Like so many of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems, “To a Skylark” describes a natural phenomenon and then uses that event as a jumping-off point for discussing the power of nature to transform men’s lives. Shelley wrote the poem near Leghorn, Italy, in 1820, presumably after experiencing the situation he describes in the opening lines of the poem: The sound of a small European skylark, which sings only when in flight, calls the speaker’s attention to the presence of the bird soaring so high that it cannot be seen by the viewer. Trying to spot the bird in the sky leads the narrator to imagine what the bird is actually like, and after running through a series of comparisons, he turns to contrasting the joyful life of the bird with that of men who are bound to earth, with all its cares.
The poem’s twenty-one stanzas divide logically into three parts. In the first section, the speaker addresses the bird whose song he hears but that he cannot see high in the sky, where its warbling fills the air with sweet music. The bird seems to be a kind of “unbodied joy” (line 15) whose “shrill delight” (line 20) makes the whole world a happy place.
In the middle section of the poem, the speaker makes a series of comparisons to try to explain what the bird’s song is like. Drawing images from the world of men and the world of nature, Shelley likens the bird to a summer shower, a rose, a highborn maiden, a rainbow cloud, even a glowworm. None of these images is sufficient, for none captures the essence of the joy the poet feels in hearing the bird’s song. Finally, the speaker asks the bird to share with him the secret of its special joy. The unbridled joy of this creature is unlike that felt by men, who know pleasure only in comparison to the pain and tragedy that are an integral part of human existence. Hence, when possessed of the skylark’s secret, the poet will be able to transform the lives of his readers and improve humankind; such, Shelley implies, is the power of poetry when it is suffused with the power of nature.