What Is a Lyric Poem? Definition and Examples

A beautiful woman dressed in red plays a lyre.
"Lady with a Lyre," Portrait of Josephine Budayevskaya by Mlle Riviere, 1806.

 Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A lyric poem is short, highly musical verse that conveys powerful feelings. The poet may use rhyme, meter, or other literary devices to create a song-like quality.

Unlike narrative poetry, which chronicles events, lyric poetry doesn't have to tell a story. A lyric poem is a private expression of emotion by a single speaker. For example, American poet Emily Dickinson described inner feelings when she wrote her lyric poem that begins, "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, / And Mourners to and fro."

Key Takeways: Lyric Poetry

  • A lyric poem is a private expression of emotion by an individual speaker.
  • Lyric poetry is highly musical and can feature poetic devices like rhyme and meter.
  • Some scholars categorize lyric poetry into three subtypes: Lyric of Vision, Lyric of Thought, and Lyric of Emotion. However, this classification is not widely agreed-upon.

Origins of Lyric Poetry

Song lyrics often begin as lyric poems. In ancient Greece, lyric poetry was, in fact, combined with music played on a U-shaped stringed instrument called a lyre. Through words and music, great lyric poets like Sappho (ca. 610–570 B.C.) poured out feelings of love and yearning.

Similar approaches to poetry were developed in other parts of the world. Between the fourth century B.C. and the first century A.D., Hebrew poets composed intimate and lyrical psalms, which were sung in ancient Jewish worship services and compiled in the Hebrew Bible. During the eighth century, Japanese poets expressed their ideas and emotions through haiku and other forms. Writing about his private life, Taoist poet Li Po (710–762) became one of China's most celebrated poets.

The rise of lyric poetry in the Western world represented a shift from epic narratives about heroes and gods. The personal tone of lyric poetry gave it broad appeal. Poets in Europe drew inspiration from ancient Greece, but also borrowed ideas from the Middle East, Egypt, and Asia.

Types of Lyric Poetry

Of the three main categories of poetry—narrative, dramatic, and lyric—lyric is the most common, and also the most difficult to classify. Narrative poems tell stories. Dramatic poetry is a play written in verse. Lyric poetry, however, encompasses a wide range of forms and approaches.

Nearly any experience or phenomenon be explored in the emotional, personal lyric mode, from war and patriotism to love to art.

Lyric poetry also has no prescribed form. Sonnets, villanelles, rondeaus, and pantoums are all considered lyric poems. So are elegies, odes, and most occasional (or ceremonial) poems. When composed in free verse, lyric poetry achieves musicality through literary devices such as alliteration, assonance, and anaphora.

Each of the following examples illustrates an approach to lyric poetry.

Example #1: William Wordsworth, "The World Is Too Much With Us"

"The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!"

—from "The World Is Too Much With Us" by William Wordsworth

The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850) famously said that poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." In "The World Is Too Much with Us," his passion is evident in blunt exclamatory statements such as "a sordid boon!" Wordsworth condemns materialism and alienation from nature.

Although "The World Is Too Much with Us" feels spontaneous, it was clearly composed with care ("recollected in tranquility"). A Petrarchan sonnet, the complete poem has 14 lines with a prescribed rhyme scheme, metrical pattern, and arrangement of ideas. In this musical form, Wordsworth expressed personal outrage over effects of the Industrial Revolution.

Example #2: Christina Rossetti, "A Dirge"

"Why were you born when the snow was falling? 

You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling, 

Or when grapes are green in the cluster, 

Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster 

For their far off flying 

From summer dying." 

— from "A Dirge" by Christina Rossetti

Using deceptively simple language, British poet Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) laments an untimely death. The poem is an elegy, but Rossetti does not tell us who died. Instead, she speaks figuratively, comparing the span of a human life to the changing seasons.

Christina Rossetti composed "A Dirge" in rhyming couplets. The consistent meter and rhyme create the effect of a burial march. The lines grow progressively shorter, reflecting the speaker's sense of loss.

Example #3: Elizabeth Alexander, "Praise Song for the Day"

"Say it plain: that many have died for this day.

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,

who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,


picked the cotton and the lettuce, built

brick by brick the glittering edifices

they would then keep clean and work inside of.


Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.

Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,

the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables."

—from "Praise Song for the Day" by Elizabeth Alexander

"Praise Song for the Day" is rooted in two traditions. It is both an occasional poem, written and performed for a special occasion, and a praise song, an African form that uses descriptive word-pictures to capture the essence of something being praised.

Occasional poetry has played an important role in Western literature since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Short or long, serious or lighthearted, occasional poems commemorate coronations, weddings, funerals, dedications, anniversaries, and other important events. Similar to odes, occasional poems are often passionate expressions of praise.

American poet Elizabeth Alexander (1962– ) wrote "Praise Song for the Day" to read at the 2009 inauguration of America's first black president, Barack Obama. The poem does not rhyme, but it creates a song-like effect through rhythmic repetition of phrases. By echoing a traditional African form, Alexander paid tribute to African culture in the United States and called for people of all races to live together in peace.

Classifying Lyric Poems

Poets are always devising new ways to express feelings and ideas, transforming our understanding of the lyric mode. Is a found poem lyric? What about a concrete poem made from artful arrangements of words on the page? To answer these questions, some scholars utilize three classifications for lyric poetry: Lyric of Vision, Lyric of Thought, and Lyric of Emotion.

Visual poetry like May Swenson's pattern poem, "Women," belongs to the Lyric of Vision subtype. Swenson arranged lines and spaces in a zig-zag pattern to suggest the image of women rocking and swaying to satisfy the whims of men. Other Lyric of Vision poets have incorporated colors, unusual typography, and 3-dimensional shapes.

Didactic poems designed to teach and intellectual poems such as satire may not seem especially musical or intimate, but these works can be placed in the Lyric of Thought category. For examples of this subtype, consider the scathing epistles by 18th century British poet Alexander Pope.

The third subtype, Lyric of Emotion, refers to works we usually associate with lyric poetry as a whole: mystical, sensual, and emotional. However, scholars have long debated these classifications. The term "lyric poem" is often used broadly to describe any poem that is not a narrative or a stage play.

Sources

  • Burch, Michael R. "The Best Lyric Poetry: Origins and History with a Definition and Examples." The HyperTexts Journal. http://www.thehypertexts.com/Best%20Lyric%20Poetry.htm
  • Gutman, Huck. "The Plight of the Modern Lyric Poet." Except from a seminar lecture. “Identity, Relevance, Text: Reviewing English Studies.” Calcutta University, 8 Feb 2001. http://www.uvm.edu/~sgutman/The_Plight_of_the_Modern_Lyric_Poet.html
  • Melani, Lilia. "Reading Lyric Poetry." Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, Brooklyn College. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/read_lyr.html
  • Neziroski, Lirim. "Narrative, Lyric, Drama." Theories of Media, Keyword Glossary. University of Chicago. Winter 2003. http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/narrativelyricdrama.htm
  • The Poetry Foundation. "Saphho." https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sappho  
  • Titchener, Frances B. "Chapter 5: Greek Lyric Poetry." Ancient Literature and Language, A Guide to Writing in History and Classics. https://www.usu.edu/markdamen/1320AncLit/chapters/05lyric.htm