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Poems of the light and of the dark

Part 2 of a trilogy of articles in which Andrea T Judge discusses the history and evolution of lyric and epic poetry and what they mean to us today.

If someone told you that there is a word in the English language that means nothing, you would probably respond, “Big deal.” After all, there are several. But what if they told you that this one specific word meaning nothing exists in all spoken European languages, and in Ancient Greek and Latin too, and that it is identical in all of them for spelling, meaning and use – even, almost, for pronunciation? Does it still sound familiar? And what if they went on to tell you that this is the only word in the English language – or in any language – which is used almost exclusively in poetry, including non-lyric instances of poetry such as dramatic verse or the poetry books of the bible, or when another mode of writing tries to mimic poetic discourse (ancient historical texts or early novels, placing ‘poetic’ speeches in the mouths of their characters, or modern novels in deliberate linguistic satire)? Finally, what if they told you that the spelling for this universal ‘word for nothing’ is the simplest you can imagine – so incredibly simple, in fact, that it consists of only one letter?

Ladies and gentlemen, meet ‘O’ – the letter ‘O’, and the word ‘O’. The word, let us be clear about it, has a double meaning. On one hand, it is a mark of the vocative – it indicates that whatever name or object appearing next in the sentence is being called or addressed. “O wild west wind,” begins Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. “O Goddess!”, opens Keats’ ‘Ode to Psyche’. The word originates from Ancient Greek, where the letter Omega (Ω, ω), pronounced like the long o in ‘broad,’ was used in much the same way, in both lyric poetry – Pindar, Pythian IV, line 59: ‘ωμακμρ υιε Πολυμναστου’, “O happy son of Polymnestos” – and dramatic – Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 1577, ‘ω φεΥΥος ευφρον ημεραζ οικηφορου,’ “O fluent glimmering light of justice.” It was later picked up by the Latins for the same use (Quis deus, o Musae, tam saeva incendia Teucris / avertit?, “Which god, o Muses, from such raging fire saved the Greeks?” – Virgil in the Aeneid, IX, 77-78). From there it spread to all the modern European languages.

The second meaning of ‘O’ is the one that indicates nothing in the best sense of the phrase (though to some extent this is also true of its vocative form, at least inasmuch as it sets up the register of the sentence but indicates no specific object in and of itself). Its meaning is that of an exclamation of sudden and/or intense emotion, be it surprise, pain, joy, longing or what have you. Blake gives us an example in ‘The Little Black Boy’: “And I am black, but O! my soul is white.” This version of ‘O’ later evolved into ‘Oh’, presumably to distinguish it from the vocative use, and this new word became the one to be used in novels, journalism and correspondence – leaving the pristine ‘O’ alone for use in poetry, where (bizarrely) it nonetheless retained its double meaning. Now this second use of O truly means nothing in a way that no other word in language does, not even the word ‘nothing’. The meaning of ‘Oh’ is practically ‘I cannot speak’; “I am too surprised to emit anything but this inarticulate sound. I haven’t regained my conscience or had the time to formulate a proper sentence.” Or: “I am in too great a pain to speak. This cry of pain is all that can worm its way out of my mouth.” Or: “I am so deeply in love that I cannot speak it, yet I cannot stay silent either, so this sound will be my compromise.” Where ‘O(h)’ appears – or, for as long as it appears – language ends. It is a sign that signals the impossibility of utilizing signs or formulating meaning. It represents the crisis of language, and as such, it verily means nothing.

