Study Guide to The Sea and the Skylark

Study Guide to The Sea and the Skylark

This sonnet was written while Hopkins was in a three-year course of study at the Jesuit Theologate, St. Beuno’s, in north Wales. He wrote many of his best-known poems during this period. One autograph of this poem is dated “Rhyl May 1877” and is entitled “Walking by the Sea.” Suffering from fatigue, Hopkins is granted permission to spend some time at the seaside resort town of Rhyl, eight miles north of St. Beuno’s. Hopkins writes later to his friend Robert Bridges (26 November 1882) that this poem was written during his Welsh days when he was fascinated with cynghanedd—sound arrangement within one line, using stress, alliteration, and rhyme. Two sounds are entrenched in his thinking as he walks along the beach: on his right the ebb and flow of the waves on the shore, and on his left the unfurling song of the skylark. In the sestet, the last six lines of the sonnet, Hopkins reflects on what a shame it is that we have lost the ability to pay attention to and appreciate these sounds of creation—the sea and the skylark.

Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:

  • Look at a few lines and see if you can find examples of how the words in the line connect in their stress, alliteration, and rhyme. In short, can you find examples of cynghanedd? Check the terminology guide for help.
  • Can you describe what he hears on his right hand in the first quatrain? How is the wearing and wending of the moon connected to the tides? And can you describe what he hears on his left hand in the second quatrain? How can you image the song of the skylark as unfurling from a skein of fabric or thread?
  • Do you hear a very modern message in the sestet (last six lines) of the poem?
  • How are the sounds of the sea and the skylark—the give and take, the ebb and flow—reflected in the rhythm of the poem? Is it regular or irregular? You can listen to an audio file of the rhythm of the sea in this example here.

For this poem you might want to be familiar with the following terms from the Hopkins Terminology:
alliteration | assonance | consonant-chiming | counterpoint | sprung rhythm

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