Poets, Engage Senses!!!

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.

Wordcloud of the entirety of Shelley's "To a Sky-Lark."  Created through the tool voyant (http://voyant-tools.org/).
Wordcloud of the entirety of Shelley’s “To a Sky-Lark.” Created through the tool voyant (http://voyant-tools.org/).

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?


Works Cited

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.


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5 Responses to Poets, Engage Senses!!!

  1. hayleydunmire says:

    Hi Stephanie, great post! I like your picture of the bird and I also like how you included Wordcloud to show the common words that come up within the poem. I think it is a very cleaver and smart idea that helps you focus in on what it predominantly seen. I thought it was wonderful how you focused on the word “like” and the association to it with smiles to project the idea of frustration that Shelly had with his lack of ability to find a possible means to describe a poet and his song. I never thought of the poem displaying the mood of frustration of his inability to find solace in what he wants to say until you brought it up. I was wondering if you thought Shelly likes being hidden in that people see his work and not this self or do you think Shelly would like himself to be noticed?

  2. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    Thanks Hayley! In my opinion, Shelley strikes me as a man that was egotistical by nature. I think Shelley wants to be noticed and leave a legacy. The last couple lines of the poem mention how he wants to learn the ways of the skylark so that people will listen to him as he listens to the skylark. That sounds to me like a man who wants to be noticed, and wants to leave an impression on them.

  3. teresastapor says:

    First of all, awesome use of the voyant! I see that it is still our preferred tool to use from last year. Second, I agree with you that Shelley is a bit of egocentric and I wonder if it had anything to do with him being married to Mary Shelley. When I read his poems that is something that crossed my mind several times, How was their relationship when Mary clearly had different views towards science and nature? Was he at all jealous of her fame after Frankenstein? Was this why he wanted recognition? So many question… All in all, great post!

  4. daynaaasen7 says:


    I loved that you incorporated the use of Voyant and were able to actually pull some interesting points out of the results! When you wrote about how often used word “like” was, it really made me go back and read it again for myself to see how often Shelley was using similies to express his feelings about the skylark. I think you’re right in saying that he felt he just could not come up with a great enough way to embody the skylark with his words, so instead he had to use a sequence of similies to accurately portray how the skylark represented himself. When you wrote about Shelley being a bit egocentric and frustrated with being hidden behind his poetry, it made me wonder if choosing poetry, or written word in general, was the most fulfilling career he could have chosen for himself in his life? Anyways, great post 🙂 I really enjoyed reading it!

  5. Stephanie Van Dewark says:


    Don’t all poets at some point question if their career really is the most fulfilling option? When I read through my post again, I think that maybe Shelley’s struggle isn’t so much with his own vanity. Perhaps he just believes that true beauty can only be partially seen by the observer. Perhaps it is all these exterior, hidden meanings that make up our conception of beautiful, even if we can’t identify them.

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