The Caged Skylark: by G. M. Hopkins - Summary & Analysis

Also Read


As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man's mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells —
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life's age.

Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage
Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest —
Why, hear him, hear him babble & drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

Man's spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best,
But uncumberèd: meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.


      The poem The Caged Skylark was written in 1877. It was written at St. Beuno’s. The poem shows the poet’s awareness of objective beauty of the world. Hopkins makes a triumphant affirmation of his belief that it is with the soul that we can be most at one with Christ. In this sonnet, Hopkins makes an elaborate comparison between the human spirit and the skylark. These are two stages of this comparison: in the octave, the human spirit of a living human being is compared to a caged skylark; in the sestet, the human spirit of the same human being, when resurrected after death, is compared to a free skylark. Man has a spirit which aspires upwards, which tries to soar to heaven but is kept back by the prison of the body, just as a skylark imprisoned in a cage, finds it impossible to fly upwards to the sky. The poem has a personal and autobiographical interest. This poem is a personal allegory of Hopkins’s life which was restricted and cramped by his routine duties and by the constant frustration of his creative impulse. He suffered a terrible fits of depression and the torments of self-disgust which came upon him from time to time. In the following lines of the present poem all this is reflected:

This in drudgery, day-laboring-out life’s age
and in the following lines:

Yet both, droop deadly sometimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.


      Stanza 1. In the first stanza, the poet compares the spirit of man to a caged skylark. Just as the skylark has the courage to face a storm but is confined within the bars of a dull cage, so the spirit of man has the courage and energy to soar to heaven but it is confined within the prison of the body (bone-house), which is a mean house of bones. Further, just as the skylark can no longer remember the time of his freedom to fly over the wild mountain scenery, so the spirit of
man endures the drudgery of a slave; he spends his long life on earth toiling and sweating. Just as the skylark cannot remember the time when he was free to fly over the mountains, similarly the spirit of man goes through the drudgery of laboring and toiling hard throughout the long life. Man is born like the bird. His innermost will always tries or wants to get rid of the bindings of the family or the society that enchain him and make him low down in spirit. The skylark is similarly confined to its cage. It can no longer remember the time of his freedom to fly over the wild mountain scenery. The magnificent bird has its abundant energy to soar high above the sky but it is confined to the cage and falls downward.

      Stanza 2. In the second stanza, the poet wants to say that in spite of their confinements within their respective calls both the man and the bird sing the sweetest song; the skylark sits aloft on the turf-covered floor of the cage or on its perch in the cage and the man below on the poor humble stage of this world. But there are also times when both the man and the bird experience the weight of this weary world. They droop as though in death, they constantly outburst in fear and anger to break out of their prison. In spite of their imprisonment, they continue to experience a secret joy and ring the sweetest song. The poet means to say that the inner zeal of a individual or a bird can never be suppressed for a long; They are sure to come out even kept under the confinement within the bars of a cage. In the cage the bird and within the four wall the human spirit grow desperate in their efforts to break out of their respective prisons.

      Stanza 3. The poet in this stanza turns his attention to the skylark, but this skylark is not caged, it is free. The skylark which has deliberately sang in the sky for a long needs rest—it drops down to its own nest amidst the wildness of Nature—where it has all the freedom. He does not drop down to a prison which is devoid of cheerfulness and enjoyment. In this stanza the poet means to say that a free spirit does never want to remain confined in a cell or in a surrounding which deprives him from enlightenment; he always seeks a world which is beyond all meanness and bindings and where his sweet heart can soar high above with rapturous joy.

      Stanza 4. Even after resurrection, a man’s spirit will be enclosed in a fleshy body, but he will not feel the burden of flesh, if will not weigh upon its spirit like a load. Like rainbow which does not weigh heavily upon the fluff of dandelion plants, but casts its splendor enhancing the beauty of nature, the physique of a man will remain weightless to a resurrected spirit because of its spiritual upliftment.


Stanza 1

Line 1: A dare-gale skylark: a skylark that dares to face a storm.

Scanted: “Scanty” means “little” or “not adequate”. “Scanted” refers to the inadequate space in a cage.

Dull cage: The cage is dull because it offers no variety.

Line 2: Man's mounting spirit: Like the skylark, the spirit of man too has the courage to fly upwards towards the heaven.

Bone-House: Human body is made up of bones (and flesh) and in this human body the spirit of human is imprisoned.

Mean House: The bone-house or the cage in which the human spirit is imprisoned is a mean house. The poet means to say that the bone-house is mean-house or humble place as compared to the greatness of the soul.

Line 3: fells: mountains;

free fells: the skylark flew freely over the mountains.

