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Lyric Poetry: Origins in Sappho

compiled by Michael R. Burch

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

Lyric poetry is a type of poetry, usually short in length, which expresses personal and emotional feelings without the plot and character development common to most narrative poetry, dramatic poetry, plays, novels, etc. In the ancient world, lyric poems were once accompanied by someone playing the lyre, hence lyric poems and song lyrics are closely related, if not essentially the same thing.

Dramatic poetry is meant to be spoken: for instance, the soliloquies of Hamlet. Narrative poems tell stories: for instance, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." Epic poems are generally longer narrative poems that tell epic tales of heroes, such as "Beowulf." But a lyric poem may exist merely to convey an image, thought or impression: for example, a haiku. Here's one I wrote recently, by way of example:

dark-bosomed clouds
pregnant with heavy thunder ...
the water breaks

Lyric poems do not require rhyme or regular meter, although many lyric poems 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 great Scottish poet Robert Burns and "To Celia" ("Drink to me only with thine eyes") by the English poet Ben Jonson. Some of the best-known contemporary songwriters are lyric poets: Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Jewel have published books of poems, while Paul Simon wrote many of his most famous songs as poems, then set them to music later.

Lyric poetry has a long and illustrious history. Aristotle mentioned lyric poetry (kitharistike, played to the cithara) in his Poetics, along with drama, epic poetry, dancing, painting and other forms of mimesis. Archaic and classical Greek lyric poetry involved a live performance accompanied by a stringed instrument, so lyric poetry may be said to 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.

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, while Cicero records that a statue of her stood in the town-hall of Syracuse, so she was justifiably famous in her own right. “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 her 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 fifty-nine have ten or fewer. And yet as we will see below, well-known poets like T. S. Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Lowell and Lord Byron have either translated her work, or written poems in response to it ...

Sappho, fragment 3
by Julia Dubnoff

Now, I shall sing these songs
for my companions.

Sappho, fragment 58
by Mary Barnard

Pain penetrates
Me drop
by drop

Sappho, fragment 58
loose translation by Michael R. Burch


Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.

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 52
by Kenneth Rexroth

The moon has set,
And the Pleiades. It is
Midnight. Time passes.
I sleep alone.

Sappho, fragment 52
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The moon has long since set;
the Pleiades are gone;
now half the night is spent
yet I still sleep alone?

Sappho, fragment 104
by T. S. Eliot

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.

Sappho, fragment 137
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Gold does not rust,
yet my son becomes dust?

Three Letters to Anaktoria
by Robert Lowell

I set that man above the gods and heroes —
all day, he sits before you face to face,
like a cardplayer. Your elbow brushes his elbow —
if you should speak, he hears.

The touched heart madly stirs,
your laughter is water hurrying over pebbles —
every gesture is a proclamation,
every sound is speech ...

Refining fire purifies my flesh!
I hear you: a hollowness in my ears
thunders and stuns me. I cannot speak.
I cannot see.

I shiver. A dead whiteness spreads over
my body, trickling pinpricks of sweat.
I am greener than the greenest green grass —
I die!

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 146
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Song of the Rose

If Zeus chose us a king of the flowers in his mirth,
He would call to the Rose and would royally crown it,
For the Rose, ho, the Rose, is the grace of the earth,
Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it.

For the Rose, ho, the Rose, is the eye of the flowers,
Is the blush of the meadows that feel themselves fair—
Is the lightning of beauty that strikes through the bowers
On pale lovers who sit in the glow unaware.

Ho, the Rose breathes of love! Ho, the Rose lifts the cup
To the red lips of Cypris invoked for a guest!
Ho, the Rose, having curled its sweet leaves for the world,
Takes delight in the motion its petals keep up,
As they laugh to the wind as it laughs from the west!

Sappho, fragment 94
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Shepherds trample the hyacinth;
its petals darken the heath
foreshadowing shepherds' grief.

Sappho, fragments 93 & 94
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti



Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
A-top on the topmost twig,—which the pluckers forgot, somehow,—
Forgot it not, nay, but got it not, for none could get it till now.


Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden into the ground.

Sappho, fragment 130
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

May the gods prolong the night
  —yes, let it last forever!—
as long as you sleep in my sight.

Sappho, fragment 137
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Death is evil;
the Gods have judged:
for, had it been good,
the Gods would die ...
or do the Gods lie?

Sappho, fragments 122 & 123
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Your voice—
a sweeter liar
than the lyre,
more dearly sold
and bought, than gold.

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

She wrapped herself then in
the most delicate linen.

Sappho, fragment 70
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

What country girl bewitches your heart
whose most beguiling art
is not hiking her dress
to reveal her nakedness?

