Unattainable Perfection in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To the Skylark

O’er which clouds are bright’ning
Though dost float and run;

Like an unbodied joy whose race has just begun.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, To The Skylark, ll. 13- 15

Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ is a poem that encapsulates a clear yearning for the blissful joy and unattainable perfection that the skylark comes to represent. Herbert Grierson and James Smith argue that the speaker’s admiration for the skylark encourages him to ‘escape from human life… into the joyous, free and irresponsible life of Nature’.[1] The speaker is captivated by the bird’s beautiful music and longs to experience its happiness too:

‘Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love and wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
(ll. 66- 70)

Here, the ‘flood of rapture so divine’ conveys the overwhelming immortality of the skylark’s song. The fluidity of its music is reflected in the stanza’s form; the fifth line of the stanza is longer to suggest that the sound is ‘flood[ing]’ over the quatrain. In comparison to overflowing water, the poem’s form is uninterrupted and continuous. The enjambment between lines 68-70 linguistically presents the music as unblemished, as well as displaying the speaker’s thoughts as gushing and all-consuming. His admiration for the immortal bird transcends him into a fantasy of desire. Shelley inscribes the skylark as a representative of inspiration when he asks it to ‘Teach us, Sprite or Bird’.

Death is not so much desired in Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’. The bird is compared to ‘a glow-worm golden’ (l. 46). The glow-worn itself is hard to see in the ground, yet the light it radiates is prominent. This is arguably a comparison to the skylark who cannot be seen by the speaker yet it’s beautiful music can be heard. The glow-worm’s luminescence underground suggests that it is a symbol that prevents death. Its ‘golden’ description portrays the bird as a beacon of hope and guidance for the speaker who is surrounded by darkness. Similarly, the paradoxical simile ‘like a star of Heaven,/ In the broad day-light’  (ll. 18- 19) alludes to light imagery in order to show how the skylark is ever-present in both light and darkness. This imagery complements a later piece of artwork by Samuel Palmer, ‘The Rise of the Skylark’ (1839). In the painting, there is no sign of the bird aside from in the title. The multi-coloured, bright sky represents the joyous nature of the skylark and the prominence of the sunlight is captivating in comparison to the dark land. In the centre of the painting is an opened fence, which can symbolise the gateway for mankind to escape the fields of reality and join the skylark through an imaginary transcendence.

Similarly, Shelley suggests that because man is restrained by sorrow, he cannot transcend to the life of the perfect skylark:

‘If we were things born
Not to shed to a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.’

Without the imperfections of human life, we still cannot compare to the ideal. This extract contradicts the concept of ‘tabula rasa’, as even when humans are ‘[re]born’, they will not be entirely pure from worldly grievances. Shelley is recognising that the world is full of joy and sorrow, yet the skylark’s world only embodies joy. The paradox of happiness and sorrow within mankind is discussed in Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry:

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.[3]

Hence, hearing the skylark reflects Shelley’s keen awareness of the mixture of his personal sorrows and the pure joy from his imagination; he compares the mortality of the real world with the immortality of the imagined to suggest that mankind will always be tainted with an unfavourable ‘humanness’.

In Shelley’s poem, it is the speaker’s intense wish to reach the bird which alludes to his unfulfilled desire. The use of incessant questioning emphasises the inadequacy of the imagination in poetry: ‘What thou art we know not;/ What is most like thee?’ (ll. 31- 32). The anxious questioning of this stanza closely links to an extract from Shelley’s essay ‘On Life’ (1819):

For what are we? Whence do we come? and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being? What is birth and death?… I confess that I am one of those who am unable to refuse my assent to the conclusions of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as it is perceived.[4]

