To a Skylark by P. B.Shelley
Introduction: In this poem, Nature is revered and regarded as spiritual and heavenly. The bird expresses a spontaneous outpouring of emotion— this is a romantic ideal. To Shelley (the speaker), the skylark is not even a bird; it is a series of metaphors and similes. Shelley identifies that we never really know Nature for what it is; we see it from a human perspective.
Summary of To a Skylark
“To a Skylark” written in 1820 by P. B. Shelley is one of the greatest works of all time. It is about the flight of a real skylark. It is one of the wonders of English literature which celebrated numerous poems about birds that can be considered as signifiers of Romanticism. This poem is a tribute to a skylark. It is an expressive poem where the writer has raised the excellence and sweetness of a skylark and the tune it sings. The bird encapsulates both the purity and simplicity of nature. In the poem, Shelley applauds the skylark for its magnificence and its impeccable song. He concedes that human instinct keeps him from communicating such gladness and requests the skylark to teach him joy.
The skylark flies into the sky singing joyfully. As it flies high and, the clouds of the evening make it invisible, however, the artist despite everything hears its tune which filled both the earth and air. The poet compares the invisible skylark to a poet. The poet says that the melodies sung in recognition of love or wine or music played for a wedding or a festival can’t be compared with the beauty of the skylark’s tune. The poet ponders about the reasons for the skylark’s bliss and he summed that the skylark is liberated from everything that offers torment to man. It realizes what lies past death and has no fear. Even if man liberated himself from despise, pride and fear, man’s happiness would not rise to the skylark’s. The mystery of its ability to sing so joyfully would be an exceptional present for the poet. In case that the skylark could impart to Shelley a half of its joy, then he would compose poetry that the world would read as cheerfully as he is listening to the sweet song of the bird.
Hail to thee, …….. unpremeditated are (Lines 1-5) – The poet invokes a cheerful and happy spirit for the skylark. The skylark is not a bird but a spirit, because it is not visible when flying at a great height. The poet welcomes the skylark warmly. He salutes the skylark joyously. The skylark sings spontaneous songs from the nearby sky from somewhere. It chants sweet melodies that express its heart’s feelings and emotions. A continuous stream of rich music flows from the skylark, naturally. The skylark sings effortlessly and without any preparation beforehand.
Higher still and higher….. ever singed (Lines 6-10) – The sky-lark rises up from the earth and flies ever higher and higher into the blue sky. This flies up like a cloud of fire rising up into the blue sky. It keeps singing while flying and whilst singing it keeps flying. It keeps flying and singing at the same time.
In the golden lightning …… is just begun (Lines 11-15) – The sun is just rising up and up. It’s still below the horizon, so shoots the arrows as if they were lightning bolts. Thanks to the light of the rising sun the clouds in the eastern sky look bright and radiant. It is at this point that the skylark begins its flight upward. The skylark is a cheerful bird that has thrown off its earthly coil and set out on a heavenward journey. (The skylark that leaves the earth and flies upward is like a spirit that has lost its mortal body and is on its way to heaven.’ Unbodied joy ‘ means a joyful soul that has shaken its mortal body.’
The pale purple even … thy shrill delight (Lines 16-20) – As the skylark flies upwards, the pale and purple twilight of the morning seems to melt away, giving place to the white light of the rising sun. The skylark becomes invisible as it flies higher and higher. For this reason, it is like a star which shines in the sky invisible during the day – time. The flight of the skylark becomes known to us by its loud and joyous singing. (even – actually the word “even” means evening. But here it has been used to mean twilight, the twilight of the morning. Shrill delight – happiness expressed in a loud voice).
Keen as are the …. it is there (Lines 21-25) – During the night, the moon sheds its white light upon the earth. But this bright light begins to fade with the coming of the morning. In the light of the morning, the moonlight fades away. Although the moon now becomes almost invisible, yet we are aware that the moon is still in the sky. In the same way, the skylark is invisible to our eyes, but listening to its music, we are aware of its presence in the sky.
All the earth …. Is overflowed (Lines 26-30) – The whole earth and the whole atmosphere above seem to be filled to overflowing with the song of the skylark. When the moon emerges from behind a single cloud in the sky, the moonlight fills the whole earth as well as the sky. The earth and the sky are flooded with the music of the skylark in the same way as they are flooded with the bright light of the moon.
What thou ……. A rain of melody (Lines 31-35) – The real nature of the skylark is not known to us. It is not even possible for us to think of anything that closely resembles the skylark. As it flies up and up, it sends a shower of rich music to us on the earth. The music flowing from the skylark is much more pleasant and delightful even than the bright and lustrous rain-drops falling from the clouds.
