Humanity frees as much as it fetters us, something poet Gabriela Mistral knew all to well.
Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga in Chile. At age 15 she began working as a teacher’s aide and that same year she began publishing her first poems in a local newspaper. Her emergence as a poet coincided with her rise as an educator. Within years of becoming director of a prestigious girl’s school she won a national literary contest for her work Sonnets of Death. She then received an invitation to teach in Mexico and eventually made her way to New York City. Though she lacked formal education – her official schooling ended when she was 12 – Mistral was brilliant and determined. Under her guidance, students like Pablo Neruda, a man who went on to become an internationally recognized poet, flourished.
As her career path indicates, Mistral saw the mind and the spirit as valuable resources that individuals could cultivate regardless of their personal circumstances. “The Lark”, one of my favorite poems of Mistral’s, reflects this belief. In it, the narrator addresses Francis who has sung the praises of the lark, an animal that has a “straight flight toward the sun” and is “swallowed by the heavens” unlike other birds that take a more circuitous route. The narrator reminds Francis that people are not so unimpeded and are “burdened” by “habits” and the embodied nature of being. The soul, however, can take a different path.
Though I am not a particularly spiritual person, I appreciate the way that the poem captures the desire for freedom, the quest to leave behind physical frailties, and the need to become something better than we are.
Many thanks to Poem Hunter for the full text.
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By Gabriela Mistral
You said that you loved the lark more than any other bird because of its straight flight toward the sun. That is how I wanted our flight to be.
Albatrosses fly over the sea, intoxicated by salt and iodine. They are like unfettered waves playing in the air, but they do not lose touch with the other waves.
Storks make long journeys; they cast shadows over the Earth’s face. But like albatrosses, they fly horizontally, resting in the hills.
Only the lark leaps out of ruts like a live dart, and rises, swallowed by the heavens. Then the sky feels as though the Earth itself has risen. Heavy jungles below do not answer the lark. Mountains crucified over the flatlands do not answer.
But a winged arrow quickly shoots ahead, and it sings between the sun and the Earth. One does not know if the bird has come down from the sun or risen from the Earth. It exists between the two, like a flame. When it has serenaded the skies with its abundance, the exhausted lark lands in the wheatfield.
You, Francis, wanted us to achieve that vertical flight, without a zigzag, in order to arrive at that haven where we could rest in the light.
You wanted the morning air filled with arrows, with a multitude of carefree larks. Francis, with each morning song, you imagined that a net of golden larks floated between the Earth and the sky.
We are burdened, Francis. We cherish our lukewarm rut: our habits. We exalt ourselves in glory just as the towering grass aspires. The loftiest blade does not reach beyond the high pines.
Only when we die do we achieve that vertical flight! Never again, held back by earthly ruts, will our bodies inhibit our souls.