Sappho, fragment 39
by Ben Johnson, "The Sad Shepherd," Act II

The dear good angel of the spring,
The nightingale.
Sappho, fragment 39
by Charles Algernon Swinburne, "Songs of the Springtides,"

The tawny sweetwinged thing
Whose cry was but of Spring.

Sappho, fragment 95
by H. T. Wharton

Evening, thou that bringest all that bright morning scattered; thou bringest the sheep, the goat, the child back to her mother.

Sappho, fragment 95
by Lord Byron, "Don Juan"

O Hesperus, thou bringest all good things—
        Home to the weary, to the hungry cheer,
To the young bird the parent's brooding wings,
        The welcome stall to the o'erlaboured steer;
Whate'er of peace about our hearthstone clings,
        Whate'er our household gods protect of dear,
Are gathered round us by thy look of rest;
Thou bring'st the child too to its mother's breast.

Sappho, fragment 55 (Lobel-Page 55 / Voigt 55 / Diehl 58 / Bergk 68 / Cox 65)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

soon you'll lie dead, disregarded,
as your worm-eaten corpse like your corpus degrades;
for those who never gathered Pieria's roses
must mutely accept how their memory fades
as they flit among the obscure, uncelebrated
Hadean shades.

soon you'll lie dead, disregarded,
as your worm-eaten corpse like your verse degrades;
for those who never gathered Pierian roses
must mutely accept how their reputation fades
among the obscure, uncelebrated
Hadean shades.

soon you'll lie dead, disregarded;
then imagine how quickly your reputation fades ...
when you who never gathered the roses of Pieria
mutely assume your place
among the obscure, uncelebrated
Hadean shades.

"Quoted by Stobaeus about A.D. 500 as addressed to a woman of no education. Plutarch also quotes this fragment, twice in fact, once as if written to a rich woman, and again when he says that the crown of roses was assigned to the Muses, for he remembers that Sappho had said these same words to some uneducated woman."―Edwin Marion Cox

The 3rd century philosopher Maximus of Tyre described Sappho's relationships to those of Socrates: "What else could one call the love of the Lesbian woman than the Socratic art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love after their own fashion, she the love of women, he of men. For they said they loved many, and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to her ..."

The most popular form of lyric poetry in the Western tradition is the 14-line sonnet, most commonly Petrarchan or Shakespearean, but lyric poetry also appears in a wide variety of forms such as ballades, villanelles and canzones. But today the most common form of lyric poetry is unrhymed, metrically ad hoc free verse.

In Italy, Petrarch developed the sonnet form inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante had made much use of in his Vita Nuova. In 1327, according to Petrarch, the sight of a woman called Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon awoke in him a lasting passion, celebrated in the Rime sparse ("Scattered rhymes"). Later, Renaissance poets who copied Petrarch's style named this collection of 366 poems Il Canzoniere ("Song Book"). Laura is in many ways both the culmination of medieval courtly love poetry and the beginning of Renaissance love lyric.

Shortly thereafter in England Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare helped popularize the sonnet. In France, Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baïf led the way. 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 poems of this period are short, rarely tell a story and are intense in expression. Other notable poets of the era include Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, Aphra Behn, Thomas Carew, John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, John Milton, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan. A German lyric poet of the period is Martin Opitz. Matsuo Bashō is a Japanese lyric poet.

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. German lyric poets of the period include Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Novalis, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Heinrich Voß. Kobayashi Issa is a Japanese lyric poet.

In Europe the lyric emerges as the principal poetic form of the 19th century, and comes 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, but personal. The traditional form of the sonnet is revived in Britain, with William Wordsworth writing more sonnets than any other British poet. Other important Romantic lyric writers of the period include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Later in the century the Victorian lyric is more linguistically self-conscious and defensive than the Romantic lyric. Victorian lyric poets include Alfred Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti.

Lyric poetry was popular with the German reading public between 1830 and 1890, as shown in the number of poetry anthologies published in the 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 sees a confident recovery of the lyric voice after its relative demise in the 18th century. The lyric becomes the dominant mode in French poetry of this period. Charles Baudelaire is, for Walter Benjamin, the last European example of lyric poetry "successful on a mass scale."

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries constitute the period of 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. The English Georgian poets such as A. E. Housman, Walter de la Mare and Edmund Blunden used the lyric form. 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.

The relevance and acceptability of the lyric in the modern age was, though, called into question by modernist poets such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, H.D. and William Carlos Williams, who rejected the English lyric form of the 19th century, feeling that it relied too heavily on melodious language, rather than complexity of thought. After the second world war the American 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, influenced by the confessional poets of the 1950s and 60s, such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

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