Theosis in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘To a Sky-Lark’

This essay was my term paper for an undergrad class on Romantic Literature. I’ve been meaning to upload it, and since I want to go and write my giant, final essay on Madoka, I’m going to deviate from anime for a couple posts until that is done. The essay essentially is an Eastern Orthodox reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘To a Sky-Lark’, specifically focusing on the doctrine of theosis. An online copy of the poem can be found here.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem To a Sky-Lark has long been interpreted with a Christian hermeneutic. The connection is not difficult to make as there are references to “Heaven”, a “blithe Spirit” and many other images and ideas taken from traditional Christian theology (Shelley 819). However, ever since the earliest schisms, Christendom has not agreed over certain theological concepts like the Fall of man or predestination, and the continuing splintering has only complicated things further. As such, the nineteenth verse of Shelley’s poem can be interpreted via the Christian tradition while giving two different meanings:

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. (819)

The first reading is one that reflects the great depth of “joy” that the Skylark has (819). Thus even if we were able to “scorn” our passions and be born “not to shed a tear”, we still would not be able to reach the height of the Skylark’s joy (819). The second reading interprets the verse to mean that if we were born perfect then we could never reach the Skylark’s joy, not because it is so much higher than our own, but because we needed to be fallen in order to recognize it’s beauty. In this paper, after establishing the Christian tradition found within the text, I shall argue that the first of these readings is more in line with early Christian tradition.

Throughout all of To a Sky-Lark one can find many different ways to tie the poem to Christian theology. The very first line, “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit” already does so in three ways: the word “Hail” is found in many songs of praise or intercessions to the Virgin Mary, the capitalization of the word “Spirit” no doubt would draw one to think of the Holy Spirit (the capitalization emphasizing divinity), and the word “blithe” sets the tone that the Skylark is a holy and pure bird, something that manifests joy (Shelley 817). The concept of joy and happiness are present the entire time, whether it be the “unbodied joy” of the Skylark or it’s “shrill delight” (817). His song is so powerful that it is like when “the moon rains out her beams – and Heaven is overflowed” (817).

However, Shelley’s poem makes deeper connections with Christian tradition, using the Skylark as an allusion for both Christ and the Father. This is not only done through the constant mentioning of joy, but with certain lines that reference dogma. For example, in the second verse the poem reads: “Like a cloud of fire” (Shelley 817). Though at first the line seems unimportant, it draws up two descriptions of God found in the bible. The “fire” can be traced back to St. Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews where he says: “for our God is a consuming fire” when reminding the Christian community to “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (The Orthodox Study Bible, Hebrews 12:28-29). The “cloud” is a visual tie to the Transfiguration of Christ in which God the Father appears as “a cloud” that booms to Peter, John, and James: “’This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!’” (Mark 9:7). One of the dogmas shown by the Transfiguration is the two-natures of Christ, that he is both fully man and fully God. This is seen in this particular section because the Apostles are told to Glorify The Son by The Father, and that since no one can be greater in glory than The Father, then Jesus Christ himself must be of the same essence of the Father – he must have a divine nature. However, Jesus Christ is still human as the Apostles can see him in his human nature.

Hence by likening the skylark to “a cloud of fire”, the skylark itself has both a physical and divine nature. Though it can be seen by the narrator, it is also referred to as being “an unbodied joy”, the word “unbodied” no doubt reminding one of how Christ’s divine nature cannot be bound into physical form (Shelley 817).1 There is an inconsistency here as the other part of this line states that the Skylark’s race has “just begun”, something which is incompatible with the divine nature of Christ which as always existed, eternally begotten of the Father. However, the poem doesn’t have to reflect Christian dogma correctly in every single aspect. Jesus Christ after all was born as a human, not a skylark.2

Another important dogma that the poem alludes to is the fact that the essence (oὐσία) of God, essence here meaning “all that subsists by itself and which has not its being in another”, is ultimately unknowable (Lossky 50-51). We see this mentioned briefly in the seventh stanza when the narrator questions, “What thou art we know not;/ What is most like thee?” (Shelley 817). This general idea, that the Skylark’s essence is a mystery, permeates throughout the entire poem as the author tries to find different allusions to capture the glory of the bird. Whether “like a Poet hidden/ In the light of thought”, or “like a rose embowered/ In its own Green leaves” the narrator consistently fails to match the Skylark as the bird “surpass[es]” “all that ever was” (817-818). In Christian thought God too is considered to be beyond existence as “’He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself’” (Lossky 36).3 Hence the mysterious and unattainable nature of the Skylark also draws from Christian tradition, for just as the Skylark is something “we know not”, God too is ultimately unknowable in his essence (Shelley 817).

At this point I have made the case that the poem can be interpreted via Christian tradition. The point of this was to justify the hermeneutic rather than let it be an assumption. Further, I actually drew from the tradition in order to prove this. The latter of these two points is going to be critical in the second half of the paper as it is this Tradition,4 the living experience of the Church, that will have the ultimate say on the interpretive problem mentioned above.

