Shelley: “To A Skylark”

Portrait of Shelley, by Alfred Clint (1829)

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets, and is regarded as one the best and most influential lyric poets in the English language. Shelley wasn’t famous during his lifetime, but recognition of his poetry grew steadily after his death. He drowned in a storm on the Gulf of Spezia in his sailing boat, just before his 30th birthday.

Long ago as an undergraduate, I took a class in the Romantic poets, and subsequently memorized these few lines from “To a Skylark.” I completely disagree with their message but they demonstrate, as does the rest of the poem, Shelley’s command of the language.

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.

Yet 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.

We surely live in the past and future, and our joy is always tinged with sadness. But I disagree that the evil is necessary for good—a common claim. That claim exemplifies the idea of an adaptive preference. Since we can’t have our preference for unmitigated joy, we claim to that hate, pride, fear, and tears are somehow necessary. But if we could rid of ourselves of those things, I think we would. Still, we do learn from suffering. But then again, maybe what we learn is that suffering is not good and should be vanquished.

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