We think the lines in this poem go off like firecrackers. Little concentrated bursts of sound and feeling that explode and then die away. In part, that comes from the unit of meter that dominates the poem—the troche. In a troche, just to review, the stress falls on the first syllable, like in the word "singing." Hear that? SINGing. DA-dum. (Be check out the "Form and Meter" section for more on that.) So right out of the gate, each line leaps up into to air. The sound doesn't build; it just pops on your eardrum. Check out the first line:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit
Do you hear how the sounds in that line kind of lean forward, as if they were struggling to escape?
Sometimes this connects with the meaning of a word, too, like in line six, where he opens the stanza with the word "Higher." Can you hear how that pops, how the sound of the birds song taking off gets echoed in the sound of the opening word? Cool, huh? We think that explosive, excited firecracker sound is reinforced by the short lines, too. They jump up into the air and then die away, the sounds chopped up into little bursts. Then that long last line in each stanza kind of anchors everything, like the rumble that you hear after the first crack of thunder.
You might also have noticed how often alliteration crops up in this poem, like when the speaker talks about the "sunken sun" (12) or the "silver sphere" (22) or the "dell of dew" (47). We think that helps to balance out the firecracker excitement of the rest of the poem. The sound of those repeated consonant is soothing and calm, reminding us that this whole poem is motivated by the pure beauty of the world.
On the one hand, this is pretty obvious, right? It's a poem about a skylark, and that's what it tells you in the title. On the other hand, what about the first word? Why would you write to a bird? Or talk to one? Okay, maybe we've been guilty of talking to the occasional cat, but we'd never write a poem about it. (Okay, maybe we do write poems to cats, but no one will ever see them.)
Anyway… this seemingly crazy idea of writing to a bird is actually part of an old poetic tradition, called the ode. An ode is a poem designed to praise a particular person or thing. They were especially popular in the Romantic period. John Keats wrote odes to practically everything, including birds ("Ode to a Nightingale"), pottery ("Ode on a Grecian Urn"), muppets ("Ode to Elmo"—okay, we made that last one up). The point is that, as soon as a reader in Shelley's time saw this title, she would have known the specific type of poem she was about to read. She would have expected something personal and heartfelt, but also philosophical. The ode gives the poet (and the reader) a chance to reflect on the relationship between humans and the outside world, nay, the universe! (You know—the easy stuff.)
We get almost no clues at all about where this poem is taking place. That's just how Shelley wants it. He doesn't want us thinking about where we're standing, or whether there are trees or elephants or rainbows around us. He wants us to focus on the pure feeling of listening to that invisible skylark. He uses all kinds of imagery, for sure, but those images are comparisons to the skylark's song, not descriptions of what the speaker is seeing.
Although, there might be an exception or two. When he says: "The pale purple even / Melts around thy flight;" (16-17), that sounds to us like a description of the setting of the poem. You could imagine all kinds of other things that might fit the mood—green trees, wide open lawns—but none of that is in the poem. And that's exactly the point. This is a poem about feeling and thought and sound, not a particular spot on the planet.
The speaker in "To a Skylark" doesn't give us many hints about who exactly he is, in the most basic sense. (Actually, we don't even learn if it's a man or a woman who's talking. To keep things simple, we'll stick with the tradition of referring to the speaker as if he or she is the same gender as the poet.) We don't learn much, for example, about how old he is, or what he's wearing, or if he's rich or poor, etc.
We do know that he's a poet, or an artist of some sort. We also get a ton of info about how he's feeling. Our speaker is one sensitive dude. (Being poetry lovers, we should point out that we here at Shmoop are big fans of sensitive guys.) He feels and sees and thinks about things deeply and intensely. He tends to be a little melancholy, a bit of a pessimist about his life and his art.
But he's also full of passion and love and hope, very much alive to the world. That's important because this poem is all about feeling, about the way that the natural world can create joy or sorrow in us. Our speaker's job is to talk about what he sees and hears, but also to try to make us feel exactly what he feels.
This poem has a simple topic (the pretty song of a bird), but it has a tricky side, too. Before you know it, Shelley's off on a philosophical and metaphorical quest, and it takes a little huffing and puffing to keep up with him. Trust us, though—the view from the top is great!
Percy Shelley got a lot done in a really short life (check out our Shmoop Guide to Shelley for more on that). He wrote many kinds of poems, so in a sense, he has many calling cards. Still, there are also some big themes that carry through. A lot of his work focused on the poetic expression of big ideas and even bigger feelings. In many poems (like "Mont Blanc," "The Cloud," or "To Night"), his subjects come from the natural world. He doesn't just try to describe nature, though. What he really cares about is the way that our feelings and our ideas flow from and back into nature. So, if you're reading a poem that tackles the big issues of the connection between the human mind and the natural world, chances are good that you're dealing with Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelley.
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).
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.
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.
When Shelley uses this word, we're not sure that he literally means a place where God lives with a lot of angels. Christian spirituality definitely isn't a major focus of this poem. At the same time, it's hard not to think of that connection, especially when he capitalizes the word, like he does here. By dropping this word in here, he can connect the beautiful song of the skylark with divine forces, without going into a lot of detail about what exactly he means by that.
Are you picking up on a general "things in the sky" theme here? Yeah, us too. So much of the imagery in this poem has to do with the sky, and that makes sense, because this is all about a bird. Heck, it's even called a SKYlark, right? Not that all the clouds in this poem are just fluffy little things in the sky. They're full of emotion and color and fire. They're super-intense poetic clouds.
This reference is a little tricky, but based on the context, it's pretty clear that the "silver sphere" is an allusion to the planet Venus. Venus is visible as a bright object in the heavens, and it really stands out at dusk and at dawn (just like this silver sphere).
The rain, like the cloud, comes up over and over again in this poem. It's a really important recurring image. Just like "Heaven" and the "silver sphere," it's associated with the sky and the things that come from it. The speaker wants us to feel that sensation of always being lifted up, following the song of the skylark as it shoots up into the sky.
This is the second of a whole string of stanzas that focus on a single simile and really dig into it. In this case, the bird's song is compared to a "high-born maiden" in a tower. Ever seen Sleeping Beauty? That's exactly what we're talking about. We're in serious Disney princess territory here!
We love this weird little detour. Most of the images so far have been about the sky and heaven and love. Now, all of a sudden we get a single simile between the skylark and a bug. Granted, it's a pretty cool bug. A glow-worm is an English name for a critter like a firefly, and it's hard not to be amazed by the beauty of a firefly. (Unless you're six, and you put them in a jar, and forget to poke air holes, and then they die. Yeah, we had some traumatic firefly experiences. Thanks for bringing it up, Shelley!)
One last single simile in this little series. Comparing anything with a rose is a serious poetic cliché, and that was true even back when Shelley was writing. Still, we think he does a pretty good job. In this case, he compares the sound of the invisible skylark to the smell that comes from a hidden rose.
We have one last metaphor for you to check out here. It's not a huge deal, but it's definitely part of the wordplay in this poem. The song of the bird isn't really a crystal stream. The speaker is subtly comparing music to something you can see, a little sparkling stream of water.
This one is clean as a whistle—definitely safe for all ages. It does contain the line "panted forth a flood of rapture so divine" (65), but sadly, when you read it in context it's not nearly as scandalous as it sounds.