Themes

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Last Updated January 2, 2024.

The Elevation of Nature

Shelley wrote during the Industrial Revolution, a crucial context evident in much of his poetry. Technology advanced at a rate humanity had never before seen; to keep pace with this advancement, cities expanded—and, in many cases, sprung anew on land that was once only empty countryside. 

Artists like Shelley were concerned by the rise of technology and urbanization, certain that it was replacing and obscuring nature’s beauty. In this poem, his speaker highlights the beauty of birdsong, showing how it transcends human understanding. While the skylark is the focus of the poem, it is also full of other images from nature: lightning bugs, the sky at different times of day, rain and rainbows, flowers, fields, waves, and mountains. 

Shelley further uses language that makes these natural images seem sacred or divine, and as early as the first stanza, suggests that the skylark is either a part of or near to heaven. Man’s proximity to nature, then, thus brings humanity closer to the divine. So, while the poet does not specifically address technology or the urban environment in this poem, it follows a tradition of Romantic poems that asks readers to lose themselves to natural imagery—and, by extension, nature—in the wake of contemporary urban expansion. 

The Limits of Human Expression

Throughout the poem, the speaker conveys apprehension about his ability to capture in words his feelings about the skylark’s song. He consistently struggles to come up with an appropriate comparison to express his experience of the skylark, from other objects in nature (rain, a rose, lightning bugs) to more human actions (songs sung by choirs and maidens).

Twice, the speaker compares the skylark to a poet (first in the eighth stanza and, later, in the twentieth). However, in the twentieth stanza, he notes that the skylark’s song is “better” than treasures found in books; it is in this way that human poetry falls short. As such, the speaker deems poetry inadequate and, like the speaker, incapable of expressing the skylark's joy. This becomes especially clear in the final stanza, when he expresses anxiety about being taken seriously. He hopes that by listening more intently to the skylark’s song and learning from it, the world will in turn listen more seriously to him.

The Nature of Happiness

There are two kinds of happiness highlighted in this poem: That which is experienced by humans and that which occurs only within the natural realm. In this diametric experience of joy, the skylark (as a natural being) represents a sort of unbridled joy that humanity can never embody, a perfectness of spirit fueled by purity and innocence that are akin to divinity.

Comparatively, human happiness exists in contrast to sadness; unlike the skylark, humans are always thinking about what they lack or the sorrow they harbor. Human happiness, the speaker posits after considering the skylark, is fleeting and flawed. Still, this does not mean that men should not strive to better understand joy as the skylark experiences it. Indeed, if the speaker did not believe that he—and, by extension, humanity—might prove capable of capturing some of the skylark’s joy, he would not entreat the skylark to teach him “half the gladness” that it knows.

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