ON ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.
Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend, 5
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none ’s to spill nor spend.
How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time, 10
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,
Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.
This week’s poem is difficult. True, it is a bit tricky to figure out at first, but what I mean by “difficult” is that it doesn’t offer the positive turn or ray of hope that many of Hopkins’s poems do. It is somber.
So why read it?
Good question. I think a fitting answer is that “The Sea and the Skylark” can serve as a sort of wakeup call to look and see the reality of our place in the world and to live more intentionally.
I mentioned last week that sometimes it is best when approaching a poem to figure out if there is some sort of narrative context or scene being described. Let me add this week that before even doing that, it is a good idea to read a poem aloud. This might make you feel foolish, but we need to remember that a large part of poetry’s meaning is sound. Poets choose words based on their various shades of meaning, certainly, but just as certainly they choose words based on their sounds as well. If you’ve been reading these posts during the past few weeks, you’ve probably noticed that Hopkins is very concerned about sound. He even adds accent marks to show the reader how he intends the poem to be read.
So scroll back up and read the poem again, maybe two or three times to get the sound of the lines in your head.
Note that this poem is a sonnet. It has fourteen lines of about ten syllables and five beats each. It has a particular rhyme scheme (which makes it an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet). Also note the line breaks that Hopkins adds. Often times a poet will use a line break to show a transition or movement from one image to another. In this particular poem, Hopkins uses the line breaks to help set the narrative scene. The speaker is standing with the sea to his right and (perhaps) the sand dunes to his left. He describes the sound and sight of the sea’s high and low tides in the first quatrain. In the second, he describes the skylark’s sound and flight as it sort of zigzags skyward like an unwinding skein of fabric or a wire unwound from a winch. (Pardon my alliteration. You probably noticed the wild alliteration of this poem, which helps create the sound Hopkins is striving four.)
While Hopkins does depict this seaside scene and sound for us, his primary concern is introduced in the last six lines. The pure beauty and sound of the sea and the skylark shame the “shallow and frail town,” which literally is Rhyl in in Wales, but figuratively this “town” also refers to civilization. They shame the town and in their beauty they “ring right out” the dirty (“sordid”) and muddled (“turbid”) time or age in time.
Why do the sea and skylark shame us and out ring us? Because we, though the best of God’s creation, have lost the “cheer and charm” of the Garden, of the times when man walked with God in pleasure and joy… as the sea and skylark do. Our bodies and what we create (our “make and making”) are breaking down, and we’re heading back to the dust from which we were created.
Bleak? Sobering? Depressing? Sure, you could use these words to describe the tone of this poem. But what if we go the other way with it and think, “Yeah. We—I—am like this.” What if we’re honest and just admit that we’re distracted with ourselves and what we do (as the visitors to this seaside town that inspired the poem were). What if instead of just draining “toward our first slime,” we turn to sea and skylark, to the creation which still lives in “cheer and charm” with its maker, and seek to do the same.
This will take some effort for many of us, right? Kind of like the effort it takes to wade through some of these Hopkins poems. But, as with these poems, the wading in and wading through is worth the satisfaction of discovery and recovery of who we are to be as human beings.