Ironic as it may sound that poetry, the most meaningful mode of language, should gain its most exclusive signifier in a word that means nothing, the mating is in reality quite sensible. Lyric poetry is normally based on an underlying dialectic of speaker and receptor – it is ‘an utterance that is overheard’, as John Stuart Mills defined it, or a case in which the poet ‘pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else’, in the words of Northrop Frye. This is the case regardless of whether the receptor is personified, as in Sappho’s Aphrodite or Petrarch’s Laura, or merely implied, by the echo of the reader who ‘overhears’. The vocative ‘O…’ projects an addressee and therefore creates a true lyric register. The exclamatory or emotional ‘O’ is an extension of this function, and this reveals the connection between two otherwise unrelated uses of the same ‘O’: to the extent that an internal monologue cannot make meaningless statements without ceasing to be either internal or a monologue, a void expression of emotion cannot subsist in such a speech, nor a sign that signals the absence of signs. More likely, such expressions are staging a call for attention of some kind. The emotional ‘O’ is the raw cry of pain, the bark of surprise, the peal of wonder, the wolf’s howl. Though it never says anything, it always signals something to some other. “O, I am so in love!” means “[Dear Sir/Lady], I am so in love!” Where there is an ‘O’, there is always the O/ther. (Of course, the argument can be extended to propose that the whole notion of an internal monologue is an oxymoron, as any ‘logos’ implies an Other, but that is a discussion for another day).

Let’s extend the original shibboleth. What if someone told you that there is a word which means the opposite of ‘O’, the opposite of nothing, a word which represents the other pole of the dialectic, the other side of the Other? What if this word, too, were spelt by means of a single letter? It is not too hard to find: here comes ‘I’. The universality of this one is not quite the same – the letter remains in the German ‘Ich’ or the Italian ‘Io’, but it is substituted with other, similarly elongated vertical letters in languages such as French (‘Je’) or Spanish (‘Yo’). On the other hand, the word is more polyvalent in its signification – the same pronunciation, but with different spellings, can signify the eye, the pained expression ‘Ay’ (similar to ‘O!’), and ‘Aye’, which is another form of that fascinating syllable that is ‘yes’.

The ‘I’ represents the opposite of the ‘O’ for fairly obvious reasons. While the ‘O’ projects another person, the ‘I’ indicates the self, subject and origin of speech. ‘I’ cannot be spoken of someone else, while ‘O’ cannot be said without someone else. Yet the opposition runs deeper than the semantic. We mentioned that the lyric genre is based on a dialectic of speaker and receptor, but we cannot help agreeing that such an identification, while useful to great extents, is not enough to exhaust all poetry, and that there are some poems which popular consensus would call ‘lyric’ or ‘lyrical’ yet are not directly referable (much less directly addressed) to a specific Other – including a deal of the lyric poetry belonging to the ancients and important hermetic traditions such as the Japanese haikus. Interestingly, though most of these poems do not respond to the dialectic of the self and the other, they do respond to the values represented by ‘I’ and ‘O’. These two words/letters are more primal than the dichotomy of the self and the other – the latter is an expression of the former, not the other way round.

The ‘I’ and ‘O’, as graphic shapes, are the most elementary signs for the most powerful opposition in the realm of signification, and it is incredible how many symbols, themes, and effects in poetry can be linked – or even directly translated – into this couple. Nietzsche identified this opposition in his famous antithesis of Apollonian versus Dionysian principles, claiming that the development of all arts was inextricably bound up with their duality. Upon the foundations of ‘I’ and ‘O’ rest, for instance, the oppositions of light and dark, man and woman, truth and dream, order and chaos, self and other, difference and sameness, good and evil, law and anarchy, reason and emotion, life and death, civilization and barbarism, and an infinity of aesthetic conflicts. In its original form, the Greek omega was written by means of a simple circle (the looping symbol ‘ω’ evolved later as a conjunction of two small Os, to distinguish it from the letter omicron). The reasons why such a shape was chosen as the graphic sign for this vowel are, of course, impossible to investigate – it is amusing to speculate that it may be because the lips need to form a circle to pronounce the O, if only because Aristotle discussed the matter in the Poetics – but the choice is highly significant.

