Appreciating poetry begins with finding poetry you like, poems you’re drawn to, poems that resonate and delight. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I most enjoy the Romantics or those moderns who have a romantic flair. As the seasons change, and spring breaks from winter, I especially delight in the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his lush descriptions of the seasons in “Ode to the West Wind,” “The Cloud,” “Mont Blanc,” and “To a Skylark.”

One unique aspect of Shelley’s style is that his poetry is leading—he leads you to his thoughts. I think of them as personal poet notes. It’s how Shelley communicates with us amid the elegant diction and rhyme. Unlike other Romantics who perhaps get a bit lost, or if I’m honest, lose me in their poetic creation and idealistic philosophy, Shelley is quite clear.

In celebration of spring, let’s look at “To a Skylark,” one of his most popular poems. The story goes that as Shelley and his wife Mary, yes Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, were on an evening stroll in Italy in 1820, she commented on the evensong of the skylark, prompting Shelley’s ode. Mary wrote, ‘It was on a beautiful summer evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark.’

To a Skylark (1820)

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 aëriallhue
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-winged 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.

Shelley’s lines are so easy to hear and see and experience, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest. This simple songbird is so like the Heavens he comes from that his notes are like arrows, sharp and pointed at our hearts. This expression of beauty, this skylark, is so unearthly that Shelley asks how we can know it is of the earth. And it is true. Skylarks only sing when in flight, never from a perch or place of rest.

What can we compare the skylark and his song to? He employs simple similes: a poet like himself, a maiden, a glow-worm, a rose. Each appeals to a different perspective and physical sense.

Shelley returns to a direct tone of command. Teach us, Sprite or Bird, What sweet thoughts are thine. He wants to know from the skylark itself, What are you singing of? He then imagines what the bird might see before he realizes it cannot love like a human can. That—that is something it cannot sing of, the pain or annoyance of love gone wrong. Yet maybe its song is pure because it lacks the human experience. Shelley maintains that our love on earth is all the more joyful, more deep even, than what the skylark sings because we can experience sorrow and pain. What delightful reflections.

And that causes me to think part of a poet’s calling is to reveal. Consider two parts: “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” and “Thy skill to poet were.” As simple as it appears, I firmly believe Shelley aspired to be as skilled with words as the skylark was with song.

The British Library also features historical commentary on the same poem.

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The featured image is “Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound” (1845) by Joseph Severn (1793-1879), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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