Critical Comparison: Emily Dickinson’s ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’ and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘To A Skylark’
Emily Dickinson’s ‘A Bird came Down the Walk’ and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ both utilise the bird as a symbol of nature, with Dickinson’s poem being a violent and abrupt view of the natural world, and Shelley’s poem being more lethargic and the bird representing some lofty plain which human experiences cannot compare to. Both poems comment on man’s relationship with nature, but moreso than that, especially in regards to Romantic Poetry, nature can often be a metaphor for purity and for the sublime; for God. Fabienne Moine states in her essay that in Romantic poetry, the speaker identifying with the bird is in “itself a metaphor for artistic freedom, creativity or spiritual attainment”1, and ‘To a Skylark’ can in this light be interpreted as Shelley’s (or the poem’s speaker) desire to transcend from the earthly into something more idealised, and the melancholy that stems from the realisation that one might be unable to. Contrastingly, Dickinson’s poem comments on the violence present in the natural world, how he “bit an Angleworm in halves”2 which contradicts the depiction of nature present in Romantic poetry, and then the poem further describes the intrusion which humans bring to the natural world.
Indeed there is somewhat of an ironic reversal in Emily Dickinson’s poem; the human silent and still, observing the bird as it devours the worm, then when the human moves it becomes a chaotic force and it is the bird that flies off gracefully, “softer home”3. Consider the violence depicted in the line “he ate the fellow raw”, as was the worm, so is the text, raw. Here the bird is unfettered by the moral constrains of human society, and it devouring the worm is just a part of the natural order, or so one could say. Yet there’s also an element of humanisation here, especially when the bird hops “sideways to the Wall to let a Beetle pass”, the way the line is written suggests a sort of politeness, as if the natural world being observed in the poem is a parallel to our human society. It evinces the pathetic fallacy and the theory of ascribing human traits onto the natural world, which both Dickinson and Shelley’s poem do. Ryan S. Bayless further elaborates upon this:
‘In the third stanza, the persona continues to project her own humanness onto the bird, but these attempts are now attached to an apprehensiveness and fear of the potential danger she subconsciously perceives in nature’4.
Those fears that the poetic persona bestows onto the bird are not unfounded, as they have just witnessed the bird eat a worm whole, yet the persona does not seem to pick up on the duality of nature and man in how it eats the worm, yet lets the beetle pass, realistically the bird would be thinking solely of its own need for survival, the bird is merely a tool to comment on our own human fears, and the chaotic nature of existence, perhaps how life is precarious. It’s common in poetry to utilise the pathetic fallacy, and Shelley does the same in his poem as the speaker ruminates on this unseen Skylark, commenting on the nature of its existence and whether it has “love of its own kind”5.
“The symbolic significance of much of Shelley’s descriptive verse has been traced to Shelley’s haunting sense of an ideal beauty”6 so says E.W. Marajum in his essay ‘The Symbolism of Shelley’s To A Skylark’, he reinforces the idea of romantic poetry having this ideal to “transcend common experience”7. It could be said that To A Skylark depicts man’s frustration with their environment, considering the lines “Thou of death must deem/things more true and deep/than we mortals dream”8 which not only elevates the Skylark to some omniscient position, but could be read as a plea or cry against the world in general, the poet despondent that he is unable to live up to his lofty preconceptions of what art should be, indeed he beckons the bird to “teach us”, and again using religious allegory, says “bird or sprite”9 further indicating this ethereal nature to the animal. On a technical level, the harmonious nature of this ode gives credence to the otherworldly aspect of the Skylark, as it flows musically, as if it’s in sync with this mythical bird’s song. The main contrast between the two poems appears to be the way in which nature is described; nature in Skylark is romanticised, a land with “golden lightning” and “rainbow cloud”10 while Dickinson’s view of nature is one of uncertainty and violence, the language in the third stanza reinforces this; the “rapid eyes”11, it is not a tranquil depiction and perhaps this is an extension of human insecurities, both poems display the human need to bestow our emotions onto other things, be them living or inanimate.
The rhyme scheme and meter interestingly also play into the aforementioned idea of humans disturbing the natural order, consider how in the first two stanzas the rhyme scheme is calm, the quatrain using a xaxa rhyme scheme, “saw/raw”. The dash in the third stanza is when the bird becomes aware of the human presence, and thus the rhyme scheme becomes discordant, echoing the chaos and fear humans cause to the bird, and by extension, the natural realm as a whole. The final images of the poem “produce a deeper, intuitive seeing that utterly breaks down the human egocentric tendency to impose itself upon that which is being observed”12, it also indicates how the bird is untamed and untainted by mankind, it resists the observer’s offering and flies away maintaining its elegance, its body “too silver for a seam” preserving that poetic, godly description of nature’s beauty.
Emily Dickson’s ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’ and Percy Shelley’s ‘To A Skylark’ both analyse similar issues of the human condition through the use of metaphor, pathetic fallacy and personification, but the manner in which such objects are tackled differ, and the underlying tone is different too. Shelley adheres to the traditional Romantic sense of the beauty of the natural world being tinged with melancholy, and Emily Dickinson depicting the violence of the natural world as an extension of the human one, while also commenting on man’s interference with nature, and how the natural world can be simultaneously violence and graceful. Percy Shelley’s poem is a traditional ode to nature, keeping in line with poetic tradition and the themes of the poem; the Skylark as the idealised creation and as an earthly representation of the divine. Dickinson’s poem subverts structure by having the poetic structure echo the themes of the poem, by becoming more chaotic upon the human intrusion. Yet the bird flying away might also be a visual metaphor for the inability of the observer to find “nature”, or the divine, which would make it tonally and thematically closer to Shelley’s poem than at first glance, despite the contrast between violent nature and a peaceful one that the poems espouse. Man reaches out to join in the ritual of the natural world, but ultimately cannot grasp it, just as the observer in Skylark is unable to witness the Skylark, yet contemplates and addresses it anyway, in this light the birds in both poems would be more abstract, despite ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’ having a bird that is physically present and witnessed by the observer. Both poems comment on the melancholy paradox between the reality and the ideal, and E.W. Marajum meta-observation on the aspirations of poetry in itself. Poetry being the “art originally intended to make glad the heart of man”13.
Bayless, Ryan S., ‘The Breakdown of the Pathetic Fallacy in Emily Dickinson’s A BIRD, CAME DOWN THE WALK’, The Explicator, 69 (2011), 68–71
Marjarum, E. Wayne, ‘The Symbolism of Shelley’s “to a Skylark”’,PMLA, 52 (1937), 911
Moine, Fabienne, Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry (United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing, 2015)
Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th Edition (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996)
Pound, Ezra, and Michael Dirda, ABC of Reading(New York: New Directions Pub. Corp., 2011)
1Fabienne Moore, Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry
2Emily Dickinson, ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th ed)
4Ryan S. Bayless, The Breakdown of the Pathetic Fallacy in Emily Dickson’s A BIRD CAME DOWN THE WALK, Texas State University
5 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To A Skylark’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed)
6E.W. Marajum, ‘The Symbolism of Shelley’s To A Skylark’, Modern Language Association, 1937
8 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To A Skylark’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed)
11Emily Dickinson, ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th ed)
12Ryan S. Bayless, The Breakdown of the Pathetic Fallacy in Emily Dickson’s A BIRD CAME DOWN THE WALK, Texas State University
13Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, New Directions, 2011 ed
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