Like a Poet …. it heeded on (Lines 36-40) – The invisible skylark may be compared to a poet who is hidden from the public gaze by the originality and obscurity of his ideas. The poet’s message to mankind is so original and new that people cannot understand it. But the poet is not discouraged. He goes on singing his songs and expressing his ideas through those songs. Ultimately his songs do begin to produce an effect upon the people. The poet, by his perseverance and persistence, compels people to listen to him and to try to understand him. At last, the world is moved to sympathy with the poet’s hopes and fears which were previously not understood by the people.
The idea is that the skylark keeps singing until we are moved to admiration for its songs, even though the skylark is invisible.
Like a high-bron …. her bower (Lines 41-45) – The skylark is here compared to a young damsel of high birth. This girl is supposed to be residing in a palace tower where she sings songs of love. She is singing these songs to attain some relief by giving an outlet to the intensity of her passion for love. Her songs are as sweet as her passion for love. The girl herself is not visible to outsiders because she is confined in the tower. But the songs of the girl overflow her apartment and are heard by people outside. The skylark too is invisible to our eyes, but the sweet music of the skylark is audible to us. (The simile in these lines is highly suggestive and romantic).
Like a glow-worm…… from the view (Lines 46-50) – The skylark is like a beautiful, shining glow-worm flying about among the dew-covered grass and flowers. The glow-worm itself is invisible because it is hidden by the grass and leaves of plants. But we can recognize the glow – worm by the light that it scatters around itself. In the same way, we cannot see the skylark in the aerial regions above, but we are conscious of the presence of the skylark on account of the sweet music which comes from it.
Like a rose – heavy-winged thieves (Lines 51-55) – We may not be able to see a rose which is wrapped up in its green leaves, but we shall certainly become conscious of it because of its sweet scent. When the warm wind blows, it seems to rob the rose of the rose’s sweet fragrance. Indeed, the wind which steals the rose’s sweetness becomes so heavy with that fragrance that its movement becomes slow. The physical presence of the skylark is not visible to our eyes, but we become aware of the presence of the skylark because of its sweet songs which are loud enough to reach our ears. (deflowered – robbed of its sweet fragrance. those heavy-winged thieves – the warm winds which steal the fragrance of the rose and, becoming heavy with that fragrance, become slow in their movement).
Sound of vernal …..…. doth surpass (Lines 56-60) – The music of the skylark surpasses in beauty, joy, and freshness everything that could ever claim these qualities. The music of the skylark is more fresh and joyful than the sound of rain falling on the bright grass in spring. It is more joyful and fresh than flowers which have been awakened from their torpor by rain.
Teach us…. so divine (Lines 61-65) – The poet would like to learn from the skylark which is perhaps a bird, perhaps a spirit, what sweet thoughts give rise to its joyful songs. The music of the skylark is full of a rapturous joy which seems to have a divine quality. No praise of love or wine has ever been so rapturous or joyful as the songs of the skylark.
Chorus Hymeneal …. some hidden want (Lines 66-70) – As compared with the skylark’s singing, a wedding song or a song of victory would seem to be meaningless. The note of joy in the songs of the skylark is much greater than in those other songs. By comparison with the skylark’s song, other songs seem to suffer from some deficiency which we cannot define. (chorus – a song sung by several persons together. Hymeneal – relating to marriage. Hymen is the god of marriage. Triumphal chant – song of victory. Vaunt – an empty boast; something meaningless. Hidden want – a deficiency that cannot be defined).
What objects …. ignorance of pain? (Lines 71-75) – The poet wants to know what the source of the skylark’s happiness is. What it is that makes this bird so happy? Does the skylark derive its happiness from the sight of some wonderful objects of Nature like fields, waves, mountains, the changing shape of the sky, and plains? If so, where are those objects of Nature which make the skylark so happy, because ordinary fields or waves or mountains can not be a source of such extraordinary joy. Is the skylark so happy because of its great love for its fellow-creatures? Is the skylark so happy because it has never known any sorrow or grief?
With thy clear keen …..…. Love sad satiety (Lines 76-80) – The skylark feels so exquisitely happy that there can be no question of its ever feeling lazy or indolent. Nor does the skylark ever experience a feeling of the faintest irritation. This happiness of the skylark is absolutely unadulterated. The skylark does not experience the disillusionment or disgust which human beings invariably experience after an excessive enjoyment of the pleasures of love. The skylark does enjoy the pleasure of love, but in its case, the feeling of disillusionment or disgust does not occur. (joyance – joy; happiness.) languor – laziness; indolence, love’s sad satiety – the feeling of disgust which a human being experiences as a result of an excessive enjoyment of the pleasure of love).
