Ohs and Ahs, Zeros and Ones
- Theory of the Lyric by Jonathan Culler
Harvard, 391 pp, £19.95, September, 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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Vol. 39 No. 19 · 5 October 2017
Colin Burrow writes that ‘lyrics are very often in the present tense,’ and that they use a ‘fictional “now”’ to express general truths (LRB, 7 September). In English, we very rarely use the present tense to talk about ‘now’. Speakers often use the present tense to relate experiences in the past, and we much prefer the present tense when talking about the future. When we say, ‘My dog eats chocolate,’ we invariably do not mean it is eating chocolate now – it isn’t, look – but that it has done so in the past and will, we expect, continue to do so in the future. Cows eat grass, Peter makes mistakes in his maths, the sun also shines.
In poetry workshops these days, one is politely discouraged from using the ‘continuous present’: don’t say ‘the leaves are floating,’ but ‘leaves float.’ The simple present is grittier, one is told, more direct, more condensed. What’s really meant is that it gives the idea of a ‘general truth’. It expands, exactly as Burrow explains, a simple idea into a gnomic piece of wisdom.
Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ uses tense precisely. He tells his anecdote in the past tense, but gives his reflection in the simple present. He did this; this is the effect of that. By linking the past to a general truth in this way, Wordsworth expresses his idea with a certain humility. Modern ‘lyric’ poetry rarely follows this model, preferring to endow the simplest experience, as Burrow says, with overtones of eternity.
Vol. 39 No. 20 · 19 October 2017
Philip Rush points out that we don’t use the present tense much to talk about ‘now’ (Letters, 5 October). He might have added that even when we do talk about ‘now’ we tend to use the continuous present. This wasn’t always so, but today Puck would probably say: ‘I’m going, I’m going; look how I’m going,/Swifter than being on a mighty Boeing.’ (In fact, he’d probably be like: ‘I’m going, I’m going, keep your hair on.’)