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.

The Hellenistic period established a canon of nine ‘lyric’ writers. This included poets who have become household names (Sappho and Pindar), as well as several who have not, such as Ibycus and Simonides – although the latter did come back to life in 1978 as the hero of Mary Renault’s The Praise Singer. Most poems by what the Romans were to call the ‘lyrici’ survive today in fragments, which fuelled the notion that lyric could be swirlingly obscure and passionate. One fragment of Ibycus reads ‘he flies in the alien void’; another is Ezra Pound in embryo: ‘glory … mad … the sting’. Sappho’s deliciously burning fragment 31 (‘no: tongue breaks and thin/fire is racing under the skin’) survived in Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime, which encouraged a belief in the 18th century that lyric in general and odes in particular were a supercharged, enigmatic, sublime kind of verse. The range of dates of the lyrici – from Sappho in the early sixth century to Simonides in the 470s BC – was as wide as their subject matter. ‘Lyrics’ could be paeans to the gods, encomia of kings, victory odes for athletes, general reflections on life, as well as descriptions of drinking or of beautiful girls or boys. But by the first century BC lyric at least had a canon and a set of themes. Roman infants could not, of course, want to be engine drivers when they grew up, but being a lyric poet did become a possible ambition: Horace’s first ode to Maecenas ends by asking his patron (or his readers, or both): ‘But if you rank me among lyric bards [‘lyricis vatibus’]/I shall touch the stars with my sublime head.’

There is no simple historical continuity between Horace’s odes and later metamorphoses of what we call ‘lyric’ in the middle ages, when songs and rhyming Latin verse – either erotic or religious, or, in the case of songs to the Virgin, a dodgy mixture of both – fed the jongleurs as they jongled, and goliardic poets as they goliarded about drink and sex. Petrarch, with deep roots in Provence and in troubadour poetry, fused their eroticism into the tight yet infinitely extensible form of the sonnet sequence: his ‘I’ in love, the distant ‘you’ of the lady, and the yearning between the two, set up the main features of what later ages would call ‘lyric’. It wasn’t until the mid-16th century, though, that a tripartite division of all poetry into dramatic, epic and lyric media – a division roughly sketched out in Plato’s Republic – hardened into a way of carving up all literary activity. The English humanist Roger Ascham could feel pleasingly fashionable when he claimed that his friends at St John’s College, Cambridge, had worked out that all poetry could be divided into the four very large categories of comedy, tragedy, epic and ‘melic’. Lyric became, in effect, the ‘everything else’ of poetic theory, stuff that was metrical and possibly musical in aspiration, but which did not tell a story or dramatise distinct speaking voices.

By the later 18th century this big shapeless bag of everything else had inflated into something which resembled a metaphysical ideal, and floated towards the centre of poetic activity. Hegel in his Aesthetics from the 1820s described the content of lyric as ‘the mind that considers and feels, that instead of proceeding to action, remains alone with itself as inwardness, and that therefore can take as its sole form and final aim the self-expression of the subjective life’. Hegel’s followers, epigones and incomprehenders (his prose does make it easy to be one of those) turned lyric into the mode in which poets represented the operations of consciousness and creativity. Spirit strutted its stuff in verse as the poet poured out his (and it was usually his) feelings.

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