"To a Skylark": Critical Appreciation
In the poem 'To a Skylark' Shelley addresses a skylark that soars up at a great height and sings so sweetly that the world is enchanted and bewitched by its sweetness. The skylark symbolizes many things. The skylark is Shelley’s greatest natural metaphor for pure poetic expression, the “harmonious madness” of pure inspiration. It symbolizes high romantic imagination, idealism and harbinger of peace and progress. Moreover, Shelley has converted the bird or, specifically, the bird's song into a symbol of happiness. The singing bird is personified as a "blithe" or happy spirit in the first line of the poem. To Shelley, Skylark has come to symbolize the spirit of poetry and music too, which is in accordance with the romantic tradition.
The skylark’s song issues from a state of purified existence, a parallel to the Wordsworthian notion of complete unity with Heaven through nature; its song is motivated by the joy of that uncomplicated purity of being, and is unmixed with any hint of melancholy or of the bittersweet, as human joy so often is. The skylark’s unimpeded song rains down upon the world, surpassing every other beauty, inspiring metaphors and making the speaker believe that the bird is not a mortal bird at all, but a “Spirit.”
It stands for idealism free from corruption, exploitation and slavery. Shelley in his essay "Defense of Poetry" remarks that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." That is, although the poets are never in the limelight they guide the destinies of a nation by voluntarily pronouncing profound truths which serve as moral guideposts to the common people. Similarly, the skylark also is rarely seen but its soulful melodious music serves to remind the people of the mysitcal beauties of Nature. The following lines capture the essence of the bird and reveal the central message of the poem: "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."
The poet makes a fervent appeal to the bird to teach him and the mankind, the sweet thoughts that must be behind its ecstatic song. Again he addresses the bird as a spirit. The poet reflects upon feelings and emotions of love or the intoxication of wine which inspire man to a passionate outpouring. These human songs can’t match the flood of rapture, panted forth by the bird.
The poet then mentions other songs of human joy and celebration like ‘triumphal chant’ or ‘chorus hymeanal’, but any such human song matched with the skylark’s song of joy and ecstasy would just be an empty, superficial song. The human songs, however joyous they may be, we can feel some ‘hidden want’, while the bird’s song is one of the perfect joy which is known only to the bird.
Structurally and linguistically, this poem is almost unique among Shelley’s works; its strange form of stanza, with four compact lines and one very long line, and its lilting, songlike diction (“profuse strains of unpremeditated art”) work to create the effect of spontaneous poetic expression flowing musically and naturally from the poet’s mind. Structurally, each stanza tends to make a single, quick point about the skylark, or to look at it in a sudden, brief new light; still, the poem does flow, and gradually advances the mini-narrative of the speaker watching the skylark flying higher and higher into the sky, and envying its untrammeled inspiration—which, if he were to capture it in words, would cause the world to listen.
Shelley, in personifying the skylark, has created a myth, just as in "Ode to the West Wind" and "The Cloud." He has endowed his skylark with mind ("Teach us, Sprite or Bird, / What sweet thoughts are thine"). The skylark is happy because it knows only what makes it happy. It has a decided advantage over human beings, who know both what makes them happy and what makes them unhappy. They fear death because they are ignorant of what lies beyond death, among other reasons. The skylark knows what lies beyond death, and the nature of what it knows banishes its fear of death. It is no wonder that it is incomparably happy.
Some critics say that P.B Shelley was not a practical man. He was far away from realism. So his Skylark always flew higher and higher and did not come to the earth, like the Skylark of Wordsworth. On the whole, this poem is Shelley’s one of the finest creations. The flow of art, the similes, the flight of imagination and lyrical quality make this poem unparallel in romantic literature.