To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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.

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 bright’ning,
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 day-light
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 a{:e}real 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 those 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 chant,
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.

Summary and Explanation

Lines 1-5

The poet calls the skylark a cheerful and happy spirit. The skylark is not a bird but a spirit because, flying at a great height,it is not visible. The poet offers a warm welcome to the skylark. He joyfully greets the skylark.The skylark sings spontaneous songs from somewhere near the sky. It sings sweet melodies which express the feelings and emotions of its heart. A continuous stream of rich music flows naturally from the skylark. The skylark sings effortlessly and without any previous preparation.

Lines 6-10

The sky-lark leaps upward from the earth and flies higher and higher into the blue sky. It flies up into the blue sky like a cloud of fire rising upward. It keeps singing while flying, and it keeps flying while singing. It keeps flying and singing simultaneously.

Lines 11-15

The sun is just rising. It is still below the horizon, and it shoots its arrows as if they were flashes of lightning. The clouds in the eastern sky look bright and radiant because of the light of the rising sun. It is at this time that the skylark begins its upward flight. The skylark is a happy soul that has shaken off its earthly coil and has set out on a journey toward heaven. (The skylark leaving the earth and soaring upward is like a soul that has shed its mortal body and is on its way to heaven. The expression “unbodied joy” means a happy soul that has shaken off its mortal body).

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 invisibly during the day – time. The flight of the skylark becomes known to us by its loud and joyous singing.

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.

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.

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.

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 till we are moved to admiration for its songs,even though the skylark is invisible.

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 of love. Her songs are as sweet as her passion of 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).

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.

Lines 51-55

We may not be able to see arose 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 cannto 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 ?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Analysis

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 an 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 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 a pure effusion. It is a superb example of Shelley’s lyrical gift.

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