Discussion Topic

The theme and symbolic significance of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To a Skylark"

Summary:

The theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To a Skylark" revolves around the contrast between the purity and joy of the skylark's song and the sorrow and imperfection of human life. Symbolically, the skylark represents an ideal of unblemished beauty and inspiration, transcending earthly woes and embodying the poet's yearning for a higher, more perfect existence.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To a Skylark"?

The theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's lyrical ode "To a Skylark" is the power of nature to inspire and delight the human spirit.

While the poet listens to the small night bird sing with delight as it soars to the heavens, he, too, is enraptured with its "rain of melody" that showers down spontaneously:

What thou art we know not;
  What is most like thee? 
From rainbow clouds there flow not
  Drops as bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.

In subsequent verses, the poet seeks to compare this delightful bird's song that generates images of maidens, sweet-smelling roses, the gentle sounds of rain, and much more, to the wonders of the heart. And, yet, the poet wonders how this blithe spirit can know such happiness without having experienced sorrow: "Thou lovest—but ne'er knew love's sad satiety." For people's happiness is relative to the sorrow that they have experienced.

Finally, the poet calls upon the skylark to teach him such pure joy as it has because if he were to possess this pure happiness, the world might listen, just as he is listening now to the lovely songs of this bird.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To a Skylark"?

The theme of Shelley's poem "To a Skylark" is the power  of nature to transform men's lives, specifically through the medium of poetry.

The skylark is a tiny bird, so small that when it flies high in the heavens it cannot even be seen by the author, yet its song can still be heard, a song "unbodied joy" (line 15) and "shrill delight" (line 20).  The author hears the skylark and goes on to describe its beauteous song, but it is "a flood of rapture so divine" (line 85) that he cannot fully capture its essence.  The joy expressed by the skylark is beyond that which can be grasped by man, and the author speaks directly to the skylark in the latter stanzas, asking it to reveal to him the secret of its ethereal bliss so that he might then be able to share it with others through his words, and thus transform their lives. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To a Skylark"?

I believe that the theme of the poem "To a Skylark" by Percy Bysshe Shelly is that humans cannot possibly feel the carefree joy the skylark feels each and every day as we are incapable of staying in the moment.

The poem begins by calling out to the skylark, calling it a "blithe" spirit.  To be carefree, one can have no worries, no concerns.  The speaker in the poem praises the song the skylark sings calling it "unpremeditated art".  Spontaneous song clearly emphasizes the bird's ecstatic joy.

The speaker follows the skylark's journey:  it "springs" from the earth, then flies into the "deep blue" or sky, and as it does this, the bird continues to sing.  This movement again emphasizes the unbridled happiness the skylark embodies.  The speaker continues to track the bird: "In the golden light'ning/Of the sunken sun".  This show how quickly the bird is flying and the next line ""Thou dost float and run" again shows how filled with joy this bird appears.  The bird then continues to fly, and the into the sunrise or sunset (I'm not sure which, but I think it is the sunrise) as the "pale purple even/Melts around" the bird, and while the bird can no longer be seen, the song can still be heard.  This shows once again how the happiness just bursts forth and can't be contained in this little skylark.

The speaker later points out that all the joy the bird experiences is unattainable for human beings - "What thou art we know not" - and then compares the skylark to things who demonstrate some measure of happiness, but still not equal to the joy the bird possesses:  the raindrops from clouds that later produce rainbows.  The bird is like a poet no one pays attention to until people appreciate it after disregarding the real hopes and dreams of the world. The bird is like a princess in a palace who is thinking of her love in her private quarters and like a glowworm secretly spreading its light and joy, and so forth.  These comparison all "shine" with happiness whether anything or anybody else takes notice.  They are "in the moment"

The speaker then ponders what causes this bird to be as happy as it is stating " What objects are the fountains/Of thy happy strain?"  The speaker goes on to say what the bird has never experienced:  laziness, annoyed, heartbreak, even death must not hold the fearsthat it seems to for humans.  The speaker says "We [humans]look before and after" which probably means we are never just in the moment.  We always want what we don't have - "pine for what is not".  Even when we laugh, it is often filled with pain.  Our best songs talk about sad things

The speaker then goes on to say that even if we could eliminate scorn, pride, and fear - all the things that often cause humans sadness, we still would never be able to be as happy as the skylark appears to be, and if this bird could teach humans to be half as happy, it is certain the world would listen to him just as he is listening to the skylark.

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To a Skylark"?

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a Romantic poet. The Romantics typically wrote about very similar things. The characteristics of the works typical of the Romantic poet are: love of nature, love of the uncivilized or natural, beauty in nature, the importance of imagination over reason (as a contrast to the Neoclassicists who preceded the Romantics), and individualism.

In Shelley's poem, "To a Skylark," Shelley wants the reader to understand the importance of the skylark. The skylark is a bird which brings beautiful music to the world with its song. Shelley understands the importance of the beauty of nature (animal life included) and the importance of mankind's realization that nature holds a special place in the world.

The comparisons made between the world of man and the world of nature show Shelley's ideology regarding the impact which nature should have on man and the respect that mankind should have, in return, for nature. In the end, Shelley's asking of the skylark to share with him the secrets of nature show that Shelley does, in fact, recognize the importance nature holds in the lives of mankind.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the skylark symbolize in Shelley's "To A Skylark"?

The inspiration for the famous poem "To a Skylark" by Percy Shelley came while Shelley was taking a walk in the Italian countryside with his wife, Mary Shelley. They heard the lovely melody of a skylark on a summer evening. Shelley wrote the poem and included it in his larger volume Prometheus Unbound.

