Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry is the name of a form of poetry that expresses emotional and personal feelings. In ancient times, lyrical poems were songs accompanied by a lyre. Lyric poems do not necessarily have to rhyme and also do not need to be set to music or a beat. However, lyric poetry does depend on a regular meter which is based on syllables or stresses in each line. There are several types of meter that are used in lyrical poetry with the commonest being: iambic, two syllables with a short syllable being followed by a long syllable; trochaic, where two long syllables are followed by a short syllable; pyrrhic, which is just two unstressed syllables; anapestic meters are a set of three syllables with two short syllables followed by a long syllable; dactylic, which is a meter of three syllables with the first syllable long and the other two short and spondaic, which is two long syllables. There are also other forms of lyric poetry where these meters are combined for effect.

Lyric poetry is not just limited to songs. It also includes the ode, the sonnet, the elegy and the pastoral (also known as the idyll, the eclogue and the bucolic). The pastoral form is originally found in the Idylls of Theocritus who was a Sicilian Greek who lived in the third century BCE. His poetry normally talks about love and the seasons and are set in an idyllic landscape of trees and meadows where Pan and his nymphs dance. Historically, the next great lyrical poet was Virgil who lived from 70 to 19 BCE. In his famous poem Eclogues he celebrates the simple joys of pastoral life, like Theocritus. Virgil's Fourth Eclogue is a prophecy, in the form of a poem, about a mysterious child who would bring peace to the world. The Christian church saw this as a prophecy concerning Christ which meant that during the medieval period, Virgil gained a reputation as some kind of wizard.

Unsurprisingly, it was the English who carried on the great tradition of lyrical poetry with the epic ballad Beowulf and poems about the great Arthurian knights of the round table being the most popular topics in the medieval period. In the Elizabethan era arguably the most famous lyrical poet was William Shakespeare, who as well as being a celebrated playwright was also a talented poet. His love sonnets were of 14 lines each in iambic pentameter (where the accent falls on every second syllable). However, Shakespeare was not credited with bringing sonnets to England; this is credited to Sir Thomas Wyatt who imported this form of verse from Italy. During the Elizabethan era, English poets were prolific and wrote countless poems. The main themes included the pastoral, like the Greeks or the Romans, but also included satire, carefree madrigals and slow-moving elegies.

After the Elizabethan period lyrical poetry took a backseat to other forms of poetry and art. It was not until William Blake in the 18th century whose work bought lyrical poetry back into the spotlight. Blake's other contemporaries at this time included William Wordsworth, the most prolific sonnet writer in British history, who wrote about his tours around the British isles in a very British style which expressed self-control but was still direct.

In the early 20th Century lyrical poetry remained popular especially in America, Europe and the British Empire. The main poets of this period were A. E. Housman, Walter de la Mare and Edmund Blunden as well as Rabindranath Tagore from Bengal. After World War II lyrical poetry came under criticism by modernist poets who complained that the medium did not allow for complexity of thought and instead relied too much on melodious language. However, by the late 20th Century, lyrical poetry was again back in the mainstream, especially in the United States, and being used to describe relationships, sex and domestic life.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Theory into Poetry: New Approaches to the Lyric
Eva Müller-Zettelmann; Margarete Rubik.
Rodopi, 2005
FREE! Lyric Poetry
Ernest Rhys.
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1913
FREE! The English Lyric
Felix E. Schelling.
Constable, 1913
English Lyric Poetry: The Early Seventeenth Century
Jonathan F. S. Post.
Routledge, 1999
The Celestial Twins: Poetry and Music through the Ages
H. T. Kirby-Smith.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of lyric poetry in multiple chapters
The Romanesque Lyric: Studies in Its Background and Development from Petronius to the Cambridge Songs, 50-1050
Philip Schuyler Allen; Howard Mumford Jones.
The University of North Carolina Press, 1928
Melody and the Lyric from Chaucer to the Cavaliers
John Murray Gibbon.
J.M. Dent and Sons, Limited, 1930
Wisdom and Number: Toward a Critical Appraisal of the Middle English Religious Lyric
Stephen Manning; St. Augustine.
University of Nebraska Press, 1962
Horace & His Lyric Poetry
L. P. Wilkinson.
Cambridge University Press, 1945
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "The Horatian Ode"
FREE! Lyric Forms from France: Their History and Their Use
Helen Louise Cohen.
Harcourt Brace and Company, 1922
Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves
Baron Wormser; David Cappella.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Tone and Lyric"
In Pursuit of Poetry
Robert Hillyer.
McGraw-Hill, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of lyric poetry begins on p. 116
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