Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides

Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides

Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides

Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides

Excerpt

In modern English the title of 'lyric' may be used of almost any poetry which is not epic or dramatic. It is commonly applied to any short poem, and it has nothing to do with either the subject or the function of the poetry which it characterizes. It is applied equally to Lycidas and to Shakespeare's Songs, to Gray's Elegy and to Wordsworth's Sonnets. In the main it refers to personal poetry and to poetry which has in it a certain element of song. But the term is elastic and justified neither by history nor by existing practice. For few of the English poems that are called lyrical ever had anything to do with the lyre. In so far as the term may be justified, it must be by a certain affinity which the many kinds of such poetry have to one another—by that element of song which differentiates them from narratives and plays. Nor is the vagueness of the term confined to England. Most European poetry since the Renaissance has employed the same useful, if incorrect, method of classification. It may be found in France, in Italy, in Spain, in Germany, in Russia. The word may be misapplied, but it stands for something real and has passed into the common language of criticism. If we would find an origin for this modern usage, we may perhaps look to Horace, whose influence lies behind most personal poetry since the Renaissance. Horace wrote poems to be read in the study, but in obedience to his Greek models he assumed a convention that his songs should be sung to the lyre. He did not mean himself to be taken literally; his purpose was rather to claim his spiritual descent from Alcaeus, Sappho, and Pindar. But he established a convention which posterity has accepted and found useful. Words like 'lyric' and 'lyrical' are serviceable labels, and criticism would be the poorer without them. But when we consider the character of Greek lyric poetry, we must rid ourselves of the associations which these words have for us. When applied to the Greeks, 'lyric' and 'lyrical' have a meaning more precise and more technical than when applied to the moderns.

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