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Of all literary types the lyric is perhaps the easiest to recognize and the hardest to define. If we say that the lyric is a song,
a poem which is written to be sung or which sounds as if it might be sung, we should have to include under our definition the old English or Scotch ballad, which has the suggestion of song, but which is narrative and belongs rather to the type of the short story. Palgrave chose for his anthology those poems which turned upon a single thought, feeling, or situation. Yet this formula did not represent his notion of the lyric; for he adds that he excluded narrative, descriptive, and didactic poems, "unless accompanied by rapidity of movement, brevity, and the coloring of human passion.” The heart of his definition really lay in the last modest phrase, "the coloring of human passion."
For the lyric is essentially that literary type which expresses emotion, just as the drama and the novel express active experience, and the essay expresses thought. In his study of "The School of Giorgione" Walter Pater said that all art tends to become music, that is, to stir emotions rather than to state intellectual ideas. A musician is annoyed when some one asks what the music "means”; to him it is a feeling, not a statement; it means no more than does the taste of sugar. So the painter is annoyed at the common attempt to read a story into a picture; to him the picture is a scheme of color and an arrangement of lines, a sensation for the eye, as music is for the ear. But the average man looks for an idea, — especially in the United States, where "intellect” has unfortunately been rated higher than the gift and training to appreciate beauty; and in all art we see a certain struggle between the artist's desire to set out the loveliness of the world for man's enjoyment, and man's contrary desire that art shall say something that can be translated into words.
Pater in his famous saying meant that the best of art cannot be translated into words. When we hear a 'cello or violin, the tragic tones give us a luxurious sadness, although we have no reason to be sad, and cannot tell another man what the tone of the 'cello is like. The hurdy-gurdy in the street playing a dance tune sets the children to waltzing, and the drums and fifes of the military band make us feel like marching. These different emotions, we notice, can be indicated only by mentioning the instruments that stimulate them; if the reader has experienced the emotions, he will understand the reference,
- otherwise it will mean nothing to him. So the lyric, nearest of all literary types to music, says to us many delicious things — recognizable but inexpressible emotions — which are over and above what the actual words mean.
The chief language, so to speak, which the lyric employs in addition to actual words is rhythm. Whether the beat of the lines is strong or weak, grave or merry; whether the measure befits a song or a dance tune or a military march, we feel all this before we even attend to the intellectual message of the verse. The rhythm, the physical habit of the lyric, denotes the vital energy of its emotion. Poems with a strongly marked rhythm, like Jonson's " Hymn to Diana” (p. 87), suggest and stimulate a well-defined state of feeling wherein the emotion easily dominates as in the lyric it should
the intellectual content. Such a poem, however, as Crashaw's " Wishes for the Supposed Mistress ” (p. 87) indicates at once by its less definite rhythm that its emotional energy is relaxed and unimportant, almost secondary to the thoughts that make it a poem of intellectual conceits rather than of feeling. And in the fixed forms, like the sonnet, where the rhythm and the number of syllables and lines are prescribed, a reader of even slight experience detects differences of rhythmic energy between Shakespeare's "Let me not to the marriage of true minds” (p. 21), Milton's "When I consider how my
life is spent” (p. 81), and Wordsworth's "The world is too much with
(p. 359). Within the single poem the rhythm may alter if it parallels some emotional change. Obviously such alterations occur most often in long poems. The changes in Dryden's "Song for St. Cecilia's Day"
are necessary to express, as in page 67, line 30, the sensation roused by trumpet and drum; or, as in page 68, line 7, the feeling stirred by the soft, complaining flute. With Dryden and the other essentially classical poets the change of rhythm is formal and for a set purpose; the lyrics of this school therefore divide into sections, which vaguely resemble the movements of a sonata or symphony. In the romantic practice of Shelley, however, the changes are more subtle and seldom prepared for; the rhythm is more sensitive to veering moods, and accommodates itself to its subject like modern music, measure by measure, instead of prescribing the form its subject shall take. Line 16 of Shelley's famous
the Euganean Hills” must, for example, be read by itself, not in the rhythm of the preceding lines; the effect is to express the sinking of the metaphorical ship:
The tempest fleet
Next after rhythm, time — the tempo of music — is the vehicle of lyric expression. It is an error to think of all verse or of all the lines in one poem as measured by fixed time beats. The first line of Burns's " To a Mouse” (p. 182) is appreciably slower than the second line or the third; and the stanzas of Gray's "On a Favorite Cat ” (p. 148) may be compared with those of Wordsworth's " The Education of Nature” (p. 226), the second generally slower in effect, full of musical rallentandos, although metrically the poems are alike. Like rhythm, the time may change with subtle variations, or more formally, as at the end of the introductions to "L'Allegro" (p. 124) and " Il Penseroso" (p. 128). The length of the syllable or the use of rests concerns the time of verse as vitally as the length of notes and rests concerns the tempo of music; without intelligence in these elementary divisions neither music nor verse can be read. Usually one can guess at the length of a syllable from its rhythmic or intellectual emphasis. In the line " Toll for the Brave ” (p. 160) it is easy to see that the first word represents both a long and a short syllable, and the line has three beats, to correspond with the rhythm of the following lines :
Tóll for the Brave!
And in Coleridge's " Youth and Age” (p. 361), the reverberating words "young" and "old" at the end of lines 5, 22, and 43 oCcupy the attention that would elsewhere be given to half a line. But in line 3, page 68, of the " Song for St. Cecilia's Day” the effect of the stanza depends upon the correct reading of the twice-repeated "double.” Unless these syllables represent very short notes, the welldefined rhythm is confused and there is no imitation of the drum roll:
The trumpet's loud clangor
Of the thundering drum
Charge, charge, 't is too late to retreat!' The third vehicle of lyric expression is tone, or what we often call in a loose way" musical quality.” The same note played upon the piano and the flute and the violin has in each case a different appeal, which lies in the tone quality of the instrument. The melody would probably secm most appealing, most emotional, when played upon the violin, because that instrument has the most emotional tone. So the thought of a lyric stirs us to a greater degree when the very sound of the words iş stirring. This word music depends upon the