Returning, We Hear the Larks
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Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lies 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 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.
World War broke out 100 years ago on July 28, 1914. It was called the Great War at the time because no one knew there would be a World War II. H.G. Wells dubbed it “the war that will end war.” He was optimistic.
Understandably, in Israel the Great War gets less airtime than World War II, though it decimated an entire generation of young European men. It gave humanity bunkers, machine guns, aerial warfare, gas warfare, tanks and the geopolitical circumstances that led in large part to World War II, the Holocaust, the inception of the State of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It gave material to a number of excellent English poets, among them Isaac Rosenberg, who was also a promising painter.
Born in 1890 in Bristol to Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire, Rosenberg moved to London with his large, impoverished family when he was 6. Jewish philanthropists provided for his art education; he had no formal education in literature but read widely and was self-taught as a poet. He enlisted in the British army in October of 1915 and was killed in battle in northwestern France on April 1, 1918.
For the full effect, “Returning, We Hear the Larks” should be read aloud. Try it with a friend so you can both speak it and hear it. The song in the midst of horror is transmitted not only in the meaning of the words that capture the moment but also in the music that builds through a series of repeated sounds. It might help to keep in mind that the collective noun for the birds is “an exaltation of larks.”
In the first half of the poem, the long “I” of the contextually foreboding words “night,” “lives” and “lies” contrasts with the long “O” of “though,” “know,” “only know,” and “opens,” culminating in the buoyant and somewhat archaic or biblical “Lo!” This note is a turning point: Suddenly the soldiers hear the birdsong. The long “I” – now underpinned by the thrice-repeated word “joy” jostling with the internal rhymes of “hark,” “larks” and “dark” – soars to “heights of night,” only to drop through “blind,” “tides” “lies” (again) and “hides” in the images of deadly deception in the second half of the poem.
*Was Rosenberg consciously aware that “Lo” is also the Hebrew word for “No?” Is there anything distinctively Jewish about this poem?
*Bonus: Hear a lark.