To a Skylark Summary

To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley is an 1820 poem about a skylark, a bird known for its joyful singing.

  • The speaker of the poem reflects on the skylark’s carefree song and envies its freedom from earthly constraints.
  • The poem is divided into three sections, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the skylark or the speaker’s reaction to it.
  • In the final section, the speaker asks the skylark to teach him and his fellow humans the secret of its joy.

Summary

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Last Updated January 2, 2024.

“To a Skylark” is an 1820 poem written by English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the poem, Shelley pays homage to a skylark whose song he heard while walking during a summer evening in Livorno, Italy. 

The poem begins as the speaker acknowledges the skylark. He notes that it was never actually a bird but instead a “blithe spirit” that creates art as it flies just beneath Heaven. In the second stanza, the speaker describes the skylark’s flight pattern, spiraling from Earth ever higher into the sky, singing as it goes. 

In the following four stanzas, the speaker discusses how the skylark flies joyfully at all hours of the day, depicting how it behaves during each phase of the day and focusing specifically on sunset, evening, dawn, and nighttime. Although the skylark is sometimes too far away to see, he explains, one may hear its sweet trill and, from afar, know it is still held happily aloft in the Heavens far above.

In the seventh stanza, the speaker wonders how to express the skylark’s true nature. Over the next several stanzas, he struggles with various metaphors to accurately capture the skylark’s essence. Yet, even raindrops from rainbow-producing clouds falter in comparison to the skylark’s song. 

The speaker offers several comparisons, drawing connections between the skylark and a poet whose work makes humanity more aware of its hopes and fears; a lovesick maiden trapped in a tower who soothes herself with a lovely song; a lightning bug that leaves empty fields aglow; and a rose whose subtle odor sweetens the wind. By stanza twelve, however, the speaker acknowledges that his comparisons all fall short. Even the joy and beauty that raindrops and flowers create cannot compete with the skylark’s song. 

In stanza thirteen, the speaker ends his comparison, seeking instead to understand what motivates the skylark to sing so beautifully. Even though he has heard people sing praises before, he has never heard it done with such divinity as the skylark—indeed, even church choirs and victory chants pale in comparison to the skylark song. Unlike men, the skylark sings as though it has felt neither pain nor irritation, singing the perfect song of an unmarred life. 

In stanza seventeen, the speaker realizes that humans are incapable of understanding the joy the skylark feels. It understands and accepts both life and death in a way humans simply cannot comprehend. Men are never satisfied with what they have; worse, even in their happiest moments, they cannot forget past sorrows. They can never live in the present, forever preoccupied with the past and the future.

Even if individuals could forget the negativity that exists in their lives, the speaker still wonders if it would be possible for men to know the skylark’s joy. Its song is purer than any other sound on earth or words written by poets in books. He closes the poem by asking the skylark to teach him even half the gladness it knows. If he could touch that joy, even briefly, he believes the world would be more likely to listen to him.

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