Waking or asleep …. A crystal stream? (Lines 81-85) – Both in its waking and sleeping hours, the skylark must be seeing truer visions of the nature and significance of death than human beings can. For human beings, death is an impenetrable mystery. The thought of death, therefore, not only puzzles and baffles human beings, but also depresses and saddens them. But the skylark has perhaps a truer and deeper knowledge of the mystery of death. And that is why the skylark is so happy and can produce such continuous and rapturous music. (crystal stream – continuous, joy-full of music from the skylark).
We look before and …..… saddest thought (Lines 86-90) – The life of human beings is full of disappointments and frustrations. Human beings have desires and longings which remain unfulfilled. Whether they look back to their past or they look forward to their future, they feel an intense desire for what they have not been able to achieve and for what they will not be able to attain. There is an element of pain mingled even with their most genuine laughter. They can never enjoy unadulterated happiness. The sweetest songs of human beings are those that are full of sorrow and grief. The songs of the skylark, on the contrary, are an expression of pure joy.
Yet if we could scorn….. come never (Lines 91-95) – Human happiness is marred by feeling of hatred, pride, fear, etc. Human beings are born to suffer sorrows and griefs and to shed tears over their misery. Suppose that it were possible for human beings to cast off hatred, pride and fear from their hearts, and suppose that there were no sorrows in the life of human beings to make them weep. Even then they would not be able to enjoy that supreme happiness which the skylark enjoys.
Better than all measures…. Of the ground (Lines 96-100) – The skylark is scornful of the earth. That is why it flies in the higher regions above. If a poet could acquire the skylark’s musical skill he would be able to produce rapturous songs like the skylark. All joyful songs known to mankind and all the available musical knowledge and instructions contained in books would be inadequate for a poet to produce songs of pure and perfect joy. Only by acquiring the skylark’s musical skill can any poet equal the joyful singing of the skylark.
Teach me half of …..… as I am listening now (Lines 101-15) – If the skylark could communicate to Shelley even half of its joy, Shelley would feel inspired to write poems that would compete with the songs of the skylark. The world would then listen attentively to Shelley’s poems just as Shelley is now listening to the songs of the skylark. All that Shelley needs is the feeling of ecstasy which the skylark experiences. (What he means to say is that his awareness of the tragedy of human life makes it impossible for him to write poems expressive of a rapturous joy).
Critical Appreciation of To a Skylark
In this poem, Shelley dwells upon the sweet and rapturous singing of the skylark. The music of the skylark has been idealized by Shelley. The poet wants to know what it is that inspires the skylark to sing such melodious and ecstatic strains. He contrasts the sorrows and sufferings of mankind with the unspeakable joy of the bird. If it were possible for the poet to experience the gladness of the skylark, he would be able to sing songs as sweet and delightful as those of the bird itself.
The poem is remarkable for its abundance of similes, each of which is a picture in itself. The skylark climbs higher and higher in the sky “like a cloud of fire” (Line 8). The skylark floats and runs “like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun” (Line 15).
The skylark is unseen “like a star of heaven/In the broad daylight” (Lines 18-19). The skylark is like a poet hidden in the light of thought, like a high-born maiden singing love-songs in a palace tower, like a golden glow-worm invisibly scattering its light among the flowers and grass, like a rose hidden by its own green leaves and filling the air with its scent. The similes in this poem are unsurpassed for their romantic charm and beauty. Each simile brings a separate picture before the mind. These similes constitute a rich feast for the senses. We gloat over each simile with epicurean delight.
This poem is a marvel of music and melody. The sweetness of the poem, combined with its other qualities makes it a lyrical masterpiece. The music of the poem is simply irresistible. The following stanza may be quoted not only for its musical quality but for the truth that it contains :
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.
There is an intensity of feeling throughout the poem. It is a passionate utterance. The poet’s heart is overflowing with the flood of emotion. The note of longing and yearning, so characteristic of many of Shelley’s poems, is to be found in this poem also. The following stanza in which the poet makes an appeal to the skylark is an illustration :
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.
All of Shelley’s lyrics possess a spontaneous quality. This poem is no exception. It seems to have come directly from the writer’s heart. It appears to have been written naturally and effortlessly. It is pure effusion. It is a superb example of Shelley’s lyrical gift.
Q. Why does the poet call the skylark a spirit?
As. The poet calls the skylark a spirit because it pours forth rich melodies of spontaneous music from the sky.
Q. Mention two beautiful similes employed by Shelley to suggest the sweetness of the skylark’s music.
Ans. The skylark is like a high-born maiden pouring forth her love into sweet songs; it is like a golden glow-worm.