Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron...
completed the poem "To a Skylark
" in late June, 1820, and forwarded it to London to be included among the verse accompanying Prometheus Unbound published by Charles and James Collier in London.
It was inspired by an evening walk in the country near Livorno
Livorno , traditionally Leghorn , is a port city on the Tyrrhenian Sea on the western edge of Tuscany, Italy. It is the capital of the Province of Livorno, having a population of approximately 160,000 residents in 2009.- History :...
, Italy, with Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley was a British novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus . She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley...
, and describes the appearance and song of a skylark
The Skylark is a small passerine bird species. This lark breeds across most of Europe and Asia and in the mountains of north Africa. It is mainly resident in the west of its range, but eastern populations are more migratory, moving further south in winter. Even in the milder west of its range,...
they come upon. Mary Shelley described the event that inspired Shelley to write "To a Skylark": "In the Spring we spent a week or two near Leghorn. ... It was on a beautiful summer evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark." The poem uses a unique five line stanza
In poetry, a stanza is a unit within a larger poem. In modern poetry, the term is often equivalent with strophe; in popular vocal music, a stanza is typically referred to as a "verse"...
with a three beat line except for the fifth line, which doubles the number beats of the other lines, and it has a rhyme scheme that is consistently 'ababb.'
The work consists of five-line stanzas, all twenty-one following the same pattern. The first four lines are in the meter of trochaic trimeter. The fifth is in iambic hexameter, also known as an Alexandrine. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is in the form ABABB.
A skylark soars into the sky singing happily. As it flies upward, the clouds of evening make it invisible, but its song enables the poet to follow its flight. All the earth and air is filled with its song. The unseen but still singing skylark is compared to a poet composing, a maiden in love, a glowworm throwing out its beams of light, a rose in bloom diffusing its scent, and the sound of rain on twinkling grass. Songs sung in praise of love or wine or music played for a wedding or a celebration cannot compare in loveliness with the song of the skylark.
What accounts for the happiness of the song of the skylark? It is free from all that gives pain to man. It knows what lies beyond death and has no fear. Even if man freed himself from hate, pride, and fear, man's joy would not equal the skylark's. The secret of its capacity to sing so happily would be an incomparable gift for the poet. If the skylark could communicate to Shelley half its happiness, then he would write poetry that the world would read as joyfully as he is listening to the song of the bird.
A skylark is addressed by the poet, who calls it a "blithe Spirit" rather than a bird, because its song emanates from Heaven. Out of its full heart pours "profuse strains of unpremeditated art". The skylark ascends higher and higher in the blue sky, "like a cloud of fire", singing as it ascends. In the "golden lightning" of the sun, it floats and runs, like "an unbodied joy". As the skylark flies higher and higher, the poet loses sight of it, but is still able to hear its "shrill delight", which comes down as keenly as moonbeams in the "white dawn", which can be felt even when they are not seen. The earth and air ring with the skylark's voice, just as Heaven overflows with moonbeams when the moon shines out from behind "a lonely cloud".
The poet stated that no one knows what the skylark is, for it is unique: even "rainbow clouds" do not rain as brightly as the shower of melody that pours from the skylark. The bird is "like a poet hidden / In the light of thought", able to make the world experience "sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not". It is like a lonely maiden in a palace tower, who uses her song to soothe her lovelorn soul. It is like a golden glow-worm, scattering light among the flowers and grass in which it is hidden. It is like a rose embowered in its own green leaves, whose scent is blown by the wind until the bees are faint with "too much sweet". The skylark's song surpasses "all that ever was, / Joyous and clear and fresh", whether the rain falling on the "twinkling grass" or the flowers the rain awakens.
Calling the skylark "Sprite or Bird", the poet implores it to reveal to him its "sweet thoughts", for he has never heard anyone or anything call up "a flood of rapture so divine". Compared to the skylark's, any music would seem lacking. What objects, the poet inquires, are "the fountains of thy happy strain"? Is it fields, waves, mountains, the sky, the plain, or "love of thine own kind" or "ignorance or pain"? Pain and languor, the poet says, "never came near" the skylark: it loves, but has never known "love's sad satiety". Of death, the skylark must know "things more true and deep" than mortals could dream. Otherwise, the poet asks, "How could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?"
For mortals, the experience of happiness is bound inextricably with the experience of sadness: dwelling upon memories and hopes for the future, mortal men "pine for what is not". The laughter of mankind is "fraught" with "some pain". Their "sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought". But, the poet states, even if men could "scorn / Hate and pride and fear", and were born without the capacity to weep, he still does not know how they could ever approximate the joy expressed by the skylark. Referring to the bird as a "scorner of the ground", he states that its music is better than all music and all poetry. He asks the bird to teach him "half the gladness / That thy brain must know", for then he would overflow with "harmonious madness", and his song would be so beautiful that the world would listen to him, even as he is now listening to the skylark.
The 1941 comic play Blithe Spirit
Blithe Spirit is a comic play written by Noël Coward which takes its title from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "To a Skylark" . The play concerns socialite and novelist Charles Condomine, who invites the eccentric medium and clairvoyant, Madame Arcati, to his house to conduct a séance, hoping to...
by Noel Coward
Sir Noël Peirce Coward was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called "a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise".Born in Teddington, a suburb of London, Coward attended a dance academy...
takes its title from the opening line:
- "Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert".
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