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Beyond the Lines: Shelley's "Ode to a Skylark"
“To a Skylark” is perhaps one of the greatest nests of poetic paradoxes in the history of English poetry. Its language is shaped around the creation of ironical images, starting with the enigmatic “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit/Bird thou never wert!” and proceeding to describe “unpremeditated art,” “a cloud of fire” and a series of other images which are by their nature paradoxical. And yet, as this series of dancing vowels, ineffable images and rapturous musical turns of phrases unfolds, we find an unspoken musical idea persisting—a presence between the lines—something lurking beneath the poem’s measured ebbs and flows.
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
Shelley titled his work “To a Skylark,” which has led some readers to believe the ode is literally about a skylark singing and diving through the air. However, Shelley is a poet of the highest order: he is not merely describing some concrete image, literal thing, or a beautiful scene for the sake of producing titillating effects. In fact, Shelley explicitly tells us that his subject is not about a literal bird in the second line of the first stanza, declaring “Bird thou never wert.”
By explicitly stating what his subject is not, Shelley makes the paradoxical nature of his idea transparent from the outset. He proceeds to create a dense series of metaphorical images by which to communicate something neither heard nor seen, something non-literal—metaphorical—which though it cannot be can be directly experienced by the senses, can be grasped as a new object of thought by the mind.
Shelley’s signals to the reader that his meaning is about to get a lot more nuanced and metaphorical, which is what great poetry does: it offers us the ability to think in new non-linear and non-literal ways. This quality lies at the heart of our ability to make new discoveries, to unearth new ironies and paradoxes in what may have once been thought sound and flawless logic.
The process is a universal one, which also exists in the world of science. It includes such famous examples as Kepler’s overturning of the ivory tower Aristotelian and Ptolemaic astronomical systems of fixed spheres and perfect circles with his elliptical system of planetary harmonics. Einstein’s overturning of the Newtonian notion of an infinitely extended linear universe with his conception of a non-linear relativistic physical space-time is another example. In both science and art, the same universal quality of poetic insight and “epiphany” defined by non-linear creative leaps exists.
In the case of Shelley’s ode, the burst of song arising from the tiny little skylark is a naturally great metaphor because the bird’s music is indeed a marvelous and paradoxical experience: a seemingly rapturous and inspired music fills the air, despite the fact that the music’s source remains unseen. And even when the music’s source is directly seen, all the more, the anomaly of such inspired melodies and unbridled enthusiasm rouses a profound sense of wonder. It is a wonder at not only the reasons for the skylarks beautiful hymn, but the source and nature of the song and enthusiasm itself. This sense of wonder lies at the heart of what propels Shelley’s ode into an ever greater density of paradoxes and metaphors concerning the musical nature of all thought and creation.
Thus, Shelley continues:
What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:
Even the most beautiful of images appears to be no match for the quality of song Shelley describes. Each successive stanza presents new variations, new ironical images, each of which leads to new successive paradoxical states and feelings of wonder regarding something which seems to never reveal itself directly, but always indirectly.
Like a high-born maiden
In a palace-tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:
Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Its aëreal hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:
Like a rose embower'd
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflower'd,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-winged thieves:
Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.
Shelley’s subject appears to exceed the possibility of being described by any series of images, definitions, or metaphors. Is this perhaps the greatest indication of Shelley’s true meaning?
In his “Defense of Poetry,” Shelley writes the following:
A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of Aeschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante’s “Paradise” would afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the limits of this essay did not forbid citation. The creations of sculpture, painting, and music are illustrations still more decisive.
Arguably, Shelley could have used a completely different set of images to convey his idea, or an altogether different subject. The images simply serve as predicates which don’t necessarily reveal Shelley’s purpose themselves, so much as does the manner in which he chooses to treat the images. One might also think of Shakespeare and his many dramas: most of his tragedies were composed using stories and legends that had already existed long before his time. What distinguished Shakespeare as a genius was the manner in which he chose to treat his thematic material, giving it the richest and most rigorous development, and the greatest amount of wisdom.
As Wordsworth stated in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, a Romantic poet like himself preferred to keep his readers in the company of “flesh and blood.” This can be seen in countless examples, including his famous “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” where the poet describes his reaction to the experience of a literal field of daffodils. Shelley’s poetic approach is quite the opposite: the poet rejects any literal or sensual description of his subject per se. We would thus be correct in making a distinction between objects of thought and objects of sense.
It is useful to first imagine Shelley literally describing the flight and song of a skylark, and then re-reading the poem and imagining he is not. Above and beyond the question of Shelley’s ostensible subject, the question becomes what is the nature of this subject, what does it do, where is it found? Is he just describing something that sings and floats and flies, and leaves a trail of song? If it isn’t a bird, what could it be?