Line 4: This: The spirit of human being.

drudgery: Hard labor.

Day-labouring out life's age: Spending the period of long life endless labor.

Stanza 2

Line 1: Though aloft on turf: The skylark sings sitting aloft the turf floor of the cage.

Perch: The place in the cage where the bird might sit.

Poor low stage: The humble and low stage of life on which man spends his days,

Line 2: Sweetest spells: exquisite songs.

Line 3: Droop deadly: feel depressed and weak like a dying creature; both the skylark and man feel depressed and tired and droop down as if dead.

In their cells: in their prisons—the cage in the case of the skylark, and the body in the case of human spirit.

In bursts of fear or rage: In outbursts of fear or anger.

Stanza 3

Line 1: Sweet-fowl, song fowl: The sweet skylark, a song-bird. But here the skylark is not caged, it is different one who is free.
Nut that.....needs no rest: “The sweet fowl, song-fowl needs rest.” That is the skylark in its natural state of freedom is not without desire for rest, when feeling tired. The line has two negatives, which convey a positive sense.

Line 2: Hear him babble: Hear him singing in a care-free voice.

Babble: Singing in a care-free voice
Drop down to his nest: The skylark when tired of singing drops down to his own nest.

Line 3: Wild nest; It is a nest in wild Nature, on a tree, away from men’s homes.

No prison: The bird’s nest is the bird’s home, not a prison as the cage is.

Stanza 4

Line 1: Flesh bound: At the time of the resurrection the spirit of man will be ‘flesh-bound’.

When found at best: When resurrected

Line 2: uncumbered: not burdened or weighed down.

Man’s spirit.....uncumbered: When after death the human spirit returns to life it will still be bound by flesh or the body; the flesh or body will be no hindrance to the freedom of the spirit. The soul will still be in the body even after the individual resurrection, but the body will be glorified and man will become immortal.

Line 2: Meadow-down: down in the meadow. The fluffy substance that comes out of plants is ‘Down’. It comes out of plants like dandelions when they grow to seed in a meadow.

Is not distressed: The soul will not feel the weight of the body at the time of resurrection. The poet here employs an analogy to convey the light quality of the body after its resurrection.

Line 3: For a rainbow footing it: just as the meadow down will not feel the weight of a rainbow resting upon it so the soul of man will not feel the weight of the body at the time of the resurrection. The poet here draws a similarity of a rainbow by saying if one end of the rainbow were to rest upon the fluff of dandelions, the fluff will not feel the weight, because the rainbow is almost weightless.

Line 3: Bones risen: bones resurrected.


      Hopkins’s poem The Caged Skylark offers an elaborate comparison between the spirit of man confined in the prison of the body and a captive lark imprisoned in a cage. The comparison implies that the spirit of man aspires upwards and tries to soar to heaven, but is kept back by the prison of the body just as the skylark imprisoned in a cage, finds it impossible to fly upwards to the sky. The human spirit will be glorified and will attain immortality after death and resurrection. We can think of the ideal unity of the spirit and body after the resurrection as here embodied in the skylark, singing and flying in full natural freedom.

      Hopkins’s use of words and phrases in this poem is appreciative. The word “spells” has been used to mean “magically sweet melodies or song”. “When found at best” is to be interpreted as referring to the resurrected human life. “For his bones risen” too means the same thing. The aptness and vividness of images presented in poem is also noteworthy. The comparison of the soul being held a prisoner in the body with a skylark held as a prisoner in a cage is most appropriate, though not new or original.

      Besides this, the alliterative phrases also give the poem a remarkable position. The repetition of the “d”, “s”, “e” and “I” sound in the first line is noteworthy:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage.

      In the fourth line of the first stanza we find the repetition of “d” sounds — “drudgery day-laboring-out”. In the second line of the second stanza “s” sound is repeated several times :

Both sing sometimes the sweetest, sweetest spells. 

      Although the poem is deeply poignant and pessimistic in its portrayal of human life on earth and in its autobiographical context, it is optimistic and cheering in its prophetic pronouncement. The poet finds escape from his despair in his hope of the resurrection of every individual human being after death.

      Mackenzie comments on Hopkins’s poem that in depicting a lot common to all men, Hopkins nevertheless seems to have had himself specially in mind. Born with a poetic voice, he could on occasion produce hauntingly beautiful songs but more often he lacked time and motive, as he told Bridges in a letter. The octave offers the extra stress which a religious man with a mounting spirit inevitably experiences as he struggles to lead a life of perfection in a fallen body. In writing line 4, Hopkins was consciously echoing the complaint voiced by the blind Milton: “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”

Previous Post Next Post