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To a Skylark
A Poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Summary of the Poem
Themes
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Meter
Text of the Poem
Imagery of Light
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Shelley Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2010
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Type of Work and Publication Year

.......Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To a Skylark" is a lyric poem centering on the beauty of the song of a high-flying skylark. Shelley's wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), wrote in her notes that her husband composed the poem in Italy. "It was on a beautiful summer evening," she said, "while wandering among the lanes, whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the butterflies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark. . ." (883). The poem was included in Prometheus Unbound With Other Poems, published in London in 1820.

Summary of the Poem

.......The speaker of the poem hails the skylark as a spirit that "pours out" its feelings in wondrous singing. Its song is pure and natural"unpremeditated" (line 5). While the bird soars higher and higher, it continues to sing. Floating toward the setting sun, it seems like the bodiless spirit of joy. Eventually, the speaker cannot see the bird, for it is like trying to see a star in the light of day. But he can still hear its "shrill delight" (line 20).
.......At night, the skylark's song fills the air while "the moon rains out her beams" (line 30).
.......In the daytime, the song of the skylark is more beautiful than even a glorious rainbow. The speaker then makes the following comparisons:

1...The skylark is like a poet "hidden in the light of thought" (lines 36-37), a poet whose outpourings inspire people to reflect on "hopes and fears" (line 40) that they previously ignored.
2...It is like a lovesick maiden in a palace tower: Outsiders cannot see her, but they can hear her song of love. 
3...It is like a glowworm in a meadow. Grass and flowers block its magnificent light from reaching human eyes.
4...It is like a rose enclosed within its leaves. When a wind unleashes its fragrance, hovering bees become faint with the scent.
.......Because the sound of the skylark's song is more beautiful than "All that ever was / Joyous, and clear, and fresh . . . " (lines 59-60), the speaker asks it to teach the world its thoughts. Never before has he heard "Praise of love or wine / That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine" (lines 64-65) as does the skylark. Wedding songs and chants of triumph are empty sounds compared to the skylark's song. What, the speaker asks, causes the bird to make so wonderful a sound?
.......The speaker says the skylark apparently has never experienced boredom or annoyance; it must have some special knowledge of deathof what is to comethat enables it sing with such joy.
.......We humans do not know such joy. We "pine for what is not" (line 86), and in our laughter there is always some measure of pain. And what of our songs? Our sweetest ones are about sadness. But even if we renounced hatred, pride, and fear, even if we never shed a tear, we could never be as joyful as the skylark. Its song is better than all other sounds and and is more beautiful than all the treasures of literature.
.......The speaker concludes by asking the skylark to teach him "half the gladness" (line 101) that it knows. With such knowledge, the speaker could present to the world "harmonious madness" (line 103) that all would listen to. 

Themes

Natural Beauty

.......The song of the skylark is extraordinarily beautiful because it is pure and natural, unlike the sounds created by human contrivance and artifice. The poem's speaker presents this theme in lines 4 and 5 when he says the skylark "Pourest thy full heart / In profuse strains of unpremeditated art." 

Freedom

.......The speaker envies the skylark for its boundless freedom to roam the skies. He says, "Thou dost float and run, / Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun" (lines 14-15). In his own life, Shelley was a rebel who constantly struggled against the dictates of authority.

Unnoticed and Unappreciated Poetry

.......Shelley believed his poetrylike the song of the skylarkdeserved attention. The skylark soars out of sight, but the speaker can still hear it. Shelley's poetry also soars, but he is not sure whether the public pays much notice to it. He is, as he says in lines 36-37, "Like a Poet hidden / In the light of thought." He is also 

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

.......The end rhyme in each stanza follows this pattern: ababb. The first and second stanzas demonstrate the pattern.

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.

Internal Rhyme

.......The poem also contains internal rhyme, as in the following lines. 

