06 June 2016

In the Dead Marshes We Hear No Larks at Morning

Paul Nash, We Are Making A New World, Imperial War Museum

Since at least the twelfth century larks at morning have featured in English poetry, at first not even in English, as these Latin lines from Alexander of Neckam show, playing on the similarity of 'lark' (alauda) and 'praises' (laudat) to derive a (false) etymology:
Laudat alauda diem, praenuncia laeta diei
    Laudat, et a laudis nomine nomen habet.
Quamvis moesta thorum properans Aurora Tithoni
    Linquat, surgentem laeta salutat avis. 
(De Laudibus Divinae Sapientiae, 2.765-68
The lark, day's happy herald, praises the day,
    She praises it, and from the name of 'praise' gets her name.
Though sad Aurora leaves in haste Tithonus' bed,
    The happy bird greets her as she arises.
Onward through the centuries in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Wordsworth, Meredith, and Hopkins, the lark is jubilant, protective of its own, and soaring high and free to greet the dawn. There's nothing to wonder at in all this poetry on the lark. For long ago in the quiet of the world when there was less noise and more green, every morning was full of birdsong. (In fact, it still is. Open your windows; mute your machines.)  As J. V. Baker, who knew firsthand what the poets he was writing about knew, said: 
 Any knowledge of the habits of the English lark will make it easy to see why it is always associated with rapturous and soaring flight; no bird is apparently more airy and carefree or ventures higher; yet it always has an invisible cord of attachment that pulls it back to its grassy nest concealed on the ground. My first recollection of larks is of hearing them above a wheatfield; the golden ranks of wheat, relieved here and there with blood-red poppies, stood right up to the edge of the chalk cliffs falling perpendicularly into the sea near Margate; and the blue sky was filled with the song of larks. 
(The Lark in English Poetry, p. 70)
It is thus no surprise that during World War One men raised on such poetry and such experiences would find solace in the larks that sang and soared about the fields of France at dawn. 'What the lark usually betokens' for the men at the front, writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (p. 242), 'is that one has got safely through another night', though men were also well aware of the absurdity of the birds singing while around them swirled a nightmare of slaughter, something the poets of the war saw both sides of.
A Lark Above the Trenches  
Hushed is the shriek of hurtling shells: and hark!
Somewhere within that bit of soft blue sky-
Grand in his loneliness, his ecstasy,
His lyric wild and free – carols a lark. 
I in the trench, he lost in heaven afar,
I dream of Love, its ecstasy he sings;
Doth lure my soul to love till like a star
It flashes into Life: O tireless wings 
That beat love’s message into melody –
A song that touches in this place remote
Gladness supreme in its undying note
And stirs to life the soul of memory –
‘Tis strange that while you’re beating into life
Men here below are plunged in sanguine strife!
Will Streets
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. 
Isaac Rosenberg
Now, as has long been clear, Tolkien's experience of the Somme in WWI influenced his portrayal of Sam and Frodo's journey to Mordor with Gollum. We can see this most clearly in The Passage of the Marshes, as Tolkien conceded (Letters, no. 226), and as John Garth has amply demonstrated in his splendid (if hard to come by) " 'As under a green sea': Visions of War in the Dead Marshes". Now we should not expect Tolkien to have included every commonplace of English literature, nor of the WWI poets, in his translation of his experience. Nor would its absence be particularly noteworthy, or even noticeable, if he did not draw our attention to it:
As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapours of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no colour and no warmth. But even at this faint reminder of her presence Gollum scowled and flinched. He halted their journey and they rested, squatting like little hunted animals, in the borders of a great brown reed-thicket. There was a deep silence, only scraped on its surfaces by the faint quiver of empty seed-plumes, and broken grass-blades trembling in small air-movements that they could not feel.  
'Not a bird!' said Sam mournfully.  
'No, no birds,' said Gollum. 'Nice birds!' He licked his teeth. 'No birds here. There are snakeses, wormses, things in the pools. Lots of things, lots of nasty things. No birds,' he ended sadly. Sam looked at him with distaste.
(TT 4.ii.626)
Larks belong to the serene, dazzling world of the golden sun, to a world where dawn came clear and bright, as it had not in the marshes that morning (TT 4.ii.625). Theirs is not the rotten, murky world in which the three hobbits seek to hide. Their absence is a silence that grieves and dispirits Sam. And Gollum, who regrets the lack of birds for a different reason, makes quite clear that their absence from the marshes is not merely a passing one. 

And Tolkien was well acquainted the image of the lark at dawn and the power it could have. He certainly knew it from Chaucer and from most if not all of the poets down to Meredith and Hopkins; and even if he had never read another WWI poet, he had edited Spring Harvest, the collection of his friend Geoffrey Bache Smith, who wrote of the lark in his poem 'Over the hills and hollows green' before perishing at the Somme. In The Lay of Leithian, moreover, he uses the image of the lark three times (Lays, 176, 291, 355), and then once in Aragorn's song of Beren and Lúthien in The Lord of the Rings (FR 1.xi.192).  But it is in The Silmarillion (165) that he uses it with most striking effect:
There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Lúthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing. Keen, heart-piercing was her song as the song of the lark that rises from the gates of night and pours its voice among the dying stars, seeing the sun behind the walls of the world; and the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed. 
Then the spell of silence fell from Beren .... 
That Tolkien here likens Lúthien Tinúviel, the nightingale who sings in the dusk, to the lark is fascinating in its own right, and I think this juxtaposition signals just how epochal the love of Beren and Lúthien will be. Yet more importantly for us here now is that in both these texts without the song of the lark silence has lease. In The Silmarillion Lúthien sings like the lark and breaks the spell on Beren, whose naming her Tinúviel, nightingale, then casts a spell of love over her, thus changing the world. In The Passage of the Marshes, without lark or song, things just get worse for Frodo and Sam. Ahead of them that very night are the 'things in the pools' that Gollum slyly alluded to, the dead from whom the marshes take their name (TT 4.ii.627-28); and when, still later that same night, they at last hear a cry upon the air and the rush of wings, it is no skylark welcoming the dawn, but a creature of horror whose coming snuffs out even the candles of the corpses: " 'Wraiths!' he wailed. 'Wraiths on wings!' " (TT 4.ii.630). As a result, a shadow falls on all their hearts. Gollum begins to revert to his former self, and Frodo himself grows increasingly silent, like Beren before Lúthien sang.  After two more such visitations (TT 4.ii.634-35), the chapter ends :
So they stumbled on through the weary end of the night, and until the coming of another day of fear they walked on in silence with bowed heads, seeing nothing and hearing nothing but the wind hissing in their ears.
(TT 4.ii.635)
So in The Passage of the Marshes not only does Tolkien eschew the common trope of larks at dawn, which is reasonable enough given the context, but by substituting the winged Nazgûl to break the larkless silence he reworks the trope to introduce the nightmare that will persist and deepen, with one contrasting interlude in Ithilien, until Mt Doom. 



James V Baker, The Lark in English Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring 1950), pp. 70-79

Priscilla Bawcutt, The Lark in Chaucer and Some Later Poets, The Yearbook of English Studies,Vol. 2 (1972), pp. 5-12


  1. Recordings of lark songs from Cornell University: http://tinyurl.com/zvn9w7b
    I love the Web.

  2. It has its moments. Number 3 will shock you