The doctrine of the Fall exists in practically all Christian traditions. At its core it essentially teaches that mankind, which had existed in a blissful state in the Garden of Eden, has fallen away from God by choosing to rebel against him. This deviation, whether it be from “a childish lack of discretion”, “’succumb[ing] to pleasure’”, “self-centeredness” “or gourmandise”,5 has separated mankind from his Creator and made him subject unto death (Ramsey 57-58).

This separation from joy is reflected in Shelley’s poem when the narrator asks the Skylark “What objects are the fountains/ Of thy happy strain?” (Shelley 818). The next two questions come out far quicker in syntax, taking one line each instead of two, creating the effect that the narrator desperately wants to know the source of the Skylarks’ joy, its “fields or waves or mountains” (818). This get’s amplified again the last line which moves even quicker, containing two sentences instead of just one: “What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?” (818). The last question, “what ignorance of pain”, is especially telling as it perfectly reflects the fallen state of man who now wrestles with the passions and sins of his life instead of enjoying the divine joy of the angels. Hence when man does try to express himself, his “sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” – he can not adequately express jubilee (819).

Knowing the doctrine of the Fall, the nineteenth verse of the poem ultimately poses a question: did the Fall have to happen? Does mankind need to be fallen in order to appreciate the skylark, and thus allegorically, God? Before I can finally answer this question, there is one more doctrine that I need to go over – theosis. In chapter 1 verses 3-4 of St. Peter’s 2nd epistle, the disciple writes:

…as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (Orthodox Study Bible, 2 Peter: 3-4).

It is in these verses that one sees the basic outline for the doctrine of theosis, or deification. In this process a person participates in the divine energies of God so that they may become by grace what God is by nature.6 This is seen in John 10:34 when the Apostle quotes Psalm 81:6 which says: “You are gods” (Orthodox Study Bible 1692).7 Mankind constantly moves towards God, always conforming to His image. However, since God is infinite, the process never ends – even after the New Heaven and Earth. What this means is that while Adam and Eve “were children…they were not perfect, but it was intended that they should grow into perfection, and so pass from simplicity and guilelessness to wisdom and maturity” (Ramsey 56).8

This ‘growth’ imagery is found in To a Sky-Lark. In the second verse the Skylark is said to be flying “higher still and higher”, indicating a never ending ascent of joy as he continues to “soar, and soaring ever singest” (Shelley 817). In verse eight there is a “Poet” who is “hidden/ In the light of thought/ Singing hymns unbidden” (817). The poet is hence interacting with the divine through psalmody, participating in it’s light, or energy.9 Most importantly though, the very last verse of the poem supports the idea of theosis as the narrator calls out:

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 (819).

The parallels are undeniable; the narrator asks to be “taught” just as God teaches those who want to grow in Him, but also, the narrator only asks for “half the gladness” as he knows there is no way he could contain all of it, as the Skylark moves “higher and higher” constantly (817, 819). Hence the process is one of infinite growth – just like theosis.

It should be evident now why one cannot read the poem in the sense that we needed to have fallen in order to appreciate the skylark. First, it runs counter to the Tradition as taught by the Church Fathers en masse as it would make no sense if paired with theosis. Second, there’s no support for it in the poem; nowhere does Shelley hint at a kind of fate or determinism that a mea culpa reading would need. To be sure there is a gap between the knowledge of the man and the bird, but it is because the latter is pure while the former is corrupt. But the narrator still wants to be taught, to learn so that “harmonious madness” “would flow” from his “lips” (819). Hence in the nineteenth verse we can safely state that even if humans “were things born/ Not to shed a tear”, like Adam and Eve, they still would “know not how thy joy [they’d] ever come near” because their growth is a never ending passage, an eternal movement from joy to joy, glory to glory (819).

1 The second part of this line, “whose race is just begun”, can also be seen as an allusion to St. Paul in Acts 20:24 when he says, “But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I might finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I have received from the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (The Orthodox Study Bible).
2 Furthermore, the bird that appears at Christ’s baptism is a dove and not a skylark – imagine how much stronger the connection would have been if Shelley had chosen the bird to be a dove instead!
3 Quoting St. John Damascene’s ‘De fide orthodoxa’, I, 4, P.G., XCIV, 800 BA
4 I am conscious of the capitalization of ‘T’ here. This is because from now on I will be referencing the holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church as oppose to the more general tradition of all Christian denominations.
5 St. Irenaeus, St. Cyril, St. Athanasius and Philoxenus of Mabbug, respectively
6 The divine energies are the same as God’s grace, the grace that “we can perceive in this world” (Orthodox Study Bible 1692). The word theos itself “comes from a verb meaning ‘run’, ‘see’, or ‘burn’”, all which are words that pertain to energy (1692).
7 It should be noted that by being as “gods” we are not becoming God by partaking in his nature or essence – this is impossible.
8 Ramsey is paraphrasing St. Irenaeus’ views here.
9 One of the major examples used by St. Gregory Palamas in talking about God’s energies is the light surrounding Christ at the Transfiguration, tying this back to verse 2 of the poem.