Surely one of the most difficult forms of poetry to define is the lyric. The word itself has been used in so many different ways over the centuries in so many different contexts that probably no two people would define it in exactly the same way. Yet most critics would agree essentially on what is and what is not a lyric. The word is derived from the musical instrument called the lyre and was used originally to denote a poem written to be sung with musical accompaniment. Such poems today are more properly called songs, and the term lyrical is still applied to poetry rich in verbal music. Musical accompaniment, however, is no longer a distinguishing mark of the lyric. Perhaps the most characteristic mark is subjectivity. At the outset, subjectivity must be understood to be either the poet's own reactions-real or imagined-or those of a character he has created in a narrative or dramatic work; the poet may project himself, so to speak, into another person or character and, reacting for him, express the charactcr's the lyric is that it is a poem expressing the poet's deeply felt response subjective response in a lyric. At least a partial, working definition of the lyric is that it is a poem expressing the poet's deeply felt response (either within himself or within a character of his creation) to anything-literally anything from his revulsion against the ugliness of floating garbage in a pond, to his excitement over the grasp of a philosophic concept, to his feelings for his beloved, to his reaction to death, God, country, war, peace, a sunset, or a flower. Whatever the subject matter, whatever the method of its exposition, the poet's own responses are at the core of the lyric. The verse may be melodic and suitable for singing; it may be harsh and cacophonous, but if it communicates a response or feeling of the poet, it is in the realm of the lyric. It may he said that any poem is the expression of the poet's response to something. A narrative poem-a literary ballad, say-is the result of the poet's response to the story; a dramatic poem is the result- of the poet's response to a character in a particular situation. He may wish to convey certain of his ideas through a narrative. How, then, can we distinguish the lyric, the pure lyric? The answer resides in the poet's primary and essential purpose. If his purpose is to convey his own felt response-whatever his method - he is writing a lyric. If, however, he writes a narrative poem, his purpose is to tell a story; in so far as his personal responses emerge in the story, we may say that there are elements of the lyric-or lyric passages-within the narrative. Most poems are not difficult to classify, but there are those in which narrative and lyric elements are intertwined; these must be recognized for what they are in terms of what would seem to be the poet's intention.

The subject matter of the lyric has almost limitless range-hence one of the difficulties of defining the term. A further difficulty is caused by the fact that the subject matter can be treated in an almost limitless number of ways. For example, innumerable lyrics have been written on death, each treating the subject somewhat differently. Still another source of difficulty is the fact that narrative and dramatic elements are frequently integral parts of the lyric.

Before going further it would be well to illustrate through specific lyrics some of the points already made. The following short lyrics all are about death, but they differ in significant ways; each, however, embodies a poet's felt response. First, consider the following poem by William Wordsworth:

    She dwelt among the untrodden ways
    Beside the springs of Dove,
    A maid whom there were none to praise
    And very few to love:

    A violet by a mossy stone 5
    Half hidden from the eye!
    -Fair as a star when only one
    Is shining in the sky.

    She lived unknown, and few could know
    When Lucy ceased to be; 10
    But she is in her grave, and, oh
    The difference to me!

Here, the emphasis in the first two and a half stanzas is on the dead person while she was still alive. The poet's description of her-A violet by a mossy stone and Fair as a star-indicates clearly enough his feeling for her; his reaction to her death is effectively communicated through the bare understatement of the last two lines. The diction is utterly simple, but the sincerity and intensity of the poet's reaction are undeniable.

Now consider the following short lyric Requiescat by Matthew Arnold:

    Strew on her roses, roses,
    And never a spray of yew!
    In quiet she reposes;
    Ah, would that I did tool

    Her mirth the world required; 5

    She bathed it in smiles of glee.
    But her heart was tired, tired,
    And now they let her be.

    Her life was turning, turning,

    In mazes of heat and sound. 10
    But for peace her soul was yearning,
    And now peace laps her round.

    Her cabined, ample spirit,

    It fluttered and failed for breath.
    Tonight it doth inherit 15
    The vasty hall of death.

Here the poet gives about as much attention in each stanza to his concept of death as a state of quiet, of rest, of peace, of spaciousness as he does to the woman in life. He also expresses at the end of the first stanza his own yearning for the quiet of death. The woman is more closely related to the world at large than is the woman in the Wordsworth poem. Death itself is made to seem desirable; except for the last line of the poem with its suggestion of empty loneliness, death seems a boon to the woman. But we realize that it seems desirable because of what we can sense of the woman's life. The last line leaves us with an uneasy feeling about death, however, in spite of what we know about life. What on the surface, then, is a simple enough lyric turns out to contain a concept of death in relation to life that is not quite so simple; the poet has communicated his own ambivalence toward death. It is a release and it is quiet and restful-particularly for one who has given so much of herself to the world-but it also has a vasty hall-an image that expresses the poet's apprehensiveness.

