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Lyric Poetry

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English Literature

Today, when you hear the word 'lyric' you may think of words that accompany a song. You probably wouldn't think of a form of poetry that dates back thousands of years! The more modern use for the lyric has its roots in ancient Greece when artists first merged words with music. Here we will take a look at what lyric poetry is, its characteristics and some famous examples.

Lyric poetry: meaning and purpose

Lyric poetry is traditionally accompanied by music. The name lyric takes its origins from the ancient Greek instrument, the lyre. A lyre is a small harp-shaped string instrument. As a result, lyric poems are often thought of as song-like.

Lyric poetry is normally short poems where the speaker expresses their emotions or feelings. Traditional, classical Greek lyric poetry had strict rules for rhyme and meter. Today lyric poetry encompasses many forms with different rules regarding how they are structured.

In ancient Greece, lyric poetry was seen as an alternative to dramatic verse and epic poetry. These forms both contained a narrative. Lyric poetry did not necessitate narrative, allowing poets to concentrate on a speaker's feelings and emotions. Lyric poems have always been considered emotional and expressive.

Many different poetry forms are considered to be lyric poetry. The sonnet, ode and elegy are famous examples of poetry forms that fall under the category of lyric. This can make lyric poetry difficult to classify.

Lyric poetry: characteristics

It can be difficult to define lyric poetry due to the wide range of poetic styles it encompasses. Though there are some common themes found in most lyric poetry. They are often short, expressive and song-like. Here we will look at some common characteristics.

The first-person

Often, lyric poems are written in the first-person. Because of their expressive nature and the exploration of emotion and feelings. The first person point of view allows the speaker of the poem to express their innermost thoughts on a chosen subject. Often lyric poems will speak of love or adoration and the use of the first-person point of view enhances its intimacy.

Length

Lyric poetry is usually short. If the lyric poem happens to be a sonnet, it will contain 14 lines. If it is a villanelle then it would contain 19. The poetry form of the 'ode' is normally longer and could contain up to 50 lines. Lyric poems do not have to follow the strict rules of these forms and although their length can vary they are usually short.

Song-like

Considering its origins, it should be no surprise that lyric poetry is considered song-like. Lyric poems use many different techniques that make them sound like song. They can sometimes use rhyme schemes and verses, techniques used in modern-day music. Lyric poetry often uses repetition and meter, which will give the poems a rhythmic quality.

Meter

Most lyric poetry uses some form of meter. Meter in poetry is a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. In the Elizabethan sonnet, iambic pentameter is the most common form. Iambic meter is the use of one unstressed syllable followed by one that is stressed. These pairs of syllables are collectively known as feet. Other forms may use a dactylic meter, like the traditional elegy.

Emotion

Another characteristic of lyric poetry is the use of emotion in the poems. In its origins, ancient Greek poets such as Sappho wrote lyric poetry about love. Often the subject of sonnets is love, both Elizabethan and Petrarchan. The poetry form of elegy is a lament on a person's death and the ode is a statement of adoration. Despite the many forms of lyric poetry, they are almost always emotive.

Think of these characteristics when reading poetry. Can the poem you are reading be considered lyric?

Lyric poetry: types and examples

As mentioned previously, lyric poetry encompasses many forms. Each of these forms have their own set of rules. There are so many different forms of lyric poetry, here we will look at the more common of these types and their features.

Sonnet

Traditional sonnets consist of 14 lines. The two most common forms of the sonnet are the Petrarchan and the Elizabethan. Traditional sonnets are always in the first person are often on the subject of love. The Petrarchan sonnet's 14 lines are split into two stanzas, an octave and a sestet. The Elizabethan sonnet is split into 3 quatrains with a couplet at the end. An example of the Elizabethan sonnet is William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 18' (1609). A famous example of the Petrarchan sonnet is 'When I Consider How My Light is Spent' (1673) by John Milton.

A quatrain is a stanza or whole poem that is made up of four lines.

Ode

Odes are a longer form of lyric poetry that expresses adoration. The object of the speaker's adoration can be nature, an object or a person. Odes do not follow formal rules, although they often use refrains or repetition. The poetry form of the ode dates back to ancient Greece with Pinder being a notable poet. A famous example of the ode poetry form is John Keat's 'Ode to a nightingale' (1819).

Elegy

Elegy was traditionally a short poem named after its meter, the elegiac meter. The elegiac meter would use alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter. Since the 16th century however, elegy became a term for mournful poems that lament someone or something's death. An example of the contemporary elegy is American poet Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain!' (1865).

