The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Lyric: From the Greek for “lyre,” originally any poem designed to be sung while accompanied by a lyre; now a brief imaginative and melodic poem characterized by the fervent but structured expression of the personal thoughts and emotions of a single, first-person speaker. Lyrics are non-narrative poems; they do not tell a story. During ancient Roman times, poets such as Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) wrote lyrics meant to be read, unaccompanied by music, as remains common today.

The lyric, a popular form of verse for millennia in the East and West alike, is one of the oldest, most enduring forms of literary expression in English. Common manifestations include the ballad, hymn, ode, and sonnet. Today, the plural form of the term (lyrics) also refers to the words of any song.

EXAMPLES: Noted lyric poets from across the ages include Sappho (Greece, seventh—sixth century B.C.), Ono no Komachi (Japan, ninth century A.D.), Li Qingzhao (China, twelfth century), Hafez (Persia, fourteenth century), Teresa of Ávila (Spain, sixteenth century), Paul Verlaine (France, nineteenth century), Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (India, nineteenth—twentieth centuries), and Czesław Miłosz (Poland, twentieth century). British examples of the genre include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816), John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” (1820), Christina Rossetti’s “Song” (1862), and William Butler Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1892). American lyric poems include Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Two Rivers” (1858), Emily Dickinson’s “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers —” (1891), Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923), Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” (1976), and Sara Teasdale’s “Wisdom” (1916), which follows:

It was a night of early spring,

The winter-sleep was scarcely broken;

Around us shadows and the wind

Listened for what was never spoken.

Though half a score of years are gone,

Spring comes as sharply now as then —

But if we had it all to do

It would be done the same again.

It was a spring that never came;

But we have lived enough to know

That what we never have, remains;

It is the things we have that go.

Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz’s short poem “Escritura” (“Writing”), from his Ladera Este collection (1962—68) — Yo dibujo estas letras / como el día dibuja sus imágenes / y sopla sobre ellas y no vuelve — is also a lyric; the English translation follows:

I draw these letters

as the day draws its images

and blows over them

and does not return.

The association between poetry and song inherent in the term lyric is reinforced by the fact that song lyrics often began as lyric poems. The Eagles’ “No More Walks in the Wood” (2007) is based on John Hollander’s poem “An Old-Fashioned Song” (1993), and Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do [Is Have Some Fun]” (1993) is derived from Wyn Cooper’s alliterative poem “Fun” (1987).