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To a Skylark

<    Percy Bysshe Shelley    >


Rise of the Skylark, Samuel Palmer

published with Prometheus Unbound
composed late June 1820 (28)


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.

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O'er which clouds are bright'ning,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad day-light
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight,

Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.

All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflow'd.

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.

Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

Like a high-born maiden
In a palace-tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:

Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Scattering unbeholden
Its aëreal hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:

Like a rose embower'd
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflower'd,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-wingèd thieves:

Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
Rain-awaken'd flowers,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

Chorus Hymeneal,
Or triumphal chant,
Match'd with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

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.

Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

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.

 

Commentary

Miton, Paradise Lost, Book 9, Line 20-24

If answerable style I can obtaine
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor'd,
And dictates to me slumb'ring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse;

Shelley's first stanza attempts to first detach the bird from the song - bird thou never wert - then the song (poem) from the singer (poet). 'Unpremeditated', in other words, not something thought up by the poet, but something from direct inspiration, as Milton suggests in the excerpt quoted above, something that comes to him at night, in his sleep, or flows easily from his pen, without thinking.

Even in his youth, Milton had an easy poetic style which attracted the attention and praise of his contemporaries (cf Comus, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso), and which still charms us with its delicacy and underlying robust energy. Superadded to this when he began to tackle his magnum opus Paradise Lost in his sixties was his developed religious faith, his political experience, and his vast reading in several languages, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The conscious mind is incapable of the grand synethesis of all these elements: ideas, concepts, emotions, memories, experiences, desires, and disappointments. Thus his verse comes to him while sleeping, or in a trance-like state when he does little more than transcribe the words. To use modern terminology, it is a function of the unconscious mind, or, to use ancient terminology, it is his Muse, or the Spirit of Poetry. It is not him, the ego, who is in control, but the spirit of some external thing that takes possession of him while he is writing. The ego, that construct full of pride, mistrust, fear, desire, concupiscence, amorality, envy, ambition, and so on, tends to corrupt the spirit and interrupt the flow, falsify and debase the poetry.

Shelley evokes Milton with his use of Milton's terminology, and launches into an exploration of exactly this theme of poetic inspiration, which he sees as running through nature, the central thesis of this poem being that it is and is not the bird singing, and that it is and is not the poet poetising. In both cases it is the Spirit expressing itself from within the entity. The question is, how can the poet achieve what the bird achieves, apparently so effortlessly?

There are, of course, a variety of contradictions in this situation: a bird and not a bird, not the poet, but the words nevertheless issue from his lips. But the toleration of contradiction is one of the charms of poetry. The mind searches around for a resolution of the contradiction, and in so doing ranges over the possiblities of meaning: sometimes the solution resides in a simple word-play, other times the contradiction leads us to think more deeply about a subject, to question the tired labelling system of language which operates to stop us thinking about a reality, and particularly, about a Nature, which is incredible beyond belief, but which we accept without new enthusiasm each new day.

Reflecting on the differences between bird and human inspiration, the poet's conscious objectives and aspirations are brought into question. The poet imagines that his poetry will change the world:

Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

And there is clearly here a sense of frustration at not being listened to by the world, a sense of frustration which sits uneasily with the idea that the poet must divest himself of personal vanities and anxieties to achieve what the skylark achieves:

Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest; but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.

But the poet recognises that sadness must enter into his experience in order for him to even begin to understand the beauty of the skylark's song:

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

In the main body of the poem, Shelley tries a long list of similes to come to grips with the nature of the skylark and its song. He likens it to

a cloud of fire
an unbodied joy
 a star of heaven
a Poet hidden / In the light of thought
a high born maiden
a glow-worm golden
a rose embower'd
and the
Sound of vernal showers / On the twinkling grass

and maintains that the song resembles the situation

As, when night is bare, /from one lonely cloud / The moon rains down her beams

and that

From rainbow clouds there flow not / Drops so bright as thee

and that the skylark's song is

more rapturous in praise than those who talk of love or wine
more rapturous than poetry for weddings or triumphs

In doing so, the poet imitates the song of the skylark itself, in an ever inventive, ever changing torrent of words, mimicking the ever changing, ever fresh variations of song with which the bird astounds us.

But every comparison seems inadequate, and the restless search for a simile for the spiritual quality that the poet perceives in the song of the skylark simply demonstrates the inadequacies of the physical world to give appropriate expression to what he feels, or intuits, or senses. In many ways, what he intuits is simply beyond his senses, and hence he passes with restless dissatisfaction from one simile to the next in a failing attempt to express his central idea.

 Finally, addressing the bird directly, the poet is left with just the hope that he might learn 'half the gladness / that thy brain must know' at which point he considers that the world would listen to him, as he listens to the skylark. But we are again brought up against the contradiction that in expressing his objective in this way, the poet defeats his own purpose: he is no longer in the situation to compose with 'clear joyance' and without a 'shadow of annoyance', because he has tied his poetry to an objective, something which, for the skylark, does not exist.

In many ways, it is the problem of self-consciousness on which the poet is reflecting. Self-consciousness, which gives us the power to reflect on ourselves, on our own nature, and therefore the power to change that nature, to be what we are not in the insistently paradoxical terminology of the existential philosophers of the twentieth century, and not to be what we are. But it is the same self-consciousness which opens up the possiblity of not being true to ourselves, and which also interrupts our connection with nature, and truth, a connection which the skylark expresses so forcibly and effortlessly.

Still, for the moment, Shelley is just playing around the outer regions of spiritual knowledge, intimating that there is something inexpressible in his vision of the One, despite his formidable verbal powers. In his efforts to understand, he begins to appear almost frantic, a fact which contrasts strongly with the measured, steady verse of Milton. With Shelley, we are entering the modern era, of rush and hurry, self doubt, anxiety, loss and depression, alienation and despair, attitudes formed as a response to a nightmare world of ever-increasing complexity and barbarity.

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