Without a preconceived notion of what that thing is, the name or definition of a skylark provides us with little to no knowledge or understanding concerning the actual nature of it. For, who has ever discovered something truthful by looking up the definition of “truth” in the dictionary, or created something beautiful by simply looking up the definition of beauty and then following a formula? Thus, Shelley avails himself of his metaphorical powers in order to take familiar images and sounds—like that of a skylark—and organize them in a manner which is completely unfamiliar. Shelley compels our mind to conceive of something fundamentally new—something residing outside the domain of any individual image or set of images.
Said otherwise, nominalism is largely useless when more than simple knowledge or textbook definitions are desired. In the case of poetry, one may know the definition of every word in a poem, and still have no clue as to a poem’s true meaning. Shelley hints at his true subject by demonstrating how all his images fail to capture his precise meaning.
While increasingly new and novel means of communicating ideas were introduced in the twentieth century, notably under the banner of “Modernism,” “Abstract Impressionism” and countless other “isms,” Shelley’s approach is genuine classical metaphor: the poet relies on the inherent paradoxes, ironies and tensions in the lines and imagery in order to compel the thinking mind to receive a fundamentally new poetical concept.
The process by which one comes to grasp and discover this unspoken metaphorical meaning is the essence of “epiphany” in both science and art. Whether it be the paradoxical observations or data sets found in scientific work, or the metaphorical and paradoxical images in poetry, both provoke a similar quality whose resolution may be rightly called an “epiphany.”
In this way, we are able to gain true knowledge and intimate understanding of something for which we have had no prior experience, but which after this “epiphany” becomes a new conscious object of our attention—a new discovery.
A parallel might be made with situations in which knowing someone’s name or hearing descriptions of a person by someone else does not allow us to actually “know” the person. In fact, such definitions or descriptions are often misleading. The only real way to truly know a person is to meet them, to acquaint oneself with their minds, and to experience how their minds operate and behave. Likewise, before Shelley attempts to give his subject a genuine name, he seeks to establish a relationship between us, the readers, and his subject, by presenting us with the kinds of paradoxes or questions encountered when dealing with his subject.
The question becomes: with whom does Shelley share this relationship?
Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
Or triumphal chant,
Match’d with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.
What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? What ignorance of pain?
Is it a bird, a plane, a star, the wind, a spirit, or a wraith?
With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest: but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.
Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?
Shelley continues to add increasingly more complex and nuanced descriptions of his subject. He makes it increasingly difficult to believe that a simple singing bird has caused him to wrestle with the paradoxes of the finite and infinite, mortality, causality, and the nature of human happiness. And yet, his verses do just that.
What could possibly have this effect? We are forced to abandon any literal hypothesis, leading us to the next question: what, then, is the skylark a predicate for? What does this thing actually do? Where can it found? How can we know it?
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
New questions emerge as each new stanza takes shape in our mind. We are compelled to wonder what Shelley wants his reader to know about this “sprite or bird,” which:
If we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.
Shelley develops a very complex and nuanced notion of happiness which goes far beyond what any individual “emoji,” combination of emojis, or prose can ever communicate. Shelley’s language and descriptions are illusive—at once real and unreal. But that seems to be part of the poet’s purpose. Shelley avoids stating his subject directly because he knows no formal description is possible.
How, then, can we know Shelley’s true subject? He tells us:
Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
Shelley invents the verb “to poet” as a means of conceptualizing the kind of specific action where we too like this “sprite of bird” may “scorn the ground.” Rather than coming up with some new kind of definition or noun, he invents a new verb.
It is one of the great paradoxes of life that we never find art—art finds us. The only question becomes: will we be ready to listen, will we prepared to embrace such inspiration, and what will happen when we do? What will happen when this inspiration fundamentally challenges what we thought we knew about the world, about ourselves, and the thoughts we believed were our own?
Indeed, no idea is truly ours, and the truth and beauty of an idea may be considered genuine by the degree to which we recognize that it is not truly ours; we are in effect simply the vehicles for some new “sprite or bird” whose source is creativity itself, what some call “the muses.” Shelley describes the act of receiving such inspiration as the verb “to poet.”
Having achieved a level of humility which we find most clearly expressed in works like his “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” “Ode to the West Wind” and “Ode to a Skylark,” Shelley reminds us that we too may become, with an adequate degree of openness, readiness, and humility, the vehicles for such inspired songs and “sprites.”
So how might we approach this divine inspiration which has won the muses so much acclaim? Once again, Shelley tells us:
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.
The only remaining question is: are we ready to be the vessels for this kind of creative inspiration, such that despite the many challenges and tragedies of the earthly world we too, like Shelley, may truly become scorners of the ground?