Text, Critical Interpretation, Summary and Analysis of Shelley’s To a Skylark

To a skylark

P. B. Shelley

Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Bird thou never wert, That from heaven, or near it Pourest thy full heart In profuse strain of unpremeditated art.

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.

In the golden lightning Of the sunken sun, O'er which clouds are brightning, Thou dost float and run; Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

The pale purple even Melts around thy flight; Like a star of heaven, In the broad daylight Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight.

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.

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.

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.

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;

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;

Like a glow-worm golden In a dell of dew, Scattering unbeholden Its aerial hue Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view;

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 these heavy-winged thieves:

Sound of vernal showers On the twinkling grass, Rain-awaken'd flowers, All that ever was Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

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;

Chorus hymeneal, Or triumphal chaunt, Match'd with thine would be all But an empty vaunt - A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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!

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!

In Livorno in June of 1820, according to Mary Shelley, on a beautiful evening, she and Shelley heard the carolling of a lark, and that inspired the poet to compose the poem. The attempt turns out to be one in imitation of the bird’s skill. In his Defence of Poetry, he wrote, “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician...” but the bird here is skylark, not nightingale. What the birds share, of course, is their invisibility, their reduction to pure bodiless voice. Therefore we are to take the part as a symbolic representation of bodiless audible beauty that strives, like the one in Plato’s Phaedrus, up towards perfection. What matters for the poet is not any particular bird or thing, but is the idea of beauty. The skylark can sustain a loud, merry musical note at great height while flying, and only while flying, and they sometimes fly so high that can only be heard and not seen. All these natural facts were sufficient to inspire Shelley to start the poem by calling the bird a spirit, “Hail to thee, Blithe spirit”. That Shelley calls the bird’s art “Profuse strains of unpremeditated art” often gives a clue to the critics to call Shelley’s poem itself an exercise of unpremeditated art. The next stanza provides the movement and activity of the bird, and this in turn becomes applicable to the whole poem:

“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.”

As Shelley saw the bird singing in evening time he ignored the literary fact that larks are morning birds, which Shakespeare relied upon for his famous debate between Romeo and Juliet over whether the bird they have heard is the nightingale or the lark. For, above all, Shelley is concerned here with “an unbodied joy whose race has just begun”. The point of reference takes the safe propagandas between the visible and the invisible which may have the philosophical dimension of the dialectics of the material and the spiritual:

“Like a star of heaven In the broad day-light.”

It even elicits the sense of existence in bodiless beauty, beauty, as the idealist philosophers would believe, is essentially bodiless. As a poet Shelley enjoys the lark’s outpourings as it can give him aesthetic pleasure.

In the eighth stanza Shelley likens the bird to “a poet hidden/In the light of thought”, and here we come to understand something of his intention. But the bird is not hidden in “the light of thought”. It is surrounded by its own happy outpourings. In the subsequent four stanzas, the bird’s song is likened to a high-born maiden’s song, to s glow worm’s aerial hue, to a rose’s fragrance, to the “sound of vernal shower” and the different types of simile establish the one fact that “All that ever was/Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.”

Now the bird’s perfection of arts is seen in contrast to the imperfection of human life and arts as well. Here the bird comes nearer the one Plato’s Phaedrus, which is an example of how and why human beings should try to achieve the ideal. In an agonising gesture Shelley questions the bird what philosophy of life enables it to live in the realm of perfection. The archetype of fountain as a symbol of poetic inspiration comes in Shelley’s mind along with the beautiful forms of nature, ‘fields’, ‘waves’, ‘mountains’ and so on. In the next stanza the lark’s joyfulness is seen in contrast to the inevitable short life of the highest human emotion, love:

“Thou lovest but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.”

So in Shelley art and life become inter-related and this is evident in the question—“What ignorance of pain”. The poet has confronted with the paradoxes of life:

“We look before and after, And pine for what is not”. Shakespeare in Hamlet makes his Prince utter similar words: “Sure he that made us with such large discourse Looking before and after gave us not That capability and Godlike reason.”

