To a Skylark summary
Introduction: To A Skylark, perhaps the most famous of Shelley’s poems, was written in July 1820 and published with Prometheus Unbound in the same year. At the time of its composition the Shelley’s were staying in the Gisbornes house who were on a visit to England. Mrs. Shelley’s note is worth quoting here! “In the Spring (of 1820) we spent a week or two near Leghorn borrowing the house of some friends, who were absent on a journey to England. -It was a beautiful summer evening, while wandering among the lanes, whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fireflies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark, which inspired one of the most beautiful of his poems.” The idea of the skylark singing in the sky to represent a spiritual power that can spread its influence through the world may have come from Plato. Shelley is said to have translated Phaedrus where the soul is seen as growing real wings and mounting aloft on them
Critical Summary: The poet says that the skylark that pours forth from heaven a flood of spontaneous melody and soars higher and higher can never be a bird. It is for him a joyful spirit that begins its upward flight at sunrise, and becomes at evening an invisible song just like an invisible star in the day-light.
Its notes are compared to the keen beams of the moon which contracts by and by so that its presence is rather felt than seen. Its song resembles the flood of light which the moon pours forth from• behind a solitary cloud on a clear night.
The poet is at a loss to know what the bird really is. Its song may be compared to the bright rain drops falling from rainbowed clouds. The bird lost in the sunlight may be compared to a poet hidden in the light of thought, or to a high-born maiden making music to console her love-lorn heart, or to a glow-worm from which emanates its bluish light concealing itself in grass and flowers, or to rose blown completely by the wind so that its perfume is spread on all sides.
The poet says that skylarks song does not stand any comparison with things which we know. When compared with it, all gay; clear and fresh things pale into insignificance. Marriage and triumphal songs dwindle into nothingness in comparison with the skylark’s song.
The poet wonders what is the unknown source of inspiration of the bird’s song. Its ecstasy indicates that it does not know anything of the satiety that destroys all human happiness. It must be in the know of something more concerning death than we know, for, otherwise, its song could not be so merry and distinct. Sorrow is mingled with the very best of human joys. Even if men are free from hate, pride, fear and sorrow, they cannot think of attaining such joy as that of the skylark. The poet wants to experience half the gaiety of the bird and then he would sing with such excellent poetic ecstasy that the people of the world would listen to him.
CRITICAL APPRECIATION AND INTERPRETATION
Theme: In To a Skylark Shelley records the thoughts evoked in him by a singing skylark. He finds a contrast between the skylark’s easy movements and fluent song, and man’s clumsiness in these spheres. The poet is led to feel that the skylark’s superiority over man lies in its superhuman talents. Despond King-Hele writes, “Tim theme is thus a conceit, not an eternal truth; but Shelley Contrives the faction so persuasively that we gladly suspend disbelief.” As regards the structure of the thought in this poem, it bears significant resemblance to that of the Ode to the West Wind. Both these poems open wilt a splendid description and a series of beautiful natural images. Just as the strength and speed of the West Wind are contrasted with the weakness to the poet, so the “clear keen joyance” of the skylark is contrasted with the pains and agonies of mankind. Like the Ode, this poem too ends on a note of yearning, this time not for energy and intellectual power, but for pure rapture and unbounded joy.
Spontaneity: To a skylark, like Shelley’s other lyrics, shows a spontaneity typical of the poet. The flow of the poem is as effort less as that of a stream. The emotion that has inspired the poem is genuine and has come from first-hand experience. The joyful singing of the skylark has indeed inspired in the poet’s mind an overflowing yearning for ecstasy. This intensity of passion has added considerably to the lyric splendour of the poem. The poem is a superb example of Shelley’s musical genius. “Just as in The Cloud” a critic observes, “Shelley gives life-like form to his subject following it through its manifold changes of fair weather and storm, so here, while recording the thoughts which the lark’s song awakens, he reproduces in words the melody itself, clothing it in a stanza which corresponds, in its first four lines, to the crescendo of the bird’s song and in prolonged last line to the ‘rain of melody’ which is its climax.” The poem is melodious because it is not just a poem but the skylark’s song itself translated by the poet into stanzas.
Images and Figures of Speech: The poem contains a series of images and figures of speech that have added to the beauty and charm of the poem. The skylark is described as a “blithe Spirit” that pours its heart “from heaven, or near it.” It is likened to “a cloud of fire” and it, “singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.” The skylark floats and runs “Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun”. It remains unseen “Like a star of Heaven. In the broad daylight.” The bird is then compared to a poet hidden in the light of thought, a high-born maiden in a palace tower, a golden glow-worm scattering its “aerial hue” unseen among the flowers and grass and an unseen rose giving out its sweet smell. Each figure of speech used in the poem is a picture in itself and contributes to the charming sensuousness of the poem.
A Happy Poem: To a Skylark is a happy poem. Despond King-Hele thus comments: “To a Skylark is very easy to read, apart from stanzas 4 and 5, which are a little obscure, and at the same time rich in undertones…. Shelley praises the lark in stanza after stanza, contrasting its carefree life with Man’s uneasy blundering. We unlike the lark, ‘look before and after’: Hamlet’s phrase is used in its strongest sense to distinguish men from creatures which are haunted by neither past nor future. The lark has no worries-no reviewers, slanderers or creditors trouble him-and men heed his song. Shelley, volatile in fancy as any bird, would gladly change places. The skylark, like The cloud is a fine invention. It is not so “unattached” not so pure a lyric as its predecessor; for whenever Shelley exaggerates the lark’s good luck he is obliquely emphasizing Man’s troubles and in particular his own. But since it is the lark, not Man, who is in the limelight the Skylark ranks as one of the happiest of escape-poems, a pleasant tonic after the seriousness of Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci.