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National Poetry Month, 2014: Lyric poetry

Catherine Al-Meten

The Latin word, lyricus, means 'of the lyre'. Lyric poetry typically expresses thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and experiences in an emotional and lyrical manner. Written in the form of sonnets and odes, lyric poetry is intimate, personal, and directs itself directly to the reader. From the heart of the poet to the heart of the reader, lyric poetry speaks of that which is shared through the human experience.

Shakespeare's sonnets are among some of the most beautiful lyrical poetry. As you might recall from your English Literature class in the distant past, a sonnet is a 14-line poem, written in iambic pentameter, each line being 10 syllables long with accents falling on every second syllable. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day..." Sonnets became popular during the Italian Renaissance, when the poet Petrarch published a number of sonnets he wrote to express his love for a woman named Laura, the idealized woman. In Elizabethan England, sonnets became a popular form among poets. Two forms of sonnet became popular-The Petrarcean sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. They differ in form and style. The Petrarchean sonnet uses the ABBAABBA rhyme scheme, and is divided into two main parts, the octave and the sestet. The octave, or first eight lines, may ask a question, and the sestet, or second six lines, answers the question. This may vary, but it is a form used by a number of poets including John Keats. in his sonnet, Bright Star:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors---
No---yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever---or else swoon in death.

The Shakespearean sonnet is divided into four parts. The first three, four-line parts, quatrains, are followed by two lines, a couplet. Quatrains follow the rhyme scheme ABAB, and the couplet, follows the CC rhyme scheme. Shakespearean sonnets are meant to develop ideas and metaphors in each quatrain, with the couplet presenting a summary of the preceeding or a new take on the earlier images and metaphors. While the first sonnets glorified and idealied love, Shakespeare broke with tradition and introduced the idea of making fun of some of the romanticized and idealized conceptions of love, courtship, and romance.

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Sonnet VII by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Say what you will, and scratch my heart to find
The roots of last year's roses in my breast;
I am as surely riper in my mind
As if the fruit stood in the stalls confessed.
Laugh at the unshed leaf, say what you will,
Call me in all things what I was before,
A flutterer in the wind, a woman still;
I tell you I am what I was and more.

My branches weigh me down, frost cleans the air,
My sky is black with small birds bearing south;
Say what you will, confuse me with fine care,
Put by my word as but an April truth,–
Autumn is no less on me that a rose
Hugs the brown bough and sighs before it goes.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese:

Sonnet XXV A Heavy Heart, Beloved, Have I Borne

A heavy heart, Belovèd, have I borne
From year to year until I saw thy face,
And sorrow after sorrow took the place
Of all those natural joys as lightly worn
As the stringed pearls, each lifted in its turn
By a beating heart at dance-time. Hopes apace
Were changed to long despairs, till God's own grace
Could scarcely lift above the world forlorn
My heavy heart. Then thou didst bid me bring
And let it drop adown thy calmly great
Deep being! Fast it sinketh, as a thing
Which its own nature doth precipitate,
Which thine doth close above it, mediating
Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate.

Try your hand at writing a sonnet, and enjoy discovering other poets whose sonnets carry on the tradition of lyric poetry.

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