Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311
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 “arrows” (rays of light) fade in “the white dawn clear,” but whose presence continues to be felt.
All the earth and airWith thy voice is loud,As, when night is bare,From one lonely cloudThe moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflowed.
In the second section of the poem (lines 31-60), Shelley shifts his style and tone. Rather than invoking heaven, sun, clouds, or star, his imagery focuses upon earthbound things: a poet struggling to find an audience, a lovelorn maiden in a tower, a glowworm whose “aereal hue” is hidden by flowers and grass, and a rose deflowered by winds and obscured by its leaves. All of these earthly things, though beautiful, are unseen and thus unappreciated. By contrast, the skylark’s song compensates for the fact that the bird is not seen, so it can still be appreciated. There is a universality to Shelley’s several similes, as the images encompass the human, animal, vegetable, and mineral realms. What is more, his imagery in these stanzas (lines 36-60) also evokes all five senses.
Having liberated the skylark with his opening invocation, Shelley the human poet in the third section (lines 61-105) pays tribute to the skylark as natural poet, whom he then asks to teach him and his fellows the secret of its joy. The opening (“Teach us, Sprite or Bird . . . ”) echoes the start of the poem, though “Spirit” now is “Sprite” and the earlier enthusiastic greeting (“Hail to thee . . . ”) now is an imploring “Teach us. . . . ” (There is a similar pleading in the first line of the last stanza of “Ode to the West Wind,” which Shelley wrote a year earlier: “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is.” The two poems often are compared.) Nothing else he has heard—neither the traditional Greek poems in praise of love or wine, nor a “Chorus Hymeneal” (marriage song), nor even a “triumphal chant” (an army’s victory march)—matches the “flood of rapture so divine” that is the skylark’s song.
In four questions that compose the next stanza (lines 71-75), Shelley asks what the sources are of the skylark’s “happy strain,” its “love of thine own kind,” and “ignorance of pain,” and he again invokes varied aspects of the physical world: fields, waves, mountains, sky, and plain. He proceeds further to highlight differences between the bird and humankind, culminating in the implied contrast to himself personally in line 80: “Thou lovest—but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.” In the next stanza, “we mere mortals” also suggests that the poet is speaking both of his situation and of that of humankind generally. Continuing this thought, Shelley further highlights the contrast between the lives of humans and that of the skylark.
We look before and after,And pine for what is not:Our sincerest laughterWith some pain is fraught;Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
In the next and final stanza, however, Shelley retreats to a self-serving introverted plaint, asking the skylark to help him attain public recognition as a poet.
Teach me half the gladnessThat thy brain must know,Such harmonious madnessFrom my lips would flowThe world should listen then— as I am listening now.
Because Shelley portrays the skylark as totally happy and not needing to confront mortality, one can conclude that the bird symbolizes ultimate joy, maybe even a Platonic ideal. Like so much Romantic lyric poetry, however, “To a Skylark” ultimately is a personal manifesto: As a poet, Shelley also is a singer and expresses in his poems a yearning for an immortality that he imagines the skylark, through its song, surely has. In the summer of 1816, in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” Shelley asked the awe-inspiring but unseen “loveliness” or “Spirit of Beauty” that pervades the material world to endow him with “whate’er these words cannot express.” Four years later, in “To a Skylark,” a more straightforward lyric, he continued his quest, which was a quintessential aspect of Romanticism.
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