The circle is a shape which is self-similar from whichever position you look at it. It does not end and does not begin at any given point, it has no top or bottom or sides, no front nor back. It is perfect and, of course, haunting. The Greeks picked up the Babylonian belief that stars were arranged in a circle which determined your destiny in life (the zodiac, from zoe and dias, ‘life’ and ‘circle’), Dante chose three circles, one within the other, to represent God, and Shakespeare coined the expression “The wheel is come full circle” (Lear, V, iii, 175) to mean moral and temporal completeness. Incidentally, representations of history are usually either cyclical, where history is shown as a wheel, or teleological, in which it is shown as a straight line. The straight line, when it is vertical, becomes the ‘I’.

The geometric appearance of these two letters is extraordinarily illuminating, and it may just account for their (relative) universality. This dialectic also nourishes two fundamental drives which, once translated in linguistic expression, do much to determine whether a poem will be positive or negative in its outlook. The ‘I’ is at the heart of all questions of identity – the possibility of saying ‘I’ is itself, already, an aspiration. It implies distinguishing oneself from the rest. The straight line of the sun-ray and arrow were symbols for Apollo, the sun-god. A poem where the teleological focus is ‘I’ is a poem of light – the poem of a speaker who will be, will become, will mean. The act itself of becoming ‘I’ is an epic quest. It means becoming one, final, finite, complete, indivisible, true to the one-self, a force in opposition to all others. To become ‘the chosen one’ (a classical epic quest from the Gospels to The Matrix) could be represented, in Latin numerals, as becoming the chosen ‘I’ – or, in modern graphology, as the chosen 1. For the sign ‘I’ originally meant both the letter and the number, and we have retained the principle of representing 1 by means of a straight line. Indeed, the number 1 is the basic unit of individual identification – the heart of identity, we may provoke, for there can only be one. And I will always be the chosen one.

Since all numbers are composed of the basic building block ‘one’, all numbers are replicas of one, and there can be no other numbers than one (the original Roman numerals make this even more explicit – I, II, III…). The only alternative to one that is not a repetition is a non-number, and this, in mathematics, is represented by the number zero – that is to say, a circle. As stated, ‘O’ means nothing – even in the language of mathematics. To call by means of ‘O’ means to call for nothing – and in fact in the lyric, no-one replies (otherwise the genre is not lyric but dramatic). ‘O’ means death. It is the self-same, timeless, non-differentiated space where all tensions are reduced to nothing, the womb that came before birth, or the heavenly harmony on the grasses of Eden. The ‘I’ is where we want to go when we want to become; the ‘O’ is where we want to go when we want to stop being, to fade away, to dissolve, to sleep, to be undone. For these reasons, poems where the ‘O’ is predominant over the ‘I’ are usually more melancholy and nostalgic in tone, and these poems we commonly call ‘lyric’. The ‘O(ther)’ has dominion over the ‘I’, who no longer wants to be, and would rather escape this state of inagency by fading into death or into the other, who are, by this stage, the same thing (rest and/or bliss). Dionysus is the god of fading away from reason – Nietszche spoke of the ‘intoxication’ he causes as the god of wine, of madness and of cults of dance and ecstasy. Dionysus is associated to the silver circle of the moon, which gives him a symbolic connection to women, whom he was also inextricably related to, and to the circles. This value finds its opposite in the masculine Apollonian values. In psychoanalysis, the ‘I’ and the ‘O’ are the two geometric shapes symbolizing the phallus on one side and the vulva or womb on the other. The opposition of epic and lyric values, of heroic quests on one side and interiority and sensitivity on the other, plant their roots in an opposition which is historically related to that of the masculine and the feminine. Thus the poems of the light and of the dark, and of reason and passion, become intimately bound in their representation with tropes of gender – in ways which can be illuminating or discriminatory.

The duality of poems of the light and of the dark, or more simply epic and lyric poems, is the core dialectic which informs distinctions of poetic genre. The tradition of poems where the ‘I’ predominates constitutes the foundation for all verse on identity and ideology, from national to ethnical and cultural statements. Where the ‘O’ is dominant, we find the building blocks for centuries of love poetry and religious verse. Pride and humility are suggested by the two poles and become genres of their own. So powerful, perhaps even so inescapable, is this opposition, that Nietzsche had no doubt in calling Apollo and Dionysus the ancestry rather than the progeny of Olympus.

