Lyric Poetry

Lyric Poetry: Mural by Henry Oliver Walker (1843-1929), Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C., 1896. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Lyric poetry is a form of poetry that expresses personal thoughts and emotions. In the ancient world, lyric poems were meant to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Lyric poems do not have to rhyme, and today do not need to be set to music or a beat.[1] Aristotle, in Poetics 1447a, mentions lyric poetry (kitharistike played to the cithara) along with drama, epic poetry, dancing, painting and other forms of mimesis. The English lyric poem, dating from the Romantic era, does have some thematic antecedents in ancient Greek and Roman verse, but the ancient definition was based on metrical criteria, and in archaic and classical Greek culture presupposed live performance accompanied by a stringed instrument.


Although arguably the most popular form of lyric poetry in the Western tradition is the 14-line sonnet, either in its Petrarchan or its Shakespearean form , lyric poetry appears in a variety of forms. Other forms of the lyric include ballades ,[2] villanelles,[2], odes, pastourelle and canzone.

Ancient Hebrew poetry relied on repetition, alliteration, and chiasmus for many of its effects. Ancient Greek and Roman lyric poetry was composed in strophes. Pindar's epinician odes, where strophe and antistrophe are followed by an epode, represent an expansion of the same basic principle. The Greeks distinguished, however, between lyric monody (e.g. Sappho, Anacreon) and choral lyric (e.g. Pindar, Bacchylides). In all such poetry the fundamental formal feature is the repetition of a metrical pattern larger than a verse or distich. In some cases (although not in antiquity), form and theme are wed in the conception of a genre, as in the medieval alva or aubade, a dawn song in which lovers must part after a night of love, often with the watchman's refrain telling them it is time to go. A common feature of some lyric forms is the refrain of one or more verses that end each strophe. The refrain is repeated throughout the poem, either exactly or with variation. In the medieval Galician-Portuguese cantigas de amigo, thought to reflect an old oral tradition, 90% of the texts have a refrain.(Citation needed)


Much lyric poetry depends on regular meter based either on number of syllables or on stress. The most common meters are as follows:

  • Iambic - two syllables, with the short or unstressed syllable followed by the long or stressed syllable.
  • Trochaic - two syllables, with the long or stressed syllable followed by the short or unstressed syllable. In English, this metre is found almost entirely in lyric poetry.[3]
  • Pyrrhic - Two unstressed syllables
  • Anapestic - three syllables, with the first two short or unstressed and the last long or stressed.
  • Dactylic - three syllables, with the first one long or stressed and the other two short or unstressed.
  • Spondaic - two syllables, with two successive long or stressed syllables.

Some forms have a combination of meters, often using a different meter for the refrain.

History of lyric poetryEdit

The Classical periodEdit


File:Alkaios Sappho Staatliche Antikensammlungen 2416 n1.jpg

For the ancient Greeks, lyric poetry had a precise technical meaning: verse that was accompanied by a lyre or other stringed instrument (e.g. the barbiton). The lyric poet was distinguished from the writer of plays (although Athenian drama included choral odes, in lyric form), the writer of trochaic and iambic verses (which were recited), the writer of elegies (accompanied by the flute, rather than the lyre) and the writer of epic.[4] The scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria created a canon of nine lyric poets deemed especially worthy of critical study. These archaic and classical musician-poets included Sappho, Alcaeus, Anacreon and Pindar. Archaic lyric was characterized by strophic composition and live musical performance. Some poets, like Pindar extended the metrical forms to a triad, including strophe, antistrophe (metrically identical to the strophe) and epode (whose form does not match that of the strophe).[5]


