Lyric poetry is a form of poetry that does not attempt to tell a story, as do epic poetry and dramatic poetry, but is of a more personal nature instead. Rather than portraying characters and actions, the Lyric poet addresses the reader directly, portraying his or her own feelings, states of mind, and perceptions.
Although its name, from the word lyre, implies that it is meant to be sung, this is not always the case. It certainly had its beginnings in song, but since the advent of mass literacy and the printing press, much Lyric poetry is purely meant to be read.
The earliest surviving Lyric poems in the Western tradition are arguably the Song of Solomon and the Psalms, but there are many fine examples in classical literature. Some of the best ancient Lyric poets are Sappho, Catullus, and Horace.
During the Middle Ages, Lyric poetry is dominated by the courtly love tradition in most European languages. This is upper-class poetry meant for the courts of the nobility, whether the poet is himself a prince, such as William IX of Aquitaine, or a lower-class troubador in the service of one prince or wandering from court to court.
Some non-courtly love Lyric poetry has survived from the medieval period. Many of the poets who wrote in the courtly love tradition also produced other Lyric poetry, and a few poets of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, such as François Villon, wrote outside the courtly milieu.
The turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance is best exemplified in the person of Francesco Petrarca, whose sonnets celebrating his love for Laura took Europe by storm and gave his name to one form of the sonnet, one of the most perennially popular forms of Lyric poetry. The Renaissance, and particularly Elizabethan England, saw a great flowering of Lyric poetry. With the new emphasis on the individual, rather than the community, the Lyric poet, who addresses the reader directly in the first person, became a prominent figure on the literary scene.
Much of the Lyric poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is little read today because of its dependence on classical mythology and standard forms. Notable exceptions are John Milton, who wrote Lyric poetry in addition to his great epic poems, and the Metaphysical poets, such as Andrew Marvell and John ne.
It is not until the end of the eighteenth century, with such poets as Goethe and Wordsworth, that another flowering of great Lyric poetry began. poetry of the Romantic period has retained its freshness and popularity.
The nineteenth century also brought a rise in darker, more realistic poetry with such poets as Baudelaire. The set forms of Lyric poetry also begin to be dissolved and broken, so that much twentieth-century Lyric poetry is not dependent on rhyme or regular meter.
Although Lyric poetry has a long and close association with love, and European Lyric poetry in the vernacular arose with the courtly love tradition, it is not exclusively love poetry. Many of the courtly love poets (whether troubadors, trouvères, or Minnesänger) also wrote Lyric poems about war and peace, nature and nostalgia, grief and loss. Notable among these are Christine de Pisan and Charles, Duke of Orléans, two of the great French Lyric poets of the fifteenth century.
Spiritual themes are also prominent in Lyric poetry. Some of the best medieval poets wrote exclusively religious poetry. Prominant among these are such poets as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Note that it is sometimes hard to distinguish love poetry and religious poetry, since God and especially the Virgin Mary are often addressed in much the same terms as an earthly lover, and particularly like the noble lady in the courtly love tradition. Such modern poets as John ne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T. S. Eliot have continued the tradition of fine literary poetry based on spiritual or noumenous experience.
Nature is also a common theme of lyrical poetry, often being portrayed as a reflection of (or contrast to) the poet's state of mind.
Although arguably the most popular form of Lyric poetry in the Western tradition is the 14-line sonnet, either in its Petrarchan or its Shakespearean form, Lyric poetry appears in a bewildering variety of forms.
Ancient Hebrew poetry relied on repetition and chiasmus for many of its effects. Although much Greek and Roman classical poetry was written in forms with set meters and strophes, Pindar's odes seem as formless to the ear accustomed to rhyme and meter as such modern poetry as Rilke's Duino Elegies.
In some cases, the form and theme are wed, as in the courtly love aubade or dawn song in which lovers are forced to part after a night of love, often with the watchman's refrain telling them it is time to go. In other cases, the theme and form are at odds, and part of the interest of the poetry is in how and whether the poet can bring a successful union between two apparent opposites.
A common feature of Lyric forms is the refrain, whether just one line or several, that ends or follows each strophe. The refrain is repeated throughout the poem, either exactly or with slight variation.
Much Lyric poetry depends on regular meter based either on number of syllables or on stress. The most common meters are as follows:
* Iambic - two syllables, with the long or stressed syllable following the short or unstressed syllable.
* Trochaic - two syllables, with the short or unstressed syllable following the long or stressed syllable.
* Anapestic - three syllables, with the first two short or unstressed and the last long or stressed.
* Dactylic - three syllables, with the first one long or stressed and the other two short or unstressed.
Some forms have a combination of meters, often using a different meter for the refrain.
Each meter can have any number of elements, called feet. The most common meter in English is iambic pentameter, with five iambs per line. The most common in French is the alexandrin, with twelve syllables. In English, the alexandrine is iambic hexameter.
Rhyme and alliteration
These two elements are common to structuring Lyric poetry in the Western tradition and make poetry difficult to translate effectively. Old Norse poetry depended heavily on alliteration. Continental Europe and England developed complex rhyme schemes and used alliteration as an auxiliary device.
Although to the lay ear, rhyme is the hallmark of poetry, it has become less and less common in poetry in European languages in the twentieth century