To a Skylark
Written in late June 1820 and published in the Prometheus Unbound volume in the same year, “To a Skylark” is a lyric (a poem which is both musical and expressive in origin, and which focuses on the poet’s emotional responses to the world outside the self and his relationship to that world). The poet addresses the skylark, a small European bird that sings only while in flight, usually only when too high to be visible to human eyes; this fact has important implications later in the poem. As Desmond King-Hele has pointed out, addressing a skylark is a fiction, and that fiction is based on the notion of a conceit (a complex, implied comparison in which a poet juxtaposes images or ideas that seemingly have no real correspondence but which serve to make an important and memorable statement). The conceit in this poem is the skylark, a creature whose description dominates the entire poem, with whom the poet seeks to communicate.
Thematically, “To a Skylark” contains three distinct parts: lines 1–30 describing the flight of the skylark, lines 31–60 in which the poet attempts to find a fitting analogue for the bird and its song, and lines 61–105 in which the poet asks the bird to teach humanity about its secret joy.
In the first line, the poet greets the carefree bird as a “blithe Spirit,” and a little further on, we recognize that Shelley has rhetorically transformed his skylark into a creature that neither belongs to this world nor is identifiable as such: “Bird thou never wert.” Instead, Shelley’s skylark is a celestial visitor, “from Heaven, or near it,” whose sole purpose is to celebrate its joyful heart, “in profuse strains of unpremediated art,” a being capable of an original and spontaneous creativity we will eventually understand as an expression of the poet’s own desires. The result of Shelley’s “transformation” of his skylark into a purely spiritual being is that his beloved bird will move farther and father away from both his vision and his grasp: “Higher still and higher / From the earth thou springest.” Indeed, the less accessible the skylark becomes, the more we come to realize that this poem is about the poet’s longing to possess the same poetic powers Shelley has bestowed upon his celestial bird.
The second stanza ends with an important rhetorical device known as chiasmus. “And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.” Chiasmus, named for the Greek letter X (“chi”) means “a placing crosswise,” a sentence consisting of two main clauses, the first clause being an exact reversal of the second, while still retaining the same meaning. In “To a Skylark,” this rhetorical device functions as a mirror image of the poet’s desire to identify with the lark, a desire we will eventually understand must remain unfulfilled. Shelley’s skylark is pure spirit, “an unbodied joy,” which sings beautifully while becoming evermore distant. This spirit will ultimately require a leap of faith in order for the poet to confirm its very existence: “Whose intense lamp narrows / In the white dawn clear / Until we hardly see—we feel that it is there.” As the skylark vanishes, it becomes increasingly difficult for Shelley to describe the object of his desire in human terms, as will be illustrated several times in the second section of the poem. In other words, language itself will become an obstacle for defining his “imaginary” skylark.
This same language problem, in which Shelley seeks to find a more realistic way to describe his highly idealized skylark, is heightened in the second section of the poem. The first stanza of this section begins by posing the critical question the poet will find increasingly difficult to answer: “What thou art we know not; / What is most like thee? / From rainbow clouds there flow not / Drops so bright to see.” What follows is a series of attempts to find an earthly comparison. This manifests two important patterns: First, the natural phenomena through which Shelley strives to understand the truth about his imaginary skylark moves downward through the hierarchy of earthy existence, beginning with the highest order to which the Poet belongs, “hidden / In the light of thought,” down through the animal world of “a glow-worm golden,” to the vegetable and mineral forms of life represented by roses and vernal showers. Second, in almost every instance, Shelley’s ability to compare his skylark to anyone or anything recognizable utterly fails, for in each instance, the man is not yet ready to know or receive the spiritual message that remains hidden from the mundane powers of the senses. The Poet singing his hymns is “unbidden” and, although his musical powers come from an unearthly realm, we also sense he is an uninvited guest, waiting “[t]ill the world is wrought / To sympathy.” Neither does the comparison work with the “high-born maiden” of the following stanza, for she is a figure imprisoned in “a palace-tower,” plucked from a medieval romance, a fictitious being existing only in the courtly love tradition of unrequited love, “[s]oothing her love-laden / Soul in secret hour.” As of the “glowworm,” a very rudimentary example of the animal world, the light he is able to bestow is sadly and wholly-unrecognized, a “[s]cattering unbeholden / Its aerial hue / Among the flowers and grass which screen it from the view.” And, finally, the rose is hidden from view, “embowered / In its own green leaves,” whose scent once stolen by the warm winds, is wasted, and “[m]akes faint with too much sweet these heavy-winged thieves.”
By the time we reach the third and final section of the poem, the poet has failed to find in the physical world any likeness to the skylark. He is still unsure of what to make of a creature who is beyond the descriptive powers of human language, and so he beseeches his beloved bird to instruct him. “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.” The supreme and magical powers of Greek mythological beings pale in comparison: “Chorus Hymeneal / Or triumphal chaunt / Matched with thine would be all / But an empty vaunt.”
Shelley’s choice of mythic analogue, the hymeneal, is a deliberate one and serves two functions. First, it refers to both Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, as well as to the hymenaeus—the traditional wedding song or processional that accompanied the newly married couple to their home. Second, and more important, these lines express an implicit desire, namely that the poet wishes to be united with the skylark’s creative powers, “[a] thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want” and at the same time, to exist alongside the skylark in a spiritual world, far from the vicissitudes of earthly passion, a place where love is “keen joyance.” “Thou lovest—but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.”
However, the poet recognizes that he still lives in the physical world of mortality and longing. This same “tragic” condition of human life produces great poetry. “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” And so the poem ends with the poet trying to effect a compromise, imploring his skylark to grant him half its powers so humanity will hear the poet’s inspired message: “Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know, / . . . The world should listen then—as I am listening now.”
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Source: Harold, Bloom, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1985.