The persona extols the virtues of the skylark, a bird that soars and sings high in the air. It flies too high to see, but it can be heard, making it like a spirit, or a maiden in a tower, or a glow-worm hidden in the grass, or the scent of a rose. The skylark’s song is better than the sound of rain and better than human poetry. What is the subject of the bird’s song, so free of the pains of love? Perhaps it sings because it knows that the alternative is death. The bird does not have the same longings and cares that interfere with human happiness. Yet, it is these things that help us appreciate the pure beauty of the birdsong; perhaps the skylark’s song could become the persona’s muse.
The speaker seems a bit jealous of the freedom of the skylark, which travels where it pleases. It doesn’t matter when or where—whether it is dusk (“the sunken sun”) or morning (“the silver sphere” refers to the morning star)—the speaker feels that the skylark is always flying high above. Even if we do not see it, or even hear it, “we feel it is there.”
The speaker admits to not knowing whether the bird is happy, however, or from where it receives its joy. He puts five stanzas in the middle of the poem in metaphors, comparing the skylark to other living objects in nature (poets, a maiden, worms, and roses), which express love, pain, and sorrow. None of them, however, has the expressive ability of the singing bird. The poet hopes to learn about the realm of spirit from the bird, plainly asking to teach him how it manages to continue on with its “rapture so divine” without ever wavering in pain or sorrow. Even the happiest of human songs, like a wedding song (“Chorus hymeneal”), does not compare to the song of a skylark.
The song of the skylark, rather than the skylark itself, is what holds all the power. It is the song that can have the “light of thought” of “the poet,” the “soothing love” of the maiden, invisible existence as the “glow-worm golden,” and the aura of “a rose.” It is this power to awaken so many different parts in nature, and make them aware to the human mind, that Shelley wants to “be taught.”
Eventually, the speaker seems to come to terms with the idea that in some ways, ignorance can be bliss. Yet, this makes the skylark’s joy inhuman. “We look before and after, and pine for what is not,” but a bird lives in the moment. Nevertheless, recognizing the beauty in the simple brain of this skylark, the speaker would be happy to know only “half its gladness,” seeking the ability to inspire others the way he was inspired by the bird.
This poem goes hand-in-hand with “Ode to the West Wind” in that Shelley uses objects in nature as a catalyst for both inspiration and introspection as to what his own purpose is as poet. Immediately referring to the skylark as a “blithe spirit” makes the bird a supernatural object Shelley is doting upon. As he watches the bird climb higher and higher into the sky, he begins to employ natural metaphors commonly found in religion and mythology to describe the aesthetic beauty and poetic devotion he has for this “unbodied joy.”
The bird continues its upward flight until it is no longer visible, turning its song into climatic-like events in nature: “like a cloud of fire,” “like the golden lightning,” “like a star in heaven,” and “keen as the arrows from the morning star.” These metaphoric elements help create the myth and power of the skylark, and represent it as a kind of celestial being.
“What thou art we know not; What is most like thee?” is Shelley showing his vulnerability as a poet and his jealousy of the blithe ignorance of the bird. Setting up the closing stanzas, where he admits to wanting only “half of its gladness,” the redirection of the poem into the mind of the poet rather than a description of its subject reflects the struggle Shelley has with the intellectual side of experience. Like Keats’ nightingale, Shelley’s skylark is a window into the poet’s understanding of the relationship between sadness and joy, experience and knowledge, and his desire to only be under the influence of joy and knowledge, even though he knows that is not possible. Finally, beyond recognizing the difference between himself and the glorious song of the skylark, Shelley keeps the hope that someday his words will be heard and heeded the way he is listening to and being inspired by his avian muse.
The fifteenth stanza, the question stanza, marks the beginning of Shelley’s separation of the “mortal” from the “spiritual.” Asking questions creates room for the poet to provide answers. The answer he comes up with is that we, unlike the song of the skylark, are “mortals” capable of “dreaming” sweet melodies. It is not good enough to have unreflective joy, and thus even our “sincerest laughter” is often accompanied with “our saddest thought,” yet this is the reality we must acknowledge.