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Literary Genres: Lyric Poetry

The subject of "Lyric Poetry", which is considered as the continuation of the previous article called "Literary Genres: The Epic Tradition", is another essential genre in terms of evaluating literary works over history and criticizing morality and conventions based on their specific qualities. To access the first part of the article;

Lyric Poetry

The term "lyric" is thought to signify "accompanied by the lyre." However, the majority of this genre's poetry was sung or recited to a musical accompaniment, which was not necessarily referred to as a lyre. In many instances, it was the "aulos," a kind of oboe, two of which were played simultaneously by a single performer, as was customary across the ancient Near East. This is the instrument that has been inaccurately referred to as a "flute" by several Greek writers. Aside from the lyre and the "aulos", there was another musical instrument in Greek antiquity that was employed as an alternate instrument to the lyre: the harp. A  singer was accompanied on the lyre or harp. Choral songs, which were mostly performed at festivals and other community events, were accompanied by such instruments to enhance the vocal melody with little adornment. It is obvious that the concept of "lyric" in today's modern literature is taken as a basis as a literary genre. However, the lyric that we investigated in Greek verses and assessed under the category of this genre is more diversified characteristically. It covers every type of song, with epic and dramatic aspirations since epic and tragic poetry are both concerned with the mythological past. This kind of lyric poetry also includes mythological stories and references to myths. Though, above all, what we have here is asserted as contemporary poetry, in which individuals express their emotions, thoughts, and experiences with a melodic quality. That is, the lyric poetry genre, which is the emotional and intellectual reflection of humanity’s vital behaviours, has been a cornerstone part of the literary world throughout history. In other words, lyric poetry is a genre that gains its power through the poets’ souls and, in this manner, outlines a plot by exploring their sense of self.

(Credit: "Lady with a Lyre," Portrait of Josephine Budayevskaya by Mlle Riviere, 1806.)

Besides, while some poets anticipated their work would be kept for posterity, lyric poetry was all originally meant for oral delivery in front of an audience in a specific setting. Thanks to words and music, poets had a chance to create a unique literary form through which they could convey and share their feelings, thoughts, and experiences. To give an illustration, one of the greatest lyric poets, Sappho (c. 630 BCE – c. 570 BCE), is seen as the earliest key figure of lyric poetry. She expressed her passion for love and desire. She is usually known to address women. In other words, she was the key figure of lesbian poetry by using the power of language and music. Such that, in Archaic Greek society, she was also known as the ”Tenth Muse” and “The Poetess”. The most remarkable poems that she wrote are “Ode to Aphrodite” and the ”Tithonus poem”. Yet, most of Sappho’s poems are lost because of the reason that, according to the legends, the church does not agree with her values and vision. On the other hand, in other parts of the world, there were similar approaches to lyric poetry. For example, several Hebrew writers wrote lyrical psalms that were sung in ancient Jewish worship services and compiled in the Hebrew Bible between the fourth and first centuries B.C. (Lyric Poetry: Expressing Emotion Through Verse. (n.d.). ThoughtCo. Retrieved May 9, 2021). In addition to this, a genre of Japanese poetry called haiku was used by Japanese poets in the eighth century in the field of lyrical poetry.

(Credit: Sappho - Manchester Art Gallery, UK / Bridgeman)

In Western literature, it is quite obvious that lyric poetry rose from the ashes by representing the epic narratives that were about heroes and gods. Although most of the European poets had been impressed by the Ancient Greek literary tradition, they also got inspired by the Middle East, Asia, and Egypt. That is, the lyrical poetry tradition is influenced by the acculturation of different cultures.

The General Features of the Lyric Genre

First and foremost, lyric poems are usually short and simple, which also demonstrates that they are not narrative-like epic or dramatic poetry. Thus, it is also said that lyric poems are not prescribed, and in that case, it embraces a wide range of literal forms and approaches such as;

  • Sonnets

  • Villanelles

  • Rondeaus

  • Pantoums

  • Elegies

  • Odes

All of the experiences, ideas, feelings, or phenomena can be the subject of personal lyric modes, such as war, patriotism, love, and art. Furthermore, when lyric poetry is based on free verse, which means that poetry may not have any rhyme or rhythm, and does not conform to a formal poetic structure, it creates musicality by utilizing both poetic forms and devices, such as alliteration, assonance, anaphora, metaphor, image, and symbol.

Aristotle’s Poetics, which is known as the earliest surviving work that includes theories about the literary theory and investigates the art event in history, is a fundamental work in terms of aesthetic history. Undoubtfully, in his Poetics, Aristotle divided poetry into three separate forms as lyrical, tragic, and epic. For lyric poetry, there is also another sub-classification. Some scholars classify lyric poetry in three different parts;

  • Lyric of Vision

  • Lyric of Thought

  • Lyric of Emotion

To explain briefly, lyric of vision, often known as tangible poetry, architecturally depicts what the words express conceptually. For example, George Herbert designed his religious poetry to resemble angel wings or a bishop's altar. Moreover, lyric of thought, particularly allegories and satires, is known as being instructive and instructional. Ultimately, lyric of emotion represents the vast majority of the three classes; sensual, intellectual, and mystical poetry. Mystical poetry depends on its content with the aim of creating a new visionary world rather than conveying images through its structure. Sensual poems, on the other hand, encompass romance and drinking poetry by Greco-Roman poets and early sonneteers. Intellectual poetry is found in the German Romantic poets and French Symbolists, who attempted to rationally express their personal experiences and emotions.

(Credit: Sappho and Alcaeus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1881)

Techniques of Lyric Poetry

Not to mention the fact that there are several literary techniques and devices in the field of lyric poetry. To give a simple illustration;


“A Noiseless Patient Spider” (1881) by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,

I marked where on a little promontory it stood isolated,

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.


To analyze the poem as an example in the field of lyrical techniques:

Firstly, the diphthong –y appears three times in the first paragraph, in the words “noiseless,” “patient,” and “spider.” This kind of repetition is called assonance, which takes place when two or more words, close to one another repeat the same vowel sound, but start with different consonant sounds. Secondly, in the second line, there is consonance, a literary device in which ending consonants match. However, the preceding vowel sounds do not match. The ending consonants of “marked & it” as well as “stood & isolated” are identical. Ultimately, in the third line, there is an alliteration, another literary device in which a series of words begin with the same sound, usually a consonant. The consonant sounds at the beginning of the words “vacant” and “vast” alliterate with each other. Besides, the repetition of the word “marked” also contributes to the rhythm.

Taking everything into an account, the most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that although the lyric genre was supposed to be sung in honor of the gods, it quickly evolved into a celebration of heroism and loved ones through feelings and experiences just like the epic and ballad. Moreover, today's modernist academics claim that poetry should be about sound because, with the aim of fully exploiting the poems' real emotive force, words must be freed from logic. In other words, poetry not only exists in the personal or divine relationships that are based on only words and meanings but also a sound.

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