Analysis of the Poem "To a Skylark" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Updated on February 19, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley | Source

Percy Bysshe Shelley and A Summary of To A Skylark

To A Skylark is Shelley's romantic ode to a small songbird he believed embodied joy and happiness. The skylark's song surpasses all music; it is a divine expression, an ideal beyond the reach of humans, who know happiness only through sadness.

If only the lark could teach the poet and reveal 'half the gladness/That thy brain must know, - then people might listen to the poet and be transformed. But can this ever be achieved?

The poem is sparked by inspiration, fueled by aspiration and carries a philosophical insight.

  • For Shelley the skylark is a divine entity, something more than flesh, blood and feather. It is a symbol of spiritual upliftment and represents all that humans strive for but can never attain, freedom from the stresses and pain of mortal life.
  • Throughout the 21 stanzas the poet explores this realm of spirituality, comparing the bird with numerous things: a cloud of fire, a star of Heaven, a rose and so on.
  • The idea that the bird and its song transcend the limits of earthly existence and that the bird has an inner knowledge potentially available to humanity is fundamental to the poem and creates a subtle tension.

The poet's approach to this singing bird is fervently romantic, that is, Shelley took inspiration from the natural world, believing it to be an expression of the divine. In fact he was inspired to write the poem after a country walk in Italy one evening with his second wife Mary.

This fits in neatly with Shelley's own view of what a poet is and what poetry can do to transform and uplift:

'A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and seeks to cheer his own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel they are moved and softened yet know not whence or why.'

...'poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man'

Percy Shelley, A Defence of Poetry 1821

To A Skylark explores the tension that exists between the perfected 'unpremeditated art' and the attempts by the poet to understand and capture.

From the initial observation and perception, through the various comparisons and questions, the speaker finally concludes that humans are lacking and inadequate. If only the bird would share its knowledge, if only humans could express this spiritual ideal.

The speaker acknowledges that harmonious madness might be the outcome if such things were possible - an idea taken from Plato's Phaedrus - but at least society at large would be listening.

The ending of this poem resonates with other endings of Shelley odes. For example, in Hymn To Intellectual Beauty the speaker asks that he may love all human kind; in Ode To The west Wind he asks that my words among mankind be scattered; and in To A Skylark he asks that from my lips harmonious madness would flow.

What Are The Themes in To A Skylark?

Reality and the Ideal (common life of humanity contrasted with spiritual attainment)

Poetry and Divine Poetry (mere verse contrasted with the transcendent poetic Art)

Aspiration and Achievement (humanity's hope contrasted with nature's instinct)

Humanity and Nature (human weakness contrasted with nature's perfection)

To A Skylark

Stanza by Stanza 1 - 5 Analysis of To A Skylark

Stanza 1

The opening five lines set the scene for the whole poem. This is a greeting and acknowledgement that what the speaker/poet observes - a skylark - isn't simple flesh and feather at all - it is imaginatively experienced as a spirit, an ethereal entity.

This acceptance of the bird as spirit is crucial because it reflects the romantic ideal, an integral foundation on which Shelley built his poetic psyche. And it allows the reader into the speaker's persona - an imagined world based on Platonic philosophy (the winged soul ascending to heaven) and duality: boundless unchangeable spirit contrasted with defective human existence.

The lark's song is instinctive, unconsciously expressed - unpremeditated.

Stanza 2

With select use of enjambment (lines 1 - 3) the lines flow as the bird soars and the first simile, the first comparison, of which there are many, appears. So, if the lark is not a bird, what is it?

It is a cloud of fire. Already the natural observations...the lark rises as it sings...mingle with the imaginary, the figurative.

Stanza 3

The descriptive paints a part of the landscape (Shelley was in Italy when he was inspired by the lark) as well as the flight - note the change in the rhythm and flow as enjambment is limited to the first line - the lark is said to run...it is sliding across the sky.

That fifth line, long, contains another reference to the spirit...an unbodied joy. So the speaker does see the actual bird but imagines the bird as pure emotional joy.

Stanza 4

More rich description as the day slowly draws to an end and the sky turns a liquid purple. This stanza is one of four with three lines of enjambment, giving the impression of flow and gradual fade as the bird flies even higher and is then unseen, just like a star.

The speaker no longer sees the bird but can still hear the joyous song. Note the caesura (pause) in the middle of the last line. Note the important comma at the end of line 20, leading the reader on into the next stanza.

Stanza 5

The keen arrows - sharp arrows - are rays of light are bursts of song.... so here we have a metaphorical line; the silver sphere is the star of Heaven from the previous stanza and its light is fading as the dawn breaks.

This astral scenario parallels that of the lark - the bird rises until out of sight yet it is still there singing (stanza 4) but equally the speaker feels its presence. Everyone (we) can feel its presence because it has such sharp bursts of song which impinge on the heart.

Stanza by Stanza 6 - 10 Analysis of To A Skylark

Stanza 6

The lark's song is likened to the moonlight, an ethereal image which further enhances the speaker's idea that the lark is more than just a bird; it is a being who pours out this perfect music.

