Bird thou never wert, (2)
Essentially, the speaker is telling us that this skylark is actually a supernatural being and never was just a bird. This is kind of an unexpected way to start off a poem that's supposed to be about a bird. It tips us off, right from the beginning, that this isn't really a poem about nature, at least not in the literal sense. It's about emotion and spirit and purity and a whole list of other big fancy ideas. In a way, this little brown bird is just a jumping-off place.
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun, (11-12)
This poem is just packed with intense images of nature. Phrases like "golden lightning" communicate the kind of extreme, almost overwhelming imagery that Shelley and his fellow Romantic poets were famous for. Lines like this make us feel like we're being washed over with a sea of color. Shelley turns the sort of simple, peaceful idea of sunset into a symphony of passion and joy and excitement.
Like a glow-worm golden (46)
We think there's something really cute about putting the glow-worm in this poem. Fireflies are great, but there's nothing huge or exciting or splashy about them. In fact, they seem kind of simple and quiet, although they are definitely magical in their own way. Our speaker's passion for nature runs from the really big stuff (the sun and moon and stars) all the way down to a little bug hidden away in a damp little valley.
Like a rose embower'd
In its own green leaves, (51-52)
The speaker throws one image after another at us, trying to get us to understand what's so fabulous and mysterious about the skylark. In this case, he uses a pretty standard (maybe even clichéd) poetic image. This rose hides away like the skylark, but at the same time it releases its scent out onto the wind just like the skylark gives off its song. All these comparisons don't really help us to understand what this bird sounds like, but they might just give us a sense of what it feels like for the speaker to hear its enchanting song.
Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass, (56-57)
Aw. Another lovely image! We could talk about how this symbolizes the speaker's emotional awakening in the natural world, but we think it's mostly just one more element in the symphony that Shelley is weaving together here. We just love how alive everything feels in this poem, as if the whole world had electricity running and sparking through it. Even the grass is twinkling.
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. (5)
It might kind of zoom by you on the first read, but Shelley is using this simple line to make a point about how he thinks the world works. He's suggesting that the skylark is making a kind of unplanned music ("unpremeditated art"). That's important, because it sets up an idea that runs through the rest of the poem. That idea is that you can compare the art of nature with the art of humans.
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought, (36-37)
We've already talked about how the speaker uses a pretty big grab-bag of images to try to describe the song of the skylark. This one is extra-important though, because it brings back that connection between art and culture and the natural world. Basically, anytime a poet writes a line about a "Poet," it's time for us to pay attention. Eventually, the speaker is going to compare himself to the skylark, and this lays the groundwork for that comparison.
Or triumphal chant, (66-67)
This is the kind of stuff that hip young poets talked about in the 1800s, but it's definitely not the kind of things we care about today. Maybe that's all the more reason for us to break it down here, though. Basically, the speaker is saying that these two kinds of human songs or poems (one for a wedding and the other for a military victory) are total junk when you stack them up next to the skylark's song.
Better than all measures (96)
The speaker spends a lot of the end of the poem telling us why the skylark's song is awesome, and human art and culture are comparatively lame. We hate to say it, but it looks like the speaker of this poem is jealous of a bird. He thinks the song he's hearing right now is better that any music any human has ever created.
The world should listen then, as I am listening now. (105)
This is the final line, and the speaker finally comes out and tells us exactly what he wants. After all those lines he lets us know what it is about the bird that makes him so obsessed. He wants the bird's natural artistic power. The bird's song flows out of him naturally, without planning or worrying or rough drafts or anything like that. It's that pure instinct that allows him to captivate his listener completely. That's what the speaker wants to do, but knows he will never be able to. Poor guy…
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain? (75)
If we wanted to explain the feelings in this poem to a chimp (and we do—alas, our Shmoop for Chimps™ idea never got off the ground), we'd do it like this: bird = happy, person = sad. At least that's how the speaker of the poem seems to see it. He imagines that only a creature who had never known pain could sing such a purely happy song. We're not sure what this guy thinks he knows about bird pain. Maybe a skylark has problems too. A mortgage on the nest? Three eggs about to hatch? Gotta teach the kids how to fly? Who knows?
