Friday, 20 February 2015

To A Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Evening Telegraph
(Monday 8th July 1929)
To a Skylark is a 105 line poem by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and it was published in 1820 accompanying his five act drama Prometheus Unbound, which also contained several other poems: The Sensitive Plant, A Vision of the Sea, Ode to Heaven, An Exhoration, Ode to the West Wind, An Ode, written October, 1819, before the Spaniards had recovered their Liberty, The Cloud, and Ode to Liberty. I read it for the Deal Me In Challenge, in which, so far, I'm getting a disproportionate amount of poetry!

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.
A Skylark.
The poem opens,
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.
[The poem can be read in full here]

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;
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. 
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 - 
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
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,
And made immortal through times to be; -
Though it only lived like another bird,
And knew not its immortality. 
Hardy concludes,
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.


  1. I am intrigued by your analysis of Shelley's poem. Now, though, I need to reread and think more about the poem before I make any extended comments; however, I will tentatively proffer the notion that Shelley's "message" is perhaps more closely linked to English Romanticism and its adherents' ideas of the Divine than to what many readers might call a conventional, orthodox understanding of the Judeo-Christian God. But, that is simply a tentative notion, and I am not in any way discounting your analysis.

    1. I wonder if Shelley had an idea of both. He strikes me as one of those creative authors of literature who both believe in God and at the same time refuse to. I believe he was the one who supported Blake's comment of John Milton being one of the "devil's party" for his amazing portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost; and he supported his wife, Mary Shelley in her writing of Frankenstein (some claim he helped her) which has definite echoes of man taking the place of Creator and the disastrous effects of that choice. So even if Shelley did not choose to accept Judeo-Christian beliefs, he certainly had a good knowledge of them. But that's just my two cents and what do I know? ;-)

    2. RT, Cleo - I can honestly say I'm not sure! I'm not so familiar with the Romantics, I'm pretty much on new ground. Thanks very much for weighing in, both of you :)

      I like the idea about looking into their notion of the Divine - I know there's a philosophy behind this movement and I know of it, but not terribly well. I think when it comes to reading the Romantics for Fanda's Literary Movements I'll have a good look into it. It's probably obvious I'm much more at ease with the Victorians, so it'll be good to stretch boundaries a bit. I think when I've done some more reading it might be time to revisit the Skylark! :)

      For now - I did get a "Godly" sense from the poem, but I can't back it up much. I'm now eager to do a little reading around :)

    3. I think Shelley was an atheist, but one who was spiritual, if that makes sense. He seemed to find his spiritualism in nature. You can get a sense of it in works like "Mont Blanc" (EXCELLENT) and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." I'm no scholar on Shelley and would hate to misinterpret him, but that's what I understand from a class on the Romantic writers (that I'm currently taking.)

      As to Paradise Lost, as I understand it, the Romantic writers LOVED that book, but reinterpreted it to their own taste. As a work of literature, it was originally read as a matter of fact creation story with God as the good hero of the tale. The Romantics reinterpreted it as a story about a Satanic (Byronic) hero rebelling against an oppressive patriarch (God.) This idea of Satan as the rebellious hero was part of the inspiration for Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (great poem), Manfred (also very good), etc.

      Again, I'm only a sub-scholar in progress on this stuff, so take my remarks with a grain of salt. ;-).

      (I have to read Prometheus Unbound for homework tomorrow! First time read.) :-)

    4. Fascinating, Marianne. Thanks for the added information. I really need to read up on B.P. Shelley.

      I'm still surprised/puzzled by Frankenstein ----- so much of the theme of the scientist wanting to take the role of God in his work and the terrible consequences that it wreaks. It has more of a religious than a naturalist/romanticist feeling to me ....... surprisingly ......

      You're so right about Paradise Lost, but I don't think the Romantic writers thought that they reinterpreted it; they thought Milton really wrote it that way. Or perhaps in their consciences, they didn't believe that, but wanted to make it appear that way ...... I'm not sure.

      Have fun with Prometheus Unbound. That reminds me that I still need to read Ovid ...... I feel like I miss so much without having read his Metamorphoses.

    5. I think Prometheus Unbound should be my next task! Clearly I'm hopeless on Romantics :) Thanks, both, for all this information - I'm slowly trying to absorb. Can either of you recommend any good intro books?

    6. PS Marianne - where are you blogging these days? When you moved from Blogspot to Wordpress I completely lost you! :)

    7. @Cleo - spoilers! - I read Frankenstein as a contemplation of the potential worst in humanity contrasted against its potential best. Victor is in an idyllic place until his mother dies & domesticity is shattered. The creature is "raised" without a single female force in his life and systematically removes every domestic tie in Victor's life, as part of his revenge. That the novel is about creation / the created is less interesting to me than the idea that Victor tried to create a life without the benefit of a woman. And look how it turned out! As in, don't cut out the females, chaps. We have a great deal of influence on your lives. :-) If you're interested in an interesting angle on how the creature may represent the fallen Eve, you might check out the section on Frankenstein in The Madwoman in the Attic. Lots of different ways to interpret the novel, that's for sure! :-) The creature was an outcast, as was Shelley herself, as a woman and an adulteress. As was Lord Byron, the good friend of the Shelleys. As was Satan in Paradise Lost. As were the heroes in Lord Byron's works. As was Napoleon (a real life Byronic hero.) As were the new intellectual thinkers trying to rise up against monarchy, like Thomas Jefferson. It was a crazy turbulent time, and I think Frankenstein reacts to that, but I'd have to read it a few more times to put into words exactly why. Victor is not necessarily a stand-in for a god figure, I guess is my point. Victor could represent a monarchial / patriarchal government, where the creature is the masses left to shift for themselves, rising up in anger and disgust. A revolution is coming -- could be the point. Well, as I said, there are so many ways to read it. I seem to always lean toward a feminist reading. :)

