By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Percy Shelley (1792-1822) is one of the greatest of the ‘second generation’ Romantic poets who also numbered John Keats and Lord Byron among them. And ‘To a Skylark’ is one of Shelley’s best-loved and most anthologised poems. But what is the meaning of this poem?
Rather than offer the poem followed by an analysis, perhaps it would make more sense to go through ‘To a Skylark’ stanza by stanza and offer a running commentary on this quintessentially Romantic poem. So, here goes:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Shelley begins by addressing the skylark directly, calling it a ‘blithe’ or carefree ‘Spirit’ rather than a bird, because the bird seems to have come ‘from Heaven’.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
T. E. Hulme complained in 1912 that much ‘romantic’ poetry is preoccupied with ‘metaphors of flight’ and with escaping the earth. Here’s a good example of the Romantic impulse: the bird soars higher and higher away from the earth, up into the ‘blue deep’ of the sky, singing all the way.
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
Following the singing in the previous stanza we have a description of the skylark’s ‘unbodied joy’ – almost an out-of-body experience, or transcending the corporeality of the body – full of energy at the beginning of a ‘race’.
The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad day-light
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight,
More emphasis on joy or ‘delight’ here, with emphasis on the bird’s singing (‘shrill’) and the way the ‘pale purple’ of the sky seems to melt around the bird’s majestic movements, as if the bird is ‘a star of Heaven’ rather than a skylark. This takes us back to the heavenly ‘Spirit’ of that opening stanza, and to a key theme of ‘To a Skylark’. Note here, too, how ‘day-light’ doesn’t merely rhyme with ‘delight’ but turns into it, as if the daylight of the sky is indeed melting around the bird’s delightful song and flight.
Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.
T. S. Eliot later complained (in a lecture of 1926 on metaphysical poetry) that Shelley was unclear here on what the ‘silver sphere’ was: if Shelley is watching the bird during ‘day-light’, what’s the moon doing there?
But the moon is still often visible during the ‘white dawn’, and its beams or rays (‘arrows’) slowly narrow until we can barely see the moon but we sense somehow that it is there all the same. This is the comparison being drawn here: the skylark’s antics are beautiful, but don’t strike the poet as obtrusive or showy.
All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflow’d.
The bird’s song fills both the earth and the sky, much as the moon shines out from a single cloud at night, filling the whole world with a soft silver glow.
What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
Once again, Shelley isn’t sure how to categorise the skylark: ‘Bird thou never wert’, he started off by saying, and here he is clearly struggling for find the perfect symbol or simile for the comparison to the skylark. It’s as if the last few stanzas focusing on moonlight have been shown to be insufficient.
Once again, though, as with the last stanza we have a metaphorical ‘rain’: whereas in the previous stanza it was the moon that ‘rains out her beams’, now it’s the raindrops falling from ‘rainbow clouds’.
This is bordering on synaesthesia: Shelley is likening the ‘rain of melody’, i.e. the cadences of the bird’s song, to the visual phenomenon of colours from raindrops. This sensory confusion is another important aspect of ‘To a Skylark’, and perhaps warrants closer analysis than we can give it here.
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:
Here, Shelley reaches for the ultimate poetic simile: the act of poetic creativity itself. The bird’s song is like the mystical creation of poetry that is brought about while the poet is in ‘the light of thought’ and their words come ‘unbidden’ or naturally and mysteriously to them, as if divinely inspired.
Like a high-born maiden
In a palace-tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:
Another simile: this time, a well-born unmarried woman in her palace tower, pining away with secret love while listening to music which fills the room.
Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Its aerial hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:
Yet another simile, and another one which uses a visual image to describe the musical melody of the skylark’s singing: this time, it’s like a golden glow-worm in a dewy ‘dell’ or valley, scattering its light among the surrounding flowers, while the glow-worm itself is hidden. The emphasis here, as with the maiden locked in her tower, is on secret or hidden beauty.
Like a rose embower’d
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflower’d,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-winged thieves:
Yet another simile: this time, that poetic symbol par excellence, the lovely rose. A rose that sits nestled in its own leaves, losing its petals thanks to the gusts of warm wind, releases a sweet scent or fragrance that threatens to make the bees (who would steal the flower’s pollen, hence ‘heavy-winged thieves’) drowsy with too much sweetness.
