Study Guide

To a Skylark Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    In "To a Skylark," our speaker wants to know and say everything about this theme. He wants to know the secrets of nature, to know what birds feel when they sing. He's fascinated by the way that nature creates feelings in him, and by all the ways in which human beings interact with the natural world. This isn't just simple, cheery "look at the pretty birds" nature poetry. It's powerful, emotional, raw, and deep—a killer mix of human feeling and natural forces.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Can you actually imagine the landscape where this poem is taking place, or does this just seem like a haze of feelings?
    2. Is it possible to see what's really out there in the world, or is it always filtered through our thoughts and feelings? How do you think the speaker would answer this question?
    3. Does what the speaker is describing seem "real"? Could you really hear a song as beautiful as the one he tells us about, or is this all just his fantasy?
    4. Why is there so much natural imagery in this poem? How would it be different without it?

    Chew on This

    The poem's speaker works constantly to break down the barriers between humans and nature, to convince us that we are no different from the trees and flowers and skylarks all around us. Far out.

    Finally, "To a Skylark" reveals the distance between mankind and the world. No matter how hard we try, we can never really understand the world around us. Not even with a GPS.

  • Art and Culture

    One of the key ideas in "To a Skylark" is the comparison between the poet and his writing and the skylark and its song. Again and again, the speaker imagines the skylark as a kind of natural artist, and thinks of his own work as being like the bird's song. The only problem is, he doesn't think his song is anywhere near as good as the bird's. So basically this is partly a poem about feeling inferior to a bird. Bummer, man.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Is a sunset always more beautiful than a poem about a sunset? How might the speaker answer that question?
    2. Do you think birds singing or spiders building their webs are like artists? If not, what's the difference? What would the speaker say?
    3. Do you think the speaker is more happy or sad about the song of the skylark?
    4. Is there a kind of instinct in humans to make art, to write poems? If we stopped making art, would we still be human? How might the speaker answer that question?

    Chew on This

    By combining human art with natural instinct, the poem suggests that making art is a part of what makes us human, just like singing is part of being a bird. You just can't get away from it.

    "To a Skylark" conveys the limitations of art, and the impossibility of our songs or poems ever measuring up to the beauty that is all around us. Sad.

  • Sadness

    Like a lot of speakers in Romantic poems, this guy feels things really deeply. And a lot of what he feels is really sad. Now we don't mean sadness like depression here, at least not exactly. It's more like a general sadness that fills all of human life, like a kind of background noise. It's never the dominant theme in "To a Skylark," but once you start looking for it, you see it over and over again. The crucial thing to notice, though, is that the speaker only mentions sadness when he's talking about humans and their feelings. Nature itself doesn't feel that same sadness. Lucky nature!

    Questions About Sadness

    1. How would you describe the sadness the speaker feels in this poem? Does he seem really depressed? Just a little blue? 
    2. Where does sadness come from in this poem?
    3. Do you think maybe our speaker would feel better if he spent some time hanging out with other people, rather than with invisible birds? Why do you think so?
    4. Is it possible for animals to be sad? Do cats and dogs and birds feel sadness like we do? How might the speaker answer that question?

    Chew on This

    This is a poem about the way in which we project our feelings onto the world, and how hard it is to really see anything out there without just making it into a reflection of ourselves. (For confirmation of this, check out Facebook for like… ten seconds.)

    The speaker's obsession with the skylark and his choice of words in describing the world reveal his deep isolation and loneliness. Poor guy.

  • Happiness

    If humans and all their songs are sad, then the skylark in "To a Skylark" is a creature of pure joy. As the speaker imagines it, this bird doesn't know anything about feeling old or tired or lonely. It is full of "delight" all the time, and its song is an expression of that happiness. Unlike people, it doesn't have to think about the past or the future, or lost love, or any of the other things that make us miserable. Lucky bird!

    Questions About Happiness

    1. Is there more joy or more sadness in this poem? Is it a balance? Can you have one without the other? How might the speaker answer that question?
    2. Does this poem make you happy? If so, why? If not, why not?
    3. Does the speaker's mood change as the poem continues? If so, where?
    4. What seems like the very happiest line in the poem to you? Why?

    Chew on This

    Although there is plenty of sad material in the poem, it is ultimately focused on the triumph of despair over joy. Hurray!

    Hate to break it to you, but in "To a Skylark," joy and sadness are simply impossible to separate, and the poem shows us how one would be meaningless without the other.

  • Awe and Amazement

    Beyond all of the specifics of joy and sadness, we think there's a feeling of pure awe running through "To a Skylark." Shelley's speaker is just so alive to everything around him. He's so fascinated by feelings and images and sounds that he can barely hold it in. We mean, seriously—you might hear a bird singing and think about it for thirty seconds, but can you even imagine an explosion of amazement like we get here?

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. Have you felt awe at the natural world like the speaker does in this poem?
    2. How does amazement relate to happiness? Are they part of the same feeling? How would the speaker answer that question? 
    3. Is the speaker in this poem ever amazed and sad at the same time? If so, what lines tell you this?
    4. Are you kind of amazed that this guy is so excited about a bird?

    Chew on This

    Awe? Yeah! All of the feelings in this poem, and all of its imagery, are ultimately designed to communicate a feeling of awe at the beauty of the world.

    The awe that the speaker feels about the skylark's song is destroyed by his sadness, and the poem returns us to the emptiness and limitation of our lives. Bummer.