Skylarks on the Western Front

Ford Madox Ford’s beautifully written novel Parade’s End is a masterpiece of comprehension through subtlety; the impact of The Great War on the generation destroyed by it captured in metaphorical moments, snatched conversations in symbolic settings and a juggling of time that boomerangs backwards and forwards, completing its’ frenetic journey at the story’s end and so mirroring that of the characters who reach it.

The novel’s heart is Christopher Tietjens; aristocratic, intelligent and honourable, who struggles with a rapidly changing age that combines public conformity with private disdain. His actions and responses develop a momentum beyond his control; impacting unconsciously on family and friends and bringing him at a pivotal moment to the morning of an imminent attack on The Western Front. His mind, choosing to focus on practicalities as Death looms, is suddenly startled as he cautiously raises his head over the top of the trench by a skylark.

The incident attracts the attention of his Sergeant who enthuses about the skylark’s reluctance to leave the nest in the face of imminent destruction, and his belief that it sings over the gun fire on the battlefield because it trusts humans not to shoot. Tietjens dismisses this saying that the Sergeant has his natural history wrong; it was the female skylark that remained on the nest through an obstinate attachment to her egg and the male who soared so high and sang so loudly, not because of a trust in the goodness of humans, but to claim territory and challenge other males. The Sergeant does not accept this, and shares sympathetic comments with a Corporal as they walk away, both seeing Tietjens as an object of pity for his disbelief, and his matter of fact comments as confirmation of his eccentricity and unconventional character.

What does the skylark do to create this belief? Why is the skylark synonymous with the battlefields of The Great War? Why did Ford Madox Ford feel the need for his character Tietjens to be startled by a skylark on the morning of an attack and to challenge the beliefs of his Sergeant and men? The answers could lie with the parallels that can be drawn between the extremes of the skylark’s behaviour and its’ insistence on boldly living a normal life in the face of constant danger, and the trench bound soldier struggling to maintain a daily recognisable routine in the face of suicidal attacks and indiscriminate shelling. The skylark’s behaviour becomes a symbol of promise and life in a frail and dead environment. To the Tommy that the skylark can still sing despite it all means maybe they can live too. It is hardly surprising that the men are quick to dismiss Tietjens’s matter of fact comments because with them dies all hope.

The skylark’s name proudly states its’ triumphant domain. They are the helicopters of the avian world rising vertically and climbing upwards until a barely discernible speck in the sky. Their song, ridiculously disproportionate in volume to the distance, teases you as you struggle to locate them; head bent back unnaturally and eyes squinting against the light. While the Victorians would argue that the skylark reached 2000 feet (610m) in this ascent, a more accurate measurement places the ceiling at 650 feet (200m) with most birds hovering between 160feet (50m) and330feet (100m).It is the skylark’s freedom to fly to such Icarus like heights of recklessness amidst the gun fire that gives the flightless Tommy, feet stuck firmly in the mud, hope in the midst of their suffering and a belief in the possibility of escape whatever way Fate decides. It is a symbol of hope in the battlefield but would it be anywhere else?

The ability of the skylark’s dramatic aerial performance to inspire a spiritual awe and respect within the Tommy is accompanied by a song; the beauty of which heard from celestial heights has an angelic and awe inspiring purity. The skylark starts singing before daylight so is the first bird to be heard in the dawn chorus; an emotion saturated moment on the Western Front as it marked the moment of attack and too often slaughter. The average length of the skylark’s song is two minutes, although   thirty minutes has been recorded, and it can contain up to 460 recognisable syllables. This quick, complex and highly varied song, delivered within a very narrow frequency, is another example of how the extremes of the skylark’s behaviour unite it with those of the soldier’s experience.

Poets have sought to encapsulate the beauty of the skylark in verse just as the horror of the trenches made poets of men. Their thoughts and feelings led to an outpouring of poetry that is a lasting testimony to their experiences and the struggle to survive during and after the war. Shelley cannot accept that the skylark could be a bird; likening it to a spirit from heaven or a maiden in a palace tower whose voice surpasses anything of beauty that ever existed. Just as Shelley felt that the skylark’s song rained its’ melody down upon him, the Great War poet Isaac Rosenberg writes of soldiers returning to camp after a night time mission surprised by the skylark’s song they feel showering down upon their upturned faces. It is as if the night time horrors are washed away briefly by the beauty of the song heard in the eagerly welcomed daylight that signifies their survival.

The skylark is the worthy subject of great poetry and its’ acrobatics and musicality are worthy of our admiration, but if pressed how would the Tommy, as highlighted in Parade’s End, have tried to explain his belief in this small, streaky brown crested bird?

He would probably speak of the innocence of these creatures of the natural world and the brutality of man with his industrial war machine. Despite being so small the skylark’s resolute dismissal of the irrelevance of the war to everything that it does makes it a symbol of hope. If something so small is so defiant surely good can conquer and peace will come? The Tommy would probably say that it is symbols that keep you going; the skylark makes you persevere like a flag or a keepsake.

Unfortunately their precious nature makes destruction all the more devastating; there is a risk in constructing symbols of hope around things that are so frail. Hardened to war the mind may displace the horror of human death but not animals. What would be the imagery of a dead lark?

Sadly skylark numbers have dramatically declined since the early 1970s with their numbers according to the RSPB, halving in the 1990s .This means that despite the legal protection of the 1981 “Wildlife and Countryside Act “ the skylark is so endangered that the RSPB have placed it in their “Red” category which means the species has the highest conservation priority and is in need of urgent action.

It is changes in farming methods and increased intensification that has led to the decline of the skylark; the move from spring to autumn sown crops and the preference for silage over hay. Larger machinery leaves tramlines that expose nests to predators and spraying reduces food sources. The absence of winter stubble fields remove a much needed food source, and increasing stock numbers keeps grass too short leaving the skylarks open to the risk of being trampled.

This sad demise under the wheels of progress lends a prophetic perspective to Ford Madox Ford’s reasons for startling aristocratic Christopher Tietjens with a skylark in the trenches of The Great War. In their subsequent exchange of opinions Tietjens will not accept his men’s romantic perspective of the skylark’s behaviour because if he does he will despair. If he looks at it practically and in a matter of fact way he can shield himself from the possibility of the destruction of hope and the horror of this represented in a dead lark. His men cling to symbolism and the belief that good will survive, while Tietjens his emotions already raw prefers to buttress solid natural history against any such belief.

Their conversation represents what the skylark and so the war meant to different classes; the death of hope and promise in Tietjens’s peers and social progress after suffering for the working man. The war decimated the sons of the aristocracy and filled wall upon wall in the chapels of the public schools; life as Tietjens had known it could not and would not exist as before. Broken promises of a land fit for heroes would lead to economic hardship for the working man. The years following the conflict saw fleeting love affairs with political extremes and then the ultimate betrayal as the children of the fallen of The Great War faced world conflict and death once again.

 

It is a favourite extract from a much loved book about a small bird with extraordinary abilities which kept hope alive amid the horrors of war. Maybe now as we remember it is time for us to return the favour and support them.

 

 

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