19 pages 38 minutes read

Percy Bysshe Shelley

To a Skylark

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1820

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Summary and Study Guide


“To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley was originally published in 1820 in Prometheus Unbound. This publication came late in Shelley’s career—just two years before his premature death—and “To a Skylark” is one of his most famous poems. Shelley was a major figure in the British romantic literary period. “To a Skylark” is an ode and an apostrophe: a poem that addresses something that is not human and cannot answer back. It was inspired by Shelley’s and his wife’s encounter with a skylark in Livorno, Italy. Shelley used a consistent rhyme scheme—ABABB—and two different meters in each stanza to mimic the bird’s song. The themes of the poem include the power of nature, the quest for joy, and the role of the poet.

Poet Biography

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792 in Sussex, England to the extremely wealthy Shelley family. As the eldest grandson of Sir Bysshe Shelley, 1st Baronet of Castle Goring, Percy Shelley was in line to inherit not only the castle and its estates, but also a seat in the House of Lords. As such, he received an extensive education in philosophy, language, and history, attending first Eton College, then Oxford University. It was during this time that Shelley began extensively writing—publishing his first novel before graduating and later getting expelled from Oxford for writing and circulating a pamphlet advocating for atheist values.

At age 19, Shelley left Oxford and married 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook. Soon after his marriage, Shelley spent time with the philosopher William Godwin, about whom he would write his first major work, Queen Mab. Shelley fell in love with William Godwin’s daughter, Mary, and ran away with her, prompting his first wife’s suicide. Mary and Shelley married and traveled through Europe, including one notable excursion where famine conditions in the countryside forced them to shelter in a manor for a whole season with the enigmatic Lord Byron. It was during this time that Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein.

Percy Shelley died on the return trip to Italy in 1822, shortly after the publication of Prometheus Unbound.

Poem Text

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “To a Skylark.” 1820. Poetry Foundation.


Shelley’s ode “To a Skylark” has 105 lines broken into 21 stanzas, each containing five lines.

In the first stanza, the speaker greets the spirit of the skylark. This spirit is not a bird. From heaven, or a location close to heaven, the spirit pours out its heart. The heart comes through copious amounts of spontaneous art.

In the second stanza, the speaker describes the skylark’s rising path. It starts on the earth and travels higher. The speaker compares it to a cloud of fire and describes how it moves through blue skies. The skylark sings as it flies.

In the third stanza, the speaker describes the sky when the sun sets below the horizon. The golden rays illuminate the clouds and the skylark flies above them. The flying is compared to joy just beginning to take its course.

The fourth stanza shifts from the golden sky to a purple sky at a later hour. The skylark’s flight replaces the color in the sky. The speaker compares the skylark to a star shining during the day. Just as he knows the star is present but cannot see it, he cannot see the skylark but knows it is there by hearing it.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker continues the comparison of the skylark to stars. The speaker focuses on the arrows that are part of constellations. During the night, the stars shine bright and silvery. When the day breaks, their light cannot be seen, but it can be felt.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker notes that the skylark’s song can be heard all over the earth and in its atmosphere. This sonic—sound-based—experience is compared to how the moon glows from behind a single cloud in an otherwise clear night sky, filling it with light.

The seventh stanza begins with the speaker confessing that people do not understand the skylark. He asks, what is similar to the skylark? He suggests clouds that have many colors of light in them. However, these multicolored clouds do not produce rain as bright as the song of the skylark.

In the eighth stanza, the speaker compares the skylark and the poet. Like the stars that cannot be seen during the day, the poet is hidden in the metaphorical light of thought. Like the skylark, the poet sings without being asked. Both give the world sympathy for previously unconsidered hopes and fears.

In the ninth stanza, the speaker compares the skylark to a princess in a tower. She sings a love song to soothe her spirit. Her song is sweet, like love, and can be heard by the people outside her palace.

In the tenth stanza, the speaker compares the skylark to a glow-worm. Its golden light is refracted by the dew and hidden by the flowers and grass. This allows people to see it.

In the eleventh stanza, the skylark is compared to a rose. The flower is enclosed by leaves and penetrated by the wind. The wind diffuses the rose’s scent, making it very faint in the air.

The twelfth stanza pulls back to more generally describe nature. Spring rain on grass and the flowers and other natural elements are defined as joyous. However, the skylark’s song surpasses all of nature.

In the thirteenth stanza, the speaker addresses the skylark as bird or spirit. He asks it to teach people how to think sweet thoughts. The speaker asserts that the skylark’s song is more divine and joyous than anything humans have said about love or wine.

In the fourteenth stanza, the speaker lists other kinds of music that pale in comparison to the skylark: Wedding songs and victory chants are empty by comparison. There is something absent in them that is present in the skylark’s song.

In the fifteenth stanza, the speaker asks the skylark about the topics of its songs. What objects inspire it? What type of land, sea, or sky inspire it? Is it inspired by its love for other creatures like it? Does its music come from not experiencing pain?

The sixteenth stanza describes the joy of the skylark’s song. The song contains no feelings of tiredness or annoyance. It seems as though the skylark has not experienced these emotions. While it does experience love, it has not experienced the sadness of having no hunger for love.

In the seventeenth stanza, the speaker continues to compare the skylark’s experiences with human experiences. Whether awake or asleep, the skylark is connected to death, and its song has more truth and depth than that of which humans can dream. These qualities make the skylark’s music flow and sparkle.

In the eighteenth stanza, the speaker focuses on human experiences. People worry about the past and future, and wish for different circumstances. For humans, even genuine happiness is laced with pain. The most beautiful music that people make is about sadness.

The nineteenth stanza offers an alternative to the previous stanza. The speaker considers the possibility of people not giving in to hate, pride, and fear. He believes even an entire human life without sadness does not equal the joy of the skylark.

In the twentieth stanza, the speaker considers what the skylark can teach the poet. The skylark’s capacity for joy exceeds all other delightful music and passages in books created by humans. The skylark’s song is part of the sky, not the ground.

In the twenty-first stanza, the speaker asks the skylark to teach him to be joyful. He asks for just part of the skylark’s happiness, which would give him a musical and wild voice. Then, the rest of the humans would listen as the speaker listens to the skylark.