The Columbia History of British Poetry

By Carl Woodring; James Shapiro | Go to book overview

Lyric Poetry from Donne to Philips

THE story of the English lyric in the seventeenth century is the story of the coming of age of a literary form. Our modern concept of the lyric, of the (relatively) short, primarily non- narrative poem, was invented in seventeenth-century England. We take the lyric to be the "normal" or normative form that poetry takes--it essentially defines our notion of poetry--but this is a relatively recent phenomenon. For the classical and medieval worlds, poetry meant something longer and primarily narrative--epic, brief epic, romance, or tale. If there was a hierarchy of genres, epic was at the top of it; lyric poetry was a "minor" form. In the Renaissance this hierarchy still obtained. Petrarch certainly thought his Africa, a Virgilian epic in Latin on Scipio Africanus, a more "important" work than his famous sonnets. Spenser certainly thought The Faerie Queene more definitive of his status as a "major" poet than the Four Hymnes or the Amoretti. There were "major" lyrics, like odes or canzones, but these could still not make a poet "major." And lyrics in the Renaissance were not primarily what we call lyric poems--they were songs (meant to be sung with accompaniment) or they were parts of sequences. Pastorals were often parts of sequences, and most of all, the sonnet, the most distinctive Renaissance lyric form, was typically composed in sequences or cycles.

The stand-alone lyric not meant to be sung and not part of a sequence is an invention of the seventeenth century--or perhaps, as with so many things, a reinvention of a Roman mode. The key new phenomenon is the title. This is truly new. Classical lyrics did not have titles; Renaissance sonnets do not have titles. Tottel's famous miscel

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