Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music

Song of the Lark, 1884, Jules Breton
Background Image: Song of the Lark, 1884, Jules Breton

The standard reading here is that you’re not going to find the Lark’s music by splitting her open, however, if you split two larks apart they will sing for each other (as in a mating call). But this poem is meant to be read with as many readings as possible because I think Emily is showing off (perhaps to Thomas Higginson) who maybe doubted (John 20: 24-25) the music of her poetry.

Let’s consider Emily’s and Thomas’ relationship as that of two songbirds who are separated by a distance and thus sing to each other through their correspondence. In this way two people are not that much different than two lark’s who sing for each other in the meadow. And though I’m not implying there is more to their relationship beyond professional and friendly correspondence, I do think Emily is connecting birdsong to that of human speech and writing – we’re all trying to communicate what is in our hearts and minds as well as possible. Thus when two birds are “Split” they will sing all the louder for each other.

And I think that it is in context of their correspondence that this poem can be truly enjoyed because perhaps Thomas Higginson was too harsh to some of her poetry or perhaps he read into something that wasn’t there and this annoyed Emily to the point of writing this poem. I have no evidence for this, but the fact that she begins a poem with a line that means you’re not going to find the beauty of a bird’s song by cutting her open (just as you’re not going to find the beauty of a poem by endlessly dissecting it) then it seems as if she at least had in mind her own poetry and how it might be received or interpreted by others.

And it’s perhaps the second line of the poem, “Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled” which might be a clue as to the issue Emily might be having with how Higginson is reading her poetry. This line is, for me, a wonderful example of her synesthesia, and to her it makes perfect sense that a birdsong would be like a “Bulb” (if we think of the bird as a “Bulb”) whose chest swells with each breath and thus resembles “Silver” and each time the little bird puffs up like a “Bulb” it’s like her feathers roll back and forth on her breast. She’s combining hearing and vision and movement in one image and it’s a strange image and requires some work on the reader’s behalf to be open to it. And such an unusual image might be the sort of thing that Higginson might struggle with and perhaps not really understand what she’s doing. For Emily this synesthesia is perfectly obvious, but for someone who does not possess this gift, it’s like being a “Lark” that has been separated from its mate so far the song no longer reaches the ear.

Though she might be aware that she posses a talent few others have and that might be why she uses the phrase “Scantily dealt” because, like the lark’s little song in the meadow, her poetry is but a brief song in “the Summer Morning / Saved for your Ear”. Her song is meant for a specific “Ear” (perhaps the “Lark” she has been separated from) but she might also be aware that it might not be received as intended. Though there is an implied sexual image here in that the song is sweet and intoxicating and that birdsong is often understood as their desire to mate, so perhaps she is combining the possibility that her poetry will be misunderstood with her own sexual desire and frustration? Even the word “Lute” which at first seems to refer to the musical instrument, might be a reference to its other definition as “clay or cement composed of various ingredients, and used to stop an orifice” (OED), meaning that when the ears are old and can no longer hear they might not be able to hear her song and thus she remains “Split” from her “Lark”.

The second stanza is even more remarkable in that she combines the image of a “Flood” with that of her song (her poetry) pouring out of her (especially as she realizes that whom she calls for can’t hear her and so the song becomes more desperate), with that of the image of God’s judgment. If we return to Higginson and the possibility he was too harsh to one of her poems, this might be her way of exacting revenge by saying that the words will “Flood” out of her so powerfully that they will cover every corner of the earth. And when we read this poem we get the sense that she wants every word to pull double and triple duty with multiple meanings and readings that it’s like a “Flood” of meaning. Yet just as we are unable to understand the intricacies of the bird’s song, the meaning is lost on our “old” ears which are unable to hear as well as they should.

Emily then refers back to writing and her synesthesia with her use of “patent” which in one sense refers to the rainbow which was God’s promise (a contract / patent) with humanity that He will never do that again, but it’s a message made of color, not of words. So just as Emily sees the birdsong as a “Bulb” of “Silver rolled”, she sees her writing as a contract (perhaps with the Form of art or love or beauty or God) made up of meaning and color. For her they are one and the same, but to the reader it might seem either overwhelming or just plain difficult to understand.

She again repeats the third line of the first stanza in the second line of the second with the way she connects “Scantily” with “reserved”. “reserved” in one sense means that it is set aside for one individual, but it can also mean to hold back which not only relates to the image of the rainbow after the “Flood” but also in the sexual sense in which the “Lark” which has been “Split” from its partner sings out only with the desire for one true “Lark” of their heart. She will “Gush” with song just as the waters gushed over the whole of the earth, and her song gushes with emotion, as well as meaning hidden inside her synesthesia and her use of multiple definitions of words.

Yet this image of a “Flood” and to “Gush” could also refer back to how when you “Split the Lark” (when you cut her open or overly dissect a poem) she will bleed to death. In other words she wants the song to be enjoyed for what it is, and that to look too far into it misses the whole point. The song is supposed to be beautiful. Yes, the song has meaning in that it calls out for a mate, but it also has its own beauty as separated from any further meaning. The song and the poem can be enjoyed just by listening to it. One doesn’t need to understand synesthesia to love how “Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled” sounds – it just rolls off the tongue, it’s pleasant to hear and to say. Yes, it carries a deeper meaning, but it first should be enjoyed at the most sensual level, it should speak directly to the heart before it speaks to the mind. The rainbow can just be a beautiful experience – the possibility that it also carries a more significant meaning is almost irrelevant.

Thus the “Scarlet Experiment” may not only refer to the splitting open of a “Lark” to see its internal organs (the way we have cut open this poem) but the “Experiment” may refer to one heart reaching out to another but being unsure if it will find its way to its intended home. The song and the poem may miss the mark or fall on old and deaf ears (“Lutes be old”) and so her poetry is an “Experiment” of which she is worried about those who doubt what she is trying to say. “Thomas” not only might refer to Higginson, but also doubting Thomas who needed to see the wounds on Jesus before he could believe, he couldn’t just take it on faith the God would rise again, that He would keep his promise (contract / “patent”) with humanity, he needed the equivalent of a legal document before he would give himself over.

And thus the turn of the poem happens at the very end when she seems to speak as Jesus did when, after all the work we had to do do see inside the workings of her poem, that she is indeed “true”, that her poetry is beautiful, that there is beauty here, that it is musical – that she is talented. She wants to alleviate doubt, but she had to go through the whole process of opening up her own body, of wounding herself the way one would if they were to “Split the Lark” so that once we saw inside of her we would then believe her abilities as a poet.