For a quite different approach to death consider this lyric by A. E. Housman:

    The night is freezing fast,
    Tomorrow comes December;
    And winterfalls of old
    Are with me from the past;
    And chiefly I remember 5
    How Dick would hate the cold.

    Fall, winter, fall; for he,

    Prompt hand and headpiece clever,
    Has woven a winter robe,
    And made of earth and sea 10
    His overcoat for ever
    And wears the turning globe.

The attitude toward death here is highly complex. The first stanza indicates a poignant memory, the chief memory, associated with the coming of winter-Dick's hatred of the cold. It is the kind of intimate, personal, specific memory that reveals deep feeling for Dick and his death. But stanza 2 opens on a new note, a note of defiance. Winter is told to come, for Dick has managed to find eternal protection from the cold: he has a winter robe, and overcoat made of the earth and sea; he wears the world itself, literally, because in his grave, he is inside the turning globe. Dick is described as having a Prompt hand and headpiece clever-a description indicating affectionate approval of Dick and genial amusement at him. Dick is clever at cheating the cold out of the pleasure of bothering him. But Dick has managed his trick by dying; actually be is lying in a cold grave and the cold of death is upon him. The poet's statement, then, is ironic: through the grotesque image of the winter overcoat, the poet has expressed a in eaning actually opposite to the facts in reality. He has stopped a feeling of grief from becoming overpowering or, on the other hand, sentimental; with amusing use of incongruity in the image of the se cond stanza, the poet has become able to see Dick triumphant in death. Death has been cheated, so to speak, of its power to cause grief. The irony results in understatement of the poet's intense feeling, and we must remember that understatement can sometimes result-as it does here-in a more powerful expression of feeling than full or overstatement.

Without further analvsis of any of the three lyrics-and they all deserve further analysis-it is clear that though they all deal with death, they are quite different in their concept of death, their treatment of it, their attitude toward it. What they have in common, however-and what makes them lyrics-is that each has as its primary purpose the expression of the poet's response to death. Before leaving these lyrics, it should be noted that each uses a different stanzaic pattern and each has a different number of stanzas. Clearly, then, lyrics do not follow any one stanza pattern or number of stanzas. As we shall see shortly, certain types of lyrics do follow a set pattern, but these are special forms of the lyric and have individual names-the sonnet and the ode, in particular.

Another characteristic of the lyric is the use it frequently makes of other forms of poetry-narrative and dramatic-for the primary purpose of expressing the poet's felt responses. An obvious example of the use of narrative in the following poem from a play by John Lyly:

    Cupid and my Campaspé played
    At cards for kisses; Cupid paid.
    He stakes his quiver, bow, and arrows,
    His mother's doves and team of sparrows,
    Loses them too; then down he throws 5
    The coral of his lip, the rose
    Growing on's cheek (but none knows how),
    With these the crystal of his brow,
    And then the dimple of his chin:
    All these did my Campaspé win. 10
    At last he set her both his eyes;
    She won, and Cupid blind did rise.
    Oh, Love! has she done this to thee?
    What shall, alas, become of me?

Although a story is told here-the story of a card game between Cupid and Campaspé-the speaker's primary purpose is the expression of his love of Campaspé, his admiration for her beauty (she must have been pleased by the very extravagance of his remarks about her), and, most important, his despair over what will happen to him in the light of what has happened to Cupid. The mood of the poem is light; the extravagance of the images and the very idea of the card game are far too amusing to be taken seriously. But the speaker does feel something -love, admiration, despair-though he deals with his feelings in a light and witty vein. It is the expression of the feelings that makes the poem a lyric in spite of the use of narrative. Many lyrics are dramatic in their situation and structure: the love lyric, for example, in which the poet addresses his beloved and perhaps asks for encouragement is dramatic, but again, if the basic purpose of the poem is the expression of the poet's feelings, it is a lyric using a dramatic framework.

A word now about the poet's feelings in lyrics. Many lyrics are written in the first person, that is, an I appears in the poem. But the reader of a lyric cannot universally assume that the I is the poet himself even though, in the end, the lyric expresses the poet's feelings. The poet may project himself into an imagined situations -a situation in which he has never actually been- and the lyric may express what would be his feelings in the situation. The I, of such a lyric is not, then, always actually the poet and the situation may not have existed in reality. The poet may use the first person to express what men would, and do, feel, though he himself may never have been in precisely the situation described in the poems nor have felt precisely the emotions expressed. Lyrics that appear in plays exemplify this point; the feelings expressed are those of the character who speaks the lyric, not of the poet except as the poet projects himself into the character.