The crux of the matter is that like a great poet Shelley has also come to understand the great divide in the human psyche,

“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

The reason he traces is human adherence to “the ground” or the material world opposed to the spiritual world as Plato taught. The lark can achieve perfection because it is “scorner of the ground”. This is where we come to the difference of attitude of the two Romantic poets, Shelley and Wordsworth. Shelley’s skylark is an inhabitant of purely ethereal arena and is a symbol of perfection. On the other hand, Wordsworth’s skylark in his poem To a Skylark is an inhabitant of both earth and ether:

“Type of the wise who soar, but never roam; True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!

In the last stanza Shelley has stated his intention clearly. He longs to follow or imitate the eudemonic being and learn the “harmonious madness”. This Platonic concept of divine frenzy clearly indicates Shelley’s desire for artistic creation which will be perfect products, and he perhaps thinks that this is possible only in art or imagination, not in real life. To conclude, it is perhaps natural for the great souls to feel what Goethe’s Faust tells his student:

“It is inborn in each of us That our feelings thrust upward and forward While over us, lost in blue space The lark sings its thrilling songs.”

Towards the end of the poem the skylark is transfigured into a sort of poetic inspiration for the poet as he desperately craves for the possession of the artistic qualities essential for the creation of his own poetry.

Short Questions

  1. *Why does the poet address the skylark, a bird as a spirit/”a blithe spirit”?

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” Shelley is listening to the song of a bird, which is itself invisible. It seems to the poet that the bird, while singing, soaring high above the ground, has lost its physical existence and has become a spirit. Shelley is here trying to represent the bird as an abstract quality of pure joy, a quality so poignantly missing in the humans.

2. Explain the expression “profuse strains of unpremeditated art ”.

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” the birds are ‘unpremeditated’, that is, natural or spontaneous in the sense that those are not preconceived or pre-planned, unlike the human art, generally, or more specifically, the poet’s art, which is preconceived. Shelley is here trying to represent the bird as an abstract quality of pure joy, a quality so poignantly missing in the humans.

3. *Explain the simile “Like a cloud of fire”.

Or, Why does Shelley introduce the image of fire in the poem?

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” the bird in its venture up in the sky is compared to a cloud lit up by the rays of the setting sun at twilight. Thus Shelley links the bird to the image of fire in order to emphasise the bird’s abstract existence as a quality having the power to purify the human mind.

4. ***“Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun”—Explain.

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” Shelley seeks to convey the idea that in its flight for singing, the bird, as if, has found a new life, a life of abstract delight which is possible only by transcending the body and becoming a spirit.

5. **“Keen as the arrows...we feel that it is there”. Explain the lines.

AnsAns: The skylark is imagined here to be venturing up in the sky at dawn when Venus, the morning star shines brightly before its disappearance. The comparison, implicit here, is that the bird is seen momentarily before its swift arrow-like disappearance in the sky. However, its presence can be felt from its song.

6. 6. **“When the night is bare...heaven is overflow’d”—Explain the situation imagined by the poet.

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” the bird’s pouring out of numbers is compared to a full moon’s shining from above on the ground. Its song has moved the poet so immensely that it seems to him that it has filled the air under the earth with its melodies.

7. ***“Like a poet hidden/In the light of thought.”—Explain the simile used by the poet.

Or, Why does the poet compare the bird to a poet?

Ans: In a poem the presence of the poet can be felt in the radiance of the thoughts and ideas s/he intends to convey to the reader. As a poet remains physically absent yet spiritually present in a poem, the skylark remains hidden in the sky while singing.

8. ***“Till the world is wrought...it heeded not”.

What does poet mean by “hopes and fears”?

Or, What is Shelley’s view of the world’s reaction to the bird’s song?

Ans: In these lines from the poem “To a Skylark” Shelley speaks of the idealistic projects of the bird. Like a poet the bird, it seems to the poet, is concerned with those activities, which worldly men cannot aspire to do. But they are led to sympathise with the bird for such idealistic activities with the mixed emotions of hopes and fears.

