Lyric poetry expresses personal thoughts and emotions. Common forms include sonnets, odes, and elegies, but lyric poems may just as well be written in free verse.

What is Lyric Poetry?

Lyric poetry expresses personal thoughts and emotions. Although it derives its name from the lyre, an instrument which accompanied Greek lyrical poetry, lyrical poetry does not need to be set to music. It is distinguished by its use of a personal voice and subjective point of view. The poetic speaker, though distinct from the author, is portrayed as someone emotionally invested in the subject matter. The lyric poem has few restrictions and may take many structural forms. Common forms include sonnets, odes, and elegies, but lyric poems may just as well be written in free verse.

The lyric poem originated among the ancient Greeks, whose lyre accompanied poems followed a strict meter and expressed sentiments of love, celebration, praise, or bitterness. In the centuries since, fewer poems are designed for musical accompaniment, but poems with a strong emotional focus have retained the name “lyric”. Renaissance troubadours reflected an evolution of the ancient forms by singing poetic songs of courtly love. Poets like Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Milton perfected the lyric poem through their sonnets. Later, the Romantic poets, like Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, used the lyric poem as a medium to express the exuberant sentimentality that characterized that movement. By the 19th century, lyric poetry had become the dominant poetic genre, a reality that remains true to this day. Most poems that simply explore a thematic idea, express a strong emotion, or attempt to convey an important truth fall into the lyric category.

Lyric poems can vary in length from a single stanza of a few lines, to lengthy odes hundreds of lines long. They range from quiet reflections on hope as in Langston Hughes’ “Dreams” to impassioned elegies like Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” Lyric poets may express emotions in overblown, dramatic language, or choose to reveal their emotion in less overt ways. William Carlos Williams’s 16-word poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”, for example, leaves the reader to interpret the emotional significance of the red wheelbarrow on which “so much depends”. This and many many other free verse poems use creative methods to express complex thoughts and feelings. Though they may deviate from the Greeks in style, modern lyric poets still capture many of the emotions present in ancient lyric poetry.

Lyric Poetry Examples

  • “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams
  • O Captain! My Captain” by Walt Whitman
  • Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats
  • “A Day in the Open” by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • “Lyric Written in 1830” by Alexander Pushkin
  • “To Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “Apology” by Joyce Kilmer
  • “Hymn to Duty” by William Wordsworth

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