Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

Harold Bloom has described “To a Skylark” as Shelley’s “farewell to the theme of the power hidden behind nature and the poet’s relation to that power” (The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, 1971). In this ode, Shelley attempts to identify the essence of that powerful force that gives human beings such feelings of joy and excitement when they confront the natural world directly. The unseen bird whose song prompts the poet to engage in a rhapsody of comparison stands as a metaphor for nature, and Shelley’s vain attempts to find a way to make the power of the natural world seem intelligible suggest the general inability of humanity to comprehend the forces outside itself. In this sense, the forces of nature can be equated to the imagination, which for the Romantics is a kind of divine power that invests them with special insight.

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Easily lost in the extensive list of comparisons in this poem is the central contrast that Shelley makes between the simple, freewheeling joy found in nature and the complex, paradoxical joy that humans feel, a joy bound up with desire and tragedy. Shelley makes this point clear in the eighteenth stanza when he describes the way people seem to view the world: “We look before and after,” he observes (line 86), thinking of the human tendency to dwell on the past and the future rather than the present. Humanity’s “sincerest laughter” is always “fraught” with some form of pain (lines 88-89), and its “sweetest songs” are those “that tell of saddest thought” (line 90).

Shelley suggests that the suffering humanity undergoes gives it the opportunity to understand the kind of joy the skylark represents. “If we were things born/ Not to shed a tear” he observes, “I know not how thy joy we ever could come near” (lines 93-95). Unlike the bird, humans define their essence—their humanity—through suffering as well as through joy. Nevertheless, being able to comprehend the joy the bird represents is important to the poet, for he believes that, should he be able to translate this joy into words, he would be able to help make life better for those who would read his poetry. Were he to learn “half the gladness” (line 101) that characterizes the skylark’s life in nature, “Such harmonious madness/ From my lips would pour” (lines 103-104) that he could transform the world. Such, Shelley believes, is the high calling of the poet.

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