Bird thou never wert (line 2)
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight (line 20)
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there (line 25)
From rainbow clouds there flow not (line 33)
Like a glow-worm golden (line 46)
Rain-awaken'd flowers (line 58)
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought (line 90)
Meter

.......The meter of the poem varies, but there is a pattern. The first four lines of each stanza consist of trimeters or tetrameters; the fifth line consists of hexameters or heptameters. Thus, each stanza has four short lines followed by a long line. 
.......The feet in the poem are generally trochaic or iambic, sometimes with catalexis
.......The second stanza demonstrates the overall pattern.

.....1.................2...............3
HIGH er..|..STILL and..|..HIGH er....................................trochaic trimeter

......1..................2......................3
FROM the..|..EARTH thou..|..SPRING est........................trochaic trimeter

....1..............2...............3
LIKE a..|..CLOUD of..|..FI re............................................trochaic trimeter (Note that fire has a two-syllable pronunciation, like higher in line 1.)

......1..................2.................3
THE Blue..|..DEEP thou..|..WING est................................trochaic trimeter 

.......1................2...................3...................4...............5..............6...........7
And SING..|..ing STILL..|..dost SOAR..|..and SOAR..|..ing EV..|..er SING..|..est............iambic heptameter with an incomplete final foot (catalexis)

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Text of the Poem
    Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,1
      That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art...............................................5

      Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
    Like a cloud of fire;2
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest............................10

      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....................................15

     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,..................................20

      Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,3
      Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there...........................................25

      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.......................30

   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....................................35

    Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,4
      Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:..................................40

      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:............................45

      Like a glow-worm5 golden
In a dell of dew,
      Scattering unbeholden
Its aereal hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:....................50

      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:..................55

      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...............................60

     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.............................................65

      Chorus Hymeneal,6
   Or triumphal chant,
      Match'd with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want....................................70

      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?................................75

      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............................................80

      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?...............................85

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..........................90

    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.......................................95

      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!.....................................100

      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....................................105


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Notes
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1...wert: Archaic form of were. Syntactically, it is usually preceded by thou instead of you.
2...thou . . . fire: One may argue that Shelley's imagery misses the mark. Clouds do not spring. 
3...silver sphere: The moon.
4...Like a Poet . . . thought: Shelley may have intended the word poet to refer to himself.
5...glow-worm: Beetle that emits a greenish glow. The glow lasts much longer than the brief burst of light emitted by a firefly.
6...Hymeneal: Having to do with marriage; a wedding song. Hymeneal is derived from Hymen, the name of the god of marriage in Greek mythology.
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Imagery of Light

.......In the first half of the poem, Shelley presents images of light and brightness to suggest the celestial quality of the skylark's song and perhaps to symbolize the radiance of his own poetry, which he hoped would gain more widespread attention. Following are examples of this imagery.

Like a cloud of fire (line 8)

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun
O'er which clouds are bright'ning (lines 11-13)

Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad day-light
Thou art unseen. . . . (lines 18-20)

The moon rains out her beams (line 30)

From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody (lines 33-35)

Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought (lines 36-37)

Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew (lines 46-47)

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest (line 10)

pale purple (line 16)

Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew (lines 46-47)

What thou art we know not (line 31)

thy clear keen joyance (line 76)

ne'er knew love's sad satiety (line 80)

Anaphora
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? (lines 71-75)

Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found (lines 96-99)

Apostrophe
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit (line 1)
The speaker addresses the bird.
Metaphor
The moon rains out her beams (line 30)
Comparison of moonlight to rain
Paradox
harmonious madness (line 103)
Simile
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire (lines 7-8)
Comparison of the skylark to a cloud of fire

Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun (line 14-15)
Comparison of the skylark to joy

Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad day-light
Thou art unseen (lines 18-20)
Comparison of the skylark to a star

With music sweet as love (line 45)
Comparison of the sweetness of music love

The following stanzas are also similes:
Lines 36-40
Lines 41-45
Lines 46-50
Lines 51-55

Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a poem about an animal with an ability or quality that you admire.
  • Shelley was an atheist. Yet he uses the word "Heaven" several times in the poem. Why does he do so?
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem, such as "To a Skylark," and a ballad?
  • What is the meaning of embower'd in line 51?
Work Cited

.......Stephens, James, and Edwin L. Beck and Royall H. Snow, eds. English Romantic Poets. New York: American Book Company, 1961.
 


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