Among the major extant Roman poets of the classical period, only Catullus (nos. 11, 17, 30, 34, 51, 61) and Horace (four books of Odes) wrote lyric poetry, which however was no longer meant to be sung, but read or recited. What remained were the forms, the lyric meters of the Greeks adapted to Latin. Catullus was influenced by both archaic and Hellenistic Greek verse and belonged to a group of Roman poets called the Neoteroi ("newer poets"), who spurned epic poetry, following the lead of Callimachus, and instead composed brief highly polished poems in various thematic and metrical genres. The Roman love elegy of Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid (Amores, Heroides), with its focus on the poetic "I" and the expression of personal feeling, may be the thematic ancestor of much medieval, renaissance, Romantic and modern lyric poetry, but these works were composed in elegiac couplets, and so were not lyric poetry in the ancient sense.[6]


In China, an anthology of poems by Qu Yuan and Song Yu., Songs of Chu, defined a new form of poetry that came from the area of Chu during the Warring States period. As a new literary style, chu ci abandoned the classic four-character verses used in poems of Shi Jing and adopted verses with varying lengths. This gave it more rhythm and latitude in expression.

Middle AgesEdit

Originating in 10th century Persian, a ghazal is a poetic form consisting of couplets that share a rhyme and a refrain. Formally it consists of a short lyric composed in a single metre with a single rhyme throughout. The central subject is love. Notable exponents include: Hafez, Amir Khusro, Auhadi of Maragheh, Alisher Navoi, Obeid e zakani, Khaqani Shirvani, Anvari, Farid al-Din Attar, Omar Khayyam, and Rudaki. The ghazal was introduced to European poetry in the early 19th century by the German writers Friedrich Schlegel, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who called Hafez his "twin".[7]

Lyric in European literature of the medieval or Renaissance period means a poem which has been written so that it could be set to music (whether or not it is). A poem's particular structure, function or theme is not specified by the term.[8] The lyric poetry of Europe in this period was created largely without reference to the classical past, by the pioneers of courtly poetry and courtly love.[9] The troubadors, travelling composers and performers of songs, began to flourish towards the end of the 11th century and were often imitated in successive centuries. Trouvères were poet-composers who were roughly contemporary with and influenced by the troubadours but who composed their works in the northern dialects of France. The first known trouvère was Chrétien de Troyes (fl. 1160s-80s). The dominant form of German lyric poetry in the period was the Minnesang, "a love lyric based essentially on a fictitious relationship between a knight and his high-born lady".[10] Initially imitating the lyrics of the French troubadours and trouvères, Minnesang soon established a distinctive tradition.[11] There is also a large body of medieval Galician-Portuguese lyric.[12]

A bhajan or kirtan is a Hindu devotional song. Bhajans are often simple songs in lyrical language expressing emotions of love for the Divine. Notable exponents include: Kabir, Surdas and Tulsidas. Hebrew singer-poets of the Middle Ages include: Yehuda Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol and Abraham ibn Ezra.

Chinese Sanqu poetry was a Chinese poetic genre from the Jin Dynasty, 1115-1234, through the Yuan Dynasty, (1271-1368), to the following Ming period. Playwrights like Ma Zhiyuan (c. 2170-1330) and Guan Hanqing (c. 1300) were well-established writers of Sanqu Dramatic Lyrics. This poetry was composed in the vernacular or semi-vernacular.

In Italy, Petrarch developed the sonnet form inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante had made much use of in his Vita Nuova. In 1327, according to the poet, the sight of a woman called Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon awoke in him a lasting passion, celebrated in the Rime sparse ("Scattered rhymes"). Later, Renaissance poets who copied Petrarch's style named this collection of 366 poems Il Canzoniere ("Song Book"). Laura is in many ways both the culmination of medieval courtly love poetry and the beginning of Renaissance love lyric.

16th CenturyEdit

Thomas Campion wrote lute songs. Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare helped popularize the sonnet. The Naga-Uta is a lyric poem, popular in this era, in alternating five and seven lines and ending with an extra seven-syllable line (see also the earlier choka version).

