Larking about larks

Modern life can be so busy and serious. We work long hours during the week and spend the weekends doing housework or chasing around after children or family. We do need to stop, relax and even do some frivolous things. It might seem like a strange thing to suggest but we should look to the lark to inspire us. It is found all over the world and there are a few species in Australia. The bird’s name, lark derives from an old English word, laferce, which developed into laverock and in the middle ages became lark.

The lark is often quoted in English poetry. The most famous of all the English poets have sought joy and contentment from watching larks. What has made it the loving subject of such poets is the intricate and melodious songs that they sing while displaying their flying skills at great heights above their nests.

The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven–
All’s right with the world!

Robert Browning, Pippa Passes

Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.

A. E. Housman, Bredon Hill.

Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29.

Ethereal minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?

William Wordsworth, Poems of the Imagination, To a Skylark.

Hail to thee blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, To a Skylark

But while the greatest of poets found the lark a metaphor for contentment others found different meanings. Being up early in the morning is sometimes described as being up with the lark, not because the lark is an early bird, but in reference to the lark flying high up in the sky.

But for those of us who live such disastrously busy and serious lives the lark gives us our best escape. A lark also means a frolic, a spree or a bit of fun. To lark about or to lark around in the sense of something done for fun has two possible sources. One suggests that it is derived not from the bird’s name but from about an English dialectal word lake/laik in about 1300 meaning to play, from Old Norse leika from the original Proto-Indo-European rootword, leig, meaning to leap. An r found its way in as was common from southern English dialects.

However, a much more interesting origin for lark is from British sailors’ slang. Larking about is an abbreviation of the sailors’ skylarking used to describe playing games in the top-rigging of a ship. It was known as skylarking in reference to the larks elaborate displays while flying so high up. You can imagine the young sailors playing games, such as tag, in the rigging of the tall masted sailing ships of the British Navy or merchantmen of the East India Company. Skylarking in the US Navy and Coast Guard referred to a specific game of playing follow the leader down the mainstays.

For the young sailors it would have been an escape from the hard work while they “learnt the ropes”, that is while they literally learned the ropes, knots and pulleys that made up the rigging of the ships. No doubt the skylarking would have improved their aerial skills and was encouraged as being preferable to skulking below-decks.

That is what larks can teach us.