What is so great about this poem is that it makes excellent use of the momentum of the English sonnet form, culminating in a beautiful pair of lines that simultaneously do and do not make sense:
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at haven’s gate;
Literally, it means something like, “When the lark wakes up at dawn it sings to heaven from the earth, and this is just like what happens when I am feeling very bad about myself and then I think of you.” How, exactly, does the poet turn from the previous lines of crying, cursing, and discontent into a lark? Or is it the turn of mind itself–the act of thinking on his beloved–that is lark-like? Is it the poet, his state, or his transformation that resemble a lark? And where did this bird come from in the first place?
Fortunately, we find ourselves not troubling a bit over these details, because by the time we arrive at the end of the third quatrain, we have been swept away by a poem that takes full advantage of the meter and rhyme scheme of the sonnet to propel us toward a spectacular end.
The tension that drives us here lies between fulfilling and confounding our expectations. Wonderful, ambiguous line endings like his “bootless cries”, (which resonates with being barefoot and poor) though desiring to be, “rich in hope” (can you deposit that in a bank?), “with friends possessed” (is that really a good thing?), desiring one man’s art and another’s “scope” (range? or what? and how?)–yet each of these line endings rings with a remarkable clarity and certainty, not because they are logical but because they rhyme with the ending two lines back.
And so, we are dazzled and carried along to this wonderful, unexpected ending involving a bird who rises up from the earth (apparently that’s where they nest) and sings to heaven. In this thought the poet realizes the memory of his love for his beloved is so rich as to make him better off than a king. Yet it is not actually the beloved, but the memory–the inner experience–that brings the poet richness. Just as it is not the literal meaning, but the wonderful tension between the sense of certainty and the literal ambiguity that brings to us the full richness of this poem.
What is so great about this poet is that he makes a form as intense, compact, and exacting as the English sonnet seem effortless. Furthermore, he brings all its devices to bear to intimate something that seems meaningful, beautiful, and important to us. There is no disputing Shakespeare’s importance to poetry. Stephen Booth once remarked to our class that, “saying Shakespeare was the best poet of his age is like saying King Kong was bigger than the other monkeys.” Despite changes in the English language and literary fashion, the bard remains an enduring example of elevating art to its highest potential.
On some side notes, my wife recently introduced me to a beautiful setting of this poem by Rufus Wainwright. He manages to avoid the pitfalls of trying to set iambic pentameter into its natural rhythm–which is utterly boring–and in fact produces a simple structure that is higly effective in evoking the spirit of the poem. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure where you can get ahold of a recording.
This sonnet also gives me some sense of link to my past. Years ago I was given a copy of Shakespeare’s works that used to belong to my great great grandfather. The volume is pristine, except for a pencil mark that circles this poem. Perhaps he too took comfort from the harsh midwest farming life of the early 20th century in thoughts of someone he loved or in the love of a poem. It is wonderful to think that a man I never met, and yet who influenced my life so greatly, may have similarly enjoyed and appreciated this poem.