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The meaning and origin of the expression: Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings

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Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings

Meaning

In Shakespeare's Cymbeline, Cloten uses lewd language to talk about Cymbeline. In an attempt to use musicians to court her, he calls on them to play 'a wonderful sweet air'. The hark, hark!... line is chosen to represent sweetness and refinement, as a counterpoint to the previous crudities.

Origin

From Shakespeare's Cymbeline, 1611:

CLOTEN: I would this music would come: I am advised to give
her music o' mornings; they say it will penetrate.

[Enter Musicians]

Come on; tune: if you can penetrate her with your
fingering, so; we'll try with tongue too: if none
will do, let her remain; but I'll never give o'er.
First, a very excellent good-conceited thing;
after, a wonderful sweet air, with admirable rich
words to it: and then let her consider.

[Song]

Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings,
And Phoebus 'gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies;
And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes:
With every thing that pretty is,
My lady sweet, arise:
Arise, arise.

Shakespeare used images of birds, especially larks, to represent sweetness and freshness in several plays; for example, in the song Spring, in Love's Labour's Lost:

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws
And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks

The image of 'Heaven's gate', as a figurative nearness to God has been used subsequently by many authors, notably William Blake:

I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall.

heaven's gateThe term Heaven's Gate didn't have such pleasant associations in the 20th century. In 1980, a film of that name directed by Michael Cimino was very badly received by critics and lost most of the $45 million it cost to make. It is credited with almost ruining United Artists, the studio that funded it, and with seriously damaging Cimino's previous high standing as a film-maker.

From there the associations get worse still. Marshall Applewhite was the founder and leader of a religious cult, known as Heaven's Gate, based near San Diego, USA. In 1997, he convinced his followers that the Hale-Bopp comet obscured the view of a spacecraft, which was coming to take them to salvation after death. Applewhite and thirty eight followers committed suicide. If ever there was a confirmation of the phrase there's one born every minute, it must be the dupes who decided to follow the dangerously insane Applewhite into the next world.

See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.