To a Skylark Questions and Answers
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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What does the skylark symbolise in Shelley's "To A Skylark"?

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The inspiration for the famous poem "To a Skylark" by Percy Shelley came while Shelley was taking a walk in the Italian countryside with his wife, Mary Shelley. They heard the lovely melody of a skylark on a summer evening. Shelley wrote the poem and included it in his larger volume Prometheus Unbound.

In a sweeping sense, the skylark in the poem symbolizes a perfect immortal spirit full of love, joy, clarity, freshness, sweetness, and freedom. Shelley emphasizes that the skylark is ignorant of pain and oblivious to fear of death, unlike humans who long for something that escapes them and whose "sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought."

Besides the skylark symbolizing an unending joyful spirit, Shelley also makes several comparisons to try to describe the skylark and its song, although he realizes this is futile.

What thou art we know not;

What is most like thee?

For instance, he compares the skylark to clouds that shed showers of melody instead of rain. He likens it to a poet deep in thought who brings forth hymns with which the world sympathizes. He pictures a maiden in a high tower who listens to sweet music to soothe her love-laden soul. He compares it to a golden glowworm that shines whether others can see it or not. He pictures a rose touched by a warm wind that gives off a sweet scent. Shelley makes it clear, though, that the skylark and its music far surpass all these things with which he tries to compare it.

In other words, the pure spirit that the skylark symbolizes ultimately defies any attempt to describe it.

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On the first realistic level, the poem’s narrator (presumably Shelley himself) hears the song of a skylark, flying and singing at twilight (“In the golden lightning/Of the sunken sun”); the first seven stanzas describe this moment.  Then the poet offers five similes (“Like a Poet..”; “Like a high-born maiden” etc.) Then the poet asks to bird to teach him “what sweet thoughts” conjure up such beautiful sounds (six stanzas), then points out that the beauty of the song comes from the absolute absence of any negative parts of life, as opposed to a poet (“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”)   “Teach me half the gladness/That thy brain must know” – so the skylark is compared to the poet, but the skylark’s sound is gladder than the poet’s, whose “song” is tempered with sadness. The skylark, then, is the height of a poet's ability to express life's joys in his poetry.

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