    Also, why is the bird specifically a skylark?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I’m not really sure. Ornithology is not really a strong point of mine!

  • Avatar Debby says:

    How does imagery and the structure support his thoughts?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Support whose thoughts?

  • Avatar Devansh Dhabhai says:

    can you tell about the diction used here

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Manley uses a lot of onomatopoeic words in here that helps to give the poem a very visceral feel

  • Avatar Dully says:

    What are the main themes and how does structure potray the ideas???

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      The main themes are freedom, death and reincarnation. The structure used is a sonnet, which more traditionally used for poems themed around love. Whether or not Hopkins used the form to be subversive isn’t really clear.

  • Avatar Crimsn says:

    Do yo believe there is a theme of death and Resurrection and if so what is Hopkins’ attitude towards it?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think the central theme is death. I think that Hopkins sees it as a release. Like a bird being set free.

  • Avatar Catie says:

    Could you explain the rhythm structure of this poem? I believe he uses sprung rhythm but I’m very confused!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I’m not sure it is just because the very first syllable of the poem is unstressed. The poem does have a pattern though. It has 12 syllables per line. I’m terrible at picking out stresses, it’s my Achilles heel! Why is there not a website where you just copy text into it and it tells you the stresses? Scientists need to stop what they are doing and design that!

    • Avatar Lit lover says:

      The rhyme pattern for the octave is ABBAABBA and for the seset is CCDCCD …..????

      • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

        yep, thank you for answering!

  • Avatar maya says:

    why has this poem been written

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      It is supposed to be an allegory for the life of the poet.

  • Avatar Lily says:

    The poem has a religious aspect to it right???

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      You could make that argument. I think many poems that deal with death could be read that way. However, I don’t think there is much implication to suggest there is a religious theme at least I don’t read it that way.

  • Avatar sriyani says:

    i felt like god himself had risen it was that calming and good to be true

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Poetry can have a profound affect on people. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Avatar sriyani says:

    this was amazingly fact full i learnt alot great work

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Really glad you enjoyed it.

  • Avatar valen says:

    for an essay , which could be the conclusion for this poem? please tell me!!!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I guess you could say that the poem concludes with the man’s resurrection.

  • Avatar Kevin the second says:

    First, the poet is claiming the fact that the human spirit is confined in the human body. He further states the fact that freedom and liberty will only be attained once the prison of bones no longer contains the soul. finally, the poet is taking about the fact that resurrection is the nature of human and when it resurrects, the spirit will be free of all the obstacles that it. isn’t the contrasting the initial claim of the poet that says the human body is a prison for the human soul. My question here is how can the poet claim that the human body is a prison for the human soul but after it resurrects, the body no longer is like a prison to the soul.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      That’s a thought provoking question. Could it be that the narrators mind changes? As a poet myself I sometimes have my speaker change their opinion as the poem progresses.

      • I think that the writer is comparing these two beings just to depict the fluctuations. Sometimes they sing sweetest songs and sometimes there is sorrow. This shows the vissicitudes in ones life. Also, death plays a very important role as to it is the very thing that frees the soul of man.Just like man know there will be freedom but is unaware of when it will come, death follows same attributes.
        Is this analysis sensible?

        • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

          yes and very succinctly worded.

  • Avatar qwerty says:

    is there any relationship between the

    1. the body and the soul
    2. skylark and the body

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think one of them informs the other other. I think the suggestion is that the body is the cage and so the skylark is the soul. so in some ways you could say there is a relationship between both the body and soul, as in the body cages the soul, and therefore, although it is blurring the metaphorical and the real, that there is a relationship between the skylark and the body.

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