Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 372
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
The twenty-one stanzas of “To a Skylark” consist of five lines each, rhyming ababb. If one reads the first four lines of any stanza with natural stresses, one can see that these lines generally consist of a first stressed syllable followed by two iambs. The final line in each stanza is an Alexandrine (six iambics), and in all cases Shelley closes his thought in the final line, so that there is no enjambment between stanzas. The effect is to make each five-line grouping a self-contained unit of thought, giving the reader pause for reflection on the idea expressed in the stanza.
Like so many of the Romantics’ poems, “To a Skylark” is addressed to a creature of nature as if that creature were capable of discourse with the speaker. The joyful life of the skylark is seen as the object of envy, and the speaker poses as a supplicant seeking from the bird some insight into its natural wisdom and its consummate happiness.
Six stanzas are given over to similes (lines 31-60) in which the poet compares the bird to various animate and inanimate natural objects, each of which gives joy to the viewer or listener: a cloud in the sky after a rain, a poet singing his verses to the world, a maiden playing on her instrument, a glowworm, a rose, even the rain. These comparisons are Shelley’s attempt to suggest the power of the skylark to awaken feelings of joy within those who hear the sound of the bird winging far above them; the piercing song of the bird, whose presence is felt by those who hear it, suggests to Shelley that it has discovered the secret of happiness. Each of the stanzas in which these comparisons are drawn forms a kind of miniature word-painting of a natural scene intended to evoke feelings of joy and contentment in the reader.
In addition to the similes in these six stanzas, Shelley includes briefer comparisons throughout the poem to suggest by analogy the skylark’s special qualities and the importance of its “secret” for humankind. It is “like a cloud of fire” (line 8) or “a star in Heaven” (line 18); its joy seems to the speaker to be “Better than all measures/ Of delightful sound” (lines 96-97) and “Better than all treasures/ That in books are found” (lines 98-99). The comparisons run the gamut from ethereal to subterrestrial, but the effect is the same: They suggest that the happiness the poet feels in hearing the skylark’s song is the distillation of all the natural happiness he can imagine, and he longs to understand not only what the essence of that happiness is, but also how he may create such a feeling in his own life and in the lives of his fellow humans.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 219
Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. This massive biography by a psychologist, not a literary scholar, covers all aspects of Shelley’s life in great detail and is based on a scrupulous study of available sources.
Chernaik, Judith. The Lyrics of Shelley. Cleveland, Ohio: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1972. Detailed analyses of more than two dozen Shelley lyrics form the centerpiece of this book, which also traces the developmental process of many of the works.
Reiman, Donald H. Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969. Including a brief biography, this book is useful for Reiman’s discussions and explications of what he considers Shelley’s most important poetry and prose.
Wasserman, Earl R. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. An invaluable book by a major Shelley scholar, this volume presents careful analyses and explications of Shelley’s major works of poetry and prose.
White, Newman Ivey. Shelley. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940. This classic, monumental biography remains the touchstone by which subsequent studies are evaluated.
Wroe, Ann. Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007. An unconventional biography, this is a study of Shelley’s poetry as it reveals the man, with attention paid to the composition and development of individual works.