Note the emphasis on the element of water in the language so far. In the first stanza we had Pourest...in the fourth stanza came melts...and now there is rains, perhaps reflective of the lark's liquid song.

And line 30 keeps the iambic hexamater rhythm strong, with the word Heaven as one syllable and not two.

Stanza 7

This stanza introduces the first question posed by the speaker. Up to now there has been praise and description and wonder but lines 31 - 35 alter the tone a little as the speaker seeks to compare the skylark with different things.

And again there is the presence of water, the drops from the rainbow clouds are compared to the notes of the lark's song but the rainbow clouds cannot compete. All the time the speaker is addressing the bird itself - note the use of thy, archaic possessive form of thou, meaning your.

Stanza 8

So starts the quest for comparison, the bird being likened to a Poet hidden metaphorically in the light of thought, as it rises into the bright sky. The music produced by the Poet is powerful enough to affect the world, causing an emotional response, emotions it never knew existed, or was not aware of.

The colon at the end of line 40 suggests a connection to the next stanza.

Stanza 9

The lark is compared to a high-born maiden, that is, a young girl of some standing or princess living in a tower, somewhat sad because of her experiences in love. She sings to console herself and that music is full of love that cannot be contained.

Stanza 10

Alliteration rules in this stanza which features a flying insect (the glow-worm) which at certain times of year takes to the air and illuminates the undergrowth.

So the speaker likens the song to the beautiful effects of light.

Analysis Stanza by Stanza 11 - 15 of To A Skylark

Stanza 11

In this feast of similes the lark is next compared to a rose losing its petals in the warm winds and giving off such a sweet scent that it makes the heavy winged thieves (bees?) faint.

The picture builds and builds with each stanza, the idea being that the lark holds within it certain beautiful aspects of the human and natural world and more. Think about a cloud of fire, a divine star, a Poet's verses, a maiden's song, a glow-worm's light, a rose's scent...all are combined.

Stanza 12

This stanza is the culmination of praise for the music of the skylark, this time compared to spring showers refreshing grass and flowers - a romantic pastoral image indeed - but the speaker goes further, stating that the music of the lark is better than everything known that is Joyous, and clear, and fresh...it's as if the lark's song is a renewal of the world in which we live.

Stanza 13

Following on from the similes and comparisons is the first of two direct requests to be taught by the lark, Sprite or bird (Sprite is Spirit), where the speaker appears to need help in understanding just what it is the skylark thinks as it sings.

There are two examples given, love and wine, which humans often praise for their positive effects, but these praises pale into insignificance when compared to the divine music of the bird.

Stanza 14

This is an unusual stanza because of the three rhyme ends...chant/vaunt/want...all slightly different half rhymes, instead of the more frequent full rhymes.

Songs sung at a wedding (Hymeneal) or great celebratory chant seem like empty boasts - we would feel that they lack something essential when matched alongside the song of the skylark.

Stanza 15

Perhaps the oddest stanza of all has the speaker asking five direct questions to the skylark. Note the variation on the trochaic trimeter in the first and third lines (71 and 73) - there are seven syllables, which means there's an extra beat.

  • The speaker wants to know from the bird its source of inspiration. Does it come from the land, the sea, the sky? Is the bird's natural environment the cause of such music?
  • Or is it something more abstract? Love for its fellow birds perhaps? Or is it because it does not know the meaning of pain?

Analysis of TO A Skylark Stanzas 16 - 20

Stanza 16

In an attempt to answer the previous questions the speaker focuses on the skylark's positive attitude to life. It is such a joyful bird - it doesn't show any signs of weakness or physical dullness (languor) - and it could never be annoyed because it is so much in love with life.

Stanza 17

This stanza is philosophical in nature as the speaker suggests that, because the bird sings in such a clear pure manner it is untainted by the idea of death and knows no fear. It has gone beyond fearing about death; it is untroubled by the notion of death, unlike we humans who think too much, who even dream about death.

Note also the clipped rhythms of lines 81 - 84, all five syllables, falling short of the pure trimeter.

This stanza is also one long question.

Stanza 18

This is the most well known stanza because that opening line is inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 4:

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,

Looking before and after, gave us not

That capability and godlike reason

To fust in us unused.

Basically the speaker is saying that humans are never happy or truly joyous because they're afraid to live in the moment. We long for things that are out of reach; we are slaves to time, hankering after the past, concerned about the future.

Even when we think we have happiness and sweetness in our lives there is always some pain to remind us of the past and all our sadnesses.

Stanza 19

This stanza is paired with 18 and implies that, even if humans could rid themselves of all negativity - hate, pride, fear - even if they were incapable of experiencing sadness, no way could they match the joy exhibited by the skylark.

Stanza 20

In the penultimate stanza the speaker reiterates the idea that the song of the skylark is superior to any delightful sound, is superior to any literary verse to be found in books. Put simply, the lark's skill puts poets to shame because it rises high and doesn't get bogged down in the mundane life.

