Study Guide

To a Skylark

To a Skylark Summary

"To a Skylark" doesn't exactly have a plot. You might want to think of it more like a bunch of observations about a single idea—a stretched-out description of the song of a bird. The poem opens up with the speaker calling out to a bird (which he calls a "Spirit"). He tells the bird how much he loves its singing. Then he describes how it shoots up into the sky at dusk, into the purple evening.

After that, he compares the bird's song to a bunch of different things, including a star, the planet Venus, a poet, a maiden, a worm, a rose, and so forth (yeah, seriously, a lot of things). Then he starts to talk about how all of the beautiful things that human beings make can't compare to the song of this bird. All human songs are sad, but this bird's song is just pure joy. Finally the speaker dreams of being able to sing with as much joy and freedom as this happy bird.

  • Stanza 1

    Line 1

       Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

    • Shelley starts out big here. This isn't a quiet, subtle opening line. It's more like a joyful shout. When a poet calls out to something like a bird, without expecting it to talk back, we call that an apostrophe. (For some reason they gave this figure of speech the same name as the little mark that goes before the s in most possessive words. Go figure.) See our "Symbols, Imagery, Analogy" section for more on that technique.
    • Vocab note: the word "blithe" is a kind of old-fashioned term that means carefree, happy, lighthearted.
    • We think the use of the word "Spirit" here is really important. (Shelley gives us a hint by capitalizing this word and a few other key terms in the poem.) It tips us off right away that this is more than just a simple nature poem. How much more? Let's read on…

    Line 2

        Bird thou never wert

    • Now Shelley explains a little more about why he calls the bird a "Spirit." In fact, he says here that this bird isn't a bird at all, and never has been. (The phrase "thou never wert" is a fancy way of saying "you never were.") 
    • The skylark in this poem is something more than just a chirpy, pretty little bird. It's connected to the spirit world, and to all kinds of other happy, beautiful things, like heaven, color, light, and the sky. 
    • We'll work through all the other things the skylark is connected to as we get to them, but right now, it's most important to know that this is one special, supernatural bird

    Line 3

       That from Heaven, or near it,

    • Here's a little more about this super-cool bird. It's not just up in the sky, it's in "Heaven, or near it." Notice that capitalization again—"Heaven" is another big term, which suggests that there's something holy (or almost holy) about this bird. 
    • You might also have noticed that "near it" rhymes with "spirit" at the end of line 1. So, we know now that this poem rhymes, and we're starting to see how.
    • Check out our "Form and Meter" section for the full story.

    Line 4

        Pourest thy full heart

    • This little bird is pouring out its heart from heaven, or at least that's what our speaker hears. It's not just singing, it's expressing its emotions.
    • The speaker doesn't just come out and say that this bird (or this "Spirit") has feelings like a person, but he's hinting at that. When you give an animal or a thing human qualities, we call that personification
    • Bottom line: most birds don't pour their hearts out, but this one does. Remember, this is a special bird.

    Line 5

    In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

    • We get a few tricky words in here, so let's nail those down first:
    • "Profuse" just means that there's a lot of something; it's abundant. "Strains" are pieces of music, passages of melody. And "unpremeditated" means not planned in advance.
    • So, putting that all together, it means that this bird sings a lot of little improvised melodies.
    • That last phrase "unpremeditated art" is really important. Just like the speaker is making art in this poem, the skylark is too. Except he doesn't have to think about it—the art of nature just comes spilling out on its own. 
    • That kind of idea, about the art and the feeling that lives in nature, was the kind of thing that got the Romantic Poets really excited.
  • Stanza 2

    Line 6

       Higher still and higher

    • The speaker has already talked about the skylark being connected to heaven and the spirit realm. Now we just keep heading higher and higher up. 
    • This is one of the ideas that the poem keeps coming back to: the freedom and beauty and joy of the sky and flight. It's as if we were flying up along with the bird.