      @o - I have no idea where you might begin researching as I haven't researched myself -- I've just read some of the poems and taken a couple classes on the Romantics. You might begin with Percy Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," "Men of England," "Ozymandias" (my favorite by Shelley) and "Mont Blanc," though. The Romantics were rebels who were writing in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution. They were often considered highly controversial, and simultaneously highly fascinating by their contemporaries. Apparently in his early years, Byron was an enormous celebrity. People would hang his picture in their rooms, practically, and swoon over his words.. He was considered incredibly handsome and dark and dangerous and creepy and ridiculously, awesomely rebellious and he sparked the imagination of the early 19th century with his new dark version of a hero. (He wrote the first vampire story in English, I think. It's called Fragment of a Novel. He never finished it, but it inspired John Polidori's The Vampyre, which is nowhere near as darkly mooded.) He was close with Percy Shelley, & the two tended to challenge England and its norms in their poetry. Shelley was far more "in your face." (I think. His works to me could be read with him standing nose to nose with the king or some other authority figure. Especially "Ode to the West Wind" and "Men of England!") He married Mary Shelley after his (current!) wife killed herself. He was already married to the first but decided he liked Mary better and ran off with her instead. I think I recall that his first wife was pregnant at the time. Anyway, they weren't particularly straight-laced, the Romantics. :) I'm not blogging right now. I felt like pulling back. Thanks for asking! :-) x

    8. Thanks for all that info, Marianne! I'll check out those poems today. I must get to reading some Byron - I know of his reputation but I'm yet to read anything by him!

      Let me know when you're blogging again :)

    9. I'm back: :P

    10. HURRAY!!!! :D I'll go look now! :D

    11. Thanks, o!! I wanted to let you know I made us a button for the Gone with the Wind group read -- as and if you need one. It's in the post from yesterday, near the bottom. x SO EXCITED!

    12. Awesome, I'll put it on my sidebar :D

  2. Great post, and thanks for including the picture of a skylark. All we have in the Midwest U.S. are meadowlarks - which are also beautiful - which I seem to see less and less of every year (I'm an 'amateur' birdwatcher).

    Shelley keeps popping up in my reading and reading being done around me. My week 9 Deal Me In story (which Ijust resd this morning) concerned the fictional finding of a long lost love letter from Mary Shelley to her husband's ghost(!) I loved it and can't wait to blog about it. A book club I'm in also read the "uncensored" original manuscript of Frankenstein this month, and Shelley (Mary, though) was also one of Kurt Vonnegut's imagined interviews in heaven included in his 'book' "God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian" which I also read this month. All this really makes me want to read and learn more about that group of writers and that time they flourished.

    1. I'm looking forward to reading that post - that sounds amazing! :)

      I didn't know there was an uncensored manuscript of Frankenstein.... something else to check out. And yes, I'm rather inspired myself to read more about that group of writers :)

  3. Percy Shelley is the da bomb. I'm a big fan of the romantic poets and of course, you can't talk about this time period without mentioning him. This is such a beautiful poem and I like the way you made the comparison to Keat's "ode to a nightingale" (my favorite poem of all time, just sayin'). I do prefer "Ozymandias" and "Mont Blanc" over this one though.

    1. I'll read both of them - I did like the poem, but yes, I seem to have got it a bit wrong :)

  4. Because the discussion is zeroing in on English Romantic poets, I think my latest posting at Beyond Eastrod might be of interest:
    I do hope you and others will drop by and participate in the William Blake project.

    1. Thanks for letting me know - I'll go have a look :)

  5. The Paper Boat by Elizabeth McKague (604 pages) is a novel based on the life and work of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). The novel begins in Pisa, Italy, nine months before Shelley’s death and flashes back to trace his vigorous interior and multifarious exterior life. The book exhibits extensive and thorough research and although most of the scenes stem from accurate historical facts, it is a work of fiction. Shelley’s relationship with his wife Mary is tender yet complicated by financial hardship, constant relocation and the loss of four children. Shelley’s alternative bond with the poet Lord Byron, an outrageous, extravagant character, is somewhat absurd yet courageous and intellectually provocative. The novel illustrates the fullness of the poet’s character; a vibrant conflict between imagination and reality, and the radical pendulum of idealism in the Romantic era. Shelley’s life ended tragically and my telling of his story reads with compelling passion, darkness, much light, humor and delight.

    Available now @ Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Booklocker


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