Birds are, in general, well-suited to serve as emblems of the soul, don't you think? Today a huge blue sky suddenly appeared, mottled with high, sunlight-filled swathes of white fish-scale clouds. It could have been a mid-summer's day. I thought of the skylark, that sprite of the upper air.
In the midst of the plain
Sings the skylark,
Free of all things.
Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 198.
Here is an alternative translation:
above the moor
not attached to anything
a skylark sings
Basho (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 156.
Blyth and Ueda differ most markedly in their translation of the middle phrase of Basho's haiku: "mono ni mo tsukazu." Mono means "thing." In this context, ni means "to" and mo means "even." Tsukazu is a negative form of the verb meaning "to be attached." Hence, the phrase might be translated (extremely roughly) as: "to thing not even attached."
Ueda's translation is, therefore, closer to the literal meaning. Blyth takes more liberties with "free of all things" (including moving the phrase to the end of the haiku). But I think that both interpretations are lovely, and I find it difficult to choose between the two. And I think they both capture the essence of the haiku (which, of course, best remains unspoken).
Bernard Priestman, "Kilnsey Crag, Wharfedale, Yorkshire" (1929)
I'd say that the skylark and the nightingale vie for the honor of the bird most apostrophized by William Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets. (Come to think of it, this may be true of all poets.) Both birds make an appearance in the following poem by Wordsworth. They are not explicitly linked to the human soul. However, when it comes to Romantic poetry, nearly everything is presumed to be, as a matter of course, either an embodiment, or a reflection, of our souls. This is not a criticism, merely an observation.
To a Skylark
Ethereal minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?
Or, while the wings aspire, are heart and eye
Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?
Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,
Those quivering wings composed, that music still!
Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;
A privacy of glorious light is thine;
Whence thou dost pour upon the world a flood
Of harmony, with instinct more divine;
Type of the wise who soar, but never roam;
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!
William Wordsworth, The Poetical Works, Volume II (1849).
The poem was composed in 1825. When it was first published in 1827, it contained the following additional stanza after the first stanza:
To the last point of vision, and beyond,
Mount, daring warbler! that love-prompted strain,
('Twixt thee and thine a never-failing bond)
Thrills not the less the bosom of the plain:
Yet might'st thou seem, proud privilege! to sing
All independent of the leafy spring.
William Wordsworth, The Poetical Works, Volume II (1827).
After 1843, Wordsworth removed the stanza in editions of his Poetical Works. To me, the stanza seems somewhat diffuse, and detracts from the comparison between the skylark and the nightingale, as well as from the "Heaven and Home" theme. I think that the poem is better without it. (However, Wordsworth did make use of the stanza: he inserted it in "A Morning Exercise.")
Samuel Llewellyn, "Sailing at Blakeney" (c. 1938)
Wordsworth's emphasis on the contrast between the skylark's homely nest on the ground and its towering lyrical flights -- the contrast between Home and Heaven -- is also the subject of the following poem, although in a different key.
A singing firework; the sun's darling;
Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence: see, a small gray bird
That runs among the weeds.
Edmund Blunden, Poems 1930-1940 (Macmillan 1940).
"The lark ascending" is the phrase that we are accustomed to see. (When I see that phrase, I immediately think of Ralph Vaughan Williams's beautiful composition with that title, which was in turn inspired by George Meredith's poem of that name.) Blunden accomplishes a great deal in a small space. If we removed the second line, we would have something that looks and sounds a great deal like a haiku.
Joseph Kavanagh (1856-1918), "Gipsy Encampment on the Curragh"
A theme begins to emerge, doesn't it? The skylark is earthbound, yet drawn towards the heavens, singing. Perfectly at home in both places, it would seem.
All the long day --
Yet not long enough for the skylark,
Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 195.
Here is another translation:
all this long day
and yet wanting to sing more
Basho (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, page 155.
However, when considering the skylark as an emblem of the soul, it is perhaps best to conclude with this, which adds the necessary element of irresolvable mystery that each of us carries with us.
Its voice alone fell,
Leaving nothing behind.
Ampu (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 165.
Francis Armstrong (1849-1920), "Shap Fells, Westmorland"