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

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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.

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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.

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Explain the symbolism of "To a Skylark" by Shelley.

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. 

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