To a Skylark
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Analysis: Form and Meter
Rhymed Trochaic Trimeter and Iambic Hexameter (Got That?)
The name for this kind of poem, where the speaker praises a person, and idea or a thing, is an ode. The Romantic poets wrote a lot of odes, and Shelley was no exception. Why were they such big fans? Well, even though they were a rebellious bunch, they were also big on tradition, and especially traditions that came from the ancient world (think Greece and Rome).
The ode was perfect for them, because it had a really long history, going back thousands of years. It also gave them a chance to talk about really big issues while still focusing on their own feelings and the world around them (yeah, maybe Shelley and his buddies were a little self-involved). In this poem, Shelley uses the ode tradition to give a feeling of excitement and grandeur to an experience that would normally seem like no big deal (i.e., listening to a bird sing).
Oh, So Predictable
So what about the details of this poem's form? Well, let's start by just looking at it: one of the things you probably notice right away is that it's split up into chunks of five lines. These are called stanzas. We went ahead and counted them up and there turn out to be… 21 of them. (We're not sure why you would need to know that, but you might thank us some day if you wind up in the hardest trivia contest ever.)
At any rate, the important thing to realize about this poem is that it's super-regular. The stanzas never change length, and the rhyme and meter of each one is pretty much exactly the same. We'll show you how that works:
We'll start with the rhyme, because it's pretty darn simple. In each stanza, the first and third lines rhyme with each other, and so do the second, fourth, and fifth. Here's an example of what that looks like in stanza number two (we'll put the rhyming words in bold and mark each rhyming sound with a letter):
Higher still and higher (A)
From the earth thou springest (B)
Like a cloud of fire; (A)
The blue deep thou wingest, (B)
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest. (B)
See how that goes? "Higher" rhymes with "fire," and then you get "springest"-"wingest"-"singest." Or, if we use the letters, it looks like this: ABABB. You can point to any stanza in the poem, and you'll see that same rhyme scheme.
Let's Get Technical and Metrical
Now let's dig into the meter. Buckle in, because things get a little trickier here. You probably noticed by now that each stanza starts with four short lines, and then ends with a long one. Well, that difference in length is echoed by a difference in meter. The short lines have three stressed beats per line. We'll show you how that works by putting the stressed syllables in bold:
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
Did you catch the pattern there? It's always a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one: DA-dum DA-dum DA-dum. We call that kind of rhythm trochaic. Because there are three (tri-) beats for line, it's referred to as trimeter (just like in tripod, triplet, etc.). So, if we put that all together, the first four lines of each stanza are written in "trochaic trimeter." Whew!
Still with us? Great. Okay, just one last piece of the puzzle—those long lines, the fifth line in every stanza. Let's do the same thing we just did: count up the stresses and look where they fall in each line:
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
In this case the order is reversed. The unstressed syllable comes first, followed by the stress: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. We call that kind of meter iambic. In this case, there are six beats in total, which is called hexameter (like a hexagon, which has six sides). So, putting that all together, the last lines that stick out at the end of every stanza are written in iambic hexameter.
So, if you followed all that, you get an official Shmoop gold star (okay, those don't exist, but props, in any case)! But why does all this matter? How does it help us understand the meaning of this poem? Well, we think this poem is all about conveying the speaker's feelings to the reader, to make us understand just how much this experience of hearing a bird sing matters to him. So, when we read those little quick trochaic lines, we feel his pulse-pounding excitement. Even the rhymes help out in a subtle way—they make us feel the harmony the speaker hears in the skylark's song. This is a poem about music, after all, so it makes sense that there would be a regular musical quality to the form, too.