Raymond Macdonald Alden





An Introduction to Poetry
The Lyric



Two meanings of "lyric".


Like the word epic, the word lyric is used in both a general and a more particular sense, having gradually been extended from its original meaning, – a poem to be sung by a single singer, – to include all poetry expressing subjectively the emotion of the poet or those whom he represents. In this larger sense it has come to include the great bulk of modern poetry, [56] – so much so that Professor Gummere is led to observe: "The history of modern verse, with epic and drama in decay, is mainly the history of lyrical sentiment." {Beginnings of Poetry, p. 147.) To classify satisfactorily the great body of this lyrical poetry is even more difficult than in the case of narrative poetry. One thing its various forms have in common: the expression of a single emotion or imaginative conception.


Subjective character.


The subjective or personal standpoint of the lyric must not be understood to imply either that it is necessarily autobiographical or that it represents the emotion of an individual standing quite by himself. For the poet, like other artists, is capable of entering into the experiences of the rest of humanity, not simply of recording his own; or, to look at it from the opposite standpoint, he makes the experiences of others his own by means of his imaginative sympathy. In the most primitive conditions, the lyrical poet, like the epic poet, represents not himself so much as the whole company of his fellows for whom he sings and whom he leads in song; and again in the very highest poetry he speaks not simply for himself but for the universal instincts of humanity. The earliest English song that has survived is a song of summer and the cuckoo:

"Sumer is icumen in,
 Lhude sing cuccu!"

[57] Here the nameless poet spoke for the pervading sense of joy in the season which was felt by the whole community and which they would join in expressing. If we compare this song with that great sonnet of Shakspere's, beginning –

"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
   I all alone beweep my outcast state, –"

we see that the latter, while it represents a maturer sentiment and a more personal emotion, is still the voice through which a common experience of humanity makes itself felt. It does not at all follow that Shakspere was "in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes" at the time he wrote it. * Other great lyrics, however, such as Burns's To Mary in Heaven, Byron's Stanzas to Augusta, Milton's Sonnet On his Blindness, and the lyrics of Tennyson's In Memoriam, are known to be the definite outcome of personal experiences.


Structure of the lyric.


Being thus the record of a single emotion, and not dependent, like the epic and the drama, upon the development of a series of events or the presentation of [58] character in completeness, the lyric has a more absolute unity than any of the other forms of poetry, and is usually – except where the intellectual or reflective element is present to a marked degree – decidedly brief. Its structure may be said to depend in part upon its relation to the outer and the inner worlds. Simplest of all is the lyric that remains in the outer world, though it expresses the inward emotion aroused by it; an example of this type is the old English song referred to in the previous paragraph, which begins and ends with the coming of summer and the cuckoo. More familiar is the lyric which takes its beginning at a point in the outer world, but passes to the invisible world of emotional reflection; of this type a great example is Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn, which takes its point of departure at the visible object, and passes to profoundly emotional reflection on the immortality of the spirit of beauty. Or, still further, we may have the lyric which is wholly of the inner life, like certain of Shakspere's sonnets (for example, that beginning "Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth"). Lyrics of this last class are most likely to be reflective, and hence to move furthest away from the pure or song type.


Form of the lyric.


Finally, we may note that the forms of lyrical poetry are more varied than those of any of the classes. Originally they adapt themselves to all manner of musical melodies and accompaniments, and when, separating [59] from music, they become purely literary, they preserve this variety and adaptability. The lyric has no need of the sustained dignity of the continuous metrical movement of epic poetry; it requires more rapid measures, adapting themselves to its more direct and brilliant emotional expression, and for this expression all the possibilities of rhythmical art are drawn upon. There is no lyrical mood so serious, so merry, so stirring, so languid, that it does not find its appropriate metrical form. On the other hand, the brevity and concentration of the lyric demand a finer finish, a more cameo-like accuracy of form, than the other classes of poetry; hence, within the form chosen, the lyrical poet is allowed less flexibility and freedom than the writer of either epic or dramatic verse. A familiar poetic license in epic or dramatic poetry becomes a conspicuous fault in a lyric. The type is one forever aspiring after infinite riches and perfect beauty "in a little room."

The most useful discussions of lyrical poetry will be found in Hegel's work; Werner's Lyrik und Lyriker; Gummere's Beginnings of Poetry (especially the chapter on "the Differencing Elements of Art"); Dr. John Erskine's Elizabethan Lyric (chapter i, on "Lyrical Quality and Lyric Form"); the Introductions to Schelling's Elizabethan Lyrics and Seventeenth Century Lyrics; the Introduction to Carpenter's volume of selections called English Lyric Poetry; and the Introduction to Palgrave's Golden Treasury&. [60] Hegels discussion is marked by an emphasis of the subjective and individual element, in contrast to epic. "The basis of the lyrical work cannot be the development of an action in which a whole world is reflected in all the richness of its manifestations, but the soul of a man; more than this, of the man as an individual, placed in individual situations." "Man himself becomes a work of art; whereas for the epic poet the subject is a hero outside of himself." "The soul of the poet is then to be considered as the real principle of unity for a lyrical poem. On the one hand there is necessary a definite situation of the soul; in the next place, the poet must identify himself with that situation." (Bénard's paraphrase, i, pp. 245, 257, 280.) Here Hegel seems to recognize too slightly the representative character of the lyrical poet, both in primitive times and elsewhere. In another passage, however, he points out that in popular national poetry "the poet is a mere organ by means of which the national life manifests itself." (Ibid,, p. 264.) Another remark of Hegel's, that the most perfectly lyrical poem is one representing "a sentiment of the heart concentrated in a particular situation," is closely parallel to Palgrave's requirement that each poem admitted to his collection of lyrics "shall turn on some single thought, feeling, or situation. In accordance with this, narrative, descriptive, and didactic poems, unless accompanied by rapidity of movement, brevity, and the colouring of human passion, have been excluded." (Pref. to The Golden Treasury.) The requirement of brevity is further emphasized by Schelling, who holds that "by its very conditions the lyric must be short, as an emotion prolonged beyond a pleasurable length will defeat its own artistic aim." (Eliz. Lyrics, p. ix.) A similar position is taken by Erskine, [61] who, in discussing the unity of the lyric which depends on the maintenance of a single "lyric stimulus," suggests that "many long poems, which in quality are undoubtedly lyrical, in form should be considered a series of lyric units rather than one song," – for example, Spenser's Epithalamium, All this is to keep closely to the original song type of lyric; but when we have in view the larger class, it is clear that many poems have an emotional unity of theme, and are yet built up by an elaborate structure which an added intellectual element may help to determine. In Erskine's discussion may further be found an original and suggestive passage on the structure of the successful lyric, which, it is held, should have three parts. "In the first, the emotional stimulus is given – the object, the situation, or the thought from which the song arises. In the second part the emotion is developed to its utmost capacity, until as it begins to flag the intellectual element reasserts itself. In the third part, the emotion is finally resolved into a thought, a mental resolution, or an attitude." (The Eliz, Lyric, p. 17.)


Methods of classification.


To classify lyrical poems, as has already been said, is even more difficult than in the case of narrative poetry: the differences between the types seem to be less distinct. An obvious method, which does not take us very far, is to group them according to their theme: lyrics of love, of grief, of patriotism, of nature, and the like. Another method, less superficial than it might seem to be, is to group according to metrical forms: lyrics in song stanzas, in the elegiac or heroic stanza, in various short stanzas, [62] odes, sonnets, ballades, rondeaus, and so forth. But if we wish a classification somewhat less mechanical than either of these, we may perhaps distinguish between those lyrics which keep closest to the original song type, and those which move further and further away from this in the direction of the more formal or reflective expression of emotion.


Song lyrics.


The first group, then, will be formed of the true song lyrics, – those which are fitted by nature to musical utterance. These are more purely emotional than those of other groups, more spontaneous and rapid in utterance, more simple, in style, and are likely to be more brief. Sometimes their simplicity is such that they seem almost purely a vehicle for the expression of emotion through music, and will not show their worth when tested by mere reading. It is in the earlier periods of poetry, when emotions are simpler and less mingled with intellectual ideas, and when music is a more generally diffused art, that these song lyrics are at their best. In the Elizabethan age these conditions were combined with a high development of poetical imagination and poetical style; hence those English lyrics which are true songs, and at the same time have permanent literary worth, date more numerously from that period than from any other. Great examples are certain of the songs of Shakspere, – O Mistress Mine, Come unto these Yellow Sands, Who is [63] Sylvia, and Hark, Hark, the Lark, – together with Sidney's My True Love Hath my Heart, Nash's Spring, the Sweet Spring, Dekker's O Sweet Content, and Jonson's Drink to me Only with thine Eyes. In the modern period the lyric of this type has proved to be one of the most difficult and rarest of all forms of poetry, and only one author, Burns, has done much work in it of the first quality. To Burns the song lyric was what it was to primitive man: he composed his songs not as literature, on paper, but as audible utterance to melodies already flowing in his mind. Besides those of Burns, notable songs by modern poets are Scott's imitations of the popular Scottish ballad-songs (Proud Maisie being perhaps the best), Shelley's Indian Serenade, Tennyson's Sweet and Low, and Browning's Cavalier Tunes.


