The Poet’s Garage Workbench: Saving Shelley’s Skylark

Saving Shelley’s skylark was a good deed I never imagined. As a Boy Scout I was more likely to feed a stray puppy or help someone cross a street, assuming I wasn’t too distracted by the latest Beach Boys release on my transistor radio.

Coming from a family of limited means there was only one way to escape the summer’s baked mud and boredom for an idyllic two weeks at Many Point Scout Camp in northern Minnesota. I could meet the high cost of $35 by collecting newspapers. The Boy Scout paper drive began in the Fall and continued until the payment deadline. One dollar for each foot of paper. So, if I gathered a 35-foot stack of paper, I could go to camp.

Of course, the camping experience wasn’t always idyllic, like thinking I’d drown during my swimming test. Or the afternoon I fell into a stream trying to cross hand over hand on a rope. Or the night of “wilderness” camping when mosquitoes found every seam in my canvas tent and torn sleeping bag. The next morning I resembled a Neanderthal, my face covered in welts and a thick swollen brow. One of my friends snapped a Polaroid for my parents.

Both of my parents were excellent swimmers. I sunk like a puppy in a sack, fighting for breath, never getting the hang of breathing when swimming, as if my body rejected the concept. I love being on the water, not in it.

But a skylark has no need to swim, or so I assumed. Maybe my attraction to creatures of the land and air relates to my swimming failures, even if the smaller flyers wanted my blood. Fortunately, Shelley’s skylark was easy to catch, roosting in a pile of newspapers.

My role as the local paper boy gave me an edge in the paper drive competition among Boy Scouts. I told my Minneapolis Tribune customers not to discard their newspapers. I’d occasionally enlist my father to follow in his car while I canvased the neighborhood and filled the Chevy’s trunk.

During one of my collection passes a lady directed me down into her basement where I found a yellowed stack of newspapers. Inserted between the news and sports sections were several old books, which gave me pause. She told me to take them.

Once I got them home I called the scoutmaster. Yes, books counted and now I had several inches of books to add to my growing footage. But I hoped he would say no. How could anyone throw away books? They seemed sacred like the Bibles and hymnals in church or the volumes I checked out from the bookmobile.

I read the books to decide their fate, or at least I skimmed them. Two were social studies texts, too much like the ones I labored over in school, along with books on typing and stenography. Those could go. But I set aside an old WWI history book with a broken spine and colored plates, a Shakespeare collection, and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Poetry. The Shakespeare covers hung by threads and the Palgrave boards were missing. I turned the pages carefully like a monk reading holy manuscripts.

The images in the WWI book drew me first. But they seemed heroically upbeat compared to what I already knew about the Great War. Horses drew field cannons mounted on wooden spoke-wheeled carriages among confident men marching in colorful clean uniforms shining with polished buttons and medals. Rifles flashed with chrome fittings. Officers wore swords and bushy moustaches.

Some units of the Turkish Army were particularly exotic with their blossoming pants, tunics, and fezzes. I imagined their fine cloth caked with mud in the trenches I saw in my encyclopedia. I later realized the WWI book was printed in 1914 during the mobilization, before the horrors of mechanized killing and no man’s land. Any soldiers surviving the initial battles would have gladly traded their gaudy uniforms for khaki colors and dull metal helmets.

The inside covers of the Shakespeare volume were inscribed by the student owner and many of his friends. But I found no marks on the inside pages. I had been introduced to Shakespeare through his plays, of course, but at that point in my youth I thought reading him was something like reading the Bible. You only did so when coerced.

Palgrave’s Treasury had no colored plates and there were many pages crowded with difficult language as daunting as Shakespeare. The short lines and stanzas of “To a Skylark” caught me as I flipped through the book. I kept going back to the poem. Something about the skylark as bird and more awakened my first epiphany about the power of metaphor. Shelley’s descriptive words pulled me closer.

Spirit, cloud of fire, emblem of joy, star of Heaven, the skylark soars through images in the poem until it disappears and its song fades. But the poets still feels its presence, bringing him to the edge of human perception, the inexpressible. I later learned how poetry and art carry our consciousness to something new and unexpected, embodying a sense of creation. “Dreaming beyond death,” as the poet describes, immortal.

The last lines of each stanza ring most memorable, beginning with “profuse strains of unpremeditated art,” a perfect description of a bird in flight. At the end of the poem, after calling on the skylark to teach him its poetic song, the author declares, “The world should listen then, as I am listening now!” These resonant lines and their simple rhythm have echoed through the ears and pens of generations of readers and poets, including me.

The more I read about Percy Bysshe Shelley the more he suited me as a role model. Politically radical in addition to his literary talent, he shared his politics, atheism, and views on sexual liberation with his friends, including John Keats, Lord Byron, and particularly his wife Mary Shelly. Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist philosopher, Mary Shelley was a famous author and philosopher in her own right. Her gothic novel Frankenstein is a classic, of course, but modern scholars have recently called attention to her many other novels.

Two years ago on a trip to Rome we made a pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House, a museum to the Romantic poets, next to the Spanish Steps. The house preserves the bed where Keats died and walls of period artwork, publications, and manuscripts. Not long after Keats succumbed to tuberculosis, Shelley died in a tragic accident while sailing his boat. I like to think Shelley and I share a love of boats and an aversion to swimming, but I am sure he was a better swimmer. Visiting the small museum felt more spiritual to me than St. Peter’s and the other the historic cathedrals in Rome. I bought a souvenir tee shirt.

I continue to collect newspapers but only for recycling, and I retain the old books I salvaged from my Boy Scout paper drive. Many Point Scout Camp still exists. I’ve forgotten most of my camping adventures and suppressed my swimming failures, but I’ll always revere Shelley’s skylark. On my evening walks with Pearl, our goofy golden retriever, I often sense the skylark’s immortal presence and recall saving Shelley’s skylark. I wonder which one of us saved the other.

Read “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Visit the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.

Check out Many Point Scout Camp.

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