    Line 7

        From the earth thou springest

    • That flight up continues here. We jump up with the skylark, springing into the air, away from the earth.
    • This seems like a good spot to talk about the rhythm of this poem. The first four lines in every stanza are made up of beats called troches, where a stressed syllable comes before an unstressed one (like in the words "Spirit "or "Heaven").
    • So in this line, we have three separate troches: "From the / earth thou / springest." See how that goes? DA-dum, DA-dum, DA-dum. 
    • The only exception to that rhythm is in the last line of each stanza. Check out the "Form and Meter" section for more about that.

    Line 8

       Like a cloud of fire;

    • Now the speaker tries out a simile. He compares the bird to a "cloud of fire."
    • So what does that even mean? Well, on the one hand, it's kind of a scary, intense, and unexpected image to connect to a bird. On the other hand, it makes sense if we remember that this bird is more like a spirit than an animal.

    Line 9

        The blue deep thou wingest,

    • There's a really cool moment of reversal here. When we hear the words "blue deep," we think of the ocean. In this case, though, it refers to the sky. 
    • That mixing of sea and sky contributes to the joyful, topsy-turvy feeling of ecstasy in this poem. Ordinary reality seems to melt away into a fierce mix of color and music and movement.

    Line 10

    And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

    • We just love the way this line leaps and swoops. To us it feels just like a bird in flight. The speaker really captures the joy and the freedom of the skylark—singing and soaring, soaring and singing.
    • If you want extra poetry-nerd bonus points here (because that's what Shmoop is all about) you might be interested to know that this line is an example of chiasmus. That's a technique where a poet switches the order of words in a line. First the skylark sings and soars, then it's the other way around.
    • Also, you might have noticed that this is the end of the poem's second stanza (a group of lines that work like a paragraph of a poem). By now we can see a pattern of five line stanzas. It turns out that every stanza in this poem has five lines, and there are 21 stanzas in all. Check out our "Form and Meter" section for more about that.
  • Stanza 3

    Line 11

       In the golden lightning

    • Here's a little more drama and passion. Shelley really goes for broke in this poem with the gorgeous imagery
    • "Golden lightning" refers to a sunset here, but it also makes us think of crackling electricity and intense, almost scary power.
    • In just over ten lines, our speaker has turned a chirpy little bird into some kind of lightning-riding fire spirit. 
    • It's kinda metal, actually. Think we could grow our hair out and start a band called Skÿlark? Maybe "Golden Lightning" would be better? Okay, so maybe that's a terrible idea.

    Line 12

        Of the sunken sun

    • Aha! So, this is where that golden lightning is coming from: a beautiful sunset lighting up the sky.
    • Also, we get some pretty high-quality alliteration here ("sunken sun").

    Line 13

       O'er which clouds are bright'ning,

    • We think this moment is all about losing yourself in the brightness and beauty of the sky. In the literal sense, the speaker is describing how the sun, when it sets, can fall below the clouds and brighten them from below.
    • Such a beautiful image, though, is also meant to stir the emotions. All that gold and fire and light kind of washes over you, until you don't feel anything but the joy and excitement of the skylark's song and its flight.

    Line 14

        Thou dost float and run;

    • If the last line was all about feeling the beauty and joy of light and color, this one is about the freedom and pleasure of movement. 
    • The skylark is pure freedom, moving without any effort. Its flight is like floating—pure and easy.

    Line 15

    Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

    • The skylark is so free, in fact, that it's as if it doesn't have a body. That connects to the idea that it's more "Spirit" than bird (see lines 1-2).
    • The bird is pure joy, full of the possibility of a new beginning. It's not tired and used up. It's full of energy and freshness, as if "its race is just begun."
    • You might have noticed by now that the last lines of each stanza are longer than all the others, with a total of six beats rather than two. Their rhythm is different, too. While most lines in the poem are written in a rhythmic pattern called "trochaic trimeter" (which is a fancy way of saying that it sounds like: DA-dum, DA-dum, DA-dum), this line, and all the other last lines of each stanza, is written in what's called iambic meter. ("Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.") 
    • You can cruise on over to the "Form and Meter" section for more about all that.
  • Stanza 4

    Line 16-17

       The pale purple even
        Melts around thy flight

    • In this case, "even" is just a short, poetic word for "evening." (If Shelley spelled out the whole word, it would mess up the meter of the line.) 
    • So that part's easy, but what about the way the evening "melts?" For us, it doesn't call up a specific image, so much as the feeling of the purple sky flowing around the flying bird. Trippy, dudes.
    • Don't miss the alliteration, too: "pale purple." A pretty perfect pair, we think (okay, that's probably why Shelley writes the poems, not us).

