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    A Definition of the Lyric Essay

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    It is a commonplace of literary history that no great outburst of poetic energy has been unattended by the lyric. Not only may we fairly say that its vitalitv is an index of the vitality of the deeper poetic energies, but we may add that it endures when other forms seem dormiant or moribund, and that when it is wholly extinguished, true poetry is practically at an end. It would, therefore, seem that an examination of the lyric, and a definitionl of its peculiar qualities, would be likely to throw light on the nature of poetry itself. We all recognize lyrics when we see them, but we are also conscious that not every poem which wears the outward semblance of a lyric is essentially so; yet it is not always easy to give a precise and satisfactory statement of what constitutes the essence of the lyric form. When we seek light on the matter in the pronouncements of the past, we perceive that two forces have stood in the way of the framing of such a definition. One is the fact that the really vital periods have been too busy with actual production to pause for an examination of its grounds; accepting the lyric as a spontaneous vehicle, needing no justification, they have left us great works, and many suggestive remarks, but no independent body of theory. When the full tide of Provengal was restoring the vernacular lyric to European literature, we find Peire Vidal expressing himself to this effect:

    All peoples, Christians, Jews, and Saracens, emperors, kings, princes, dukes, viscounts, barons, clerks, burgesses, villeins, emall and great continually set their minds on composing and singing, whether they wish themselves to compose, or to understand, or to whether they wish themselves to compose, or to understand, or to recite, or to listen; so that scarcely can you be in a place so private or so solitary that you will not hear one or another, or all together, sing; for even the shepherds of the mountain have their greatest solace in singing. All the bad and the good in the world are kept in remembrance by poets, and you cannot find a word, ibe it well said or ill said, which is not held in remembrance, if once a poet has put it iinto rime; and poetry and song are the movers of all valorous deeds.

    So Dante, not long afterwards, wastes no time asking whether sonnet and canzone have a right to exist, but, accepting the work of his predecessors as justified, tho imperfect, shows wherein it must be bettered if the forms are to attain the full measure of their perfection. So, in Elizabethan England, Daniel, in that Defense of Rime which is the most truly critical document of its age, rests his case on the universal acceptance of rime and its attendant verse-forms in the vernaculars of all Europe, wherever curious reformers have not tried to restore a semblance of classical prosody. This attitude, tho it is assuredly healthy, and justified of its works, does not carry us far into the domain of analysis and speculation. But if we turn to the periods of a more critical and speculative cast, we are confronted by a far graver obstacle the fact that these periods not only cared little for the lyric, but tended actively to ignore it.

    Aristotle, we recall, has little to say of the lyric, Horace scarcely more; and by consequence their followers in the Renaissance concentrated their attention on tragedy and the epic. Nor were thinkers who owed no allegiance to Aristotle more hospitable. In England, Bacon, despite his apparently suggestive reference of poetry to the imagi- nation, restricts it to narrative, representative, and allusive;  Ilobbes flatly declares3 that lyrics ” are but essays and parts of an entire poem.” The results of this state of mind in the later seventeenth century, and thruout the eighteenth, need no insistence. Thus the most creative periods of poetry offer us an abundance of lyrical production, but little general theory; the periods of reflection do not profess to offer us either, and further complicate the matter by arbitrary and mis- leading notions as to the real nature of poetry itself. It is this conflict which justifies us in making a fresh ap- proach to the important problem, with some hope of reach- ing a tenable solution if we accept the casual but stimulating remarks of the creative periods, and draw from the speculations of those who ignored the lyric salutary warn- ings as to what to avoid.

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