Thou lovest: but ne'er knew love's sad satiety. (80)
Just like this bird isn't supposed to feel pain, he's not supposed to know the sad and bitter side of love either. That's what humans feel. The speaker is steadily reinforcing his big idea: that only a bird could really live without sadness. For a human, to be alive is to feel sadness. Even something as beautiful as love is unavoidably tainted with sadness. Cheerful thought, huh?
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not: (86-87)
This, according to the speaker, is the reason why humans can't help but be sad. We're always thinking about what happened in the past and what's coming our way. We can't just feel the pure joy of the moment. It's kind of the tragic irony of this poem, too. The more the poet tries to live in this instant, to communicate the power of the bird's song, the more he realizes he'll never be able to. He's human, and so he's left to feel bad about what he can't have, to "pine for what is not."
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. (90)
If the bird song is pure joy, then human songs are always a mix, a combination of the sweet and the sad. In a way, we think that's part of what's wonderful about human life—you have to know the bitter to understand the sweet—but we can also see why it's bumming the speaker out. All he can think about is the distance between his song (poem) and the bird's.
Hate, and pride, and fear; (92)
Just a little more ugly, bad, sad human stuff. The world of the skylark (at least in this poem) is pure, free from any of the terrible feelings that make human life hard. We, on the other hand, are always tormented by these useless and painful emotions. Man, now we kind of wish we could be skylarks, too.
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun. (15)
Now we're on to the happy side of things. The speaker imagines the skylark as a pure spirit of delight. We love the phrase "an unbodied joy." It's such a great way of putting the way he feels about this bird's song. Even this early in the poem, it's pretty clear to us that he's really having a kind of spiritual experience with this bird.
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight, (20)
The speaker finds a bunch of different ways of describing the bird's happiness. In this case, he uses the words "shrill delight." He really wants us to focus on that sound, to think about the bird's song as an expression of pure joy. Slowly but surely, he's trying to pull us away from the idea of the skylark as a kind of average-looking, little brown bird. He wants us to see that this creature's song is really like an explosion of natural happiness.
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass. (60)
It's the pure, clean, fresh feeling of this bird's happy music that the speaker really wants us to understand. The point is not just that this sounds like a happy skylark; it's that the happiness is totally unmixed. It's not the slightest bit worn out, or muddy. That's part of what makes it so much better than human art, why it can "surpass" even our happiest songs.
With thy clear keen joyance (76)
With this one, we mostly just want you to check out all of the different ways he has of saying that this bird is really happy. In some ways, this says almost exactly what line 60 did. But the way these references to the bird's happy song pile up help us to see how important that happiness is to the speaker. He's almost in love with this pure, beautiful song.
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody. (33-35)
We're crazy about the way everything mixes and flows together in this poem. Can't you just feel the way he's in love with the world, the way the music of the bird turns into rain? The speaker's excitement and amazement at what he's hearing just spills out of these lines.
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass. (59-60)
Our speaker is like one of those super-enthusiastic guys who's obsessed with whatever band he's listening to at the moment. Anything he loves right now is the best thing that's ever existed in the entire world. That's definitely what the speaker thinks about this song. "Best… song… ever." Actually: "Best… thing… ever."
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine. (63-65)
Everything about this song is awesome. He's so amazed by it that he can't even think of anything to compare it to. Every poem he's ever hear that talked about great stuff like wine or love is peanuts compared to this flood of divine rapture. Seriously, that's pretty high praise for a pretty bird song. That's what we mean about this guy being in awe.
Better than all treasures
That in books are found, (98-99)
Books are great, as far as our speaker is concerned, but (you guessed it) this bird song is even better. The knowledge you find when you read might be a treasure (Shmoop approves—that's our whole thing too!), but like all other kinds of human art, it's not nearly as awe-inspiring as the song of the skylark.