By Catherine Wilson (Age: 39)
Copyright 01-07-2003

Lyric is short poem that conveys intense feeling or profound thought. In ancient Greece, lyrics were sung or recited to the accompaniment of the lyre. Elegies and odes were popular forms of the lyric in classical times. The lyric poets of ancient Greece included Sappho, Alcaeus, and Pindar; the major Roman lyric poets included Horace, Ovid, and Catullus. Lyrical poetry was also written in ancient India and China; and the Japanese verse called haiku is a lyric.
The troubadours and trouvères of medieval France developed lyric forms such as the canzone and rondeau for singing. In Germany the earliest lyricists were the minnesingers. Although most medieval lyrics were written anonymously, two names are notable. The 15th-century poet François Villon was the greatest French lyric poet after the troubadours; the earliest English lyrics were by the 14th-century master Geoffrey Chaucer. Some scholars consider ballads, often classed as narrative poems, lyrics because they are sung.

By the beginning of the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century) the term lyric also was applied to verse that was not sung. The sung lyric, including the madrigal, may be found in poetry of the Elizabethan era (16th century)—for example, in the work of the English musicians Thomas Campion and John Dowland—as well as in the songs in the plays of the English writer William Shakespeare. Italian poets such as Petrarch developed the sonnet, a lyric form that became popular for the treatment of both secular and religious themes in late Renaissance and early 17th-century Europe. Lyrics in other forms were contributed by John Skelton, Ben Jonson, and Robert Herrick. The shorter poems of John Milton and the odes of John Dryden were important additions to the lyric mode in the 17th century.

The most important German lyric poets of the 18th and early 19th centuries included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, and Heinrich Heine. In the mid-18th century in England Thomas Gray and William Collins wrote important odes and elegies; at the end of the century the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote lyrics in his native dialect. English lyric poetry flourished in the romantic period (18th century and 19th century). Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) by William Blake, Lyrical Ballads (1798) by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and numerous short poems by John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron include outstanding lyrics.

Later in the 19th century Alfred, Lord Tennyson and A. E. Housman produced a variety of lyrical poems. The chief French lyric poets of this period included Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé. In the United States the outstanding lyricists included Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Giacomo Leopardi was the leading Italian lyricist of the time.

The lyric mode is still almost universally popular in modern times. Notable lyrics have been written by the Americans Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and E. E. Cummings; the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats; W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender of England; the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas; German poets Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke, and Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal; Paul Valéry and Guillaume Apollinaire of France; playwright and poet Federico García Lorca of Spain; the Mexican poet Octavio Paz; and the Alexandrian-born Greek poet Constantine Cavafy.

Here are two examples of lyric poetry:

1794 – Songs of Experience
by William Blake

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice; in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

“I Hear America singing”
by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics–each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat–the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench–the hatter singing as
he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song–the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning,
or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother–or of the young wife at work–or
of the girl sewing or washing–Each singing what belongs to
her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day–At night, the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious

Ready to write one? Here are a few tips:

Remember that a lyric is short poem that conveys intense feeling or profound thought, so it should be something you feel strong about. An example could be September 11th. Most people have very intense feelings and thoughts about it.

Themes such as ‘love’ and ‘injustice’ needs to be pared down to manageable size. What sort of love, what kind of injustice?

Is your poem about love? Then don’t use the word ‘love’ in your poem! (What a bland word it has become, after all . . .) Instead, describe the precise feeling, build a metaphor, write around the idea of love to get through to the core of what you’re trying to evoke.

Don’t rhyme for the sake of rhyming. New poets tend to think they can get away with less-than-perfect rhymes, and/or rhymes divorced from meter. Not so! Stick to free verse unless you’re prepared to work very hard at mastering formal poetry.

Edit your poems: Poetry must undergo many revisions in order to shine. Don’t be afraid of scrapping whole verses, or cutting everything down to a few good lines and rebuilding — this is a necessary part of the process of producing great poetry.

Comments on this Article/Poem:
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        03-09-2003     Janet Owenby

This information was very helpful thank you

        01-14-2003     Nan Jacobs

This series has been very interesting to read, and I’m looking forwrd to more!! thanks, Catherine