Here, Shelley is mirroring the same ravenous desire that is apparent in ‘To a Skylark’. It emphasises an insufficient understanding of the imagination, as the skylark cannot answer Shelley’s questions. The strong longing for answers opposes what Keats terms ‘Negative Capability’: ‘that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.[5] This concept requires the poet to maintain an aesthetic distance from the object, and not give himself over to it. In the poem, the speaker sacrifices them self to the bird because it is seen as a more powerful entity than them. It can be argued that, in ‘To a Skylark’, the skylark is not merely a bird but also a metaphor for creativity and poetic impulse. It is evident that the creature is a natural metaphor for poetic expression with the simile ‘Like a Poet hidden’ (l. 40). This metapoetic characteristic is common in the second-generation Romantics. Jeffery Cox observes that poets like Shelley offer a self-awareness in their work, which is ‘shaped as much by editor’s pens and government writs as it is by some internal muse’.[6] Shelley finds himself less immersed in the moment compared to his predecessors, entering a circle of poetry that associates with the external world.[7]

Stewart Wilcox observes that Shelley also enters a delusional state in his poem, yet not through alcohol but by the ancient concept of ‘furor poeticus’.[8] When escaping under the power of the skylark’s song, Shelley is possessed with a ‘harmonious madness’ (l. 103). Scholars consider the Romantic period to be the beginning of scientific inquiry into ‘poet madness’.[9] It is believed that a poet’s inspiration comes from the transition of thought beyond their own mind, leaving them in a state of divine frenzy. Shelley’s oxymoron, ‘harmonious madness’, reimagines transcendence to the ideal as an experience that is creatively debilitating as well as inspiring.

The chaotic tendencies of the imagination are also reflected by the temporal and eternal states of transcendent experience. The eternal quality of the bird in ‘To a Skylark’ is inscribed in the lines:

O’er which clouds are bright’ning
Though dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race has just begun
(ll. 13- 15)

The dynamic verbs ‘float’, ‘run’ and ‘begun’ present the bird and the imagination as boundless entities with an everlasting existence. This eternality is also reflected in the form of Shelley’s poem; the regular rhyme and consistent meter mirrors the triumphant music of the skylark and the blissfulness of the ideal world. The poem ends with the speaker announcing, ‘as I am listening now’ (l. 105). The present progressive verb ‘listening’ suggest a continuation of the imagination and a wish for Shelley’s transcendent thoughts to continue.

For Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’ illustrates a journey forever striving to obtain a happier ideal. The immortal bird singing beyond the boundaries of human life brings an allusion of the unescapable facts of human existence. Shelley longs to be transported to the idealistic world of the skylark. Although Shelley shows an awareness for the real world’s limitations, he is less defeated and more motivated by his imaginative power. It is the transcendence from reality to the ideal that allows both poets to encounter the beauty of the imagination whilst also reveal the damaging truths of reality.

Featured Image– Samuel Palmer, The Rising of the Skylark, 1839, Oil on Panel (30.8 x 24.5cm), National Museum Wales, Cardiff.

[1] Herbert Grierson and James Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry (London: Peregrine, 1947) p. 335.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘To a Skylark’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1215- 1217 (ll. 66- 70) (All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text).

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1233- 1247.

[4] Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘On Life’ 1832 in Approaches to Teaching Shelley’s Poetry. ed. Spencer Hall (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990) pp. 111- 113 (p. 111).

[5] John Keats, ‘To George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 December 1817’ in John Keats Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) pp. 40- 42 (pp. 41- 42).

[6] Jeffery Cox, ‘Keats Shelley and the Wealth of the Imagination’ Studies in Romanticism, 34 (1995) pp. 364- 400 (p. 367).

[7] See John Keats ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ for another poem about the self-awareness of art and poetry.

[8] Stewart C Wilcox, ‘Sources, Symbolism and Unity of Shelley’s Skylark’ Studies in Philology, 46 (1949) pp. 560- 576 (p. 575).

[9] See Joseph Meringolo, The Sanity of Furor Poeticus: Romanticism’s Demystification of Madness and Creativity (University of New York, 2014).

Written by Emily Warren.
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