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature extensively through courses in the UK and the Caribbean. He writes football journalism for the website Football Italiano and kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He has recently set off adventuring.

The Future of the Book

Some end-of-2010 thoughts by Jon Stone on the rise and stumble of the e-book

Shuffling around Foyles on Charing Cross Road in the days leading up to Christmas, it’s hard to reconcile everything you’ve been hearing about the popularity of the Kindle with the dozens of people crowding out every aisle and corner of the shop in search of appropriate Christmas presents. What will these people do when the book goes electronic? You can’t buy someone a megabyte’s worth of downloaded data for a gift. You can’t steal their e-reader, change their credit card details to yours, purchase the desired bonkbuster/Booker winner/how-to manual, change the credit card details back, tie a ribbon around it and leave it under the tree. You could give them some kind of gift card, I suppose, but you might as well give them money.

The Kindle’s designers seem to have thought of books as mere vessels for vast volumes of text. The user is trying to get the information into their brain through their eyes and isn’t really bothered about the method of conveyance.

As it is, books remain the ideal present for anyone who will have them. They’re the easiest things in the world to wrap. They come in a wide range of forms &ndash fitting a wide range of budgets &ndash from £7 paperback thrillers to £30 coffee table monsters. And most importantly of all, there’re millions of them. Compare book-browsing to the purchase of a DVD, where the recipient’s narrow taste in genre restricts you to a few dozen titles, any of which they may already own or have seen recently. Pity the poor parents in Game or HMV trying to remember which Sims 4 expansion pack is needed and for which console. In any decent-sized bookshop, there will be something they like. There must be. If they read at all, that is. And if they don’t, they’re out of the equation anyway, as far as the book versus e-book debate goes.
But then you get home and take a good, long look at your flat. If you’re anything like me, your last week-long overhaul of your living space resulted in you finding just enough space to fit most of the things you own, though only after bidding goodbye to various treasured possessions. You also don’t own your flat and the way the world’s going, you’ll never own a flat. Four years is the longest you’ve lived anywhere, and you remember what the most irksome thing to move last time was: the boxes and boxes of books. If only you had some kind of Star Trek-style device that you could point at the heaving, bowing shelves to turn all but the most stylish of your tomes into data, to be stored away and retrieved only when some title bears re-reading.

But then, if you’re like me, you’ve had a Kindle for a year now and found it an endless source of annoyance. Forget the fact that the screen was broken by a light nudge from a shoe and that no one seems to be able to tell you how to get it fixed (accounts of whether Amazon replaces them for free, no questions asked, rub up against complaints about the company offering no solution other than the purchase of a brand new model). Forget also the fact that you’re restricted to what Amazon stocks in its online store (without even touching on the subject of censorship, in the past year I’ve simply not been able to buy most books I’ve wanted to. “Think of a book and start reading it in 30 seconds” my foot). There’s also the fact that most books are plainly run through some sort of conversion software without an editor or proofreader taking the time to check the quality of the end result. So where the editor of the original book has used soft return to fine-tune the letter-spacing, removing the space from between two words and replacing it with a line break, those two words appear stuck together in the e-book file. In the e-book version of Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson, which cost about £10, there was at least one such accidental compound word every second page or so.

And why does the Kindle insist on rendering everything in the same so-so font? Why are designers, copy-editors and typographers &ndash each vital to the book-crafting process &ndash dumped altogether in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach to every genre under the sun? Supposedly, one might think, to give the user more control over how they view the text. Alas, not so much. The user has no choice of font either (at least up to the Kindle 2), and very little in the way of other options. You can make the text bigger or smaller. That’s about it. It’s not much help when trying to read a book like Ways of Seeing by John Berger, where the Kindle seems incapable of fitting an image on the same page as its caption, no matter how big or small you make the writing. The Kindle’s designers seem to have thought of books as mere vessels for vast volumes of text. The user is trying to get the information &ndash or the gist of it &ndash into their brain through their eyes and isn’t really bothered about the method of conveyance, so long as it doesn’t put a strain on their arms or their wallets. If only human beings had a USB port on them, we could do away with text altogether.

