JULIET Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day/It was the nightingale, and not the lark/That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear/Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree/Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
ROMEO It was the lark, the herald of the morn/No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks/Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east/Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day/Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I think it’s safe to say that most of the literate world, millions of people, over the last few hundred years know this scene and the words. But do they know the lark?
First, there is a little white house in western Wyoming, built in 1915 by my grandfather for my grandmother before their marriage. She, a schoolteacher, furnished the house as her dowry. As all good romances should go, Beatrice was a beautiful young woman with many suitors but John Royal won her, in good part, by prancing his black stallion by the school house several times a day. True story.
My grandmother was an ardent gardener. Her house was surrounded with flower beds and the yard was landscaped with Lilac bushes, ornamental fruit trees and surrounded by Karaganda and Jasmine hedges that still scent the early summer nights like a tale by Scheherazade. It is a paradise for birds.
Shakespeare’s lark is the common robin, the bright-eyed “red-breast” that hops the summer lawns of all North America. If asked if there is anything remarkable about the bird some people might say that they fiercely defend their nests by swooping passersby. But any early riser who sleeps with their window open would surely recognize the robin as the lark of the world’s most famous lovers, on the first morning of their star-crossed romance.
The robin’s first chirp comes with the first blink of dawn—a line of light so faint that the early riser has to stare for a moment to define it on the horizon. That first bird is soon joined by others and the chorus builds. And builds. In the natural world of medieval Europe the monks described this in their Bestiary as “an exaltation of larks”. Perfect.
There is a grand lilac bush not far from the window of the rear bedroom of that little house my grandfather built for his new wife. The spruce tree he planted not far from the lilac is now some sixty feet tall and the two of them have long been traditionally favorite places for robins to nest and shelter for the night.
When I am in that bedroom, the first robin’s chirp sends a thrill through me and I instantly rise to a state that is neither awake nor asleep. The composition builds, delicately at first, then joyfully, triumphantly, and in those few minutes I feel as though I am in a suspended state. I suspect that the movements describing the Ascension in the requiems of Mozart, Bach, and others found their original inspiration in an “exaltation of larks”.
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