In a sweeping sense, the skylark in the poem symbolizes a perfect immortal spirit full of love, joy, clarity, freshness, sweetness, and freedom. Shelley emphasizes that the skylark is ignorant of pain and oblivious to fear of death, unlike humans who long for something that escapes them and whose "sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought."

Besides the skylark symbolizing an unending joyful spirit, Shelley also makes several comparisons to try to describe the skylark and its song, although he realizes this is futile.

What thou art we know not;

What is most like thee?

For instance, he compares the skylark to clouds that shed showers of melody instead of rain. He likens it to a poet deep in thought who brings forth hymns with which the world sympathizes. He pictures a maiden in a high tower who listens to sweet music to soothe her love-laden soul. He compares it to a golden glowworm that shines whether others can see it or not. He pictures a rose touched by a warm wind that gives off a sweet scent. Shelley makes it clear, though, that the skylark and its music far surpass all these things with which he tries to compare it.

In other words, the pure spirit that the skylark symbolizes ultimately defies any attempt to describe it.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the skylark symbolize in Shelley's "To A Skylark"?

On the first realistic level, the poem’s narrator (presumably Shelley himself) hears the song of a skylark, flying and singing at twilight (“In the golden lightning/Of the sunken sun”); the first seven stanzas describe this moment.  Then the poet offers five similes (“Like a Poet..”; “Like a high-born maiden” etc.) Then the poet asks to bird to teach him “what sweet thoughts” conjure up such beautiful sounds (six stanzas), then points out that the beauty of the song comes from the absolute absence of any negative parts of life, as opposed to a poet (“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”)   “Teach me half the gladness/That thy brain must know” – so the skylark is compared to the poet, but the skylark’s sound is gladder than the poet’s, whose “song” is tempered with sadness. The skylark, then, is the height of a poet's ability to express life's joys in his poetry.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the skylark symbolize in Shelley's "To A Skylark"?

The European skylark sings only when in flight. When the speaker of the poem starts praising the bird, it is already out of his sight. So, the speaker only hears the bird, giving it a spiritual (unseen) quality. The bird is compared to a spirit or a soul which has left the physical bounds of earth, but whose song, or spirit, can still be heard: 

Like a star of Heaven

In the broad day-light

Thou art unseen,--but yet I hear they shrill delight,

(18-20) 

A star can not be seen in the "broad day-light" but we know it is still there. Here, Shelley conflates a natural phenomena (a star invisible in the daylight or the heard but unseen skylark) with the idea of a heavenly presence. 

As the skylark flies "Higher and higher still," this is symbolic of a being escaping the physical constraints of earth, essentially becoming like immaterial: a spirit. 

The speaker claims that the skylark's song is more "bright" (in the sense of being vivid and alive) than the drops from "rainbow clouds." Comparing visual and audible imagery, the skylark's song is more affecting than visible beauty. 

There is more symbolism utilizing this notion that the effect of one sense is absent but another sense dominates the speaker's perception. For example, the rose is "embowered / In its own green leaves--" meaning it is enclosed and therefore invisible. But its sweet scent is carried on "warm winds." 

The skylark is described as "blithe" in the opening line. This means happy and without care or concern. The speaker longs to be free of life's concerns and fears; to be like the skylark, not worried about fear, mortality, etc. 

Yet if we could scorn

Hate and pride and fear;

If we were things born 

Not to shed a tear,

I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

The skylark, more particularly its song, symbolizes ultimate joy. The speaker, Shelley in this case, asks the skylark to teach him this joy in order that he might give his poetry the same blithe quality of the skylark's song. 

Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness 

From my lips would flow

In the end, the song is comparable to poetry itself and is therefore symbolic of the potential of poetry to be as effective as the unseen but heard song. There is the posthumous indication that like the unseen but heard song, Shelley's own poetry will be heard (or read) after he has died. Therefore, the skylark's song is symbolic of the beauty in nature as well as the beauty in poetry. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the symbolic significance of the poem "To a Skylark"?

First, in order to give some boundaries to this answer, let me assume that the questioner knows something about the Romantic Poetry movement, the Lake District poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Burns, etc.), and the definition of an ode.

           In a poem of this length, the first step toward understanding how the symbolism works is to find three or four major symbol clusters that gives the poem some structure.  Here, the first step is to note that the narrator (poet) in real life hears a skylark’s song, which sets off his poetic sensibilities. Next, we note the narrator’s immediate reaction, captured in such phrases as “blithe spirit,” “unpremeditated art” – that is, the bird is compared to an unearthly, heaven-connected event, not merely a physical bird.   By addressing the bird, the narrator is able to describe his sight of the bird as well (at first he simply hears it, then spots it as it flies into “the blue deep.”)  He continues to describe the sky (“golden light’ning,” etc.) and strengthens his second observation – that the bird is free and unfettered, “unbodied” and inspiring. As the flight continues, the song remains.  By adding metaphors to describe the day’s light (arrows of the sun, etc.), the poet announces his departure from realistic description, preparing to begin the part of the ode (“What is most like thee?”) that deals with comparisons of the bird’s song and flight to the poet’s human experiences, such as “Singing hymns (ie., writing poems) unbidden.” This set of symbols (to “thy music doth surpass.") leads us into the section about what we might learn from the skylark, and speculation of what inspired the bird’s song.  The last stanza expresses the poet’s wish that he might write poetry as effective, as harmonious yet mad (ie., not bound by human logic or sense), as the bird’s song.

     This admittedly skeletal breakdown shows how the symbolism works to our conclusion:  the skylark’s song is an inspiration to the hearer to write poetry with the same properties – heavenly, harmonious, worth listening to. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on