This lesson analyzes the characteristics of lyric poetry. Several types of lyric poetry are described with examples demonstrating the construction and theme of each type.
Poetry and Lyrics
Imagine you’re driving along in your car when your favorite song comes on the radio. If you’re like most people, you will immediately start singing along without even realizing it. Did you know that when this happens, you’re actually singing poetry? All songs can be considered poetry. In fact, they fall under the category of lyric poetry.
Lyric poetry expresses personal emotions or thoughts of the speaker, just like the songs of today. Also, just like songs, lyric poems always have a musical quality, or a specific melody which makes it easy for you to sing along with. The term ‘lyric poetry’ actually comes from the ancient Greek word lyre, which refers to the instrument in that era that accompanied the reading of the lyric poem. Almost like the first version of a live concert.
Lyric poetry, for the most part, is short and written in first-person point of view. There is always some specific mood or emotion being expressed. Often that mood is about the extremes in life, mostly love or death or some other intense emotional experience. No matter the theme, though, all lyric poems are known for brevity, emotional intensity and musical quality. There are many types of lyric poems, each with their own format and purpose. Let’s take a look at some.
One type of lyric poem is the sonnet. Overall, sonnets have 14 lines usually written in iambic pentameter, which is five pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables. This overall structure of predetermined syllables and rhyme makes sonnets flow off your tongue in a similar way that a song on the radio does.
There are two types of sonnets: the Italian and the English, or Shakespearean. Both types follow a similar structure, with the main variation being a different rhyme scheme or the pattern of end rhyme. Here is an example of a Shakespearean sonnet focused on an intense love. See if you can notice the melody.
‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often in his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’
Another type of lyric poem is the elegy. The elegy originally had a strict structure dealing with meter alternating between six foot and five foot lines. Nowadays, elegies don’t follow a specific format, but always have the same mood.
Usually, elegies commemorate the dead and are melancholy, mournful and contemplative. The structure may no longer exist, but this darker theme is always apparent in elegies. Here is the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s famous elegy ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ Notice not only the somber mood and intense sadness but also the melodic flow of the words.
‘O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack,
the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up- for you the flag is flung- for
you the bugle trills’
A third example of lyric poetry is the ode. Like the elegy, there is no strict structure or format for an ode. It is common for many odes to have refrains, or repeated lines or stanza, but that is not a requirement. Also, odes are often longer than other types of lyric poetry.
Odes maintain the dignified mood of lyric poetry, but there is one important difference: odes are often about positive topics, such as truth, love, art, freedom and justice. Here is an excerpt from Percy Shelley’s poem ‘Ode to the West Wind.’ Notice the easy flow of the words and the positive topic.
‘Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’
Other Types of Lyric Poetry
Some lyric poetry does not fall into a specific category. Usually, if the poem is expressing an intense emotion and has a musical quality or melody, it is considered lyric poetry, regardless of its type. For example, take a look at this lyric poem titled ‘Western Wind’ by an anonymous author from the 16th century. It is neither a sonnet, elegy, nor an ode, but it expresses deep emotion all the same.
‘Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!’
Did you notice how easily the words flow off the tongue? There’s no music, but you can almost hear the melody as it is read. Obviously, this poem involves an intense emotion, in this case a deep longing for a lover. The speaker wants to be reunited with his love, but no real specific details are given about his identify. The poem is a first-person account of a strong emotion rather than a story. Overall, lyric poetry can produce lovely melodies, emphasizing intense but beautiful thoughts.
Let’s review what we’ve learned. Lyric poetry expresses personal emotions or thoughts of the speaker and always has a musical quality or a specific melody that makes it easy for you to sing along with. Lyric poetry is usually short in length, most often written in first-person point of view and always expresses some specific mood or emotion. The term ‘lyric poetry’ comes from the ancient Greek word lyre, which refers to the instrument that accompanied the reading of the lyric poem.
There are many types of lyric poems:
- Sonnets have 14 lines usually written in iambic pentameter. There are two types of sonnets: The Italian and the English, or Shakespearean. Both types follow a similar structure, with the main variation being a different rhyme scheme.
- Elegies originally had a strict meter, alternating between six foot and five foot lines. Nowadays, elegies don’t follow a specific format but are melancholy, mournful and contemplative.
- Odes have no strict structure or format, but often have refrains, or repeated lines or stanza. Odes are often about positive topics.
Some lyric poetry does not fall into a specific category. Usually, if the poem is expressing an intense emotion and has a musical quality or melody, it is considered lyric poetry regardless of its type.
Types of Lyric Poetry
- Lyric poetry: The expression of personal emotions or thoughts in poem, with a melody or musical quality.
- Sonnet: A poem with 14 lines usually written in iambic pentameter.
- Elegy: Poetry that commemorates the dead and is melancholy, contemplative and mournful.
- Ode: Poetry that is about a positive topic such as truth, love, art, freedom and justice.
As you come to the end of the lesson, you should make a goal to:
- Recognize lyric poetry
- Characterize different forms of lyric poetry