Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 732
“The Caged Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet with a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA in the octave and CCDCCD in the sestet. The small number of end-rhyme sounds adds intensity and concentration to the conceit that occupies most of the poem. There is a particularly striking contrast in the feminine end rhyme, “prison” and “risen.” As is common with Hopkins’s sonnets, the rhyme scheme is strictly regular, but the meter frequently varies from its baseline of iambic pentameter, using sprung rhythm in lines that are generally eleven or twelve syllables long. Alliteration, consonance, and assonance also contribute to the highly musical quality of the verse.
The poem begins with the image of “a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage.” The word “scant” is seldom used as a verb, and its strangeness contributes to the unnatural image of the brave bird in a state of neglect and imprisonment. The conceit—or extended metaphor—that supplies the poem’s major theme emerges in the second line. The human spirit is trapped within the body as a bird is in a cage. The simile is exact. “Man’s mounting spirit” is capable of flight, like a bird, but is imprisoned in a “bone-house,” an Anglo-Saxon kenning for a skeleton. Man’s skeleton—a synecdoche for his corporeal existence—is compared to the birdcage, for it, too, prevents the spirit from soaring. Hence the poet calls it a “mean house.”
The spirit, like the bird, has been imprisoned so long that it cannot remember a time when it was free. The alliteration here highlights the contrast between the “free fells”—which refers both to avian aerial swoops and to open hilly terrain—that are now forgotten and the “drudgery” and “day-labouring” that make up everyday reality. The term “free fells” applied to the spirit also recalls the story of the Fall of Man, the cause of this imprisonment. Although it cannot remember flight, the soul still retains the other great attribute of a bird: song. Like the bird, it will sometimes sing “the sweetest, sweetest spells,” a term which imparts magic as well as sweetness to the song of the spirit. Such spirited song is what we are reading now, for poetry is one of the clearest ways for the caged soul to sing. The poet’s soul seeks freedom in art and finds it temporarily. The octave ends, however, with the other possible responses of both the soul and the bird: despair and anger. The soul droops in its cell or beats against the bars in rage.
The sestet begins with a contrast and a comparison. The free bird is like the caged bird in that he cannot sing all the time, but must sometimes “drop down” in his nest as the imprisoned bird does in his cage. However, he rests in “his own nest, wild nest, no prison,” and he stops singing because he is naturally tired and seeks refreshment, not because he is worn out by the misery of incarceration.
The comparison between the caged bird and the free bird is relatively simple, connecting unnatural and natural states. In the final three lines, however, Hopkins makes the more complex distinction between the earthbound human spirit, imprisoned in the body while we are alive, and the risen spirit in heaven after death. While the caged bird is an exact simile for the state of the human spirit on earth, the free bird is not precisely similar to the risen spirit, which still has a body attached. When he first mentions this, Hopkins uses the compound adjective “flesh-bound,” a characteristic term which makes it sound as though the spirit is still trapped and weighed down like a caged bird. In the next line, however, he paradoxically adds that this flesh-bound spirit is “uncumberèd.” The final, pellucidly graceful simile compares the body to a rainbow, which does not “distress” the grasses when it ends in a meadow. This, of course, is because the rainbow only appears to be ending in the meadow and is not really resting upon the grasses. For the poet, however, the illusory quality of this description emphasizes the mystery by which human flesh and bone become weightless in heaven, the spirit no longer caged or burdened. It is as though the body, like the rainbow, weighs nothing because it is composed of pure light.
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