Robert William Service’s poetry always seemed to carry a somewhat different perspective to it. In fact, he preferred not to refer to his poems as such, referring to them as “verses” instead, as he felt it was a more accurate description of the works he created. The Lark, one of his works born from his experience in the First World War, and dedicated to the memory of his late brother, Lieutenant Albert Service, stands out from the many other war-torn verses Service created to mark this time. It was first published in Service’s war-inspired volume, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man in 1916. The Lark shows a different side of the war, and a different side to the soldiers typically depicted in stories concerning it, Service’s included.
The Lark Analysis
From wrath-red dawn to wrath-red dawn,
The guns have brayed without abate;
And now the sick sun looks upon
The bleared, blood-boltered fields of hate
As if it loathed to rise again.
How strange the hush! Yet sudden, hark!
From yon down-trodden gold of grain,
The leaping rapture of a lark.
The highly imagery-infused first verse of the poem paints a powerful — and very red — picture for the reader, describing in the first line how days blend together in shades of red; the red of the rising sun, and undoubtedly the red of bloodshed as well. The dawn is personified, and described as being angry. The sense given by these lines is one that suggests that nature itself abhors the atrocities being committed on its soil, and the sun itself would rather not rise in the morning and have to shed light on the war. The light is red, the fields are red, and even the hate is described as being somewhat red. For the narrator, war is clearly all that exists in the world; this first verse describes only the unceasing firing of guns and the “fields of hate” on which they fire.
All of this changes when, during a moment of silence, a lark appears on one of the few unspoiled elements of nature in the scene, and begins to sing rapturously — euphorically. The use of the word “rapture” is so heavily out of place in the lines that precede the last one that it is easy to understand the feelings the narrator might suddenly feel when a gloriously blissful song breaks through the morning’s dose of death and decay.
The structure followed in this first verse remains consistent throughout the poem — each verse is eight lines long, each line is eight syllables long, and the last work of each line rhymes with the last word on the second line afterwards (AABB). This is a common, simple approach to verse that results in a consistent, easy-to-read poem for the reader.
A fusillade of melody,
That sprays us from yon trench of sky;
A new amazing enemy
We cannot silence though we try;
A battery on radiant wings,
That from yon gap of golden fleece
Hurls at us hopes of such strange things
As joy and home and love and peace.
The beginning of the second verse — “A ‘fusillade’ of melody” — does an excellent job at describing the narrators immediate reaction to the bird’s song. “Fusillade” is a word used to describe a rapidly sent barrage of missile or gunfire, and is a word that would be a common one on the battlefield. Soldiers such as the narrator would consider a fusillade to be a harbinger of death, something to be avoided at all costs, and to constantly be prepared for. The choice of words that follows is very intentional — the “spray” of melody from the “trench” of sky are war-based imageries. The instinct of each soldier is to regard the lark as an enemy, and this enemy relentlessly sends forth its song, which the soldiers regard as a “strange thing,” as it contains within it undertones of “joy,” “love,” “home,” and “peace.” To the soldiers, war is the only thing in the world; the song of the lark is meaningless and confusing to them.
Pure heart of song! do you not know
That we are making earth a hell?
Or is it that you try to show
Life still is joy and all is well?
Brave little wings! Ah, not in vain
You beat into that bit of blue:
Lo! we who pant in war’s red rain
Lift shining eyes, see Heaven too.
In this verse, the narrator actually becomes seemingly angry with the bird, asking if it is actually doesn’t realize that it has no place in the world the war is creating. He ponders at the meaning of the song — does the bird not realize that the soldiers are fighting a war? Is it that the bird wants to express that there is still goodness in the world? Whatever the cause of the bird’s song, the narrator realizes that it is not yet in vain. When they look up to see the bird, they see its eyes, and for a moment, see the world as the bird does, and its song takes on meaning. There is repetition of the “red” imagery, as the narrator states they can see through the haze of red, of blood, of dawn, and are now perceiving a sense of Heaven, a brief reprise of the sense of joy, home, hope, and peace so perfectly encapsulated in the rapture of a lark.
For Robert Service, and many people like him, World War One became the entirety of the world. It was all-encompassing, and the horror, the red described by the narrator here, was so awful and powerful that it is difficult to describe in words over a century later. What is certain is that the reminder of a world outside, so nicely portrayed through the lark in the poem, was exactly as described by Service here — it was a reminder of Heaven, a vision of peace and home and joy waiting for each person outside of the atrocities they needed to survive. The sentiment expressed in The Lark may well be one of the purest forms of hope, the kind that survives and surpasses anything in the world, no matter how dark, no matter how wretched, and no matter how red.