To a Skylark as a Romantic Poem
A marvel of English poetry, To a Skylark reveals all the spices of Shelley’s stark romanticism. It represents his lyricism, his idealism, his melancholy, his dream-like quality and his attitude to nature which are the essence of romantic poetry.
Shelley’s genius is essentially lyrical. In none of his greatest contemporaries was the lyrical faculty so paramount; and whether we consider his minor songs, his odes or his dramas we acknowledge that he was the loftiest and the most spontaneous singer in the English language. His lyrics are his very soul His whole personality is dissolved into his song so much so that he ceases to be a man and becomes a voice, a lyric incarnate. Swinburne rightly calls him “the perfect singing God”.
To a Skylark embodies the best quality of Shelley’s lyrical genius. Its chief virtue lies in the sincerity of thoughts and emotions expressed and the wonderful melody of the verse. The spontaneity of the verse is equally remarkable. The lines of the poem seem to bubble out from the poet’s heart of hearts without any labour or artifice. In musical quality the poem is superb. Like the song it celebrates the poem is “a rain of melody”, a veritable symphony of song. Words and phrases seem to drop out of the poet’s lips with the perfect case and charm of the skylark’s song. The rhythmic beat of the four short verses rounded off by a long Alexandrine seems to echo the very flutter of the bird’s wings in the air.
Shelley is an idealist of all idealists. He a poet of longing and aspiration – the poet who longs to leave this earth and aspires after some imaginary land of his own “where sorrow and annoyance” can never come, and where “love’s satiety” is ever unknown. To a Skylark gives a fine expression of Shelley’s idealism. His skylark is an abstraction. It is a symbol of illimitable thirst drinking in illimitable sweetness. It is an image of that rapture which no man can reach, because it is so far from this care-worn world of ours. Unlike Wordsworth’s Shelley’s skylark does not recognise any earthly abode, but it springs higher and higher from the earth till it is lost in the golden light of the sunken sun. It is indeed the true symbol of his own striving after ideal joy and beauty. Shelley etherealizes his bird as Wordsworth humanizes his.
Shelley’s melancholy is the production of his soaring idealism. He found that his ideal joy and beauty was as unattainable as “the desire of the moth for the star,” which bred in him the melancholy that runs through his poems like an undercurrent. The skylark symbolizes the ideal joy and it pains Shelley to think that man cannot, even if he rises above hate, fear and pride that cloud his prospect of happiness, taste of the joy which inspires the skylark’s song:
“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.”
The greatest tragedy of man is that he is ever troubled by the regret for the past happiness and a yearning for the unattainable. This sense of tragic reality has much to do with Shelley’s despondency, and finds its most memorable expression in the lines:
“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.”
Shelley’s poetry smacks of dream-like quality, it is vague and wants in human interest. The scene of his poetry is mostly laid in some celestial region and “the figures that he sets in motion are for the most part creatures of his own makings, who have no tangible being outside the realm of his imagination” (Raleigh). The skylark is not a bird of flesh and blood. It is a spirit of joy that has its being in the imagination of the poet. It spurns the earth and loses itself far away to the last point of vision and beyond. If human sentiments are at all attributed to the bird, the sentiments belong to Shelley, not to the bird.
The poem amply represents Shelley’s treatment of nature. Shelley endows earthly objects with celestial gleam. The natural objects he describes are made something transcendental in beauty by the glowing colours of his imagination- they are of the earth, but they are made radiant with a light that never was on sea or land. All the fairness of the earth was dearest to him as imaging yet more exquisite and diviner beauty.
To a Skylark very well illustrates this aspect of Shelley’s poetry. The skylark is not a bird of flesh and blood. It is a disembodied spirit of delight, one of those abstractions which to Shelley were more real than material things. It is made radiant with celestial beauty. Shelley often mingles his own personality in the objects of nature. The skylark is the personification of the poet himself who scorned the ground and soared higher and higher towards the beautiful heaven of his imagination.