In France, La Pleiade aimed to break with earlier traditions of French poetry (especially Marot and the grands rhétoriqueurs), and, maintaining that French was a worthy language for literary expression, to attempt to ennoble the French language by imitating the Ancients. Among the models favoured by the Pléiade were Pindar, Anacreon, Alcaeus, Horace and Ovid. The forms that dominate the poetic production of these poets are the Petrarchan sonnet cycle and the Horatian/Anacreontic ode. The group included: Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baïf. Spanish devotional poetry adapts the lyric for religious purposes. Notable poets include: Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Garcilaso de la Vega, Lope de Vega. Although better known for his epic Lusiadas, Luís de Camões is also considered the greatest Portuguese lyric poet of the period.

17th CenturyEdit

Lyric is the dominant poetic idiom in 17th century English poetry from John Donne to Andrew Marvell.[13] The poems of this period are short, rarely tell a story and are intense in expression.[13] Other notable poets of the era include Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, Aphra Behn, Thomas Carew, John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, John Milton, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan. A German lyric poet of the period is Martin Opitz. Matsuo Bashō is a Japanese lyric poet.

18th CenturyEdit

In the 18th century lyric poetry declined in England and France. The atmosphere of the English coffee-house or French salon, where literature was discussed, was not congenial to lyric poetry.[14] Exceptions include the lyrics of Robert Burns, William Cowper, Thomas Gray and Oliver Goldsmith. German lyric poets of the period include Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Novalis, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Heinrich Voß. Kobayashi Issa is a Japanese lyric poet.

19th CenturyEdit

File:Benjamin Robert Haydon 002.jpg

In Europe the lyric emerges as the principal poetic form of the 19th century, and comes to be seen as synonymous with poetry itself.[15] Romantic lyric poetry consists of first-person accounts of the thoughts and feelings of a specific moment; feelings are extreme, but personal.[16]

The traditional form of the sonnet is revived in Britain, with William Wordsworth writing more sonnets than any other British poet.[15] Other important Romantic lyric writers of the period include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Later in the century the Victorian lyric is more linguistically self-conscious and defensive than the Romantic lyric.[17] Victorian lyric poets include Alfred Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti.

Lyric poetry was popular with the German reading public between 1830 and 1890, as shown in the number of poetry anthologies published in the period.[18] According to Georg Lukács, the verse of Joseph von Eichendorff exemplifies the German Romantic revival of the folk-song tradition, initiated by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder and receiving new impetus with the publication of Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano's collection of Folk Songs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn.[19]

The 19th century in France sees a confident recovery of the lyric voice after its relative demise in the 18th century.[20] The lyric becomes the dominant mode in French poetry of this period.[21] Charles Baudelaire is, for Walter Benjamin, the last European example of lyric poetry "successful on a mass scale."[22]

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries constitute the period of the rise of Russian lyric poetry, exemplified by Aleksandr Pushkin.[23] The Swedish "Phosphorists" were influenced by the Romantic movement and their chief poet, Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom produced many lyric poems.[24] Italian lyric poets of the period include Ugo Foscolo, Giacomo Leopardi, Giovanni Pascoli and Gabriele D'Annunzio. Japanese lyric poets include Taneda Santoka, Masaoka Shiki and Ishikawa Takuboku. Spanish lyric poets include Gustavo Adolfo Becquer, Rosalía de Castro and Jose de Espronceda.

20th CenturyEdit

See 20th century lyric poetry

In the early years of the 20th century rhymed lyric poetry, usually expressing the feelings of the poet, was the dominant poetic form in America,[25] Europe and the British colonies. The English Georgian poets such as A.E. Housman, Walter de la Mare and Edmund Blunden used the lyric form. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was praised by William Butler Yeats for his lyric poetry and compared with the troubadour poets, when the two met in 1912.[26]

The relevance and acceptability of the lyric in the modern age was, though, called into question by modernist poets such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, H.D. and William Carlos Williams, who rejected the English lyric form of the 19th century, feeling that it relied too heavily on melodious language, rather than complexity of thought.[27] After the second world war the American New Criticism returned to the lyric, advocating a poetry that made conventional use of rhyme, meter and stanzas, and was modestly personal in the lyric tradition.[28] Lyric poetry dealing with relationships, sex and domestic life constituted the new mainstream of American poetry in the late 20th century, influenced by the confessional poets of the 1950s and 60s, such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.[29]