Dactylic hexameter is a type of meter that consists of three syllables, the first stressed and the following two unstressed. Hexameter is each line containing six feet. A line of dactylic hexameter would contain 18 syllables.

Pentameter is a form of meter that consists of five feet (syllables). Each foot could contain 1, 2 or 3 syllables. For example; Iambic feet contain two syllables each and dactylic feet contain three.

Villanelle

Villanelles are poems containing 19 lines dived into five tercets and one quatrain, usually at the end.

They have a strict rhyme scheme of ABA for the tercets and ABAA for the final quatrain. A famous example of the villanelle form is Dylan Thomas' 'Do Not Go Gentle into that Goodnight' (1951).

Dramatic Monologue

A dramatic form of lyric poetry where the speaker addresses an audience. The speaker's audience never responds. Although presented in a dramatic form the poem still presents the speaker's innermost thoughts. Dramatic monologues do not usually follow formal rules. A famous example of a dramatic monologue is 'My Last Duchess' (1842) by Robert Browning.

Lyric poetry: example

Here we can analyse a famous lyric poem, looking at its form and meaning and the lyric characteristics shown.

'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' (1951) - Dylan Thomas

The poem, by Dylan Thomas, was first published in 1951. The poem is seen as a call to those who are sick or elderly to be brave in the face of death. This is shown in the repetition of the line "Rage, rage against the dying of the light.". The poem is dedicated to Thomas' father and the speaker references his father in the opening line of the final verse. The speaker acknowledges that death is inevitable. However, the speaker wishes to see defiance in the face of death. Rather than quietly going "gentle into that good night."

'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' is a famous example of a villanelle poem. Villanelle poems have a very strict form. They have a specific number of stanzas and a particular rhyme scheme. If you can read the poem you can see that it follows these rules. You can see that the five tercets follow the ABA rhyme scheme. The words will always rhyme with either night or light. This is because the final line of each stanza is a refrain. A refrain is a repeated line and is often used in villanelle poems, giving them a song-like quality.

The poem also uses iambic pentameter for almost its entirety. Only the refrain starting "Rage, rage..." is not in iambic meter, because of the repetition of 'rage'. If we look at the characteristics of lyric poetry we can see why 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night' can be considered lyric. The poem is narrated in the first person. It is quite short, consisting of 19 lines. The poem's use of a refrain makes it song-like. The poem uses meter and its subject of death is highly emotive. 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night' has all the characteristics of a lyric poem.

Lyric poetry - Key takeaways

  • Lyric poetry derived from ancient Greece, where poems were accompanied by music.
  • The word lyric is taken from the name of the ancient Greek instrument, the lyre.
  • Lyric poetry is a short poetic form where the speaker expresses their feelings and emotions.
  • There are many types of lyric poetry, including the sonnet, the ode and the elegy.
  • Lyric poems are usually told in the first person.

Lyric Poetry

The purpose of lyric poetry is for the speaker to express their emotions and feelings.

Traditionally lyric poetry means poems that are accompanied by music.

Lyric poetry in literature is short, expressive and song-like poems. 

Traditionally the three types of poems were lyric, epic and dramatic verse.

The characteristics of lyric poetry are:

short 

first person

song-like

have a meter

emotive

Final Lyric Poetry Quiz

Question

What is the purpose of lyric poetry?

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Answer

The purpose of lyric poetry is for the speaker to express their emotions and feelings.

Show question

Question

What does lyric poetry mean?

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Answer

Traditionally lyric poetry means poems that are accompanied by music.

Show question

Question

What is lyric poetry in literature?

Show answer

Answer

Lyric poetry in literature is short, expressive and song-like poems. 

Show question

Question

What are the 3 types of poems?



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Answer

Traditionally the three types of poems were lyric, epic and dramatic verse.

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Question

What are the characteristics of lyric poetry?


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Answer

The characteristics of lyric poetry are;

short in length

first person

song-like

have a meter

emotive

Show question

Question

Where does the word 'lyric' come from?

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Answer

The word 'lyric' comes from the ancient Greek instrument the lyre.

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Question

Lyric poetry is told from which point of view?

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Answer

Lyric poetry is told from the first-person point of view.

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Question

Can you name three types of lyric poetry?

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Answer

Some of the types of lyric poetry are;

  • sonnet
  • villanelle
  • ode
  • elegy
  • dramatic monolgue

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Question

How many lines are contained in a sonnet?

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Answer

There are 14 lines contained in a sonnet.

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Question

How many stanzas in a villanelle?

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Answer

There a 6 stanzas in a villanelle, five tercets and one quatrain

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