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The Best Lyric Poetry: Origins and History with a Definition and Examples

Which poets wrote the best lyric poetry of all time? In this case the first great lyric poet may still be the best. Lyric poetry—at least as we think of it todayprobably begins with Sappho of Lesbos, who was described by her ancient peers as the Tenth Muse. (Since the first nine Muses were goddesses, Sappho had quite a reputation!) Outstanding lyric poets who wrote in the English language include Conrad Aiken, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Ernest Dowson, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Langston Hughes, Ben Jonson, John Keats, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Lowell, John Milton, Wilfred Owen, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, E. A. Robinson, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edmund Spenser, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth and Sir Thomas Wyatt. Other notable lyric poets include singer-songwriters like Adele, Jackson Browne, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan (who adopted his last name from the first name of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas), Eminem, Dido, Dan Fogelberg, Woody Guthrie, Michael Jackson, Carole King, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Pete Seeger, Prince, Smokey Robinson, Bruce Springsteen, Hank Williams Sr., Brian Wilson and Stevie Wonder.

For whatever it's worth, my top ten lyric poets in alphabetical order are: William Blake, Louise Bogan, Robert Burns, Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, Robert Frost, A. E. Housman, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas and William Butler Yeats.

If you are more interested in lyrical poetry (i.e., poetry that is musical and songlike), please click here: The Best Lyrical Poems.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Sing, my sacred tortoiseshell lyre;
come, let my words
accompany your voice!
—Sappho, fragment 118, translated by Michael R. Burch

Lyric Poetry Definition, Origins and History

Lyric poetry is usually short in length and expresses personal thoughts and emotions without the plot and character development common to narrative poetry, dramatic poetry, epic poetry, plays and novels. Lyric poems usually begin in medias res ("in the middle of things," without preamble). A great lyric poem is like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky: an unexpected thrill or terror, depending on the poem and the reader's perspective. If you stick with me for a few minutes, you'll have the chance to experience some of the most dazzling lightning bolts in the English language, then judge for yourself. Here's a quick example:

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.
—Sappho, fragment 142, translated by Michael R. Burch

In the ancient world, such poems were often accompanied by someone playing the lyrea harp-like instrumentand thus lyric poems and song lyrics are closely related "kissing cousins." A modern singer-songwriter crooning while strumming a guitar is following in the footsteps of minstrels of the past who sang or chanted their poems to the accompaniment of musical instruments like the harp and lyre. The connection between lyric poems and song lyrics can be clearly seen in the first epigram of  Sappho above, and in this one below:

Now, I shall sing these songs
for my companions.
—Sappho, fragment 3, translated by Julia Dubnoff

Sappho fans can find other translations of her poems later on this page. Please don't miss this opportunity to read some truly wonderful poems by a remarkable ancient poet who remains fresh and relevant today. Other great lyric poets who wrote in languages other than English include the oriental masters Basho and Buson; the great female oriental poet Ono no Komachi; the early master of the sonnet ("little song"), Petrarch; the writer of the Bible's Song of Songs (considered by many to be King Solomon) and Psalms (said to have been written by Solomon's father, King David); the heretical medieval Latin poet known as the Archpoet; the ancient Greek poets Simonides and Pindar; the ancient Roman poets Horace, Catullus and Ovid; Middle Eastern poets such as Rumi, Hafiz and Omar Khayyam; the French poets Pierre de Ronsard, Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire; the German poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rainer Marie Rilke; the Russian poets Aleksandr Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova  and Marina Tsvetaeva; the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca; the Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Fadwa Tuqan; the Jewish holocaust poets Miklós Radnóti and Paul Celan; the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore; the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz; the Mexican poet Octavio Paz; and the Chilean poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. Of course there are many other worthy names; these are the ones that "jumped out" at me as I checked my memory banks for outstanding lyric poets from around the globe.