The hymn.


A particular type of the song lyric is found in the hymn, devoted to the emotions of religion and usually intended for choral utterance, although in form of expression it may be as personal as any lyrical type. Hymns of permanent literary value are very rare, – chiefly, no doubt, because the statement of religious doctrine is likely to increase the expository element to the danger of the imaginative. Those of the early church were in Latin, and among the best of English hymns are translations of these, such as Neale's Jerusalem the Golden and Ellerton's Welcome Happy Morning. In successful hymns of this [64] character, some doctrine of the church, or some aspiration of the individual spirit, gives form to a simple emotion which finds noble lyrical expression. Among the great original English hymns are some of Charles Wesley's (notably Jesus, Lover of my Soul) some of Cowper's (such as O for a Closer Walk with God), Heber's The Son of God Goes Forth to War, Stone's The Church's One Foundation, and How's For all the Saints who from their Labors Rest. Other religious lyrics, not intended originally as hymns, have been used for choral worship, and will doubtless always be remembered in connection with the appropriate music; examples of this sort are Newman's Lead Kindly Light and certain of the poems of Frederick William Faber, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Adelaide Proctor.


Lyrics of more literary character.


Passing from the song lyric, we may put in a second class lyrics which seem analogous to the song in their formative impulse and the simplicity and spontaneity of their utterance so that they may easily be thought of as seeking musical expression, but which are nevertheless more literary in style than the pure song, and are capable of giving their full meed of pleasure when read as literature. Of this class are certain of Tennyson's lyrics, such as Tears, Idle Tears, represented in The Princess as being sung to the harp, yet quite as well fitted to ordinary oral utterance. Lamb's Old Familiar Faces, Wordsworth's Daffodils, Byron's Isles of Greece, and Browning's [65] Prospice might be placed in the same group. Going a step further, we find lyrics which in emotional intensity and unity are allied to the song lyric, but which are elaborated to a length and with a wealth of imagery which inevitably dissociate them from the idea of musical utterance. A great example of this type is Shelley's Skylark; with it we might group Hood's Bridge of Sighs, Collins's Ode to Evening, and Wordsworth's Highland Girl. This test – capacity or fitness for musical utterance – may be regarded as the most genuine for the gradation of lyrical poetry; yet by its nature it is also vague, and difference of opinion would soon arise such as to make impossible the drawing of clear lines of division. *


Reflective lyrics.


But we move away from the song in another way than by elaboration: namely, by the increase of the reflective [66] or the intellectual element, which in the pure or typical lyric plays so slight a part, but which has been more and more introduced here – as in other forms of poetry – with the development of man's reflective and intellectual nature. Thus the lyrics of a poet like Wordsworth, suffused as they are with emotion, are nevertheless so reflective for the most part that – as has already been suggested – they could rarely find a place in the widest boundaries of the song group. The odes of Keats (the Grecian Urn, the Nightingale, and Autumn), although purely lyrical and not at all didactic, are sufficiently reflective to carry us into the same poetical region; and when we pass to such poems as Browning's Abt Vogler, Tennyson's Higher Pantheism, Arnold's Rugby Chapel, and George Eliot's O May I Join the Choir Invisible, we are in a region where the theme is so characteristically intellectual (though still interpreted through emotional appeal) that the song type may be said to be altogether lost.

It is a striking circumstance that three important lyrical forms, originally associated with song and music, have become for modern poetry elaborate literary forms of a highly intellectual or reflective type. These are the ode, the elegy, and the sonnet. We must consider each of them briefly by itself.


The ode.