We’re almost in the luscious, voluptuous, overpowering sensory territory of Shelley’s friend John Keats here.
Note how Shelley’s description of the beautiful rose (women and roses often being compared in love poetry) as ‘embower’d’ takes us back to the maiden in her ‘bower’, while the idea of the rose being ‘deflower’d’ suggests that pining maiden losing her maidenhead; the images are subtly linked across stanzas.
After all, in much literature a woman has her virginity stolen by ‘thieves’ much as the bees steal the sweet pollen from the rose.
Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.
The skylark’s song exceeds the pleasant sound of spring showers on the grass, and the flowers that are awakened by such rain. We’re back to joy here again, too.
Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
‘Spirit’ has become ‘Sprite’ now: the skylark, to Shelley, is still otherworldly, or supernatural. The ‘rapture’ – an intensification of the previous ‘joy’ – the bird’s song contains and communicates surpasses any human poetry or music praising love or wine. So what ‘sweet thoughts’ inspire the bird to sing so beautifully, he wonders?
Or triumphal chant,
Match’d with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.
Bridal music at weddings (‘Chorus Hymeneal’, although ‘hymen’ takes us back to ‘deflower’d but also to those thieving bees, which are members of the insect order Hymenoptera) and triumphal chants in celebration of military victories would be empty of meaning when compared with the skylark’s song.
What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?
Shelley continues to wonder what the inspiration for the skylark’s beautiful song might be: is the skylark, like a poet or composer, moved by a particular feature of the natural world? (Again, a common feature of Romanticism.) Or is it love of a loved one, or simply being unaware of the existence of pain?
With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest: but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.
Joy again, this time as ‘joyance’: but the skylark’s music is so joyous that it suggests the bird has known love, but has never known the flipside to love, which is to grow sick of loving and to experience heartache or simply to fall out of love with someone or something. (Something Shelley knew a fair bit about.)
Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?
The bird must have a different outlook on death from that which we humans have, Shelley argues, otherwise how could the bird sing notes so clear and beautiful? Does the skylark have some insight into death and what lies in store for us afterwards? Note how Thomas Hardy seems to pick up on this idea for his 1900 poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, in his final stanza.
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Humans dwell on the past or worry about the future, longing for things which do not exist. Even our laughter is ‘fraught’ with pain, and, in a famous quotation that has become well-known to people who have never read the poem, our sweetest songs are the ones that spring from the saddest thoughts.
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.
But even if we could banish the unpleasant emotions we as humans experience, Shelley continues – even then, he doesn’t see how we could come close to matching the joy the skylark seems to feel. The bird remains streets ahead of us in being boundlessly happy.
Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
The skylark’s skill is more useful to the poet than all measurable sounds (e.g. music), and any learning a poet could pick up from books.
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.
Shelley concludes ‘To a Skylark’ by asking the bird to teach him just half the happiness the bird must know, in order to produce such beautiful music. If the skylark granted the poet his wish, he – Shelley – would start singing such delirious, harmonious music that the world would listen to him, much as he is listening, enraptured, to the skylark right now.
What such a summary or paraphrase of ‘To a Skylark’ makes clear, we think, is that Shelley’s poem is as much about poetic inspiration as it is about the bird itself. As so often with Romantic poetry, the self of the poet, the stuff of poetic creativity, the individual soul of the artist, is at one with nature’s awe-inspiring beauty and majesty.
Percy Bysshe Shelley finished writing ‘To a Skylark’ in June 1820. The inspiration for the poem was an evening walk he had taken with his wife, Mary (author of Frankenstein, of course), in Livorno, in north-west Italy. Mary later described the circumstances that gave rise to the poem: ‘It was on a beautiful summer evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark.’
The result, in the last analysis, was a poem which uses the music or song of the skylark not quite as a symbol or simile for the ‘song’ of the poet, but rather as something that transcends whatever the poet could produce.
The last line of the first stanza is so ugly I can never get past it.