Stanza 21 Analysis of To A Skylark

Stanza 21

Stanza 13 began Teach us...this final stanza narrows that to Teach me....a personal request from the speaker for the secret of positivity, joy and fearlessness and the ability to sing unconsciously. If only this gift could be learnt then society as a whole would listen and be enraptured.

  • Shelley's romantic plea is throughout a rhythmic duality - that of trochee in the first four lines of each stanza, each time ending in a long iambic flow which acts as a sort of counterbalance.
  • The skylark rises, producing its mesmeric, joyful song with an unmatched innocence and clarity. It is an embodiment of love and spiritual attainment, a symbol of a transcendent ideal.

To A Skylark and Plato

'Plato was essentially a poet - the truth and splendour of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive.'

Percy Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 1821

Shelley had read and translated Plato's Symposium in 1818 and knew of other works by the Greek philosopher such as Phaedrus, The Republic and Timaeus where ideas about the soul having wings to ascend to heaven, music and Being and Becoming (Ideal Forms and Things) clearly inspired the poet.

What Is The Metre (Meter in USA) of To A Skylark?

To A Skylark has a basic metrical pattern for each stanza of:

Lines 1 - 4 - trochaic trimeter

Line 5 - iambic hexameter or alexandrine.

Most of the shorter lines have six syllables (making three feet.... trimeter), but there are variations, with some shorter lines having only five. The trochee - trochaic - is an inverted iamb - iambic - so the stress falls on the first syllable, giving the poem an energetic start.

To get a better understanding of the trimeter and hexameter and the overall metric beat let's look at the first stanza.

Hail to / thee, blithe / spirit!

Bird thou / never / wert,

That from / heaven or / near it

Pourest / thy full / heart

In pro / fuse strains / of un / premed / ita / ted art.
  • So the first and third lines are pure trochaic trimeter, stress on the first syllable, three equal feet.
  • The second and fourth lines are missing a beat, they have only five syllables.
  • The fifth line, the longest with twelve syllables and six feet, is iambic hexameter made complex by that long word unpremeditated which has three stressed syllables in itself (secondary stress so called).
  • The fifth line has an opening pyrrhic (no stresses) and a following spondee (two stresses) which adds variation to the regular iambic beat.

Trochaic beats are said to rise then fall because the stress is on the first syllable; iambic beats steadily rise. This opening stanza shows clearly the gradual rise of the bird as the shorter lines flow into the long last line. This metrical pattern continues, with occasional minor variation, throughout the whole of the twenty one stanzas.

Words And Their Meanings in To A Skylark

Hail - a greeting, based on wellness and good health.

blithe - cheerful, spirited.

wert - were....archaic second person singular.

Thou dost - You do...archaic second person singular.

thy - your...archaic.

thee - you...archaic.

unbidden - arising without conscious effort

maiden - archaic.... unmarried young girl or woman

bower - a shady flowery leafy shelter.

unbeholden - free of obligation

vernal - related to season of spring.

Sprite - spirit.

Hymeneal - from Hymen greek god of marriage.

What Are The Literary Devices in To A Skylark

Allusion

Hymeneal - Hymen in ancient Greece, god of marriage. Songs and lyric poems sung as the bride went to the groom's house.

Alliteration

When words close together in lines begin with the same consonant. This brings texture and phonetic interest. As in:

And singing still dost soar, and sparing ever singest.

sunken sun.....pale purple....silver sphere....that it is there....love-laden....Soul in secret....glowworm golden....dell of dew....warm winds...forth a flood...Never came near...sad satiety...death must deem....sweetest songs...we were...

Caesura

These are breaks or pauses in a line either made by punctuation or naturally after. By creating a break the poet reflects the birds song or flight pattern.

Look for them in these and other lines:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight.

Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

Enjambment

When a line runs on into the next without punctuation, so the reader has to 'flow' on and try not to pause too long. This has the effect of building momentum and keeping the sense. Shelley uses it to great effect in this poem, creating a rough pattern of enjambed lines:

In 12 stanzas (out of a total of 21) the 4th line is enjambed.

In 13 stanzas the 3rd line is enjambed.

In 16 stanzas the 1st line is enjambed.

In 4 stanzas the 2nd line is enjambed.

This pattern clearly shows Shelley using the third and fourth lines in combination more than the first and second. Why? It could be that he wanted to build up momentum, as the lark got ever higher, until the 5th line, the longest, became the climax.

This clear flow from lines 3 - 5 shows up in stanza 7:

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.

Simile

Comparison of two things using the words like or as. There are several examples in this poem:

Like a cloud of fire......Like an unbodied joy....Like a star of Heaven....Like a Poet hidden....Like a high-born maiden....Like a glowworm golden...Like a rose embowered...

Sources

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

https://chs.harvard.edu

www.poetryfoundation.org

The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

www.jstor.org

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      6 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Five days toil with a goose quill for a skylark. Mr Shelley have I worked hard enough to combine spirit, ether and music?

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      6 months ago from Canada

      Andrew, Thank you for this delightful detailed study of Shelley's poem 'To a Skylark'. Impressive work!

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