Sunday, December 25, 2016
Percy Bysshe Shelley and To Skylark
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets, and is regarded by some as among the finest lyric, as well as epic, poets in the English language.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, Sussex, in 1792, the son of a well-to-do landowner. At the age of ten, he was sent to Syon House Academy near London. There he was bullied and often lonely, but there too he acquired an interest in science, especially astronomy and chemistry, and became an avid reader of juvenile thrillers filled with horrors of various kinds. Shelley reacted to the bullying he was subjected to with violent anger and a determination to devote himself to opposing every form of tyranny.
In 1804, Shelley entered Eton College, where he encountered more of the same bullying he had been subjected to at Syon House. His outbursts of rage and his inability to fight encouraged the other boys to provoke him. He became known as "Mad Shelley" because of his rather unconventional behavior. However, he made a number of friends at Eton and embarked on his literary career. It was also in 1810 that Shelley began his short career at Oxford University. A third publication, a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, brought Shelley's university career to an abrupt end. On March 25, 1811, he was summoned to appear before the master of University College and, when he refused to admit or deny his authorship of the pamphlet, he was immediately expelled.
Shortly after his expulsion, he eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, a schoolgirl companion of his sister, Hellen. Shelley's marriage further alienated him from his father, whose pride had been deeply hurt by Shelley's expulsion from Oxford. Shelley and his young wife drifted from one locality to another, living precariously on whatever money they could borrow. Eventually Shelley's father settled an allowance on him. During this period Shelley continued to read incessantly. His reading helped to confirm him in the radical political and social opinions he had acquired.
A major turning point in Shelley's life occurred in July 1814, when he eloped to the continent with Mary Godwin, the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin.
In Switzerland, Shelley met Byron, who had left England only ten days before Shelley. The two developed a warm friendship which lasted until Shelley's death. The months that they spent together in Switzerland were among the happiest in Shelley's life. They found each other's company very stimulating.
In 1818, Shelley left England for Italy, never to return.
In spite of Shelley's growing disenchantment with the world, he experienced some of the deepest happiness of his life during his last months. Ironically, this happiness was associated with the boat in which he met his death. At the end of April 1822, the Shelleys and their friends the Williamses rented a house in San Terenzo, a village on the Gulf of Spezia, not far from Pisa. To San Terenzo they brought a boat, the Don Juan, built for them in Genoa according to Edward, several days later, the bodies of Shelley and Williams were washed up on the shores of the Bay of Lerici. The body of Shelley was cremated and the ashes buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, not far from the grave of Keats.
To a Skylark
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.
The speaker, addressing a skylark, says that it is a “blithe Spirit” rather than a bird, for its song comes from Heaven, and from its full heart pours “profuse strains of unpremeditated art.” The skylark flies higher and higher, “like a cloud of fire” in the blue sky, singing as it flies. In the “golden lightning” of the sun, it floats and runs, like “an unbodied joy.” As the skylark flies higher and higher, the speaker loses sight of it, but is still able to hear its “shrill delight,” which comes down as keenly as moonbeams in the “white dawn,” which can be felt even when they are not seen. The earth and air ring with the skylark’s voice, just as Heaven overflows with moonbeams when the moon shines out from behind “a lonely cloud.”
The speaker says that no one knows what the skylark is, for it is unique: even “rainbow clouds” do not rain as brightly as the shower of melody that pours from the skylark. The bird is “like a poet hidden / In the light of thought,” able to make the world experience “sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.” It is like a lonely maiden in a palace tower, who uses her song to soothe her lovelorn soul. It is like a golden glow-worm, scattering light among the flowers and grass in which it is hidden. It is like a rose embowered in its own green leaves, whose scent is blown by the wind until the bees are faint with “too much sweet.” The skylark’s song surpasses “all that ever was, / Joyous and clear and fresh,” whether the rain falling on the “twinkling grass” or the flowers the rain awakens.
Calling the skylark “Sprite or Bird,” the speaker asks it to tell him its “sweet thoughts,” for he has never heard anyone or anything call up “a flood of rapture so divine.” Compared to the skylark’s, any music would seem lacking. What objects, the speaker asks, are “the fountains of thy happy strain?” Is it fields, waves, mountains, the sky, the plain, or “love of thine own kind” or “ignorance or pain”? Pain and languor, the speaker says, “never came near” the skylark: it loves, but has never known “love’s sad satiety.” Of death, the skylark must know “things more true and deep” than mortals could dream; otherwise, the speaker asks, “how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?”
For mortals, the experience of happiness is bound inextricably with the experience of sadness: dwelling upon memories and hopes for the future, mortal men “pine for what is not”; their laughter is “fraught” with “some pain”; their “sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” But, the speaker says, even if men could “scorn / Hate and pride and fear,” and were born without the capacity to weep, he still does not know how they could ever approximate the joy expressed by the skylark. Calling the bird a “scorner of the ground,” he says that its music is better than all music and all poetry. He asks the bird to teach him “half the gladness / That thy brain must know,” for then he would overflow with “harmonious madness,” and his song would be so beautiful that the world would listen to him, even as he is now listening to the skylark.
The eccentric, songlike, five-line stanzas of “To a Skylark”—all twenty-one of them—follow the same pattern: the first four lines are metered in trochaic trimeter, the fifth in iambic hexameter (a line which can also be called an Alexandrine). The rhyme scheme of each stanza is extremely simple: ABABB.
If the West Wind was Shelley’s first convincing attempt to articulate an aesthetic philosophy through metaphors of nature, the skylark is his greatest natural metaphor for pure poetic expression, the “harmonious madness” of pure inspiration. The skylark’s song issues from a state of purified existence, a Wordsworthian notion of complete unity with Heaven through nature; its song is motivated by the joy of that uncomplicated purity of being, and is unmixed with any hint of melancholy or of the bittersweet, as human joy so often is. The skylark’s unimpeded song rains down upon the world, surpassing every other beauty, inspiring metaphor and making the speaker believe that the bird is not a mortal bird at all, but a “Spirit,” a “sprite,” a “poet hidden / In the light of thought.”