These days, the first thing I hear when I step outside my door is a lark. Or probably a couple of larks; their voices are so deeply enmeshed it is impossible to disentangle them. Its only when I look up and carefully listen that I realise there might be more than one.
No bird, apart from perhaps the nightingale, is so strongly characterised by its song. But no-one could claim they are good lookers. Its pale brown plumage is flecked with darker brown flecks and…that’s about it, though it does wear a natty crest. The nightingale is just plain brown, perhaps slightly greyer below, but still brown. They embody the birder’s acronym, an ‘LBJ’: that ‘little brown job’ that is hard to identify.
The skylark’s dullness of appearance is, of course, an adaptation to its environment. Skylarks nest on the ground, where they are almost invisible. Only the male sings, and he does so like most birds to attract a mate and deter rivals. Such prosaic intentions have not, of course, discouraged poets from identifying with the bird for all sorts of reasons. The fact that they draw our gaze ever upwards, higher and higher, cannot help but make us think of loftier things. Wordsworth clearly thought so, and rated the skylark above the nightingale.
TO A SKYLARK
Ethereal minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?
Or, while the wings aspire, are heart and eye
Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?
Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,
Those quivering wings composed, that music still!
Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;
A privacy of glorious light is thine;
Whence thou dost pour upon the world a flood
Of harmony, with instinct more divine;
Type of the wise who soar, but never roam;
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!
But if ever a bird embodied the paradox that among those creatures we care for most are many that have suffered huge losses due to environmental damage it is the skylark. At one time it was so abundant that thousands were killed and sold for food, especially in wintertime. Gilbert White refers to great congregations of larks, chaffinches and linnets in the fields during the coldest months. But such things are no more. The larks I see near my home probably nest in a few patches of rough ground on the edge of the golf course. I’m aware of them only because of their exuberant song. And though we might like to wax lyrical at the notion of a skylark – is anything more ‘English’ than Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending? – we have wrecked its habitat through the widespread use of pesticides and the almost total decline of spring sowing, which had left the ground alone after harvest and thus provided food over the winter for many a field-bird.
Perhaps because I’m aware of this darker side to our relationship with the skylark, I rather like John Clare’s poem Address to a Lark, Singing in Winter. Clare knew hard times as few poets have. Compare Clare’s poem, which is a warning against false hope (though in creating the poem itself Clare defies his own warning) with Wordsworth’s, and ask yourself whose message cuts deepest.
ADDRESS TO A LARK, SINGING IN WINTER.
Ay, little Larky! what’s the reason,
Singing thus in winter season?
Nothing, surely, can be pleasing
To make thee sing;
For I see nought but cold and freezing,
And feel its sting.
Perhaps, all done with silent mourning,
Thou think’st that summer is returning,
And this the last, cold, frosty morning,
To chill thy breast;
If so, I pity thy discerning;
And so I’ve guess’d.
Poor, little Songster! vainly cheated;
Stay, leave thy singing uncompleted;
Drop where thou wast beforehand seated,
In thy warm nest;
Nor let vain wishes be repeated,
But sit at rest.
‘Tis winter; let the cold content thee:
Wish after nothing till it’s sent thee,
For disappointments will torment thee,
Which will be thine:
I know it well, for I’ve had plenty
Advice, sweet Warbler! don’t despise it:
None know what’s what, but he that tries it;
And then he well knows how to prize it,
And so do I:
Thy case, with mine I sympathise it,
With many a sigh.
Vain Hope! of thee I’ve had my portion;
— Mere flimsy cobweb! changing ocean!
That flits the scene at every motion,
And still eggs on,
With sweeter view, and stronger notion
To dwell upon:
Yes, I’ve dwelt long on idle fancies,
Strange and uncommon as romances,
On future luck my noddle dances,
What I would be;
But, ah! when future time advances,
All’s blank to me.
Now twenty years I’ve pack’d behind me,
Since hope’s deluding tongue inclin’d me —
To fuss myself. But, Warbler, mind me,
It’s all a sham;
And twenty more’s as like to find me
Just as I am.
I’m poor enough, there’s plenty knows it;
Obscure; how dull, my scribbling shows it:
Then sure ‘twas madness to suppose it,
What I was at,
To gain preferment! there I’ll close it:
So mum for that.
Let mine, sweet Bird, then be a warning:
Advice in season don’t be scorning,
But wait till Spring’s first days are dawning
To glad and cheer thee;
And then, sweet Minstrel of the morning,
I’d wish to hear thee.