Differences Between Lyric, Dramatic and Narrative Poetry

Dramatic poetry is meant to be spoken: for instance, the soliloquies of Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Macbeth. Narrative poems tell stories: for instance, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and the haunting poetic ghost story "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. Epic poems are longer narrative poems; for instance "Beowulf" and "Paradise Lost." Ballads also tell stories; for instance, "Sir Patrick Spens." But a lyric poem may exist merely or primarily to convey an image, feeling, thought or impression, as in ancient Greek epitaphs (a form of epigram). By way of example, here are my modern English "interpretations" of gravestone inscriptions attributed to various Greek masters:

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
—Michael R. Burch, after Plato

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gull
in his high, lonely circuits may tell.
—Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

tell the Spartans we lie
here, dead at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
—Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

Blame not the gale, nor the inhospitable sea-gulf, nor friends’ tardiness,
mariner! Just man’s foolhardiness.
Michael R. Burch, after Leonidas of Tarentum

Here he lies, in state tonight:
great is his Monument!
Yet Ares cares not,
neither does War relent.
—Michael R. Burch, after Anacreon

Ares was the Greek god of war, known as Mars to the Romans. These poems demonstrate that the ancient Greek lyric poets were not so very different from poets today.

The Method of Lyric Poetry: How Does it Work?

Lyric poems often strike chords in readers and set them resonating instantaneously by "invoking" things common to all humanity: the fear of death, the sadness of lives cut short, the sorrow of parting, etc. But of course lyric poems can also strike sweet, highly positive chords as well: love, friendship, companionship, etc. Here's a moving example of a lyric poem that blends sweet and sad chords:

Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

Haiku and Epigrams Are Related Forms of Lyric Poetry

Haiku can be quite similar to the best Greek epigrams: short and sweet, or (more often) short and bittersweet. Here are my translations of two wonderful haiku by Oriental masters:

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
— Matsuo Basho, translated by Michael R. Burch

Oh, fallen camellias,
if I were you,
I'd leap into the torrent!

— Takaha Shugyo, translated by Michael R. Burch

The fact that the ancient Greek and ancient Oriental masters adopted similar methods may suggest that lyric poetry rises from a wellspring of common humanity.

Attributes of Popular Lyric Poetry and Song Lyrics

Lyric poems do not require rhyme or regular meter, although many lyric poems do rhyme, have a discernible "beat" and/or have been set to music. Some of the best-known songs of all time are lyric poems that were set to music: for instance, "Auld Lang Syne" by the Scottish poet Robert Burns and "To Celia" by the English poet Ben Jonson:

To Celia
by Ben Jonson

Drink to me, only, with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
Doth ask a drink divine:
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee, late, a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.

Traditional songs like "Greensleeves," "Shenandoah," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," "Molly Malone" and "Danny Boy" are other examples of lyric poems set to music, as are most of the best-loved hymns. Some of the best-known contemporary songwriters are lyric poets. In fact, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Jewel have published books of poems, while Paul Simon wrote some of his most famous songs as poems, then set them to music later:

I Am a Rock
by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I've built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
Its laughter and its loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Don't talk of love;
I've heard the word before;
It's sleeping in my memory.
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb,
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

Paul Simon wrote this poem, I suspect, in response to a famous statement by another poet, John Donne. Donne claimed that "no man is an island." Simon, it appears, begged to differ.

The History of Lyric Poetry, Spoken-Word Poetry and Performance Poetry

Lyric poetry has a long history, with a good degree of "cross pollination" down the years. (Indeed, the song above seems to be a young, unhappy poet's refutation of the lyric poet John Donne's assertion that "no man is an island.") Aristotle mentioned lyric poetry (kitharistike, played to the cithara, a musical instrument similar to the lyre, and the forerunner of the modern guitar) in his Poetics, along with drama, epic poetry, dancing, painting and other forms of mimesis. Archaic and classical Greek lyric poetry involved live performances accompanied by stringed instruments, so lyric poetry may be the first "performance poetry" that didn’t require a stage, actors and a chorus. If the poet was also the musician, he could be a "one man band," so the first lyric poets were probably the Bob Dylans of their day. Here's one of the earliest lyric poems to have been written in the English language (although the original poem is virtually unreadable today, resembling ancient German more than modern English):