In regard to looks as well, the book is still way out in front, with far more potential for character and individuality in its design. Covers can still wow us. They can still make me, as a wannabe graphic designer, miserable with envy. Despite Amazon’s best efforts, even the latest Kindle has all the verve and charm of a pager or electronic organiser. As with all gadgets, it will hold no interest as a physical object after a year on the high street (at least until it’s long forgotten), which is presumably why Amazon is releasing a new version almost annually. How many people are going to regularly upgrade, at £100 a pop, for a bit of fizz and freshness in the feel and appearance of their reading matter?

But then, what to do about the space problem? And the taking-books-on-holiday problem? And the increasing-costs-of-printing-for-independent-presses problem? OK, here’s my solution, my best-of-both-worlds future: books on cartridges. I’m imagining them about the size of Nintendo DS cartridges. Because they come in boxes, skilled designers can still run wild, but the cartridges can also be stored in storage cases, enabling you to fit a bookshelf into something the size of a glasses case for your daily sojourns. The boxes can be displayed prominently in shops, are easily wrapped as gifts, and look super on a shelf, but are smaller than conventional books and &ndash more importantly &ndash much lighter, a mercy when it comes to moving. A design team has full control over how the book looks on the screen when it’s initially booted up, but the user is able to tinker with it themselves. E-readers, in this scenario, would become as ubiquitous as MP3 players, since they’d no longer need to be attached to any particular online bookstore. If books were designed with a touch-screen interface in mind (again, as with Nintendo DS games), the only physical controls you’d strictly need would be an on-off switch.

Of course, being physical objects, cartridges would be more costly than e-books (although they should be recyclable). They’d also be less transferable &ndash but then, Amazon and Apple are already firing on all cylinders to lock their file formats down as tightly as possible in order to discourage “illegal” copying and sharing. At least with a cartridge you’d be able to physically lend someone a book again.

My absolute ideal would be the Star Trek device, enabling books to be magically switched from a physical to an electronic state in moments. But by the time we have anything like that available on the high street, food replicators and teleporters will have changed the world in unimaginable ways. So I’ll stick with my cartridge idea for now. The rest of the world, meanwhile, will likely go on duelling over the imperfections of the two present formats, with the result that both will stick around for a good while yet, neither taking the upper hand.

Approaching the Divine Comedy in the 21st Century

Andrea T Judge takes a modern look at Dante’s famous voyage through the realms of the dead.

Mark Twain once said that a classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read. No doubt we could trace a long list of books fitting under this category, from the Iliad and Don Quijote to War and Peace and Ulysses. Almost everyone is guilty of having read a classic, and certain erudite individuals can boast quite a few more – usually this makes these people insufferable to be around, which may be the reason why Henry Miller (who never succeeded in writing a classic) said that every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race. Classics are, traditionally, very long, very complex, or both at the same time. They are not easy to read, and unless someone gives you a good reason to pick one up, you probably won’t.

In this hypothetical list of books which are simultaneously attractive and repulsive to such uncommon degrees, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri deserves a special mention. If fame is half the reason why people read classics, then it needs no further encouragement. Jorge Luis Borges called it ‘the best book in literature’ and TS Eliot used its author as the standard for comparisons with Shakespeare. At the same time, the notion of a seven-hundred-year old tale which appears like a catalogue on what God does and does not want us to do is not the kind of thing which you would imagine to fly off the bookshelves. From Mark Twain’s point of view, Dante’s book is a classic among classics.