    Lines 18-19

       Like a star of Heaven,
        In the broad day-light

    • This is the setup for a simile that ends on line 20 (notice that it starts with "like"). It might not make sense until you read the whole thing, but the speaker is describing something here that is present but invisible, the way a star might be during the day. It's still glowing; you just can't see it.

    Line 20

    Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight,

    • Now the speaker finishes the simile, comparing the invisible bird to a star that is hidden by the daylight. It's important to notice that this poem isn't really about what you see with your eyes. It's more about what you hear and imagine.
    • That "shrill delight" thing is interesting, too. We associate the word shrill with unpleasant noises. We're not exactly saying that the speaker doesn't like the sound of the skylark's song, but there is a feeling that this whole thing is almost a little too much, a little out of control.
  • Stanza 5

    Line 21-22

       Keen as are the arrows
        Of that silver sphere,

    • What we have here is the speaker comparing the shrill sound of the skylark's voice to the light that comes from a "silver sphere" in the sky.
    • Instead of just referring to beams of light, though, the speaker uses a metaphor, which represents the light as "keen" (sharp) arrows. To make things more complex, though, the metaphor is in turn locked into a simile. Following from line 20, the speaker describes the bird's "shrill delight" by saying that it is as shrill as the sharpness of these metaphorical arrows.

    Lines 23-24

       Whose intense lamp narrows
        In the white dawn clear

    • More clues here. It could be that the sphere in line 22 is most likely Venus, the morning star, which shines brightly and then fades away.
    • Again, there's a feeling that this is all a little overwhelming, even dangerous. This bird isn't just a calm little songbird. Its voice shoots out like blazing sharp arrows of light (or, in another metaphor, like beams from an "intense lamp"). 
    • We're kind of embarrassed to say this, but we think this bird is a little scary, what with all the "shrill delight" and "keen arrows" and what have you. (Check our "Best of the Web" section for a picture of a skylark—then you'll see why it's embarrassing to be scared of them.)

    Line 25

    Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.

    • This line is an echo of the simile in the last stanza (lines 18-20). Now it is Venus that is there, but almost impossible to see. 
    • This is another way of making the bird seem almost-ghostlike. When the speaker calls it a "Spirit" in the beginning, that sets the tone for the whole poem. The idea of the spirit bird comes up over and over again.
  • Stanza 6

    Line 26-27

       All the earth and air
        With thy voice is loud,

    • This bird is so powerful that its voice takes over the two places that really matter in this poem: the earth and the air.
    • Except, that's impossible, right? No bird is that loud. So maybe it's that the speaker is so absorbed, so captivated by this bird's song that it seems to fill up the whole world. 
    • This poem is about nature, in a way, but it's also about how our minds twist and turn as the world flows in through our senses.

    Lines 28-29

       As, when night is bare,
        From one lonely cloud

    • Okay, so Shelley has gone totally simile crazy here. If he was writing today we'd probably need to have an intervention. ("Percy, we're all here because we love you. We just want you to lay off the analogies!")
    • In this case, he's comparing the skylark's loud voice to a single cloud in the night sky. By now, you've probably figured out that most of these images have to do with the sky in some way.

    Line 30

    The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflow'd.

    • Apparently the moon is behind this cloud, and filling the sky with light. In yet another striking, sky-related image, there's so much light that finally "Heaven" overflows with it.
  • Stanza 7

    Lines 31-32

       What thou art we know not;
        What is most like thee?

    • In fact, the song of this bird is so amazing, so mysterious ("we know not") that the speaker can't find anything to compare it to. 
    • Even after he has tried to explain the skylark using simile and metaphor, he still finds himself searching around for the right image: "What is most like thee?"

