Featured Poem: Returning, We Hear the Larks by Isaac Rosenberg
This week's Featured Poem is Returning, We Hear the Larks by Isaac Rosenberg, chosen by The Reader's Head of Learning and Quality, Clare Ellis.
Unpredictability. That is the main feeling I am always left with after reading this poem, ever since I first became acquainted with it back in 2016 after randomly coming across it in one of our poetry anthologies - On Active Service. Life can surprise you at any time, the poem seems to say to me, it can surprise for better or worse, and it can feel that whatever reprieve we might be lucky enough to receive away from life’s misery is always at risk of changing again - or even worst, already holds within it some destructive force which is yet unbeknown to us. ‘Like a girl's dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,/ Or her kisses where a serpent hides.’
‘Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.’
There’s something about the ordering of those first four words which feels important but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is as yet. It starts with the feeling, sombre, rather than the night itself, as if the feeling overrides everything else and is the one unshakable force at play? Sombre makes me feel a heaviness somehow, a weight of consciousness. Perhaps this prepares us for the bleak certainty of what follows: that ‘though we have our lives, we know/ What sinister threat lurks there.’
To ‘know’ that a threat lurks in our lives is a very uncomfortable thing to live with. It also feels a difficult knowledge here because the threat, while known and real, still feels hidden - it ‘lurks’ - in the darkness of the night. Now, a dark night in between lulls of battle might have very specific ideas of threat for a solider but there’s something about the vagueness and feeling of the moment here which seems to be speaking to a danger beyond the battlefield - dangers awaiting us all even when we think we are at our safest.
‘But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy./ Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:/ Music showering on our upturned listening faces.’ I am so grateful for this ‘But’ here, as the surprise that comes to us is one of joy - the joy of hearing the larks out there, living their lives with full gusto even though your world might be falling apart. Is that why it is called a ‘strange joy’ rather than just a ‘joy’ I wonder? I love the way the world seems to enlarge for a moment as we feel ‘Heights of night’ as much as hear its ‘ringing with unseen larks’. Interesting that the larks are unseen too - great things can be hidden from us as well as things that put our lives at risk?
It feels to me though like luck rather than fate has enabled this moment, and I don’t know whether this adds or takes away from the comfort to be received here? For ‘Death could drop from the dark/ As easily as song—/But song only dropped,/ Like a blind man's dreams on the sand/ By dangerous tides’. Everything feels quite vulnerable again - precious things are out there in life but how can we protect them from those ‘dangerous tides’ by which they co-exist?
I’d be really interested to know how you were left feeling after reading this poem readers? How can we live and appreciate life’s riches amidst forebodings of life’s dangers? Any advice welcome!
Returning, We Hear the Larks
Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl's dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
By Isaac Rosenberg