Ode is a term very loosely used in English terminology, but by derivation is properly applied to elaborate lyrics intended for choral utterance with equally elaborate [67] musical accompaniment. Of this type there are very few English examples, the most notable being Dryden's two odes for St. Cecilia's Day. In general we may accept the definition of the ode proposed by Mr. Gosse in the Introduction to English Odes: "Any strain of enthusiastic and exalted lyrical verse, directed to a fixed purpose, and dealing progressively with one dignified theme." While the term is often used of brief poems hardly to be distinguished from other lyrics (a use chiefly due to familiarity with the so-called odes, really carmina or songs, of Horace), the typical ode is a highly elaborated form. Having a certain emotional unity, like all lyrics, its theme is nevertheless developed by the progress of thought guided by the underlying emotion. In a sense, therefore, it may be called the most intellectual of lyrical forms; a good ode is usually more susceptible of analysis by prose paraphrase than lyrics of other kinds. Odes of this elaborate character are commonly divided into more or less intricate metrical sections, or strophes, * which correspond more or less closely both with the structure of the thought – thus being analogous to paragraphs in prose composition – and with the ebb and flow of the poet's emotion. Examples of odes notably successful in this respect, and conforming in all particulars to our definition, are Spenser's Epithalamium, Collins's Ode To Liberty, Gray's [68] Progress of Poesy, Dryden's Alexander's Feast (peculiar in being set in narrative form), Shelley's Ode to Naples, Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality, Tennyson's Ode on the Death of Wellington, and Lowell's Harvard Commemoration Ode. In such poems it is the intense emotional exaltation and the dignity of the theme which support the lyric through a length and an intellectual elaboration which would otherwise be destructive of lyrical unity.


The elegy.


Elegy is a term also very loosely used. Originally perhaps meaning a poem of lamentation for the dead, set to musical accompaniment, it came to be used in Greek and Latin literature of all poems written in a particular metre, their subjects being very various. In English usage the elegy has usually been a poem dealing with grief connected with death, although in some instances classical usage has been followed in applying the term to poems including a wide variety of subjects (as, for example, the elegies of Donne). But in any case the elegy must be viewed not as a simple lyrical utterance, but as a more or less formalized and elaborated expression of a serious emotion. The great example of the type is Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, where the mingled emotions aroused by the contemplation of evening and the home of the dead become the impulse which develops a generalized reflective portrayal of the transitoriness of human life. The re[69]sult is even didactic, in a sense; but lyrical none the less, in the large use of the term.


The pastoral elegy.


A particular type of this form is the pastoral elegy, in which the poet's sorrow for a lost friend is set in a framework of pastoral narrative or description, conventionalized after a fashion prevalent in late Greek poetry. It might seem that such an unreal setting would be utterly inappropriate for the expression of genuine personal grief; but experience has shown that sorrow may find relief in artistic utterance not only of the more direct sort, where poetry comes nearest to familiar prose speech (as in Tennyson's –

"I sometimes hold it half a sin
  To put in words the grief I feel"),

but also in a restrained and formalized art, suggestive of the conventional ceremonies of funeral pomp. Examples of these pastoral elegies in our literature are Spenser's Pastoral Eclogue on the death of Sir Philip Sidney, Milton's Lycidas, and Arnold's Thyrsis, In Shelley's Adonais a somewhat similar classical (though not pastoral) setting is adopted for the opening of the poem, but is soon left behind. Finally it should be noted that the term elegy is sometimes applied to a brief lyric of lamentation, more fittingly called a dirge.


The sonnet.


[70] The sonnet derives its name from the fact that it was originally a song to be sung to accompaniment; yet it is now the least song-like of all brief lyrics. This seems to be due chiefly to the fact that its fixed length and intricate structure (on the rules for this, see chapter vi) early appeared to fit it for the elaborated and hence more or less reflective expression of emotion; and this, true in other languages, is doubly true for English, since English writers have always shunned highly intricate metrical forms for the expression of simple emotions. The sonnet, therefore, while a favorite form with many of our greatest poets, is rarely used for other than distinctly conscious and formal expression; at its best, too, it expresses a definite intellectual conception fused with a single emotion. Its two-part structure (in the case of the Italian form) makes it peculiarly fitted for that lyrical movement described on a previous page, where the impulse takes its rise in the outer world and passes to a point in the inner. Originally the emotion of love was the conventional theme for the sonnet; and the love sonnets of the Elizabethan age, notably those of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakspere, remain the best examples of this type in our language. Milton and Wordsworth made use of the form for very diflferent themes, – a circumstance to which Landor finely alludes in the lines:

[71] "He * caught the sonnet from the dainty hand
 Of Love, who cried to lose it, and he gave
 The notes to Glory;" –

and their poems include on the whole the finest examples of what may be called the spiritualized sonnet. In the sonnet beginning –

"Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room"

Wordsworth briefly discusses the limitations of the highly restricted form, suggesting that a soul which has "felt the weight of too much liberty" may find pleasure in being confined within such a "scanty plot of ground." This suggests the character of the lyrical pleasure derived from this form: a pleasure restrained, fixed, deriving a certain zest from the difficulty and finish of the formal expression, and – as has already been suggested – dependent very often on the combination of a concept of the mind with a related emotion.


