Lyric Poetry: A Brief Introduction

Updated on April 19, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Lyre

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introduction to Lyric Poetry

The most common form of poetry is the lyric poem. While narrative poetry, including epics, convey a story, the lyric dramatizes an emotional effusion, customarily filled with colorful images, metaphors, and other poetic devices.

Origin of Lyric Poetry

Early dramatic productions for the Greek stage employed the use a chorus, composed of speakers who explicated the movements of the play, making the audience more aware of the action and its purpose.

On occasion, an individual from the chorus would perform a short piece accompanying himself (no women appeared in early Greek plays) on the lyre; thus the verse became known as "lyric." The term "lyric" thus evolved from the short, effusive style of poetry that was accompanied by the stringed instrument called the "lyre." No individual is credited with coining the term, but Aristotle describes the characteristics of various styles of poetry in his treatise titled Poetics. The later Hellenistic scholars likely continued and preserved the poetic distinctions as described by Aristotle.

Most of what we think of as poetry today is, in fact, lyric poetry. The emphasis of most poetry, including political poetry, is on emotion. The speaker of lyric poetry dramatizes his/her emotion which is often highly personal and individual. Although a lyric poem might suggest a storyline, its primary function is not on storytelling but on creating a drama of human feeling.

Song

Lyric poetry features many subforms. The most subtle form is the song. While many legitimate, literary quality songs are extant, most popular songs of a society seldom attain that level of achievement. Popular songs such as those made famous by popular singers are an integral and important part of society, but they seldom rise to the level of expression of true literature.

Some popular songs may make use of poetic devices, usually very obvious ones such as exaggeration (hyperbole) in the "love song." For example: the singer cannot live without the beloved; the singer finds it hard to breathe in presence of the beloved—some such as that.

The words in a song are often called "lyrics"; however, the correct term is merely "lyric." The lyric to "Stairway to Heaven," the lyric to "Morning Has Broken," — not the lyrics to these songs. Obviously, the term "lyric" here derives from the original term assigned to this type of emotionally effusive poetry.

Sonnet

There are basically three styles of the poetic form known as the sonnet: Italian (Petrarchan), English (Elizabethan or Shakespearean), and American (Innovative).

The Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet features fourteen lines in two stanzas: the octave with eight lines and the rime scheme of ABBAABBA and the sestet with six lines and a varied rime scheme CDECDE, or CCDDEE. The sonnet is named for the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch,(1304-1374), who composed a sequence of 366 sonnets expressing his love for a woman named Laura, who has never been definitively identified.

The English (Elizabethan or Shakespearean) sonnet also features fourteen lines; however, it is separated into three quatrains and a couplet; the traditional rime scheme of the English sonnet is ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The sequence of 154 sonnets by William Shakespeare (Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford) became so influential that the style of sonnet now bears the Shakespeare designation along with the country and queen who reigned during the time the sonnets were composed.

A recent addition to sonnet styles is the American (Innovative) sonnet. This sonnet while also featuring the traditional 14 lines most often is free verse. When rime and any steady rhythm appear in style it is usually quite by accident.

David Humphreys (1752-1818) is credited with the distinction of having been the first American sonneteer; however, he followed closely the English form and therefore is not quite the Innovative sonneteer of later Americans who have chosen that form.

Wanda Coleman offers a useful example of the American (Innovative) sonnet, with emphasis on Innovative and possibly experimental.

Villanelle

A very popular form among poets, most of whom have tried their hand at composing in the form with varied levels of success, the villanelle displays in 19 lines with 5 tercets and a final quatrain.

The entire poem employs only two riming words that complete the first and the third lines of each tercet and then appear in both lines of the couplet.

Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" is likely the most famous villanelle.

Hymn and Chant

Hymns and chant are devotional songs directed to the Divine for the purpose of deepening the singer's love and devotional awareness of God. It is ironic that the lyric known as a hymn was originally meant to be sung by the Greek chorus because the tradition Greek stage made a distinction between what was lyric and what was choric.

Hymns are often fashioned into quatrains featuring a rime scheme of ABCB or ABAB. A wildly popular contemporary hymn is Boberg and Hughes'"How Great Thou Art." Even the king of rock and roll Elvis Presley covered that hymn.

The chant usually focuses on one devotional aspect of the Godhead and as it is repeated with ever more depth and fervor, it leads the mind to a one pointed awareness of the Divine and the soul within.

Ode

The ode traditionally offers exaltation to its subject. The poem concentrates on a single thematic frame to bestow upon its target honor and veneration. The target subject of the ode is ordinarily an important person, idea, or both. The idea of freedom has been the motivation for penning odes down through the centuries. The ode displays in a rather formal and solemn manner.

Odes come in three styles: 1. Pindaric, 2. Horation, 3. Irregular or Modern. "Ode to the Confederate Dead" by Allen Tate exemplifies the modern ode.

Elegy

Similar to the ode, the elegy focuses on its subject in a rather formal and solemn manner. A sampling of widely anthologized elegies are Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

Versanelle

The term "versanelle" was coined by Linda Sue Grimes for use in her poetry commentaries. The term is a conjoining of the terms "verse" and "villanelle."

The versanelle is short, usually fewer than 15 lines. It dramatizes its subject with colorful imagery and always offers an observation about human behavior, quite often focusing on the negative behaviors of humankind.

Stephen Crane's "The Wayfarer" exemplifies the versanelle. Also the works of Malcolm M. Sedam demonstrate a mastery of that form.

Other Lyric Forms

Occasional verse or vers de société as well as the rondeau, and the rondel are all lyric in their poetic form. The style known as "occasional" poetry dedicates itself to a special historical or contemporary event.

Emma Lazarus's sonnet titled "The New Colossus" is an "occasional" sonnet. Lazarus wrote that sonnet to assist in raising funds to purchase the pedestal for the new statue (Statue of Liberty), which was coming to the United States as a gift from France in 1886.

The rondeau features light verse employed for fanciful subjects. It displays in 15 lines with lines 9 and 15 functioning as a refrain. The rime scheme is AABBA AABC AABBAC.

Similar to the sonnet, the rondel features 13 or 14 lines with a rime scheme ABBAABABABBAAB; it is likely that this form fits the French language better than any others, especially English.

Most Poetry Lyric

While most classic poets have told stories in poems, they have mostly told of their feelings toward the things in life. That is why most of the poetry that has been encountered down from ancient times is essentially lyric poetry.

Poets have combined lyric forms which results in the many forms and styles of lyrics. Emily Dickinson employed the lyric form exclusively as she often employed the style of a hymn.

Walt Whitman liked to focus his work through the elegy with his sprawled out cataloguing of things and people and events.

The lyric has been the staple in the tool box of the poet—even the narratives, it can be argued, feature many qualities of the lyric, which offers such a wealth of possibilities.

Questions & Answers

  • Who coined the term, "lyric"?

    No individual is credited with coining the term, but Aristotle defined the characteristics of various styles of poetry in his treatise titled Poetics.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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