Lyric Poetry | Definition, Examples, Characteristics, Types - All About English Literature (2024)

Lyric Poetry

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Lyric Poetry Definition

Lyric comes from the word ‘lyre’ meaning a musical instrument. Lyric has its origin in musical expression-singing, chanting and recitation to musical accompaniment. The lyric, the drama and epic had their origins in a spontaneously melodic expression which soon adapted itself to a ritualistic need and thus became formalised. Music in dramatic and epic poetry was secondary to other elements of the works, it being mainly a mnemonic device (device for being remembered). In the case of lyric poetry the musical element is intrinsic to the work intellectually as well as aesthetically.

Northrop Fry points out that poetry is “an internal mimesis of sound and imagery”. In its modern meaning, a lyric is a type of poetry which is mechanically representational of a musical architecture and which is thematically representational of the poet’s sensibility as evidenced in a fusion of conception and image.

A lyric is the expression of the poet’s personal moods, feelings or thoughts. It is intimately personal, sometime confessional. It is the sincere expression of the poet’s deeply felt emotion which comes to him at a particular moment and he tries to communicate the feeling in musical language. Thus the essence of lyrical poetry is personality, although the poet makes his personal feelings typically human and universal by his treatment of the personal feelings and thoughts.

Characteristics of Lyric Poetry

The chief characteristics of lyric poetry are-

  1. Shortness

Generally lyric poetry is short in nature. Sonnets are best examples of shortness of lyric poetry. But there are some long lyric too like Ode to the West Wind, The Raven etc.

  1. Simplicity

Simplicity is a prominent feature of a good lyric. Every lyric poetry is composed in such a language that every person can understand it easily.

  1. Subjectivity

A lyric is always an expression of the moods and emotions of a poet. The best lyrics are emotional in tone. Every poet tries his best to give vent to his internal feelings and emotions and communicates with the readers through the means of a lyric.

  1. Musicality

One of the most important qualities of a lyric is its musical quality. The poets use various literary devices to enhance the music of their lyrics.

  1. Intensity

It is characterized by intensity and poignancy. The best lyrics are the expressions of intensely felt emotions. It comes directly out of the heart of the poet, and so goes directly to the heart of the readers.

  1. Spontaneity

Spontaneity is another important quality of a lyric. The lyric poet sings in strains of unpremeditated art. He sings effortlessly because he must, because of the inner urge for self-expression.

Lyric Poetry Examples

#1 Ode to the West Wind by P. B. Shelley

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

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?

#2 On Being Human by C. S. Lewis

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence

Behold the Forms of nature.
They discern

Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities

Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,

Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,

High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal

Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know-the meaning of

Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap

The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness

Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance

Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,

The blessed cool at every pore caressing us

-An angel has no skin.

#3 To Celia by Ben Jonson

Drink to me, only, with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
Doth ask a drink divine:
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee, late, a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent’st back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.

#4 A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns

Oh my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
Oh my luve is like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile!

#4 Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

#5 The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

Examples of Best American Lyric Poetry

#1 A Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d 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.