    Line 32-33

       From rainbow clouds there flow not
        Drops so bright to see

    • So, these lines are like the first half of a non-simile—an anti-metaphor. Yeah, we just made those terms up. Don't worry, we'll explain: instead of saying that one thing is like another, the speaker says that one thing (the song of the bird) goes way beyond another thing (bright raindrops coming out of a rainbow cloud). Again, this bird's song is so great you can't even compare it to other things. 
    • Doesn't this line kind of sound like something from My Little Pony? We think we might have had rainbow clouds on our binders in second grade. Okay, since Shelley is officially rolling over in his grave by now, we'll move on…

    Line 35

    As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.

    • Here's the other half of the comparison that started in lines 32-33. The "rain of melody" (i.e., song) that comes down from the bird's "presence" is more beautiful and more wonderful than any actual rain, however bright and colorful and magically delicious it might be.
    • Of course this is a metaphor too, right? Melody isn't really a rain. Shelley puts our senses in a blender in this poem. We see music, we hear colors. The fancy term for that is synesthesia. In this case, it's all about making us feel excited, confused and amazed by this bird's song.
  • Stanza 8

    Lines 36-37

       Like a Poet hidden
        In the light of thought,

    • Yup, you guessed it—it's another simile! Except now the speaker's getting really fancy. Now the speaker is comparing the skylark to a poet. And that's happening… in a poem! Are we blowing your minds? 
    • Okay, maybe it's not that amazing, but it's still a big turn in the poem. The speaker is opening up a major theme here: the relationship between nature and art. In particular, he's (and we just assume it's a "he") using his own art—poetry—to explore poetry's interplay with the natural world.

    Line 38

       Singing hymns unbidden,

    • The speaker of this poem has some pretty big ideas about poetry. First of all, it's not something you do because someone asks you to, or to make a buck.
    • Poems emerge without anyone asking ("unbidden") out of the pure creative spirit of the poet.
    • Calling the poet's work "hymns" (like songs you would sing in a place of worship) makes it sound grand, but more importantly, it connects the writing of poems with the singing of the skylark.

    Lines 39-40

        Till the world is wrought
    To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

    • The poet's work is to make the world feel "sympathy" (a sense of connection) with all the "hopes and fears" that it doesn't pay attention to (heed). 
    • Those feelings are always there in the world, just like the star that shines in the daylight (line 19), but only through the work of the poet can people be made ("wrought") to see them.
    • The payoff for this whole simile is a comparison between the singing of the bird and the work of the poet. Both of them share the power to call up intense new feelings, to make people see the world in new and important ways.
  • Stanza 9

    Lines 41-42

       Like a high-born maiden
        In a palace-tower,

    • Hope you like similes, because they're going to keep coming! Each of the next three stanzas is built around a poetic comparison.
    • In this case, the bird is compared to a princess in a tower. (All we can see is Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Guess that's what watching too many cartoons when you're little will do to you.)
    • Either way, thought this comparison the bird is elevated—both in terms of being "high-born" and in a literal sense!

    Lines 43-44

       Soothing her love-laden
        Soul in secret hour

    • You pretty much know the story here. The Princess is in love, and needs to be comforted. There are plenty of intense feelings in this poem, that's for sure.
    • There's plenty of alliteration, too: "love-laden," "soul in secret." Fun!

    Line 45

    With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower

    • The princess is soothing herself with music in her private room ("bower"). We imagine her singing to herself, just like the skylark, even though the speaker doesn't say exactly what kind of music we're dealing with here. 
    • By now you're probably getting used to the themes here. Music and feeling and poetry all blend together. So it's not too surprising to find the skylark connected with beautiful princesses and sweet love songs.
  • Stanza 10

    Lines 46-47

       Like a glow-worm golden
        In a dell of dew

    • So, if the princess thing made sense to you, maybe this will be a little more surprising. Now the speaker compares the skylark to… a bug. Ew.
    • That's right, the beautiful singing sky-spirit is now like a worm. Well, to be fair, it's a pretty cool glowing worm.
    • The English glow-worm is like the fireflies we have in the US, except it doesn't fly. You'd notice them at night, maybe in a damp little valley (a "dell of dew"). 
    • See our "Best of the Web" section for more about these cool little critters.

