'To a Skylark' by P B Shelley


How did Percy Bysshe Shelley come to write ‘Ode to a Skylark’?

In 1839 Mary Shelley revealed that while staying with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, near Livorno they heard a skylark: ‘It was on a beautiful summer’s evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark’. 

The start of the poem, 'Ode to a Skylark', casts doubt on whether the bird is actually real, but Shelley continually references its flight, song, and other physical attributes, setting the scene for an exploration of the relationship between opposites, the attainable and the unattainable, the desire to comprehend the incomprehensible.  

Shelley was experiencing difficulties in relation to his health, financial situation and personal relationships. The poem, in consequence, is less an expression of joy but rather voices a deep desire, almost a nostalgia, for the ecstatic rapture of the idealised poet, and the unattainability of perfection. Throughout the poem Shelley emphasises how far he is from joy, and how he cannot know the power behind nature that he is trying to understand. Though the poem is about not having the ability to comprehend it is positive and forward-moving and the final stanza is uplifting and hopeful. 

Shelley, having played with the idea of the bird as both real and unreal, just before the end of the poem brings back a reference to the skylark as a material creature – ‘thou scorner of the ground’.

Full title:
'To a Skylark' from Prometheus Unbound. A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts
1820, London
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Held by:
British Library

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