#2 The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

# 3 The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this and nothing more.”

#4 I heard a Fly buzz – when I died by Emily Dickinson

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

List of Other Lyric Poems and Poets

The poetic fragments of Sappho, composed for the lyre, hence “lyrics”
“Lullaby” by W. H. Auden
“The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden
“The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop
“The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop
“Chaplinesque” by Hart Crane
“Voyages” by Hart Crane
“War Is Kind” by Stephen Crane
“I Sing of Olaf, Glad and Big” by e. e. cummings
“Success Is Counted Sweetest” by Emily Dickinson
“A Last Word” by Ernest Dowson
“The Snowstorm:” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
“A Supermarket in California” by Allen Ginsberg
“America” by Allen Ginsberg
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell
“Hurt Hawks” by Robinson Jeffers
“Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers
“Aubade” by Philip Larkin
“Churchgoing” by Philip Larkin
“The Witsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin
“This Be The Verse” by Philip Larkin
“The Leaden-Eyed” by Vachel Lindsay
“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“My Lost Youth” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Divina Commedia” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell
“The Silent Slain” by Archibald MacLeish
“Memorial Rain” by Archibald MacLeish
“You, Andrew Marvell” by Archibald MacLeish
“Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
“The Fish” by Marianne Moore
“Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
“The Unreturning” by Wilfred Owen
“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath
“To Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe
“Dreamland” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Return” by Ezra Pound
“A Pact” by Ezra Pound
“Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich
“Blue Girls” by John Crowe Ransom
“Piazza Piece” by John Crowe Ransom
“Credo” by Edward Arlington Robinson
“Luke Havergal” by Edward Arlington Robinson
“The Miller’s Wife” by Edward Arlington Robinson
“Mr. Flood’s Party” by Edward Arlington Robinson
“Richard Cory” by Edward Arlington Robinson
“The Truth the Dead Know” by Anne Sexton
“The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens
“Upon a Spider Catching a Fly” by Edward Taylor
“Earth, My Likeness” by Walt Whitman
“The Dance” by William Carlos Williams
“This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams

Lyric Vs Drama

A lyric differs from drama and epic in its most essential aspect, while a lyric is personal and subjective, drama and epic are impersonal and objective. A lyric deals directly with the thoughts and feelings of the poet, while drama and epic deal with the outer world of passion and action. While, therefore, in subjective poetry which is the poetry of introspection, the poet looks into his heart to write, and even draws the outer world down into himself and steeps it in its own emotions, in objective poetry he projects himself into the life without, and, seeking there his motives and subjects handles these with the least possible admixture of his own individuality. In a lyric the poet is self-intrusive : in the drama and epic, the poet is more or less detached and distant. His view of life emerges not in a direct obtrusive manner as in a lyric but in an indirect way through the handling of the characters and situations. A lyric tells while a drama shows.

History of Lyric Poetry

In Greece, melic poem was intended to be sung to musical accompaniment. With the Renaissance, poets began suiting their work to a visual rather than auditory medium. The poet ceased to ‘compose’ his poem, for musical presentation but instead ‘wrote it for the readers. The lyric poem inherited and employed specific themes, metres, attitudes, images and myths : but in adapting itself to a new means of presentation, the lyric found itself bereft of the very element which had been the foundation of its lyricism- music.

Until the end of the 17th century, critics failed to distinguish between the true or melodic lyric such as the ‘songs of Shakespeare, Campion and Dryden, and the nonmusical, verbal lyrics of Donne, Marvell and Waller. The neo-classical critical concern with the tragic and epic forms in the 18th century was so overwhelming that the lyric became lost as a subject for discussion.

With the romantic movement, lyric was equated with poetry. Wordsworth defines poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Hegel says that poetry is an ‘intensely subjective and personal expression’. Attributes of brevity, metrical coherence, subjectivity, passion were given to a lyric poem. There are, however, schools of poetry which are not susceptible to such criteria. Brevity is not always adhered to (Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso and many romantic poems). Imagist lyrics are hardly impassioned. The metaphysicals combine wit and passion, sensuality and spirituality.

The modern lyric poems strive for the extinction of the personality and for attaining dramatic objectivity through image-pattern.

Poetry is not music, but it is representational of music in its sound patterns, basing its meter and rhyme on the regular linear measure of the song. It employs cadence and consonance to approximate the tonal variation of a chant or intonation. Thus the lyric retains structural evidence of its melodic origins. Rhyme is important for creating and sustaining the tonal effect of the poem. But it is not music that is alone necessary for producing the desired poetic effect.

