1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lyrical Poetry

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LYRICAL POETRY, a general term for all poetry which is, or can be supposed to be, susceptible of being sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument. In the earliest times it may be said that all poetry was of its essence lyrical. The primeval oracles were chanted in verse, and the Orphic and Bacchic Mysteries, which were celebrated at Eleusis and elsewhere, combined, it is certain, metre with music. Homer and Hesiod are each of them represented with a lyre, yet if any poetry can be described as non-lyrical, it is surely the archaic hexameter of the Iliad and the Erga. These poems were styled epic, in direct contradistinction to the lyric of Pindar and Bacchylides. But inexactly, since it is plain that they were recited, with a plain accompaniment on a stringed instrument. However, the distinction between epical and lyrical, between τὰ ἔπη, what was said, and τὰ μέλη, what was sung, is accepted, and neither Homer nor Hesiod is among the lyrists. This distinction, however, is often without a difference, as for example, in the case of the so-called Hymns of Homer, epical in form but wholly lyrical in character. Hegel, who has gone minutely into this question in his Esthetik, contends that when poetry is objective it is epical, and when it is subjective it is lyrical. This is to ignore the metrical form of the poem, and to deal with its character only. It would constrain us to regard Wordsworth’s Excursion as a lyric, and Tennyson’s Revenge (where the subject is treated exactly as one of the Homeridae would have treated an Ionian myth) as an epic. This is impossible, and recalls us to the importance of taking the form into consideration. But, with this warning, the definition of Hegel is valuable. It is, as he insists, the personal thought, or passion, or inspiration, which gives its character to lyrical poetry.

The lyric has the function of revealing, in terms of pure art, the secrets of the inner life, its hopes, its fantastic joys, its sorrows, its delirium. It is easier to exclude the dramatic species from lyric than to banish the epic. There are large sections of drama which it is inconceivable should be set to music, or sung, or even given in recitative. The tragedies of Racine, for example, are composed of the purest poetry, but they are essentially non-lyrical, although lyrical portions are here and there attached to them. The intensity of feeling and the melody of verse in Othello does not make that work an example of lyrical poetry, and this is even more acutely true of Le Misanthrope, which is, nevertheless, a poem. The tendency of modern drama is to divide itself further and further from lyric, but in early ages the two kinds were indissoluble. Tragedy was goat-song, and the earliest specimens of it were mainly composed of choruses. As Prof. G. G. Murray says, in the Suppliants of Aeschylus, the characters “are singing for two-thirds of the play,” accompanied by tumultuous music. This primitive feature has gradually been worn away; the chorus grew less and less prominent, and disappeared; the very verse-ornament of drama tends to vanish, and we have plays essentially so poetical as those of Ibsen and Maeterlinck written from end to end in bare prose.

To return again to Greece, there was an early distinction, soon accentuated, between the poetry chanted by a choir of singers, and the song which expressed the sentiments of a single poet. The latter, the μέλος or song proper, had reached a height of technical perfection in “the Isles of Greece, where burning Sappho loved and sung,” as early as the 7th century B.C. That poetess, and her contemporary Alcaeus, divide the laurels of the pure Greek song of Dorian inspiration. By their side, and later, flourished the great poets who set words to music for choirs, Alcman, Arion, Stesichorus, Simonides and Ibycus, who lead us at the close of the 5th century to Bacchylides and Pindar, in whom the magnificent tradition of the dithyrambic odes reached its highest splendour of development. The practice of Pindar and Sappho, we may say, has directed the course of lyrical poetry ever since, and will, unquestionably, continue to do so. They discovered how, with the maximum of art, to pour forth strains of personal magic and music, whether in a public or a private way. The ecstasy, the uplifted magnificence, of lyrical poetry could go no higher than it did in the unmatched harmonies of these old Greek poets, but it could fill a much wider field and be expressed with vastly greater variety. It did so in their own age. The gnomic verses of Theognis were certainly sung; so were the satires of Archilochus and the romantic reveries of Mimnermus.