It is a shame that all the fame around this ancient volume should also have generated a great deal of false expectations. For, in certain ways, the Divine Comedy hardly belongs in the ranks of its fellow classics. For starters, it is easily one of the shorter books. All three canticles put together make for about 450 pages, against the 800 of the Iliad and Odyssey or the 600 of the Aeneid. If you read the Inferno alone, which is self-contained, it stands at just over 30,000 words – a third of the length of an average novel. It is also remarkably easy to read. It has none of the archaic grandiloquence of Beowulf or Gilgamesh, and none of the intricate linguistic constructions which characterise the modern classics by Joyce or Proust. The narrative is synthetic and adventurous, and the language, while sophisticated, is always functional to the telling of the story.

Even so, the Divine Comedy’s reputation as a classic would not be half as ironic if it weren’t that the poem’s own opening is a metaphor for our relationship with the classics. In the first Canto of the poem, Dante is walking through a forest and meets the spirit of Virgil, the author of the Aeneid – what the middle ages considered to be the classic among classics. Virgil is described as a ‘well-spring / From which such copious floods of eloquence / Have issued’, a line which probably could have been cast on Joyce’s grave with no risk of protestations, and Dante hopes to relate to him yet – ‘avail me the long study and great love / That have impelled me to explore thy volume,’ he says, echoing the plight of any English Literature student who sets out to write an essay on Moby Dick, Don Juan or Paradise Lost.

Obviously, the relationship between Dante and Virgil has a much broader meaning as well – it stands for the relationship between the past and the present, with the Latin master bearing a torch from other times and guiding the (then) modern spirit of Dante. But this also encapsulates the metaphoric register which really gives the poem its own modernity (or, in Eliot’s term, its ‘universality’), and which truly makes it worth reading even seven-hundred years after its writing. Consider, for example, the description of the souls in the fifth Canto, those damned for the sin of lust.

And as the wings of starlings bear them on
In the cold season in large band and full,
So doth that blast the spirits maledict;
It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
No hope doth comfort them for evermore,
Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.
And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,
Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.

The idea that the Divine Comedy should be a collection of cautionary Christian vignettes simply does not hold, for the sin is always a metaphor for the punishment – and the other way round. The above passage doesn’t represent what happens to you after life if you live in lust, but what happens in life – and the souls exemplify this as they are tossed around by the winds of their desires, ‘hither, thither, downward, upward,’ and abandoned in the storm of their appetites, as ‘no hope doth comfort them, not [even] of repose.’ As Dante proceeds deeper into hell, the other torments conform to this vision – the greedy are drowned in the mud of their own squalor, the liars are burning in the double flame of their lies, the murderous are plunged in blood, and so on.

Dante’s Inferno is not the hell of the damned, but the hell of the living – our own hell. As the canvas of the Commedia expands into a monumental metaphor for human history, the journey becomes our own journey through our everyday world, testifying to the suffering of those who live in vice, without apparent punishment, but punished by their own vice. By the time one reaches the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, which are famously less entertaining than the Inferno but equally complex, the modernity of the poem has become self-evident. It is not the castigation that follows evil, but the horror of evil itself, that makes the Inferno such a memorably poignant representation. Similarly the humanity of the other two canticles goes well beyond the sophisticated symbolic parables that they present. If the Divine Comedy is a classic, then the idea itself of the genre must be founded on a paradox – and not just because the poem is easy to read and relatively short. As we opened with a citation on the subject, so shall we close. In the words of Edith Wharton, then: A classic is not a classic because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

Post-script: A question which comes up frequently is – which translation should I choose? An edition in verse is a must, but the preference between rhyming translations or ones in free/blank verse must remain subjective. By all means take a look at more than one translation – they can be very different from each other! The first Canto is no more than two or three pages long, so reading it a few times to compare different versions is not much of a chore. Some translations retain the rhyme. If those impress you and seem more musical, then stick with one of them. If you find the free-flowing narrative effect that results from less constrictive verse to be most stimulating, then forsake the rhymes and go for that.

