The Lyric Name

Thursday, 8/6/20 at 11:16 PM

What does the “lyric” in “lyric poetry” mean? Here’s a passage from Allen Grossman’s Summa Lyrica: A Primer of the Commonplaces in Speculative Poetics:

1.3    The structural definition of the lyric is “that poetic situation in which there is one speaking person, who is nameless or to whom we assign the name of the author.” (6.4)  […]

Note the following (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p. 366):

Lyric: A literary genre characterized by the assumed concealment of the audience from the poet and by the predominance of an associational rhythm distinguishable both from recurrent meter and from semantic or prose rhythm.

Frye’s “concealment of the audience from the poet” is an abbreviation of Mill on overhearing (cited at 16.7). The idea of “associational rhythm” is a reference to the fact of lyric as the imitation of man alone, either as he is alone in himself, or as he might be alone before or after society.

(From §7.3 in the Lyric Theory Reader, 2014, ed. Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins.)

Here’s what John Stuart Mill said in “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties” (§1):

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or utterance of feeling: but, if we may be excused the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience. The peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet's mind. Eloquence is feeling pouring itself out to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavoring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action.

Solitude, confession, nearness, unconsciousness, “itself to itself.” Elsewhere, Mill talks about “truth,” as in “the truth of poetry is to paint the human soul truly,” whereas “the truth of fiction is to give a true picture of life.” Fiction is outward, representational, objectified; poetry is gestural, inward, defined in a tautological manner. It is hard to name who speaks and what it speaks to, harder to delineate or describe its contents without resorting to the repetition of its definition’s elements, in a way that resembles the very ritualistic, repetitive elements of the lyric, such as rhyme. I can see the solitude of the lyric as the source of its tendency toward song…

Tags: lyric theory