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.
Man has a spirit that 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 a 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 compared to a rainbow.)
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
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.