Category Archives: Breton, Jules

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.

Sexton! My Master’s sleeping here

Le bedeau de Kerlaz, 1868, Jules Breton
Background Image: Le bedeau de Kerlaz, 1868, Jules Breton

The footnote posits that she is writing about Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb of Jesus which seems highly plausible. She repeats navigational language with “lead”, “point”, and if you speak Sexton and Sextant they are very similar and she is playing off the idea of being led (by faith) with her ocean metaphors, and the tomb / relic imagery of a Sexton’s responsibility.

The Sexton is most likely referring to the angel Mary sees in the tomb since a Sexton is the person in the church who is responsible for the relics and holy vessels. This angel’s responsibility is unusual however in that the tomb is empty – there is no physical relic to maintain (other than the tomb itself, I suppose), he is only there to tell Mary that “[Jesus] is going ahead of you into Galilee” (Mark 16: 1-8, Matthew 28: 1-10, Luke 24 :1-8) so he is a keeper of information and points the way towards faith. There are no relics of Jesus, all that remains are people’s faith in him as God and this imagery mixed up with a sextant which navigates by the stars (which could be read as angels who reside in the kingdom of heaven) gives the impression of being pointed in a particular direction.

The second line which begins with “Pray lead” is not just literal as in a command to someone such as ‘pray tell, please lead me’, but also in the act of praying being the way to be led to a destination (towards God). Praying thus is related to the sonic similarity to Sexton / sextant in that one is being led (navigation: sextant) to the holy place (Sexton).

Lines 3 and 4 are nurturing in that the poet / Mary explains that she “came to build the Bird’s nest – And so the early seed”. This image of preparing the “nest” (which recalls the “bed” of the “Master”) combines the domestic with the idea of nurturing the faith in that “pray” is like building a nest which helps grow one’s faith. The bird imagery is something she has used multiple times before in reference to a bird being the symbol of faith and searching for faith (see “My nosegays are for Captives“). Interestingly “sow” is not just a term for farming and tending seeds, but the second verb definition (OED) can also mean ‘to grieve’ which gives an emotional quality to the scene and how Mary must have felt after Jesus had been crucified and was going to prepare his body with oils, but also relates to those of us left behind on mortal earth who must toil miserably in laboring with the land – built into the very act of farming ‘to sow’ is the notion of grief and misery, an image she has alluded to multiple times as well.

The image of “snow creeps” is such a beautiful image! With just two words she is able to paint a picture of the actual movement of snow falling slowly, but the word “creeps” also gives it a sense of forboding which could be her way of describing the slow creeping of death which is coming for all of us anyway (think of her later poem “I could not stop for death”) as well as “Delayed till she had ceased to know“.

Most importantly this second stanza has a strong musical component but it’s cleverly hidden in plain sight much like faith for the faithful is hidden in plain sight. The final word of the poem is “Troubadour” which is a lyric poet. Music and verse are combined in this word, but it also shares a rhyme with “door” from “his chamber door”. The door is the stone which God had moved so that Jesus could begin his rise from the dead and so it is like the beginning of a new piece of music which could be read as ‘chamber music’ since the first notes have been played to a small, select audience (Mary and the other women present). Finally the image of “snow creeps” is not just visual but audible too in that once you start listening to this stanza you can almost hear the snow falling outside the tomb.

Finally, the image of the “Daisies” pointing is a breathtaking image in that flowers do not have finger with which to point, yet you can feel that this is what the flowers are doing – we can almost see the white pedals bending in the direction of Galilee (or more importantly to heaven) but it is also a highly feminine image of the women who may be holding flowers as they came to the tomb, and at a deeper level, be an allusion of how even the most humble of earthly creatures knows where heaven is. This pointing also refers back to the angel / “Sexton” who keeps the tomb and tells Mary where to find Jesus.