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Comparing Themes and Metaphors of ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’ and ‘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 getting a violent and abrupt view of the organic world, and Shelley’s poem becoming far more lethargic and the bird representing some lofty plain which human experiences can't compare to. Each poems comment on man’s partnership with nature, but moreso than that, especially in regards to Romantic Poetry, nature can typically 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) wish to transcend from the earthly into something a lot more idealised, and the melancholy that stems from the realisation that 1 may well be unable to. Contrastingly, Dickinson’s poem comments on the violence present in the organic planet, 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 all-natural globe.

Certainly there is somewhat of an ironic reversal in Emily Dickinson’s poem the human silent and nonetheless, 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. Think about the violence depicted in the line “he ate the fellow raw”, as was the worm, so is the text, raw. Right here the bird is unfettered by the moral constrains of human society, and it devouring the worm is just a component of the natural order, or so a single could say. Yet there’s also an element of humanisation right here, specially 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 organic planet 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 planet, which each 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 worry of the potential danger she subconsciously perceives in nature’ 4.

These fears that the poetic persona bestows onto the bird are not unfounded, as they have just witnessed the bird eat a worm whole, but the persona does not seem to pick up on the duality of nature and man in how it eats the worm, but lets the beetle pass, realistically the bird would be pondering solely of its personal need for survival, the bird is merely a tool to comment on our personal human fears, and the chaotic nature of existence, maybe how life is precarious. It is frequent in poetry to utilise the pathetic fallacy, and Shelley does the exact same in his poem as the speaker ruminates on this unseen Skylark, commenting on the nature of its existence and regardless of whether it has “love of its personal kind” 5.

“The symbolic significance of considerably of Shelley’s descriptive verse has been traced to Shelley’s haunting sense of an best 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 possessing this perfect to “transcend frequent experience” 7. It could be said that To A Skylark depicts man’s aggravation with their environment, taking into consideration the lines “Thou of death should deem/things far more true and deep/than we mortals dream” 8 which not only elevates the Skylark to some omniscient position, but could be study as a plea or cry against the planet in general, the poet despondent that he is unable to reside up to his lofty preconceptions of what art ought to be, certainly he beckons the bird to “teach us”, and once again using religious allegory, says “bird or sprite” 9 additional indicating this ethereal nature to the animal. On a technical level, the harmonious nature of this ode offers credence to the otherworldly aspect of the Skylark, as it flows musically, as if it is in sync with this mythical bird’s song. The primary contrast in 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 whilst Dickinson’s view of nature is 1 of uncertainty and violence, the language in the third stanza reinforces this the “rapid eyes” 11, it is not a tranquil depiction and possibly this is an extension of human insecurities, each poems display the human need to have to bestow our feelings onto other items, be them living or inanimate.

The rhyme scheme and meter interestingly also play into the aforementioned thought of humans disturbing the natural order, take into account how in the 1st two stanzas the rhyme scheme is calm, the quatrain making use of a xaxa rhyme scheme, “saw/raw”. The dash in the third stanza is when the bird becomes conscious of the human presence, and hence the rhyme scheme becomes discordant, echoing the chaos and fear humans lead to 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 related troubles of the human condition by way of the use of metaphor, pathetic fallacy and personification, but the manner in which such objects are tackled differ, and the underlying tone is distinct as well. Shelley adheres to the classic Romantic sense of the beauty of the natural planet becoming tinged with melancholy, and Emily Dickinson depicting the violence of the natural globe as an extension of the human one, although also commenting on man’s interference with nature, and how the organic world can be simultaneously violence and graceful. Percy Shelley’s poem is a conventional ode to nature, maintaining 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 getting the poetic structure echo the themes of the poem, by becoming much more chaotic upon the human intrusion. However the bird flying away may 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, regardless of the contrast amongst violent nature and a peaceful one that the poems espouse. Man reaches out to join in the ritual of the natural globe, 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 much more abstract, in spite of ‘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 amongst the reality and the excellent, and E.W. Marajum meta-observation on the aspirations of poetry in itself. Poetry getting 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, Girls Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry (United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing, 2015)

Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th Edition (W.W. Norton & Firm, 1996)

Pound, Ezra, and Michael Dirda, ABC of Reading(New York: New Directions Pub. Corp., 2011)

1 Fabienne Moore, Ladies Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry

2 Emily Dickinson, ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th ed)

3 Ibid.

4 Ryan S. Bayless, The Breakdown of the Pathetic Fallacy in Emily Dickson’s A BIRD CAME DOWN THE Stroll, Texas State University

5 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To A Skylark’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed)

6 E.W. Marajum, ‘The Symbolism of Shelley’s To A Skylark’, Modern Language Association, 1937

7 Ibid

8 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To A Skylark’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed)

9 Ibid

10 Ibid

11 Emily Dickinson, ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th ed)

12 Ryan S. Bayless, The Breakdown of the Pathetic Fallacy in Emily Dickson’s A BIRD CAME DOWN THE Stroll, Texas State University

13 Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, New Directions, 2011 ed
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