9. **“Like a high-born maiden...in secret hour”—Bring out the justification of the simile.

Ans: Shelley here stretches out his imagination further to compare the skylark to a maiden confined in her secret chamber. Just as an aristocratic maiden sings in her secret chamber at midnight to soothe her love-sick mind from high above the ground, the bird, it seems to the poet, is similarly pouring out music.

10. **“Teach us, spirit or bird...a flood of rapture so divine”—Why does the poet say so?

Ans: The poet is very much pained to find his own world filled with sorrows and anxieties whereas the skylark remains untouched and unaffected by all these things. To him the bird is a bodiless embodiment of joy, and that is why he seeks inspiration of “sweet thoughts” in its song.

11. ***“Chorus hymeneal ...But an empty vaunt”—Explain.

Ans: Shelley thinks that, compared to the skylark’s song the marriage songs or songs of victory would be nothing but empty hollow boasting; for, he feels that in those songs joy cannot be fully expressed.

12. ***“What objects are the fountains...What ignorance pain”—Explain.

Ans: The poet is here desperate to find out the inspiration of those things which remain behind the Skylark’s production of pure joy. This becomes necessary for Shelley since he finds his own world, the human world with pain, sorrow and anxiety that do not allow him to sing in pure joy.

13. ***“Waking or asleep...we mortals dream”—Why does Shelley refer to death here in the context of the skylark’s song?

Ans: What Shelley wants to convey here is that human understanding and experience of joy always remain affected or limited by an unseen overhanging presence of death. On the contrary, the skylark, Shelley presupposes, must have remained unconscious of or oblivious to death. Otherwise, it would not have been possible for it to sing so purely.

14. ***“We look before and after...Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts”—Explain.

Ans: What Shelley wants to convey here is that, because of the dominance of sorrows in life—arising out of our mundane attachment to things—the songs, which refer to our sorrows, appeal to us most. This view is, however, psychologically justified as we find echoes of our own sorrows experienced in real life in sad songs. This happens, Shelley tells us, because we go by mundane calculations. [We find here some of the Shakespearean echoes from Macbeth.]

15. **“If we were things born...Not to shed a tear”

What does Shelley want to mean by the unfulfilled wishes?

Ans: Shelley acknowledges that there are human limitations to experiencing pure as opposed to the skylark. That is why the poet laments that, had human beings been born without those limitations, it would have been possible for them to reach the realm of perfection the bird lives in.

16. ***“...the scorner of the ground”—Why is the skylark called so?

Ans: The skylark sings soaring high above the ground. The ground here symbolically stands for the harsh mundane realities, which affect human appreciation and experience of joy and beauty greatly. The bird can sing so perfectly, the poet thinks, because it hates the mundane world and flies high above it.

17. **“Teach me half the gladness...as I am listening now”—Explain.

Ans: At the final stanza of the poem, Shelley seeks inspiration in the bird’s song for his own purpose, that is, creating poetry. Following the classical Greek tradition he longs for “harmonious madness” or the poetic frenzy, which was considered essential for poetic creativity.

18. **How does Shelley turn the bird’s song into a source of poetic inspiration?

Ans: Towards the end of the poem the skylark is transfigured into a sort of poetic inspiration for the poet as he desperately craves for the possession of the artistic qualities essential for the creation of his own poetry.

19. *What is Shelley’s philosophy implicit in the flight of the bird?

Ans: Shelley, following flight of the soul described by Plato in his ‘Phaedrus’, preaches his idealistic philosophy that, if human beings want at all to reach at the level of perfect happiness and joy, they must rise above the mundane existence.

20. **What is the difference between Shelley’s skylark and that of Wordsworth?

Ans: Wordsworth’s skylark in his poem “To a Skylark” is a creature of flesh and blood, while Shelley’s skylark is a philosophical abstraction. It despises the cares and anxieties of the world while Wordsworth’s has its eyes fixed on its nest on the ground.


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