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What are lyric and epic poetry and why does it matter?

Part 1 of a trilogy of articles in which the Judge discusses the history and evolution of these major poetic forms and what they mean to us today.


When, almost one hundred years ago, John Drinkwater was asked to write his book The Lyric as an introduction to this literary concept, he discussed "the commonly accepted opinion that a lyric is an expression of personal emotion" and reached the conclusion that "lyric and poetry are synonymous terms". No doubt both statements can be traced back to a history of criticism. John Stuart Mill, writing in 1833, claimed that 'Lyric poetry is more eminently and peculiarly poetry than any other', and Edgar Allan Poe, in his 'Poetic Principle', already draws connections between the pure 'Poetic Sentiment' and the lyric. Such a use of the term 'lyric', bordering on tautology, eventually led Northrop Frye to claim in his Anatomy of Criticism that "we use [the terms 'epic' and 'lyric'] chiefly as jargon or trade slang for long and short (or shorter) poems respectively".

Most critics before the 19th Century simply saw the term 'lyric' as synonymous for 'poetry' ...

The juxtaposition of lyric and personal expression finds instead its roots in Hegel, who wrote just before Mills, and who was the first to oppose 'the objective character of the Epos' to 'the subjective principle of the Lyric'. This view was later picked up by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, and even Frye, in a paraphrase of Mill, concedes that "the lyric poet normally pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else" and that "the lyric is the poet presenting the image in relation to himself". The lyric, in the words of Hegel, was about 'insulation' and 'self-expression'.

Though lyric poetry is one of the most ancient forms of written expression in the world, its theoretical history is actually quite young. It is also, as we have seen, rather confusing, because most critics before the 19th Century simply saw the term 'lyric' as synonymous for 'poetry', as Drinkwater still did. The only paradigm on which most thinkers seem to agree is that of the lyric as poetry of address, but this is itself problematic. An endless array of examples can be found for poets who speak 'to' someone, of course, but an equally endless list of exceptions can also be provided, in classical and modern poetry alike. Some of the texts which are usually categorised as 'lyrics' of the ancient world barely look like poetry at all, and rather seem like personal notes which the author has left in some diary or journal. Here's a full poem by Alcaeus:

"Now we must get drunk and drink whether we want to or not, because Myrsilus is dead."

Obviously the fragmentary remains of the classical tradition suggest that some of these works may simply be incomplete poems, but even within this selfsame tradition there are at least four recognised genres of lyric poetry (monodic, elegiac, iambic, choral), none of which can simply be reduced to a simple 'poetry of address' genre. Modern poetry has even more cases of verse that does not speak to a specific 'you'.

Even so, two currents of vocative poetry can readily be identified in the history of the lyric. The first in chronological order is the 'classical' or 'ancient' model: poetry addressed to the gods, such as Sappho's globally famous prayer to Aphrodite, or the Book of Psalms in the Bible. The second is the 'modern' model, which is poetry addressed to a loved one, particularly popular in courtly poetry of the middle ages and the Renaissance. Probably the most important and influential figure in popularising this shift was Petrarch, whose monumental 'Song Book' was a collection entirely dedicated to an idealised and unattainable woman he calls Laura. While his address to Laura was normally indirect (Petrarch speaks to or about an allegorical figure called 'Love' as an intermediary, like Sappho did with Aphrodite), it still signals a first step in the shift of focus from the divine to the earthly, from the transcendent to the immanent, from the immortal to the daily. It must be stressed that this shift was very gradual Petrarch's original verse idealised Laura almost to the status of a goddess. But it became the model for over three centuries of poetry all over Europe (including Shakespeare's own sonnets) and it virtually institutionalised the lyric, to the point that the notion of writing 'to a girl/woman one loves' is still popularly conceived as one of the most natural and sincere reasons behind the writing of a poem (slightly less so the idea of writing 'to a boy/man'; the register of the Song Book was androcentric and so was its heritage).

Now, lyric poetry is usually set in opposition to epic poetry (again, the dialectic was best explored by Hegel). But literary criticism of epic poetry is far, far more ancient than that of the lyric tradition, going as far back as Aristotle. This suggests that the dichotomy between the lyric and the epic is more a construction of the moderns than a self-evident distinction within the genre(s) of poetry. Aristotle defines the epic as 'that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a single metre,' and this is a very simple definition. So it is somewhat of a mystery where the later tenets of the genre emerged from. Judging by Homer's proselytes, from Virgil to Milton and Byron, an epic is a poem of twelve or twenty-four books, starting in the middle of the action (in medias res) and often involving flashbacks. But these standards are violated by just about every other member of the genre out there, from primary epics like Gilgamesh and Beowulf to later ones such as the Divine Comedy or Jerusalem Delivered. The problem is that there are virtually no common canons to speak of a 'genre' whatsoever, not even metrical properties. Much like 'lyric' has often been used to signify 'poetry,' so the term 'epic' has evolved from Aristotle's choice of words ("a poem on a great scale") to become a mere synonym of 'grand,' to the point that any story of great magnitude or import is usually referred to as epic (or even an epic), from War and Peace and Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and Titanic.

Hegel's groundbreaking innovation was to treat both lyric and epic as literary qualities, rather than as genres. For this reason he sets them up in a dialectic relation where the lyric speaks about the individual and the epic about society a profoundly influential perspective which became the basis for most theory on the subject. Even so, Hegel was writing at a time when the medium of the novel was still very young (and not much respected). Now that it has become dominant, the novel seems a conspicuous absence from this grand literary scheme. Aristotle's specification that the epic "is narrative in form" reveals that the original distinction between poetic types was not so much between subjective and objective, or between long and short verse, but between poems which told a story and poems which did not. In other words, a term was required to distinguish between narrative and non-narrative poems. In the age before the novel, verse was the only written form for recounting stories short of turning to pure historians like Herodotus. 'Epic' retrospectively became the all-encompassing term to describe poems which directly told stories; 'lyric' described most of those which did not, with the rest comprising philosophy or scientific texts which were written in verse. When the novel emerged, proving so flexible and enjoyable a way of weaving a tale, it quickly absorbed the roles of narration which until then had been the prerogative of the epic. On this account, numerous novels have been said to be epics in their own right, while modern poetic epics are seldom written and even less read anymore. Non-narrative poetry, by contrast, remained insulated and its roles were never appropriated by other forms. As a consequence, the broad term 'lyric,' which never came to be applied to anything else, became no more than another word for poetry. The closest thing to a 'misappropriation' of the role of poetry has been performed Twentieth Century music, in which songs are usually non-narrative and the spoken words of which we now refer to as 'lyrics'.

This is not to suggest that, on account of the confusion and debate over the definitions, studies of the lyric and the epic should be considered infertile. However, the revolutionary impact of new forms and mediums over the last two centuries means that old readings of these two categories in terms of genre are no longer tenable, if they ever have been. The canons are simply not stable. The epic and lyric are not labels that we can stick upon poems, nor signposts to bind them together. There is, perhaps, no longer any genre of poem which can be fixed in a category by means of its history even metre, one of the most ancient poetic marks of belonging, has faded in prominence as a banner for recognition. The only thing left to study is the structure of the poem. It is not genre but structure that reveals the epic or lyric quality of verse, and it is therefore to this topic that our next essays shall turn their attention.