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature in the UK and the Caribbean. He has worked as freelance critic of movies and games, as translator in Germany, and as sports journalist in France (where he made money by dressing up as a cartoon in Disneyland). He has also kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He is currently employed on cruise ships in the Caribbean.

What are lyric and epic poetry and why does it matter?

Part 1 of a trilogy of articles in which Andrea T Judge discusses the history and evolution of these major poetic forms and what they mean to us today.

When, almost one hundred years ago, John Drinkwater was asked to write his book The Lyric as an introduction to this literary concept, he discussed “the commonly accepted opinion that a lyric is an expression of personal emotion” and reached the conclusion that “lyric and poetry are synonymous terms”. No doubt both statements can be traced back to a history of criticism. John Stuart Mill, writing in 1833, claimed that ‘Lyric poetry is more eminently and peculiarly poetry than any other’, and Edgar Allan Poe, in his ‘Poetic Principle’, already draws connections between the pure ‘Poetic Sentiment’ and the lyric. Such a use of the term ‘lyric’, bordering on tautology, eventually led Northrop Frye to claim in his Anatomy of Criticism that “we use [the terms ‘epic’ and ‘lyric’] chiefly as jargon or trade slang for long and short (or shorter) poems respectively”.

The juxtaposition of lyric and personal expression finds instead its roots in Hegel, who wrote just before Mills, and who was the first to oppose ‘the objective character of the Epos’ to ‘the subjective principle of the Lyric’. This view was later picked up by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, and even Frye, in a paraphrase of Mill, concedes that “the lyric poet normally pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else” and that “the lyric is the poet presenting the image in relation to himself”. The lyric, in the words of Hegel, was about ‘insulation’ and ‘self-expression’.

Though lyric poetry is one of the most ancient forms of written expression in the world, its theoretical history is actually quite young. It is also, as we have seen, rather confusing, because most critics before the 19th Century simply saw the term ‘lyric’ as synonymous for ‘poetry’, as Drinkwater still did. The only paradigm on which most thinkers seem to agree is that of the lyric as poetry of address, but this is itself problematic. An endless array of examples can be found for poets who speak ‘to’ someone, of course, but an equally endless list of exceptions can also be provided, in classical and modern poetry alike. Some of the texts which are usually categorised as ‘lyrics’ of the ancient world barely look like poetry at all, and rather seem like personal notes which the author has left in some diary or journal. Here’s a full poem by Alcaeus:

“Now we must get drunk and drink whether we want to or not, because Myrsilus is dead.”

Obviously the fragmentary remains of the classical tradition suggest that some of these works may simply be incomplete poems, but even within this selfsame tradition there are at least four recognised genres of lyric poetry (monodic, elegiac, iambic, choral), none of which can simply be reduced to a simple ‘poetry of address’ genre. Modern poetry has even more cases of verse that does not speak to a specific ‘you’.

Even so, two currents of vocative poetry can readily be identified in the history of the lyric. The first in chronological order is the ‘classical’ or ‘ancient’ model: poetry addressed to the gods, such as Sappho’s globally famous prayer to Aphrodite, or the Book of Psalms in the Bible. The second is the ‘modern’ model, which is poetry addressed to a loved one, particularly popular in courtly poetry of the middle ages and the Renaissance. Probably the most important and influential figure in popularising this shift was Petrarch, whose monumental ‘Song Book’ was a collection entirely dedicated to an idealised and unattainable woman he calls Laura. While his address to Laura was normally indirect (Petrarch speaks to or about an allegorical figure called ‘Love’ as an intermediary, like Sappho did with Aphrodite), it still signals a first step in the shift of focus from the divine to the earthly, from the transcendent to the immanent, from the immortal to the daily. It must be stressed that this shift was very gradual – Petrarch’s original verse idealised Laura almost to the status of a goddess. But it became the model for over three centuries of poetry all over Europe (including Shakespeare’s own sonnets) and it virtually institutionalised the lyric, to the point that the notion of writing ‘to a girl/woman one loves’ is still popularly conceived as one of the most natural and sincere reasons behind the writing of a poem (slightly less so the idea of writing ‘to a boy/man’; the register of the Song Book was androcentric and so was its heritage).

