I had an instructor who defined authors as those who “acutely observe the world in a unique and interesting way,” a definition that I still think of to this day when I read and write. However, I do not think Shelley would find this definition adequate. Though the romantic poets were certainly interested in solitary, specific observation, poems such as “To a Skylark” (834) suggest that Shelley seeks to inspire an emotion that is more pure, complex, and fulfilling than simple observation. More specifically, he strives for poetry that transcends the creator and engages the reader with a full sensory experience that reveals a truth.
Shelley is particularly interested in subjects like the skylark. A skylark is a small bird that flies at great heights, and is often hard for us to see. However, the skylark will only sing while flying, so for a person on the ground, this bird’s song seemingly comes from the heavens and lasts only a minute or two. The hidden yet heard aspect of the skylark’s song fascinates Shelley, and he directly compares the bird to “a poet hidden / in the light of thought” (36-37). This quotation suggests that the thoughts inspired by the bird’s song are so dazzling that they obscure the bird from view, while also paralleling a sense of hearing with a sense of sight. Like the skylark, Shelley too is a creator obscured from view. All his readers see are words on the page, and he needs to find a way to capture their attention and expand the range of senses he can stimulate. Therefore, in the following 4 stanzas, he continually compares the art of poetry to objects that are hidden, yet stimulate the senses. For instance, a “high-born maiden / In a palace tower” passes the time with “music” (41-42, 45) and a “rose embowered / In its own green leaves” is praised for its “scent” (51-53). Though these things are not seen by the observer, they are experienced, and it is this experience that Shelley believes a poet should capture.
However, while these frequent comparisons emphasize the range of senses captured by a true poet, they also express an inadequacy on the part of Shelley. In total, the word “like” is used within the poem eight times (8, 15, 18, 32, 36, 41, 46, 51), making it the most used word in the text (apart from words like “a,” “it” and “the”). It is as if Shelley is struggling to come up with a simile that fully expresses the depth of feeling induced by the skylark’s song. In fact, behind the entire poem is a sense of regret reach the purity of emotion that the skylark has. He cannot “scorn / Hate and pride and fear” as the skylark does because he is human, and therefore haunted by things like “loves sad satiety” (80). Even the form of the poem, with its even trochaic beat and repeating rhyme scheme (ABABB), replicates a song in another failed attempt to mimic the skylark.
The skylark is a natural creature of instinct and spontaneity, and no matter how many times Shelley demands the bird “teach (him)” the true art of creating (61, 101), he can never achieve the pure sense and depth of joy reflected on the recipients of the skylark’s song. Kind of a pessimistic outlook for a poet, isn’t it?
Shelley, Percy B. “To a Sky-Lark.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 834-36. Print.