Ohs and Ahs, Zeros and Ones

Colin Burrow

  • Theory of the Lyric by Jonathan Culler
    Harvard, 391 pp, £19.95, September 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 97970 3

Chopping up literary activity into manageable portions of relatively similar material is, like butchery, a job that requires both skill and a measure of brutality. Of all the limbs into which literature has been subdivided by its anatomists, ‘lyric’ is perhaps the most like Grendel’s arm after Beowulf tears it off and hangs it up in Hrothgar’s hall: huge, a bit of a mess, and, in its vastness, terrifying to contemplate. The earliest discussions call this kind of verse ‘melic’ (the Greek melos means ‘song’), and roughly distinguish sung poems from epic and tragedy. Aristotle, who had a strong preference for narrative forms, more or less shrugs off this type of poetry. If he had made a few more observations about lyric then Western thinking on the subject might have been less of a muddle than it was to become. The word ‘lyric’ came to be used by learned critics associated with the library of Alexandria in around the second century BC to describe a broad range of poems written to be sung either by solo voices or a chorus. Lyres were not compulsory, but music seems to have been, and so several kinds of poem which we would now include within our much broader conception of ‘lyric’, such as elegies and epigrams, were put in a different box from odes about drinking or victorious heroes, simply because they were designed to be spoken rather than sung.

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