This is a line from Shelley’s well-known poem, “To a Skylark”. Perhaps Indian students cannot know what the cheery song of the skylark means to English folk in the springtime. The lark is a little brown bird that builds its nest on the ground.
The male bird, especially in the mating season, rises in a spiral flight up into the sky, singing ceaselessly its joyous song. It goes up and up, “higher still and higher,” until it is lost to sight in the sky, and becomes what Tennyson calls “a sightless song”, for it is heard even when not seen. It still sings as it descends, and is not silent until it alights on the ground near its nest again.
It was the happiness of one of these joyous little birds that inspired Shelley’s poem, which begins, “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” and he cries —
“Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.”
The care-free joy of the lark made him think of the sadness and perplexity of human life. What a contrast! The bird is full of joy; but we-
“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.”
Shelley’s own life was a sad one. He was an eager spirit, ever seeking perfection—his head full of beautiful dreams of impossible Utopias. His health was frail, and he was too sensitive to criticism and ridicule. He often fell into depressed moods, in one of which he wrote—
“I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away this life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear.”
If only he had the joyous spirit of the lark, what glorious poetry he could write!
“Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.” To such a man it was natural to think that the saddest songs are the sweetest. But to happier spirits, perhaps, the sweetest songs are those that are glad songs. There is, however, for most of us a peculiar sweetness in sad music—”The sad, still music of humanity”.