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THE ELIZABETHAN LYRIC.
WHILE the prime conception of the term, lyric, is based upon the singing or song-like quality of this species of poetry as contrasted with the telling or epic quality of narrative verse, an accurate conception of the term contains another, perhaps even more important, consideration. The lyric is personal, concerned with the poet and with the interpretation of his thoughts, sentiments, and emotions. It is the inward world of passion and feeling that is here celebrated, as opposed to the outward world of sequence in time. It is the individual singer, dignified by the sincerity and potency of his art, that unfolds his own moods and emotions to our sympathy and understanding, not a mere voice, the instrument by which we are introduced to the protracted wanderings of Ulysses or the heroic deeds of Beowulf.
But it is not enough that the lyric deal with passion and emotion; it must deal with both in their simplicity, and not call in, as does the drama, the strong aid of imitated action and heightened situation. Granting grasp and insight into the given mood, the success of a lyric poem will depend upon the poet's ability to exalt his mood to an independence of the ordinary considerations of time and place, and upon his fortunate treatment of the conditions of his theme in fitting and musical form. The elimination of most of those
elements which other forms of verse possess in common with prose elements, which can be justified in the lyric only in the degree in which they make for intelligibility – has led many to look upon the lyric as alone constituting the true essence of poetry; the contention being that other forms, as the epic and the drama, are poetry only in so far as they contain the elements that add the soul of passion and the wings of song. Be this as it may, the lyric element of poetry is assuredly the most subtile and the most difficult of approach; it is the last element mastered-if mastered it ever is — by those whom we commonly describe as practical or unpoetical people; it is the element which resides at the antipodes of what again we commonly describe as hard matter of fact.1
As to form, the lyric, like other varieties of poetry, involves the presentation of thought in metrical words, but partakes more of the nature - if not of the limitations of music in reflecting a mood rather than in symbolizing an event or presenting a picture. "Lyrical beauty," says Mr. Stedman, "does not necessarily depend upon the obvious repetends and singing-bars of a song or regular lyric. The purest lyrics are not of course songs; the stanzaic effect, the use of open vowel sounds, and other matters instinctive with song-makers, need not characterize them. What they must have is quality. That their rhythmic and verbal expression appeals supremely to the finest sensibilities indicates, first, that the music of speech is more advanced, because more subtly varying, than that of song; or, secondly, that a more advanced music, such as the German and French melodists
1 We are concerned in this discussion wholly with the lyric of art, the criterion of which is its personality. No one will deny the existence in English, as in other tongues, of the impersonal Volkslyrik. See on this subject in general Professor Gummere's Introduction, Old English Ballads, Athenæum Press Series.
now wed to words, is required for the interpretation of the most poetic and qualitative lyric." 1
Like good poetry of all classes, the lyric must combine universality of feeling with unity of form. In accord with the first, the poem must be neither narrative nor descriptive < to a degree which will destroy the central idea. Less than any other form of literature conceivable should the lyric be didactic; for by the intrusion of didacticism a particular instance, with its pendent maxim, is substituted for a general truth, and a product of fine art degraded into a mere utility. Again, the lyric must present the unity of a perfect art form, and "each poem," as Mr. Palgrave states it, must "turn on some single thought, feeling, or situation." It is easy to see that by its very conditions the lyric must be short, as an emotion prolonged beyond a pleasurable length will defeat its own artistic aim.3
As to another canon of "the best poetry," much trumpeted of late, I feel less ready to give an unqualified assent. Doubtless it is no light thing to say of a poem that “no man's gravity hath been disturbed thereby," and the touchstone of "high seriousness" may perhaps be applied with much success to that group of classical productions which are far more admired than read. But there is a flash in the play of a familiar word about a remote idea, there is a joy that bursts into song and a mirth which rises into the bubble of nonsense, all of which are highly subversive of gravity, and yet very often much of the salt of that " consolation and stay" which literature affords us in the rough places of the world. Even cynicism of mood, though often dangerously intellectual, need not be destructive of lyric 1
1 The Nature and Elements of Poetry, p. 179.
2 Golden Treasury of English Lyrics. Preface.
3 Cf. E. A. Poe, The Poetic Principle. Select Works, ed. 1885, p 641 4 Cf. Donne's Song, p. 97.