Wulf and Eadwacer
anonymous ballad, circa 960-990 AD
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The outlanders pursue him as if he were game.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like a panting hound.
Whenever it rained and I woke disconsolate
the bold warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, there was pleasure, but its end was loathsome.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, but why should I eat?
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A she-wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what never was one:
our song together.

Lyric Poetry was the Province of the First Great Female Poets

"Wulf and Eadwacer" has been one of my favorite poems since the first time I read it. In fact, I admired the poem so much that I ended up translating it myself. This is quite possibly the first extant English poem by a female poet. It is also one of the first English poems to employ a refrain, and its closing metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two voices never harmonized remains one of the strongest in English literature.

One of the best and most famous lyric poets of antiquity was a woman, Sappho. Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BC. According to the Parian Marble, Sappho was exiled to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594. Cicero mentioned that a statue of her stood in the town hall of Syracuse, so she was famous in her own day, or soon thereafter. “She is a mortal marvel,” wrote Antipater of Sidon, before proceeding to catalog the Seven Wonders of the World. It is because of the homoerotic nature of some of Sappho's poems that "lesbian" and "sapphic" have their current  sexual denotations and connotations. Most of Sappho's poetry has been lost, but her reputation has endured through surviving fragments, many of them fleshed out by other poets who sought to "fill in the blanks." (Of the 189 known fragments of her work, twenty contain just one readable word, thirteen have only two, and nearly half have ten or fewer.) Major poets like Ben Jonson, T. S. Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Lowell and Lord Byron either translated her work or wrote poems in response to hers, so she has been (and remains) obviously influential ...

Sappho, fragment 58
translated by Mary Barnard

Pain penetrates
Me drop
by drop

Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!

Sappho, fragment 156
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case
and her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.

Sappho, fragment 159
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

May I lead?
Will you follow?
Foolish man! ...
Ears so hollow,
minds so shallow,
never can!
Sappho, fragment 39
by Charles Algernon Swinburne, "Songs of the Springtides"

The tawny sweetwinged thing
Whose cry was but of Spring.

The Most Popular Form of Western Lyric Poetry: the Sonnet

Historically the most popular form of lyric poetry in the Western tradition has been the sonnet, most commonly Petrarchan or Shakespearean, but with many other varieties, such as unrhymed blank verse sonnets; the curtal, sprung-rhythm sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins; the free verse sonnets of e. e. cummings with their eclectic phrasing, capitalization and typography; and basically "the kitchen sink" and everything in between ...

Sonnet 147
by William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest.
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed,
    For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
    Who art as black as Hell, as dark as night.

Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets are generally written in iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line, with a fairly regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables: for I have SWORN thee FAIR and THOUGHT thee BRIGHT) with a predefined rhyme scheme. For instance, a Shakespearean sonnet has the rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. But metrical variation is allowed in such sonnets, and even the poets who made up the "rules" sometimes broke them: Shakespeare, for instance. In fact, Shakespeare had to break the existing rules of his day in order to create the form that is now named after him. As Anthony Hecht pointed out in his article on the sonnet for Encyclopedia Britannica, canonical forms like the sonnet demand innovation from poets who wish to become original artists in their own right.

Other Popular Forms of Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry also appears in a wide variety of other forms, including ballades, canzones and villanelles:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is the best-known villanelle in the English language, and justifiably so.

The Free Verse Lyric

But today the most common form of lyric poetry is unrhymed, metrically ad-hoc free verse:

A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

But the lines easily blur, as in the magnificent poem below, which has elements of both formal blank verse and free verse:

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden is probably an unknown or undervalued poet to most readers today, but every reader should be intimately familiar with this wonderful poem. "Those Winter Sundays" illustrates how one poem can make a poet immortal. I may never remember another poem by Hayden, but I will certainly never forget this one.

