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 list'ning 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. (1840)

Discussion: Isaac Rosenberg's poem "Returning, We Hear the Larks" is a moving testament of how, even amidst horror, the human spirit can still soar in the appreciation of beauty. The first two stanzas tell the reader of the soldiers' present situation and state of mind. Lines 1 and 6 give the essential facts: A break in the bombing allows a quiet night and the soldiers are looking forward to much needed rest. Within this frame, lines 2-5 deftly express the soldiers' awareness of constant danger though they have survived another day; they are exhausted, "Dragging these anguished limbs," and the landscape is hellish, "This poison-blasted track." The syntax of these two stanzas creates a plodding rhythm that seems to echo the marching of weary soldiers and, in each stanza, the poet ends the second line with the word 'know': "we know," "we only know," indicating that the soldiers are absorbed with the dreadful facts of their predicament, they 'know' them, and they have neither time nor energy to think beyond matters pertaining to sheer survival.

The scene changes in the third stanza, shifting to the passing of a flock of larks. The poet writes "But hark! joy-joy-strange joy." Each voicing of "joy" seems to lift the poet's consciousness up towards the crying birds and it is finally a "strange joy" to hear such 'natural' and sweet sounds amidst the horrors of war. The poet's use of arcane ejaculations such as "hark" and "Lo" indicates not only a change in the author's mood but also alludes to the long tradition of pastoral themes in English poetry. The sounds are "music" and the soldiers look up to listen though they can't see the larks. The "upturning" of their faces seems to represent the glad, but all too brief, uplifting of their spirits away from their present suffering towards this reminder of natural beauty, this evidence of joyous life amid death, and perhaps to childhood enjoyments and memories of home.

The last stanza seeks to place this unexpected enjoyment of natural wonder within the context of war's grim realities. The poet reminds the reader of the soldier's vulnerability for "Death could drop from the dark As easily as song-" but, for this moment, "song only dropped." Yet the soldier cannot enjoy the song long, it cannot distract him from his task, therefore it must assume the unreal quality of "dreams." What kind of dreams? The poet answers with two similes: "Like a blind man's dreams" next to "dangerous tides" or the dreams of an attractive girl who doesn't know that someday she may deceive a lover. In both situations, the dreams are dreamt in dangerous or threatening circumstances but death is cast in slightly different ways. The blind cannot see the "ocean" yet is near it but in the last line, death is a "serpent" that "hides" waiting to strike.

This poem expresses the soldier's heightened awareness of death and how his mind must always return to survival. But it is also beautiful in showing that a small thing like a flock of larks can infuse a soldier with joy and help him momentarily tap his greater humanity, his nobility, if you like, in contrast with the brutality of killing. Rosenberg writes of a similar simple transcendence in "Break of Day in the Trenches" when the soldier puts a poppy behind his ear and Wilfred Owen alludes to simple enjoyments in "Apologia Pro Poemate Meo." Because death may be so imminent, these small pleasures increase in intensity and importance.

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