See alsoEdit



  1. Tom McArthur (ed), The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press, 1992, p632.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Northrop Frye, The Eternal Act of Creation: Essays, 1979-90, Indiana University Press, 1993, p133. ISBN 0253325161
  3. Stephen Adams, Poetic Designs: an introduction to meters, verse forms, and figures of speech, Broadview Press, 1997, p55. ISBN 1551111292
  4. Cecil Maurice Bowra, Greek Lyric Poetry: From Alcman to Simonides, Oxford University Press, 1961, p3.
  5. James W. Halporn, Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, Martin Ostwald, The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry, Hackett Publishing, 1994, p16. ISBN 0872202437
  6. Peter Bing and Rip Cohen, Games of Venus: An Anthology of Greek and Roman Erotic Verse from Sappho to Ovid, New York and London, Routledge, 1991.
  7. Jurgen Thym, Ann C. Fehn, Of Poetry and Song: Approaches to the Nineteenth-Century Lied, University of Rochester Press, 2010, p221.
  8. Mary Lewis Shaw, The Cambridge Introduction to French Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp39-40. ISBN 0521004853
  9. Sarah Kay, Terence Cave, Malcolm Bowie, A Short History of French Literature, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp15-16. ISBN 0198159315
  10. Sidney M. Johnson, Marion Elizabeth Gibbs, Medieval German Literature: A Companion, Routledge, 2000, p224. ISBN 0415928966
  11. Sidney M. Johnson, Marion Elizabeth Gibbs, Medieval German Literature: A Companion, Routledge, 2000, p225. ISBN 0415928966
  12. Giuseppe Tavani, Trovadores e Jograis: Introdução à poesia medieval galego-portuguesa. Lisbon: Caminho, 2002.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Thomas N. Corns, The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry, Donne to Marvell, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pxi. ISBN 0521423090
  14. Sir Albert Wilson in J. O. Lindsay, The New Cambridge Modern History, Cambridge University Press, 1957, p73. ISBN 0521045452
  15. 15.0 15.1 Christopher John Murray, Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850, Taylor & Francis, 2004, p700. ISBN 1579584225
  16. Stephen Bygrave, Romantic Writings, Routledge, 1996, pix. ISBN 041513577X
  17. E. Warwick Slinn in Joseph Bristow, The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, Cambridge University Press, p56. ISBN 0521646804
  18. Eda Sagarra and Peter Skrine, A Companion to German Literature: From 1500 to the Present, Blackwell Publishing, 1997, p149. ISBN 0631215956
  19. György Lukács, German Realists in the Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, 1993, p56. ISBN 0262621436
  20. Christopher Prendergast, Nineteenth-Century French Poetry: Introductions to Close Reading, Cambridge University Press, 1990. p3. ISBN 0521347742
  21. Christopher Prendergast, Nineteenth-Century French Poetry: Introductions to Close Reading, Cambridge University Press, 1990. p15. ISBN 0521347742
  22. Quoted in Max Pensky, Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning, University of Massachusetts Press, 1993, p155. ISBN 1558492968
  23. Roman Jakobson, Selected Writings, Walter de Gruyter, 1981, p282 . ISBN 9027976864
  24. William L. Richardson and Jesse M. Owen, Literature of the World: An Introductory Study, Kessinger Publishing, 2005, p348. ISBN 1417994339
  25. Christopher John MacGowan, Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, p9.ISBN 0631220259
  26. Robert Fitzroy Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life, Oxford University Press, p496. ISBN 0192880853
  27. Christopher Beach, The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p49. ISBN 0521891493
  28. Stephen Fredman, A Concise Companion To Twentieth-century American Poetry, Blackwell Publishing, 2005, p63. ISBN 1405120029
  29. Christopher Beach, The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p155. ISBN 0521891493

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