As an extreme example of a lyric in which the I is clearly not the poet in actuality, consider the following poem by Emily Dickinson:

    I died for beauty, but was scarce
    Adjusted in the tomb,
    When one who died for truth was lain
    In an adjoining room.

    He questioned softly why I failed? 5
    "For beauty," I replied.
    "And I for truth, - the two are one;
    We brethren are," he said.

    And so, as kinsmen met a night,
    We talked between the rooms, 10
    Until the moss had reached our lips
    < And covered up our names.

The I here cannot possibly be the poet since the I is dead before the cm was written. But through the poem - through the imaginative projection of the poet into death - the poet expresses her ideas and feelings about the identity of beauty and truth.

Without, then, assuming autobiographical elements in a lyric unless, of course, there is evidence upon which to base such an assumption-the reader must focus his attention on what the lyric says and precisely what feelings are expressed. Whether the feelings are real or imagined by the poet is relatively unimportant; what is important is the validity, the intensity, and the sincerity of the feelings, and the success with which they are communicated to the reader.

When the average person speaks of poetry, he usually has in mind the lyric rather than any other form of poetry. The reason for this is not bard to find. The range of literature in English is particularly rich in lyrics and this is not surprising, since the lyric is the vehicle for the expression of what poets feel about anything and everything in life. When we realize that good poets have an impressive capacity for thought and feeling-and the ability to communicate what they think and feel-we can understand the appeal of lyric poetry and hence at least one reason for its being so widely read. Through the lyric, the reader can share in the experiences, the feelings, the thoughts of poets. The reader's own sensibilities can be sharpened, his horizons broadened. He can see with the poet's eye and respond with at least some of the poet's capacity. And since the range of lyric content is limitless, the reader has a huge area from which to choose. He may get a moment of pleasure from a simple image representing the poet's feelings about a scene in nature or he may be led to feel some of the poet's excitement at the realization of a profound philosophic truth. Whatever the experience, however, the lyric is clearly a most rewarding form of poetry.

The lyric is the form of verse which is nearest to music. It is derived from the Greek word lyrikos, for the lyric originally was a song accompanied by the lyre, an ancient stringed instrument. Today the lyre is rarely heard, and the lyric makes its own music.

The lyric has many changes of pitch and pace, but it has one constant characteristic. It is short. Unlike the narrative, it expresses a mood instead of telling a story; therefore it is highly concentrated, usually personal, and almost always emotional. The great German poet, Heinrich Heine, wrote that "lyrical poetry is much the same in every age, as the songs of the nightingales in every springtime." The first rule of the lyric is that it must sing. The second rule is that its song must be clear and swift.

This combination of swiftness and singing clarity, of motion and emotion, is beautifully illustrated by William Butler Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," one of the loveliest and most quoted of modern lyrics. It is obvious at once that the emotion is homesickness. The poet, surrounded by the roar of the city, longs for the peace and comfort of the country, even for an unearthly quiet, literally "out of this world." That is the immediate idea or "meaning" of the poem. But what makes the lyric so different from this commonplace summary, what makes it so rich and memorable, is the haunting music which expresses the mood. The very name "Innisfree" is music. We do not have to know where it is or anything about it to understand its power of enchantment. The poem shows us its beauty, and the quiet of the place is suggested by the softly moving lines; it is emphasized by the single epithet, "the bee-loud'glade." Serenity flows from the poem as the lines make us feel peace to be something more than an abstract idea; peace comes with healing: "dropping slow, dropping from the veils of morning." Nothing here can disturb the heart. Midnight brings no fear; it is a starry glimmer." Noon bathes the day in "a purple glow." Evening brings the late birds home. Even the waves are hushed; we hear their soothing murmur in the soft alliteration of "I's" and "w's" in "lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore." Magic has been created by the union of personal feeling and musical form.

See the following poems full of singing words. The haunting combination of melody and meaning, of love and grief and memory, of joy in Nature as well as the understanding of human nature, is heard in the lyrics of Emily Dickinson's poetry, Lizette W. Reese's Tears and Spicewood, Sara Teasdale's Spring Night, Elinor Wylie's Velvet Shoes, Edna St. Vincent Millay's Renascence, A. E. Housman's Bredon Hill, William Butler Yeats' The lake Isle of Innesfree, and W. H. Davies' Days Too Short.

Intro | Verse Forms | Ballad | Dramatic | Lyric | Epigram | Sonnet
Ode | Elegy | Epic | Blank Verse | Free Verse