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To a Skylark Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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. Earthbound, the speaker has suffered emotionally debilitating personal tragedies and is struggling to achieve recognition as a poet, while the unfettered skylark enjoys a joyful freedom that is given expression by the “shrill delight” of its song.

By employing the phrase “blithe Spirit” at the start, Shelley instantly focuses attention not only on the sheer joy the bird exudes but also upon its noncorporeal, symbolic quality. He continues this thought in the second line—“Bird thou never wert”—by suggesting that the skylark differs from other birds, which neither rise as high nor sing as “profusely.” “Unpremeditated art,” which concludes the stanza, suggests a spontaneity central to Romanticism but that humans, constrained by society’s mores, usually are forced to sublimate. The next three stanzas trace the upward flight of the singing bird with a series of similes that continues to emphasize the creature’s freedom from earthly restraints, in part because the object of each simile also is unseen. The most effective simile compares the bird, whose progress the speaker follows by the sound of its song, to Venus, the morning star, “that silver sphere” whose...

(The entire section is 1,311 words.)