One evening in June, 1820, while walking in a meadow near Livorno (Leghorn), Italy, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley heard skylarks sing. The next day, reflecting upon the experience, he wrote “To a Skylark” and sent it to his London publisher to be added to a forthcoming volume featuring Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (pb. 1820). A similar story is told about “Ode to a Nightingale” (1820), which John Keats wrote in May, 1819, the morning after hearing the song of a nightingale nesting in a tree outside his window. The opening stanza of William Wordsworth’s “To a Cuckoo” (1802) anticipates Shelley’s poem in language and theme.
O blithe newcomer! I have heard,I hear thee and rejoice.O cuckoo! Shall I call thee bird,Or but a wandering voice?
Wordsworth’s “The Green Linnet” (1803, 1807), a similar paean to a songbird, includes the following lines:
Hail to Thee, far above the restIn joy of voice and pinion!Thou, Linnet! In thy green array,Presiding Spirit here to-day,Dost lead the revels of the May;And this is thy dominion.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his “To the Nightingale” (1796), calls the bird “Sister of love-lorn Poets.” In all of these works, the essential reality of a bird is represented as being manifest not in a physical presence, but in a noncorporeal song that suggests to the poet a permanence denied to humankind. In sum, long before Shelley’s 1820 walk in the meadow, songbirds had become commonplace muses to Romantic poets.
“To a Skylark” is one of several poems Shelley wrote between 1816 and 1821 that sprang from his contemplation of the natural world. Others include “Ode to the West Wind” (1820), “Mont Blanc” (1817), and “The Cloud” (1820). It is divided into stanzas of four trimeter lines with a concluding alexandrine and has a traditional ababb rhyme scheme. This pattern of short lines with frequent enjambment hastens the progress of each stanza, which Shelley then brings to a brisk close with a final hexameter line. In addition, the opening trochaic foot of each line not only provides emphasis but also, combined with other aspects of the metrics, may be Shelley’s attempt to replicate in verse the flight of the bird.
The poem effectively breaks into three parts. In the first part (lines 1-30), Shelley describes the flight of an actual skylark, albeit one that already has flown beyond his ability to see. The skylark, unlike most birds, sings only when flying, usually when it is too high to be seen from the ground: “from Heaven, or near it . . . singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.” Shelley betrays a note of envy in the opening words of the poem—“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!”—by implying a contrast between the bird and himself....
(The entire section is 1311 words.)