Vers de sociéte.


Finally, we have to notice under lyrical forms of poetry a type which is allied to the song in lightness and grace, but distinguished from the more familiar song types by both matter and manner. Both manner and matter give it its name in a French phrase which has thus far found no adequate [72] English equivalent: * vers de société. This sort of poetry takes as its theme, in the words of Professor Schelling, "man living in a highly organized state of society;" it turns "the conventions of social life into a subject for art" (Introduction to Seventeenth Century Lyrics.) Or, in the words of Mr. Austin Dobson, it represents the mood and manner of "those latter-day Athenians who, in town and country, spend their time in telling or hearing some new thing, and whose graver and deeper impulses are subordinated to a code of artificial manners." In the same connection one may note a stanza in reminiscent praise of the verse of Sir Frederick Locker-Lampson, in which Mr. Dobson again suggests the qualities of vers de société:

              "a verse so neat.
   So well-bred and so witty –
So finished in its last conceit.
   So mixed of mirth and pity."

All this is different from the usual lyrical method, which is likely to separate from their trivial environing associations the elemental emotions of man; yet the modern writers of society verse often touch their bantering manner with genuine feeling and imaginative insight. Examples of this type of [73] poetry will be found among the lyrics of Waller, Cowley, Herrick, Carew, and Prior, in its earlier manner; of the later manner William M. Praed, Charles S. Calverley, Sir Frederick Locker-Lampson, and Mr. Austin Dobson are notable representatives, – so also, among American poets, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. A single stanza from Prior's verses called A Better Answer well exhibits the spirit and style of society verse:

"What I speak, my fair Chloe, and what I write, shows
    The diflference there is betwixt nature and art:
 I court others in verse; but I love thee in prose :
    And they have my whimsies; but thou hast my heart."

Examples showing more of the tenderness, the gentle reminiscent manner, introduced into the form by the later poets, are Locker's To my Grandmother, Holmes's Dorothy Q. and Last Leaf, and Aldrich's Thalia, in which "a middle-aged lyrical poet is supposed to be taking leave of the Muse of Comedy." On a group of verse forms especially connected, in recent poetry, with vers de société, see below in chapter vi, pages 378-384.

For critical accounts of vers de société, one may see, besides the passage from Seventeenth Century Lyrics cited above, the preface of Locker-Lampson to the anthology called Lyra Elegantiarum, and Miss Wells's Preface to A Vers de Société Anthology.



[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[57] * A striking example of this non-autobiographical character of poetry which is none the less saturated with personal feeling is found in the "Lucy" poems of Wordsworth, which were written, so far as has been discovered, without the slightest basis in his own experience. Yet this is a point where individual poetic characters differ; with such a poet as Shelley we.may be sure that every lyric is the record of a real experience, however transitory.   zurück

[65] * Wordsworth, in his classification of poetry (Preface to the edition of 1815), included under Lyrical not only the song and hymn, but the ode, the elegy, and the ballad, and said that in all these, "for the production of their full effect, an accompaniment of music is indispensable." Of his own poems – very few of which would seem, to most persons, to be wholly adapted to musical utterance – he said: "Some of these pieces are essentially lyrical, and therefore cannot have their due force without a supposed musical accompaniment; but, in much the greatest part, as a substitute for the classic lyre or romantic harp, I require nothing more than an animated or impassioned recitation, adapted to the subject." This has indeed become the substitute for music, in our time, through a wide range of poetry. On this point see Erskine (Eliz. Lyric pp. 3, 4), who quotes Brunetière to the effect that our modem lyrics sing themselves in the heart, not on the tongue.   zurück

[67] * On the technical characteristics of the ode forms, see chapter vi.   zurück

[71] * i. e., Milton. There were, it should be noted, not a few writers of "spiritual" sonnets even in the Elizabethan age.   zurück

[72] * The editor of a recent anthology of society verse, Miss Carolyn Wells, proposes the name "gentle verse."   zurück

[72] † Both quotations are from the prefatory matter of the second Rowfant Catalogue (1901).   zurück





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Raymond Macdonald Alden: An Introduction to Poetry.
For Students of English Literature.
New York: Henry Holt and Company 1909, S. 55-73.

URL: https://archive.org/details/anintroductiont02aldegoog
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001463161

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).





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