    Lines 48-49

       Scattering unbeholden
        Its aerial hue

    • These lines continue the theme of secret beauty that's so important to this poem. The speaker is fascinated with things in nature that make beautiful songs or sights, even when they no one is watching (when they are "unbeholden," as he so poetically puts it).
    • The "aerial hue" connects the color ("hue") of the worm's glow to the sky and the air and the world of the skylark.

    Line 50

    Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:

    • Like the far-away skylark, this little worm makes wonderful things happen—even when it can't be seen itself.
  • Stanza 11

    Lines 51-52

       Like a rose embower'd
        In its own green leaves,

    • Another simile! This one compares the skylark to a hidden natural beauty.
    • In this case, it's a rose. The flower's loveliness is cradled and covered up by its leaves. We can't see it, but its beauty still finds a way to reach us.
    • Shelley sets up all kinds of little sound-echoes in this poem. Don't miss the way that the word "embower'd" here connects to the "bower" of the princess just a few lines before (45). For more on form and meter, check out our…"Form and Meter" section.

    Lines 53-54

       By warm winds deflower'd,
        Till the scent it gives

    • The winds steal away the flower's smell. That "scent" floats away from the secret beauty of the rose, and reaches people who can't see the flower itself. 
    • Again, this is a lot like the skylark, whose beauty reaches the other senses, even when the eyes can't see him.
    • (There's also a slightly creepy pun here, as if the flower was being sexually violated—"deflower'd"—by the wind. Um, yuck.)

    Line 55

    Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-winged thieves:

    • We kind of love this image, which also personifies the winds, calling them "thieves." It's as if the rich smell of the flowers was filling the breeze, weighing it down. "[H]eavy-winged thieves" is just kind of fun to say, too.
    • What about those thieves, though? In this case, even the winds suffer a total sensory overload. Once again, things are left a little dazed by the intensity of their interaction with this bird-maiden-glowworm-flower thingy.
    • This idea that sound and smell and sight and weight are all interconnected, and potentially overwhelming, is one of the key points in this poem. So it shouldn't surprise us that smells can be sweet and heavy at the same time.
  • Stanza 12

    Lines 56-57

       Sound of vernal showers
        On the twinkling grass,

    • We get more lovely images from nature here. The rains of spring ("vernal showers") make a pleasant sound on the "twinkling grass."
    • Notice how alive and exciting nature is in this poem. The grass can't just hang out and be grass (bor-ing). Nope. It has to be "twinkling" too.

    Line 58

       Rain-awaken'd flowers,

    • This is another pretty nature image: flowers waking up in the rain. 
    • There's a little subtle personification here, since flowers don't actually sleep. But again, the vibrancy of the natural world comes through.

    Lines 59-60

        All that ever was
    Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

    • At last! Here's the payoff for all those comparisons with other things in nature.
    • Basically, the song of the skylark is better than all that other stuff. Every last bit of it. So, all those similes? Yeah, they kind of fall short.
    • There are plenty of joyous things in nature—glow-worms and flowers and raindrops, etc.—but the music of the lark goes beyond ("surpasses") it all.
  • Stanza 13

    Line 61

       Teach us, Sprite or Bird,

    • This is a shift in the poem, a moment where the speaker shifts his tone and his strategy. 
    • Just like in the first line, he talks directly to the bird. (Remember that, in poetic terms, we call that an apostrophe.)
    • Here he uses the word "Sprite," (a fairy, a magical creature) to refer to the bird. This reminds us (just like in line 1), that the speaker isn't sure whether this bird is part of the natural or the supernatural world.

    Line 62

        What sweet thoughts are thine:

    • The speaker wants to know what thoughts are behind this beautiful singing. He thinks of this bird as an artist, and he wants to know its secrets.