Other Influences on Lyric Poetry and its Continuing History

English poetry has its roots ancient Greek lyric poets like Sappho, but other later European poets were also highly influential, as were Oriental masters like Basho and Li Po, once Western poets discovered their work. In Italy, Petrarch developed the sonnet form he inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante had used in his Vita Nuova. In 1327, the sight of a woman named Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon inspired Petrarch to celebrate her in Rime sparse ("Scattered rhymes"). Later, Renaissance poets who copied Petrarch's style named his collection of  poems Il Canzoniere ("Song Book"). Petrarch's love poems were both the culmination of medieval courtly love poetry and the origin of the Renaissance love lyric. Shortly thereafter English poets like Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare helped popularize the sonnet with their readers ...

They Flee from Me
by Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?"

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Thomas Wyatt lived during the reign of King Henry VIII. Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" may have been written to Anne Boleyn, the mistress of Henry who became his queen, only to be beheaded. Another wonderful poem of this period is "Sweet Rose of Virtue" by the Scottish poet William Dunbar:

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such terrible pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

William Dunbar's magnificent "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is one of my favorite poems from the early days of English poetry. I chose to translate it myself, to make it more accessible to modern readers.

In France, Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baïf led the way. Ronsard influenced the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, as we can see in his loose translation of a poem by Ronsard:

When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Spanish devotional poetry adapted the lyric for religious purposes. Notable Spanish poets include Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Garcilaso de la Vega and Lope de Vega. Although better known for his epic Lusiadas, Luís de Camões is also considered the greatest Portuguese lyric poet of the period.

Lyric was the dominant poetic idiom in 17th century English poetry from John Donne to Andrew Marvell. The best poems from this period are usually short, rarely tell a story and are intense in expression, often in a metaphysical vein. Other notable lyric poets of this era include Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, Aphra Behn, Thomas Carew, John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, John Milton, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan ...

by John Donne

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devils foot;
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights
Till Age snow white hairs on thee;
Thou, when thou return'st wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one let me know;
Such a pilgrimage were sweet.
Yet do not; I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet.
Though she were true when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two or three.

John Donne wrote some of the sexiest poems in the English language, and some of the best devotional poems as well. Talk about range! In the 18th century lyric poetry declined in England and France. The atmosphere of the English coffee-house or French salon, where literature was discussed, was not congenial to lyric poetry. Exceptions include the lyrics of Robert Burns, William Cowper, Thomas Gray and Oliver Goldsmith. Notable German lyric poets of the period include Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Novalis and Friedrich Schiller.

A Red, Red Rose

by Robert Burns

Oh my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
Oh my luve is like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!

Robert Burns was one of the early romantics and still reads well today. He is, of course, most famous today for his nostalgic drinking song "Auld Lang Syne." In Europe the lyric emerged as the principal poetic form of the 19th century, and came to be seen as synonymous with poetry itself. Romantic lyric poetry consists of first-person accounts of the thoughts and feelings of a specific moment; feelings are extreme and usually intensely personal. The traditional form of the sonnet was revived in Britain, with William Wordsworth writing more sonnets than any other British poet. Other important Romantic lyric poets of the period include William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Lord Bryon and Percy Bysshe Shelley ...

Music When Soft Voices Die (To )
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovèd's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

Later in the century the Victorian lyric was more linguistically self-conscious and conventional than earlier Romantic lyrics. Victorian lyric poets include Alfred Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti ...


by Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
  Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
  Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
  With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
  And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
  I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
  Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
  That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
  And haply may forget.