Development of Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry in its development through the ages has acquired various modes and forms. The Egyptian, Hebrew and Greek lyrics had their origins in religious activity. Greek lyrics were chanted, sung, or sung and danced. The dithyramb may have been composed to commemorate the death of some primitive vegetable gods or the birth of Dionysus. The essential element of the Greek lyric was its metre. The earliest Greek lyrics were folk in origin, but even in the works of Homer and Hesiod there is evidence of an artistic concern with the lyrical mood and subjects, if not the lyrical form. The fifth century in Greece produced some of the best of the lyric poets : Simonides. Pindar and Baccylides; it was then that the lyric found such magnificent expression in the choral odes of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. The Greek critics were, however, more concerned with the tragedy and the epic than with lyric poetry. The few extant comments which they made predicate the musical nature of the genre.

The private insight, the subjective focusing of experience is more keenly apparent in Roman lyrics than in other ancient works. Ovid, Catullus, Tibullus celebrate private feelings in their lyrics-Ovid in the sorrows of his exile, Catullus in his amours, Virgil in his rustic pleasures, Tibullus in his love pangs. and so on.

Also Read:

  • Lyric Poetry | Subjective, Personal and Universal Elements

Medieval lyrics remain in abundance and they exert a special charm for the modern reader in their mixture of naivete and sophistication. But lyric poetry was still a thing of the people, composed to be sung and enjoyed. It is, however, not true to say that lyric and music were dissociated with the Renaissance. But since the Renaissance, the lyric has remained a verbal rather than a musical discipline. Renaissance lyricists, writing for an aristocratic audience may simply have unconsciously adapted their forms to a different medium. In England the publication of Tottel’s Miscellany in 1557 marked the beginning of the most lyrical of England’s poetic cras. Many collections came out and the sonnet form was essayed and developed on a variety of themes.

Romantic Age abounds in lyric poetry with the deft touches of a few romantic poets. Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind is regarded as “lyric’s lyric”. His another best romantic lyric is To a Skylark. John Keats was also a phenomenal romantic lyricist whose poetry includes Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Autumn etc. William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, Ode on Intimation of Immortality, The World is Too Much With Us are finest specimen of romantic lyric. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and Ode to Dejection are full of romantic lyricism.

Types of Lyric Poetry

The lyric poetry may be divided into three types: the lyric of vision, the lyric of thought or idea and the lyric of emotion. The lyric of vision or emblem has been called by Ezra Pound as ‘ideograms’. This is the most externalized kind of lyric utilizing the pictorial element of print to represent the object or concept treated in the context of the poem itself. It is a literal attempt to follow MacLeish’s admonition that “a poem should not mean, but be”. The most recent practitioners of lyrical emblemism include Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings and the French dadaists of the 1920’s.

  • Elegy
  • Ode
  • Sonnet

Ode and Elegy belong to lyric poetry. But they have different formal patterns and different modes. They call for separate treatment.

The Lyric of thought or idea is the most personal but still objective in tone. This school of lyricists is classically oriented, believing with Horace that poetry must be utile as well as dulce. This type of lyrics may be expository or didactic. The expository lyric writers include Boileau, Dryden, Cowper, Schiller and St. John Perse and T. S. Eliot in the modern age. The didactic lyrics include the allegorical, satiric and vituperative species.

The most subjective or internal strain of modern lyric poetry is the lyric of emotion. It is this lyrical type which has become synonymous with ‘poetry’. The lyric of emotion comprises three major groups: the sensual lyric, the imaginative lyric and the mystical lyric. The sensual lyric enjoys and unbroken continuity from the 16th century to the 20th century. The sonnets of Ronsard, the love poetry of the Elizabethans, the sensuous images of Keats and the romantics, the sensualism of the Yellow Nineties show the continuity of this type. The sensual tradition is sustained in differing forms by Shakespeare, Donne, Collins, Heine, Baudelaire, Mallorme, Millay and Dylan Thomas. The imaginative or intellectualised lyric of emotion furnishes a host of examples in the lyrics of Goethe, Rilke, Valery, Auden, Empson and Spender.


The lyric has been expanded and developed through the centuries until it has become one of the chief literary instruments which focus and evaluate the human condition.

Lyric Poetry | Definition, Examples, Characteristics, Types - All About English Literature (2)

Somnath Sarkar

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