    Lines 63-65

       I have never heard
        Praise of love or wine
    That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine

    • The speaker is looping back to comparing the singing of the bird to poetry (just like he did in lines 36-40). Praising love or wine are ancient standard subjects for poems.
    • In all those poems, the speaker has never heard anything so full of joy and "rapture" as the song of the skylark.
    • Notice the word "flood." It seems like the skylark's song is always overflowing and flooding and sloshing all over the place. Again, the skylark is not just killing it with this song. It is way over-the-top killing it. It's almost as if it's a little too much for our speaker.
  • Stanza 14

    Lines 66-67

       Chorus Hymeneal,
        Or triumphal chant,

    • The speaker is in full smarty-pants mode here—showing off what he knows about poetry. These are just two different kinds of poems meant for different occasions. 
    • A "Hymeneal" chorus is a poem or a song for a wedding (Hymen was the Greek god of marriage).
    • A triumphal chant would be written to celebrate a victory.
    • There, not so complicated after all, right?

    Lines 68-69

       Match'd with thine would be all
        But an empty vaunt,

    • As far as the speaker is concerned, all this human poetry can't stand up to the skylark's tune. 
    • In comparison, poetry would just sound like meaningless boasting ("an empty vaunt").

    Line 70

    A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

    • Those empty boastful poems or songs would just make us feel like something was missing (a "hidden want") compared to the skylark's incredible melodies.
  • Stanza 15

    Lines 71-72

       What objects are the fountains
        Of thy happy strain?

    • The speaker keeps prying into the bird's secrets. He wants to know what the source, the origins ("the fountains") of his happy melody ("strain") might be.
    • This is all about trying to understand the meaning behind the beauty of nature, to use comparisons to try to get at the truth of the perfect art the speaker sees all around him.

    Lines 73-74

       What fields, or waves, or mountains?
        What shapes of sky or plain?

    • What inspires these melodies? Is it other things in the natural world (on earth, at sea, or in the air)? Is the skylark singing about the world it sees?

    Line 75

    What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

    • Or maybe it's the feelings of the skylark that make it sing the way it does. Maybe it sings because it loves another skylark (its "own kind"). 
    • Maybe it sings with the joy of never having known what pain feels like. 
    • That last phrase is especially great. We can feel all the sadness and longing of the speaker in that "ignorance of pain." He is dreaming of a world beyond pain, a creature that can make art without any of the suffering that humans feel. It's kind of heartbreaking. (But then again, we're kind sappy.)
  • Stanza 16

    Lines 76-77

       With thy clear keen joyance
        Languor cannot be

    • Basically, the speaker is playing out the fantasy he started in line 75, imagining that the skylark can make pure art without any hint of suffering.
    • When he hears the sound of that" clear" and "keen" (sharp, poignant) joy ("joyance"), he cannot imagine how it could ever be connected to sadness and depression ("languor").

    Lines 78-79

       Shadow of annoyance
        Never came near thee:

    • In the speaker's mind, this bird is so perfectly happy that it could never even feel the "shadow of annoyance."
    • Clearly, he's putting a lot of feeling onto this bird! We're pretty sure this is more about the speaker's problems than the bird, though.
    • (Really, we think it's probably pretty tough to be a bird. You always have to be hustling to find bugs to each, you have to watch out for hawks all the time and worry about your kids falling out of the nest. If a bird could get annoyed, that would probably be enough to do it!)

    Line 80

    Thou lovest: but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.

    • The speaker imagines that the bird can feel love but not the sad "satiety" (the feeling of being filled with something) that comes with being full of love. 
    • It's not really clear how he knows that a bird is capable of love. Basically, through this personification the skylark can be everything the speaker dreams of, without any of the pain. Since it can't talk back, he can fantasize about all the pure joy it must be feeling.
  • Stanza 17

    Lines 81-82

       Waking or asleep,
        Thou of death must deem

    • Now things get a little mysterious, but stick with us Shmoopers. We'll break it down for you.
    • First, the speaker imagines that somewhere, in its dreams or in its waking life, the skylark can see and understand ("deem") things about the true nature of death. This reminds us that he thinks of the skylark as much as an immortal spirit being as an actual natural creature.
    • Where did death come from, you ask? Well, he's been talking about sadness and pain, and death could be the root of all that suffering.

    Lines 83-84

       Things more true and deep
        Than we mortals dream,

    • The skylark can see beyond even the dreams of mortals. It understands the deep truth about death, because it cannot die.