Lyric poetry was popular with the German reading public between 1830 and 1890, as demonstrated by the number of poetry anthologies published during that period. According to Georg Lukács, the verse of Joseph von Eichendorff exemplifies the German Romantic revival of the folk-song tradition, initiated by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder and receiving new impetus with the publication of Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano's collection of Folk Songs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

The 19th century in France saw a confident recovery of the lyric voice after its relative demise in the 18th century. The lyric became the dominant mode in French poetry during this period. Charles Baudelaire was, at least for Walter Benjamin, the last European example of lyric poetry "successful on a mass scale."

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the rise of Russian lyric poetry, exemplified by Aleksandr Pushkin. The Swedish "Phosphorists" were influenced by the Romantic movement and their chief poet, Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom produced many lyric poems. Italian lyric poets of the period include Ugo Foscolo, Giacomo Leopardi, Giovanni Pascoli and Gabriele D'Annunzio. Japanese lyric poets include Taneda Santoka, Masaoka Shiki and Ishikawa Takuboku. Spanish lyric poets include Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Rosalía de Castro and José de Espronceda.

In the early years of the 20th century, rhymed lyric poetry, usually expressing the feelings of the poet, was the dominant poetic form in America, Europe and the British colonies. English poets like A. E. Housman and Walter de la Mare employed rhymed lyrics skillfully and movingly ...

Excerpts from "More Poems," XXXVI
by A. E. Housman

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

I have loved the four lines above by Housman, since I first read them. He could write movingly without indulging in images, melodrama or sophistry, and rivals Shakespeare in what he could accomplish with direct statement. Housman is certainly a major poet, and one of our very best critics of society and religion, along with William Blake, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde.

The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was praised by William Butler Yeats for his lyric poetry and compared with the troubadour poets, when the two met in 1912. Yeats was perhaps the last of the great Romantics and the first of the great Modernists ...

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

by William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

The Wild Swans at Coole
by William Butler Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

W. B. Yeats is probably the last of the great Romantics, and the first of the great Modernists. He wrote a good number of truly great poems, and remains an essential poet of the highest rank. But before long the relevance and acceptability of the traditional lyric in the modern age was questioned by modernists like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Williams in particular rejected traditional meter and rhyme, while Pound and Eliot continued to write poetry that sounded suspiciously familiar, albeit in a freer, more liberated manner. (Verse Libre means something like "liberated verse.")

The Garden
by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
               of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
             will commit that indiscretion.

D. H. Lawrence was another modernist who wrote lyric poetry in a freer vein:

by D. H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

After World War II the proponents of New Criticism returned to the lyric, advocating a poetry that made conventional use of rhyme, meter and stanzas, and was modestly personal in the lyric tradition. Lyric poetry dealing with relationships, sex and domestic life constituted the new mainstream of American poetry in the late 20th century, and was influenced by the "confessional poets" of the 1950s and 60s. They included Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. Other exemplars of the post-war era include Louise Bogan, , e.e.cummings, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens  ...

in Just-
by e. e. cummings

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame baloonman

whistles      far      and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old baloonman whistles
far      and      wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and


 baloonMan      whistles

Acquainted With The Night
by Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad
by Wallace Stevens

The time of year has grown indifferent.
Mildew of summer and the deepening snow
Are both alike in the routine I know:
I am too dumbly in my being pent.

The wind attendant on the solstices
Blows on the shutters of the metropoles,
Stirring no poet in his sleep, and tolls
The grand ideas of the villages.

The malady of the quotidian . . .
Perhaps if summer ever came to rest
And lengthened, deepened, comforted, caressed
Through days like oceans in obsidian

Horizons, full of night's midsummer blaze;
Perhaps, if winter once could penetrate
Through all its purples to the final slate,
Persisting bleakly in an icy haze;

One might in turn become less diffident,
Out of such mildew plucking neater mould
And spouting new orations of the cold.
One might. One might. But time will not relent.

Song For The Last Act
by Louise Bogan

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd's crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music's cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat's too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

After the Persian
by Louise Bogan

I do not wish to know
The depths of your terrible jungle:
From what nest your leopard leaps
Or what sterile lianas are at once your serpents' disguise and home.