Now, lyric poetry is usually set in opposition to epic poetry (again, the dialectic was best explored by Hegel). But literary criticism of epic poetry is far, far more ancient than that of the lyric tradition, going as far back as Aristotle. This suggests that the dichotomy between the lyric and the epic is more a construction of the moderns than a self-evident distinction within the genre(s) of poetry. Aristotle defines the epic as ‘that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a single metre,’ and this is a very simple definition. So it is somewhat of a mystery where the later tenets of the genre emerged from. Judging by Homer’s proselytes, from Virgil to Milton and Byron, an epic is a poem of twelve or twenty-four books, starting in the middle of the action (in medias res) and often involving flashbacks. But these standards are violated by just about every other member of the genre out there, from primary epics like Gilgamesh and Beowulf to later ones such as the Divine Comedy or Jerusalem Delivered. The problem is that there are virtually no common canons to speak of a ‘genre’ whatsoever, not even metrical properties. Much like ‘lyric’ has often been used to signify ‘poetry,’ so the term ‘epic’ has evolved from Aristotle’s choice of words (“a poem on a great scale”) to become a mere synonym of ‘grand,’ to the point that any story of great magnitude or import is usually referred to as epic (or even an epic), from War and Peace and Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and Titanic.

Hegel’s groundbreaking innovation was to treat both lyric and epic as literary qualities, rather than as genres. For this reason he sets them up in a dialectic relation where the lyric speaks about the individual and the epic about society – a profoundly influential perspective which became the basis for most theory on the subject. Even so, Hegel was writing at a time when the medium of the novel was still very young (and not much respected). Now that it has become dominant, the novel seems a conspicuous absence from this grand literary scheme. Aristotle’s specification that the epic “is narrative in form” reveals that the original distinction between poetic types was not so much between subjective and objective, or between long and short verse, but between poems which told a story and poems which did not. In other words, a term was required to distinguish between narrative and non-narrative poems. In the age before the novel, verse was the only written form for recounting stories short of turning to pure historians like Herodotus. ‘Epic’ retrospectively became the all-encompassing term to describe poems which directly told stories; ‘lyric’ described most of those which did not, with the rest comprising philosophy or scientific texts which were written in verse. When the novel emerged, proving so flexible and enjoyable a way of weaving a tale, it quickly absorbed the roles of narration which until then had been the prerogative of the epic. On this account, numerous novels have been said to be epics in their own right, while modern poetic epics are seldom written and even less read anymore. Non-narrative poetry, by contrast, remained insulated and its roles were never appropriated by other forms. As a consequence, the broad term ‘lyric,’ which never came to be applied to anything else, became no more than another word for poetry. The closest thing to a ‘misappropriation’ of the role of poetry has been performed Twentieth Century music, in which songs are usually non-narrative and the spoken words of which we now refer to as ‘lyrics’.

This is not to suggest that, on account of the confusion and debate over the definitions, studies of the lyric and the epic should be considered infertile. However, the revolutionary impact of new forms and mediums over the last two centuries means that old readings of these two categories in terms of genre are no longer tenable, if they ever have been. The canons are simply not stable. The epic and lyric are not labels that we can stick upon poems, nor signposts to bind them together. There is, perhaps, no longer any genre of poem which can be fixed in a category by means of its history – even metre, one of the most ancient poetic marks of belonging, has faded in prominence as a banner for recognition. The only thing left to study is the structure of the poem. It is not genre but structure that reveals the epic or lyric quality of verse, and it is therefore to this topic that our next essays shall turn their attention.

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature extensively through courses in the UK and the Caribbean. He writes football journalism for the website Football Italiano and kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He has recently set off adventuring.


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