    Line 85

    Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

    • Why does the speaker think that this bird can see beyond all human perception? Because that's the only way he can imagine that it could make such beautiful music (like a "crystal stream").
    • Remember, this all started because he heard such a beautiful bird song that he thought some immortal spirit was singing.
  • Stanza 18

    Lines 86-87

       We look before and after,
        And pine for what is not:

    • The trouble with mortals, with humans, is that we're always thinking about the past and the future. We wish desperately ("pine") for the things we once had, or can't have yet.
    • The speaker is going deep here, using the song of the skylark as an opportunity to try to describe the human condition. Heavy, man!

    Lines 88-89

       Our sincerest laughter
        With some pain is fraught;

    • According to the speaker, nothing that we feel is pure. Nothing can escape the pain of mortality. Even when we laugh, it is filled up, weighted ("fraught") with sadness and pain. 
    • That's a pretty grim thought, and again we get the feeling that maybe our speaker has been through some tough stuff.

    Line 90

    Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

    • But under all that grim sadness, there's also a kind of beautiful truth. Sadness and beauty can't be separated for humans. All of our singing and our poetry and our art is connected to our mortality.
    • Essentially, the speaker is saying that, unlike the pure spirit of the skylark, we are in some way always singing about our eventual death.
  • Stanza 19

    Lines 91-92

       Yet if we could scorn
        Hate, and pride, and fear;

    • Now he tries to imagine what it would be like to live without human emotions. What would it be like to be less human, less mortal, and more like the pure skylark?
    • What if we could ignore or get rid of ("scorn") the feelings like hate and pride and fear that make us so unhappy?

    Lines 93-94

       If we were things born
        Not to shed a tear,

    • What if we were born without any feelings of pain or sorrow? What if we didn't have to cry?

    Line 95

    I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

    • Well, then maybe we couldn't ever be able to reach the joy of the skylark.
    • Maybe that's because we would still be human. Or maybe it's because we need that pain, that sorrow, in order to feel real joy. Hmm.
  • Stanza 20

    Lines 96-97

       Better than all measures
        Of delightful sound,

    • The skylark's song is better than all the human music ("measures") in the world. 
    • Sure, we can plan and scheme and make "delightful sound" but we can't stack up to the skylark.

    Lines 98-99

       Better than all treasures
        That in books are found,

    • Guess what? Our books don't cut it either. All the poems and ideas and novels we've stored up are "treasures." But still: they don't match the skylark's song.

    Line 100

    Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

    • Finally, he comes out and admits it. The poem that the speaker's writing will never be as good as the song he's writing it about. A little bird can make music beyond his description, beyond his power.
    • The simple song of the skylark is more wonderful than even the best human poem.
    • This is the bittersweet irony under this poem. Even if it's moving and beautiful (and we think it is), it's all about the ways that poems fall short, the ways that they fail to measure up to the beauty of the world.
  • Stanza 21

    Lines 101-102

       Teach me half the gladness
        That thy brain must know,

    • Now that he knows he can't match up to the skylark's pure beauty, the speaker asks the skylark to teach him.
    • He wants just a piece, just half of the happiness (the "gladness") that he figures the bird must feel.

    Lines 103-104

       Such harmonious madness
        From my lips would flow

    • Then, he imagines, if he knew the bird's happiness, he would be able to speak a kind of "harmonious madness." This is a key phrase, and it's also an oxymoron. Usually we think of harmony and madness as being a contradiction, but here the speaker buts both together. 
    • The speaker is trying to imagine a kind of song, a kind of poem, that would push beyond the normal human limits, that would allow him to feel and write and sing as purely as a skylark. Again, this idea that the beauty of the bird's song is somehow disorienting and dazing pops up. It's not just harmony that the speaker imagines. It's also madness, too.

    Line 105

    The world should listen then, as I am listening now.

    • This is all he wants: for the world to hear him as clearly as he hears the skylark.
    • He wants them to absorb his words, to be as entranced with them as he is with the song of the bird. 
    • There's something sweet and sad about this ending. He starts out talking to the bird, asking it questions, and winds up almost jealous of its beauty and its immense power, realizing that he will never know its silent, hidden secrets.