The Lark Ascending is a poem of 122 lines by the English poet George Meredith about the song of the skylark. Siegfried Sassoon called it matchless of its kind, "a sustained lyric which never for a moment falls short of the effect aimed at, soars up and up with the song it imitates, and unites inspired spontaneity with a demonstration of effortless technical ingenuity... one has only to read the poem a few times to become aware of its perfection".
The poem inspired the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams to write a musical work of the same name, which is now more widely known than the poem. He originally composed it in 1914 for violin and piano. It premiered in 1920, the same year the composer re-scored it for solo violin and orchestra. This version, now the more often performed of the two, premiered in 1921. The piece is one of the most popular in the Classical repertoire among British listeners.
Meredith's poem The Lark Ascending (1881) is a hymn or paean to the skylark and his song, written in rhyming tetrameter couplets in two long continuous sections. It first appeared in The Fortnightly Review for May 1881, at a time when (as Meredith wrote in March 1881 to Cotter Morison) he was afflicted by "the dreadful curse of Verse". It was then included in his volume Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, which first appeared in an unsatisfactory edition in June 1883, and a month later was reprinted by Macmillan at the author's expense in a second issue with corrections. Siegfried Sassoon in his commentary on the 1883 Poems ("one of the landmarks of 19th-Century poetry") observed, "to write of such a poem is to be reminded of its incomparable aloofness from the ploddings of the journeyman critic".
It is a pastoral, devotional in feeling. The poem describes how "the press of hurried notes" run repeating, changing, trilling and ringing, and bring to our inner being a song of mirth and light like a fountain piercing the "shining tops of day". The joyfulness, purity and unrestrained delight of the "starry voice ascending" awakens "the best in us to him akin". The lark's song is the wine which lifts us with him in the golden cup, the valley of this world: the lark is the woods and brooks, the creatures and the human line, the dance and the marriage of life within it. The hearts of men shall feel them better, shall feel them celestially, "as long as you crave nothing but the song". The poet's voice becomes choric.
The human voice (the song proceeds) cannot express so sweetly what is inmost. Unlike the skylark, Man has not such a "song seraphically free/Of taint of personality". In the lark's song, the human "millions rejoice/For giving their one spirit voice". Yet there are those revered human lives, made substantial by trials and in loving the earth, which though themselves unsinging yet come forth as a song worthy to greet heaven. It rises in that pure song into the highest heavens and is maintained there, so that our soul rises with theirs "through self-forgetfulness divine", filling the skies, showering the world "from human stores", soaring nearer towards silence.
George Meredith died in 1909. Vaughan Williams worked on his "pastoral romance for orchestra"The Lark Ascending before the outbreak of the Great War, and inscribed selected lines (not a consecutive passage) from Meredith's poem on the flyleaf of the published work. They are the opening and closing lines (so the entire poem is invoked), and between them the six lines in which the lark is made to embody the wine. In choosing these lines Vaughan Williams may have been drawing out a eucharistic resonance in Meredith's image.
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
'Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
There is no reliable evidence to support the claim that he was working on it while watching British troops embarking for France. This was presented in a 2007 documentary about the composer, O Thou Transcendent, and the subsequent related BBC programme on this work. The original source for this story is RVW, the biography by his wife Ursula. She did not meet Vaughan Williams until 1938, 24 years after he'd composed the work. George Butterworth, who was killed in World War I and knew Vaughan Williams at the time of these events, recorded the fact that the composer was preparing for a lecture on Purcell when he wrote the piece. On 4 August 1914, the day that Britain entered the Great War, Vaughan Williams visited Margate for a week's holiday. It was not an embarkation point, so he would not have seen departing soldiers. The ships that he did see were engaged in preparatory fleet exercises. These were noted and documented by members of Ernest Shackleton's Endurance, which departed Margate around this time on its trans-Antarctic expedition. A small boy observed the composer making notes and, thinking the man was jotting a secret code, informed a police officer, who arrested the composer. The war halted Vaughan Williams' composing. He revised the work in 1920 with the help of the English violinist Marie Hall, during their stay at Kings Weston House near Bristol.
Vaughan Williams dedicated The Lark Ascending to Marie Hall, who premiered both versions. The piano-accompanied premiere was on 15 December 1920, in conjunction with the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society at Shirehampton Public Hall. The pianist was Geoffrey Mendham. This was followed by the first London performance, and first orchestral performance, on 14 June 1921, with the British Symphony Orchestra under conductor Adrian Boult. The critic from The Times wrote, "It showed serene disregard of the fashions of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along." The use of pentatonic scale patterns, sometimes criticised as "a steady trickle of pentatonic wish-wash",  free the violin from a strong tonal centre, and expresses impressionistic elements. This liberty also extends to the metre. The cadenzas for solo violin are written without bar lines, lending them a sense of meditational release. The original orchestral manuscript is lost.
In a 2011 poll of listeners to choose the nation's Desert Island Discs, the work was chosen as Britain's all-time favourite. From 2007 to 2010, the piece was voted number one in the Classic FM annual Hall of Fame poll, over Elgar's Cello Concerto, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and another work of Vaughan Williams, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. In 2011-2013 it was usurped by Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, but was placed first in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, but dropped to no. 3 in 2018.
The Lark Ascending has been a consistent favourite in Radio New Zealand Concert's annual New Year's Day countdown programme, Settling the Score. It has ranked number one every year from 2007 to 2012, and placed highly in other years.
The Lark Ascending influenced at least two other British composers. Firstly, Robin Milford whose The Darkling Thrush, Op. 17 (based on the poem by Thomas Hardy) has been described as "...the Lark re-ascending" in an article on the centenary of the composer's birth. Secondly, William Alwyn's 1939 Pastoral Fantasia for Viola and Orchestra which was dubbed "The Hawk Ascending" by a reviewer following the release of the 2008 Naxos recording.