I am not an ornithologist, but if I were my favourite bird would undoubtedly be the lark, for the simple reason that it features in both my favourite poem and my favourite piece of music: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. In fact, in many ways the lark is the most poetic of birds, as references to it abound in literature, art and music, from medieval times to the present day. What is it about this small, even humble bird that has constantly excited the human imagination, even that of artists as great as Shakespeare and Vaughan Williams?
Poetic allusions to the lark predate even Shakespeare, with Chaucer referring in The Knight’s Tale to “the bisy larke, messager of day,” and this image offers the first clue to the extraordinary hold that the lark and its song have exerted over literary and artistic minds. In our overwhelmingly urban world, it is easy to forget the central role that birdsong, including that of the lark, once played in ushering in, even announcing, the start of the day. Indeed, in a world before clocks (their use did not become widespread until the 15th century and even then they would have been too expensive for ordinary people, the majority of whom were agricultural workers), birds like the lark would have been not only symbolically but literally the “messager of day.”
In Sonnet 29, Shakespeare’s reference to the lark also symbolises a new beginning ¬– not just of a single day, but of a whole new life, or at least a new attitude to life. In the poem’s first two quatrains, Shakespeare provides one of the most authentic portrayals of depression, even despair, in all of art, culminating in the last line of the second quatrain:
“With what I most enjoy contented least.”
Even if the poem is not directly autobiographical, it is impossible not to imagine that at this point Shakespeare was referring, among other things, to his own writing; his anguish is such that he can no longer find any joy in the art that had sustained him for so long, both financially and spiritually. But then the arrival of the lark in the third quatrain is the symbol of his rejuvenation, even rebirth:
“Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.”
The whole poem hinges on that marvellously alliterative line: “Like to the lark at break of day arising.” Shakespeare imagines himself (or the narrator of the poem) taking flight again, his spirits soaring into the air once more, as he remembers the “sweet love” (which may be not only for another human being but for an artistic muse) that leads him to conclude:
“That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
For a long time, I mistakenly thought that Vaughan Williams’s “pastoral romance for orchestra,” as Simon Heffer memorably described it in his biography of the composer, had been directly inspired by Sonnet 29. In fact, it was inspired by another great poem about the songbird by another great poet, George Meredith, which was actually entitled The Lark Ascending. At 122 lines, as opposed to 14, Meredith’s poem is much longer than that of Shakespeare, but the overall poetic effect is remarkably similar. It, too, recreates to dizzying effect the vertiginous rise of the lark as it soars high above the human world, culminating in a final couplet that is almost as memorable (and quotable) as Shakespeare’s:
“Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.”
Vaughan Williams famously inscribed these lines, along with others from the poem, on the published score for his own The Lark Ascending, showing how he had been attempting to translate Meredith’s words into music. He triumphantly succeeded, to the extent that his The Lark Ascending has now largely obscured the poem of the same name that inspired it (to the extent that slow-witted dullards such as myself imagine that Shakespeare, not Meredith, had inspired Vaughan Williams).
In fact, Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending has, appropriately enough, ascended into the musical ether, especially in England, where it has become almost a leitmotif of all things English and is generally regarded as the English people’s favourite piece of classical music. Only last month, it was voted Number One in a poll organised by listeners to Classic FM, a classical music radio station, and in the past it has been named by the BBC as the nation’s favourite “Desert Island Disc” (the piece of music that people would most like to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island).
The circumstances surrounding Vaughan Williams’s composition of The Lark Ascending are themselves a testament to the enduring power of the lark as a symbol of rebirth. He began work on the piece in 1914, when war in Europe was fast approaching, and it was even suggested by his wife Ursula in her biography of her husband that he had begun working on it while watching British troops boarding ships to be transported to France, although a more prosaic explanation has been given that he composed it while preparing for a lecture on the music of Henry Purcell (his predecessor as England’s greatest composer).
Whatever the exact details of where and when Vaughan Williams began work on the piece, there is no doubt that its genesis lay in the period before the war and that, like Sonnet 29, it was regarded by its creator as some kind of artistic antidote to the sense of impending doom that was enveloping the world (or at least Europe) at the time. However, the outbreak of war prevented Vaughan Williams from completing it: he himself served as an ambulance man on the Western Front, bloody work that directly inspired another of his great pastoral masterpieces, his “Pastoral Symphony” (Symphony No.3). It was only with the return of peace and Vaughan Williams’s own return to England, that he completed The Lark Ascending, and it was finally premiered in December 1920. It was an instant success, and its popularity has continued to grow ever since.
Even if Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 did not directly inspire Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, the comparisons between the two works are considerable. Both almost exist as “stand-alone” works, separate from their creators’ other vast bodies of work; even those who claim to have no knowledge of poetry or classical music might recognise this poem and this piece of music. They are also both short: like all Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Sonnet 29 is only 14 lines long while The Lark Ascending is less than 20 minutes in length. In our increasingly “bisy” world, brevity is increasingly the soul of wit and short works of art, like these, are, if anything, increasing in popularity in comparison with longer poems or orchestral pieces.
More importantly, however, despite being very different works of art (one a poem, one a piece of music), Sonnet 29 and The Lark Ascending have a remarkably similar artistic effect, and the clue to that effect is in the reference in both pieces to the lark. In Shakespeare’s poem, the lark is “arising”, while in Vaughan Williams’s music it is “ascending”. Like all birds, larks can literally ascend into the air remarkably quickly, but unlike many birds they often sing as they do so, particularly in so-called “display flight”, where they are trying to attract mates. This image of a bird both rising into the air and singing beautifully and melodiously as it does so is the main reason for the widespread use of the lark as a symbol of human rejuvenation. That is true not only in these two artistic works but in many others, including more recent examples such as the great reggae singer Horace Andy’s song, and album of the same name, Skylarking, which has become his signature tune, both as a solo artist and in his work with arguably the greatest British pop band of the late 20th century, Massive Attack.
The soul singing as it soars, high above the “sullen earth” below, to “sing hymns at heaven’s gate” – this is the image that the lark offers, and it is why that image is so prevalent in art, poetry and music, particularly English art, poetry and music. In effect, from the personal despair and subsequent spiritual revival of Shakespeare (or his narrator) in Sonnet 29 to the gathering gloom of early 20th century Europe in which Vaughan Williams composed his own ode to the songbird, the lark’s song has been the soundtrack to both the most profound human suffering and, even more importantly, our ability to overcome that suffering. That, surely, is why the likes of Shakespeare, Vaughan Williams and so many other great artists have attempted to translate avian warbling into human words, pictures and music.