To A Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
(Monday 8th July 1929)
A skylark is, of course, a bird: a little bird slightly larger than a sparrow, which may be found in the UK and parts of Europe (the Skylark's song can be found on the RSPB website). Mary Shelley, the wife of Percy Shelley, describes how they heard the Skylark one evening in Italy:
In the Spring we spent a week or two near Leghorn (Livorno) ... 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.
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.
|Illustration to the final verse|
by Jessie Marion King.
Shelley goes on to write of this unseen little skylark filling the air with "music sweet as love". The poem is full of Godly and heavenly images, and suggests a parallel with God - that which is unseen may still be believed by faithful for its evidence exists all around us. Nothing, he writes, can be compared with the skylark -
What thou art we know not;He goes on further to address the skylark as if he was addressing God and asks questions on perfection, happiness and sadness, and contrasts the free bird with the constrains humanity faces -
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.
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.
|W. J. Neatby's illustration for|
Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
It is an extraordinarily beautiful poem that may be likened to Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats (written in May 1819) in that both poets use a bird as an allegory to explain the human condition, however the poets have an opposite experience: Keats writes of "a drowsy numbness" and contrasts the happy sound of the nightingale with his own state whereas Shelley writes of pure and ecstatic joy and appeals to the skylark to teach him of happiness:
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.
|1902 edition of |
Hardy's Poems of the Past and Present.
Some years later Thomas Hardy wrote of Shelley's poem - Shelley's Skylark (this poem was published in 1901 in Poems of the Past and Present and was written in 1887). In it Hardy writes of the inspiration the skylark provoked but denies its immortality:
The dust of the lark that Shelley heard,Hardy concludes,
And made immortal through times to be; -
Though it only lived like another bird,
And knew not its immortality.
Go find it, faeries, go and find
That tiny pinch of priceless dust,
And bring a casket silver-lined,
And framed of gold that gems encrust;
And we will lay it safe therein,
And consecrate it to endless time;
For it inspired a bard to win
Ecstatic heights in thought and rhyme.
To a Skylark has been an interesting read, not just for the poem itself but because it is a contrast, a reply even, to Ode to a Nightingale by Keats, and has itself inspired another poet, Thomas Hardy (none of these poems I have read before). I've read other poems by Keats and Hardy, but I think this may have been my first by Percy Shelley. I do have a collection of Shelley poems, and I think I would like to read them very soon.
The manuscripts of To a Skylark by Percy Shelley.
Next week for Deal Me In an essay: 'The Realistic Novel' by Samuel Johnson.