I am the dweller on the temperate threshold,
The strip of corn and vine,
Where all is translucence (the light!)
Liquidity, and the sound of water.
Here the days pass under shade
And the nights have the waxing and the waning moon.
Here the moths take flight at evening;
Here at morning the dove whistles and the pigeons coo.
Here, as night comes on, the fireflies wink and snap
Close to the cool ground,
Shining in a profusion
Celestial or marine.

Here it is never wholly dark but always wholly green,
And the day stains with what seems to be more than the
What may be more than my flesh.


I have wept with the spring storm;
Burned with the brutal summer.
Now, hearing the wind and the twanging bow-strings,
I know what winter brings.

The hunt sweeps out upon the plain
And the garden darkens.
They will bring the trophies home
To bleed and perish
Beside the trellis and the lattices,
Beside the fountain, still flinging diamond water,
Beside the pool
(Which is eight-sided, like my heart).


All has been translated into treasure:
Weightless as amber,
Translucent as the currant on the branch,
Dark as the rose's thorn.

Where is the shimmer of evil?
This is the shell's iridescence
And the wild bird's wing.


Ignorant, I took up my burden in the wilderness.
Wise with great wisdom, I shall lay it down upon flowers.


Goodbye, goodbye!
There was so much to love, I could not love it all;
I could not love it enough.

Some things I overlooked, and some I could not find.
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.

If you made it this far, I thank you for your time and attention, and I hope you were hit by a few lightning bolts from out of the blue, along the way.

Other Lyric Poems of Note

The poetic fragments of Sappho, composed for the lyre, hence "lyrics"
"Lullaby" by W. H. Auden
"The Unknown Citizen" by W. H. Auden
"The Fish" by Elizabeth Bishop
"The Armadillo" by Elizabeth Bishop
"Chaplinesque" by Hart Crane
"Voyages" by Hart Crane
"War Is Kind" by Stephen Crane
"I Sing of Olaf, Glad and Big" by e. e. cummings
"Success Is Counted Sweetest" by Emily Dickinson
"A Last Word" by Ernest Dowson
"The Snowstorm:" by Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost
"A Supermarket in California" by Allen Ginsberg
"America" by Allen Ginsberg
"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell
"Hurt Hawks" by Robinson Jeffers
"Shine, Perishing Republic" by Robinson Jeffers
"Aubade" by Philip Larkin
"Churchgoing" by Philip Larkin
"The Witsun Weddings" by Philip Larkin
"This Be The Verse" by Philip Larkin
"The Leaden-Eyed" by Vachel Lindsay
"The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"My Lost Youth" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Divina Commedia" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Skunk Hour" by Robert Lowell
"The Silent Slain" by Archibald MacLeish
"Memorial Rain" by Archibald MacLeish
"You, Andrew Marvell" by Archibald MacLeish
"Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
"The Fish" by Marianne Moore
"Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen
"The Unreturning" by Wilfred Owen
"Daddy" by Sylvia Plath
"To Helen" by Edgar Allan Poe
"Dreamland" by Edgar Allan Poe
"The Bells" by Edgar Allan Poe
"The Return" by Ezra Pound
"A Pact" by Ezra Pound
"Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich
"Blue Girls" by John Crowe Ransom
"Piazza Piece" by John Crowe Ransom
"Credo" by Edward Arlington Robinson
"Luke Havergal" by Edward Arlington Robinson
"The Miller's Wife" by Edward Arlington Robinson
"Mr. Flood's Party" by Edward Arlington Robinson
"Richard Cory" by Edward Arlington Robinson
"The Truth the Dead Know" by Anne Sexton
"The Idea of Order at Key West" by Wallace Stevens
"Upon a Spider Catching a Fly" by Edward Taylor
"Earth, My Likeness" by Walt Whitman
"The Dance" by William Carlos Williams
"This Is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams

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