At the Renaissance, when the traditions of ancient life were taken up eagerly, and hastily comprehended, it was thought proper to divide poetry into a diversity of classes. The earliest English critic who enters into a discussion of the laws of prosody, William Webbe, lays it down, in 1586, that in verse “the most usual kinds are four, the heroic, elegiac, iambic and lyric.” Similar confusion of terms was common among the critics of the 15th and 16th centuries, and led to considerable error. It is plain that a border ballad is heroic, and may yet be lyrical; here the word “heroic” stands for “epic.” It is plain that whether a poem is lyrical or not had nothing to do with the question whether it is composed in an iambic measure. Finally, it is undoubted that the early Greek “elegies” were sung to an accompaniment on the flute, whether they were warlike, like those of Tyrtaeus, or philosophical and amatory like those of Theognis. But (see Elegy) the present significance of “elegy,” and this has been the case ever since late classical times, is funereal; in modern parlance an elegy is a dirge. Whether the great Alexandrian dirges, like those of Bion and of Moschus, on which our elegiacal tradition is founded, were actually sung to an accompaniment or not may be doubted; they seem too long, too elaborate, and too ornate for that. But, at any rate, they were composed on the convention that they would be sung, and it is conceivable that music might have been wedded to the most complex of these Alexandrian elegies. Accordingly, although Lycidas and Adonais are not habitually “set to music,” there is no reason why they should not be so set, and their rounded and limited although extensive form links them with the song, not with the epic. There are many odes of Swinburne’s for which it would be more difficult to write music than for his Ave atque Vale. In fact, in spite of its solemn and lugubrious regularity, the formal elegy or dirge is no more nor less than an ode, and is therefore entirely lyrical.

More difficulty is met with in the case of the sonnet, for although no piece of verse, when it is inspired by subjective passion, fits more closely with Hegel’s definition of what lyrical poetry should be, yet the rhythmical complication of the sonnet, and its rigorous uniformity, seem particularly ill-fitted to interpretation on a lyre. When F. M. degli Azzi put the book of Genesis (1700) into sonnets, and Isaac de Benserade the Metamorphoses of Ovid (1676) into rondeaux, these eccentric and laborious versifiers produced what was epical rather than lyrical poetry, if poetry it was at all. But the sonnet as Shakespeare, Wordsworth and even Petrarch used it was a cry from the heart, a subjective confession, and although there is perhaps no evidence that a sonnet was ever set to music with success, yet there is no reason why that might not be done without destroying its sonnet-character.

Jouffroy was perhaps the first aesthetician to see quite clearly that lyrical poetry is, really, nothing more than another name for poetry itself, that it includes all the personal and enthusiastic part of what lives and breathes in the art of verse, so that the divisions of pedantic criticism are of no real avail to us in its consideration. We recognize a narrative or epical poetry; we recognize drama; in both of these, when the individual inspiration is strong, there is much that trembles on the verge of the lyrical. But outside what is pure epic and pure drama, all, or almost all, is lyrical. We say almost all, because the difficulty arises of knowing where to place descriptive and didactic poetry. The Seasons of Thomson, for instance, a poem of high merit and lasting importance in the history of literature—where is that to be placed? What is to be said of the Essay on Man? In primitive times, the former would have been classed under epic, the second would have been composed in the supple iambic trimeter which so closely resembled daily speech, and would not have been sharply distinguished from prose. Perhaps this classification would still serve, were it not for the element of versification, which makes a sharp line of demarcation between poetic art and prose. This complexity of form, rhythmical and stanzaic, takes much of the place which was taken in antiquity by such music as Terpander is supposed to have supplied. In a perfect lyric by a modern writer the instrument is the metrical form, to which the words have to adapt themselves. There is perhaps no writer who has ever lived in whose work this phenomenon may be more fruitfully studied than it may be in the songs and lyrics of Shelley. The temper of such pieces as “Arethusa” and “The Cloud” is indicated by a form hardly more ambitious than a guitar; Hellas is full of passages which suggest the harp; in his songs Shelley touches the lute or viol de gamba, while in the great odes to the “West Wind” and to “Liberty” we listen to a verse-form which reminds us by its volume of the organ itself. On the whole subject of the nature of lyric poetry no commentary can be more useful to the student than an examination of the lyrics of Shelley in relation to those of the songwriters of ancient Greece.

See Hegel, Die Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807); T. S. Jouffroy, Cours d’esthétique (1843); W. Christ, Metrik der Griechen und Römer, 2te. Aufl. (1879).  (E. G.)