Felix Emanuel Schelling



The English Lyric



Literatur: "1913"


[1] THE primary conception involved in the term "lyric" has always to do with song; and it is the song-like quality of the lyric that falls most conspicuously into contrast with the epic or telling quality of narrative verse. But this kinship of the lyric with song involves another important contrast. When Aristotle declared music the most imitative of the arts, he meant that music reflected more directly the feelings and passions of men than words which, however poetic, can merely describe or symbolically express them. So, too, the lyric is concerned with the poet, his thoughts, his emotions, his moods, and his passions. In the lyric the individual singer emerges, conspicuous in the potency of his art. We have no longer, as in Homer, a sonorous mouthpiece for the deeds of Achilles or the fated wanderings of Ulysses, but, as in Sappho, the passionate throbbings of a human heart seeking artistic expression. With the lyric subjective poetry begins.

But the lyric is not the only kind of poetry that deals with human emotion; for close beside it stands the drama with its picture of complex human life and passion in [2] action and interaction. The lyric deals with passion and emotion in their simplicity and as such. For if a poem detail more story than is sufficient to make plain the situation out of which the emotion of the poem arises, it is to that extent an epic or narrative poem. And if a poem involve a conflict, the outcome of a succession of events or the result of a conflict in character or personality, the poem is to that degree dramatic. In words derived from the technical sciences, dramatic poetry is dynamic; lyric poetry is static. Hence the simplicity, the brevity, and the intensity of the finest lyrical poetry; and hence the argument, sometimes urged, that in the lyric alone have we the actual spirit and essence of poetry, and that the epic and the drama become poetry only in proportion as they contain the elements that add the soul of passion and the wings of song.

It is a moot question still with the dogmatists as to whether or not rhythm is the "essential fact of poetry"; 1 though few will go so far as to declare that "unmetrical" and "unpoetical" are interchangeable terms among the criteria of the poetical art. Lyrical poetry, more than any other, however, demands the aid of those devices of language which ally human speech to music. Rhythm ordered with artistic variety on the basis of an organic regularity; the recurrence of stress, pause, line, and stanza so that the pattern is repeated though with individual dis[3]tinction; melody in the sound and succession of words and harmony in their fitness for the thought and its changes – such are some of the graces of form demanded of the lyrist. That the language of strong emotion often takes to itself, both in literature and in life, a rhythmic regularity, is an observation common to every school rhetoric, and, unlike some such observations, literally true. And it is not less true that emotion serves to clarify thought and add at times the flash of wit and the color of figurative expression. In the lyric better than in other varieties of poetry can we appreciate Wordsworth's famous definition of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," even if the artistry and elaboration of many an individual poem of the type compel us likewise to recall Wordsworth's added words "recollected [we may interpolate, 'and lovingly wrought out'] in tranquillity."

The lyric, as we have seen, then, is personal and subjective, concerned with the poet himself, his thoughts, emotions, and sentiments. But this does not demand that lyrical poetry be of necessity autobiographical or fail of its end, the production of an artistic impression of subjective reality; for a poet may succeed at times in projecting his personality – so to speak – into the person of another and speak and feel unerringly as that person speaks and feels. This power – and it is possessed only by the greatest – is usually called dramatic instinct; but in so far as it is poetic it is really lyrical, that is, wholly subjective. When Coleridge, for example, exclaims enthusiastically of Shakespeare, "What maiden has he [4] not taught delicacy, what counsellor has he not taught statecraft?" we find the critic recognizing that Shakespeare has so transfused himself into the personalities of his imagined personages that he realizes their emotions to a degree beyond that which we may reasonably expect of real beings under like circumstances; that is, he has, by an exercise of a subtle artistic sympathy, so typified the emotions of each that he has realized to us an art beyond nature. This is a subjective process, one inherent in the large heart acted on by the strong brain of the master-poet. It is a matter of broad sympathies and unerring judgment; but it is also a matter of artistic insight, and has little to do with that "dramatic instinct" which, admirable in its own nature, is concerned more or less with the objective arrangement of material, the framing of situation, and the heightening of effect.

It is a demand of the lyric, which it shares with all good poetry, that it unite universality of feeling with unity of form. Turning, as the lyric must ever turn, "on some single thought, feeling, or situation," it is easily unbalanced and its artistry destroyed. Most repugnant to this fragility is any attempt to hang on the delicate structure of a lyrical poem the pendant of a moral; for the mood induced by the poem thus becomes merely a means to an ulterior end and is destroyed in the very moment of its birth. Unity of subject requires a certain degree of brevity and the elimination of most of the elements which other varieties of verse possess in common with prose, elements justified in lyrical poetry only to the degree in which they [5] make for intelligibility. Thus, we must trespass neither in the direction of action, mixed motives, nor in that of an overplus of description or narrative, or the poem ceases to be lyrical. Unity of form follows unity of subject and adds to the effect of concentration. It is inconceivable that the lyric, which flourishes throughout English literature in so endless a variety, should be bound down to conventional form; and yet, the design or pattern once losen in a given case, it must be preserved with the inevitability of the recurrent blossom of a chosen flower. Universality is obviously that quality which makes a work of art "not of an age but for all time"; and this quality is achieved only when the poet recognizes and makes his own those essential elements which give permanency to his theme and discards the accidental and the evanescent. The most perishable form of verse, for example, is satire; for although it rises at times to general applications because of the perennial moulds into which human vice and human folly are apt to run, satire is, none the less, apt to take the guise of concrete and passing allusion. Hall, Pope, and Butler must be read with notes not only for this reason, but because satire naturally runs the type gathered into classes, and to caricature which emphasizes the non-essential lines of the picture and the perishable traits of humanity. The drama labors under a similar difficulty from the necessity which ties the scene, to a greater or less degree, to the accidents of time and place. The lyric, on the other hand, from its simplicity and celebration of universal feeling, has a better chance [6] of permanency. While men are lovers and women fair, we shall take pleasure in the thousands of changes sung upon the immortal theme of love; and while the conditions of human life are what they are and ever have been, we shall love to have the poets tell us:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
     Old Time is still a-flying;

or listen to the noble, timeworn theme:

The glories of our blood and state
     Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armor against fate;
     Death lays his icy hand on kings:
       Sceptre and crown
       Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

The range of the lyric is the gamut of human emotion, and nothing could be more inept than the current notion of a lyric as merely a poem of love. The lyrist may sing the raptures of a pure soul in communion with God, or the apples of Sodom that turn to dust and bitterness between the teeth of the lost sinner: and there is much between hell and heaven. Indeed, here as elsewhere, there can be no limits set to art. Wit, humor, folly, fancy, cynicism, misanthropy (if it be "literatesque" like Diogenes' tub), – all may serve the lyrist. The gods laughed on Olympus and went to feast and revel with the Ethiopians. Literature has no need for the limitations of a false dignity, for life does not know them. And yet there are dangers to the lyric in some emotions. Thus, [7] misanthropy is apt to become rhetorical and egoistic, both of which qualities destroy art because they limit its universality. So, also, cynicism often becomes dangerously intellectualized, didactic, or ethically unsound; and all of these things are repugnant to poetry. These topics will find fitter discussion at the points in the history of the lyric wherein we shall meet them. In conclusion of these matters be it remarked that in anthologies of English poetry the epigram has sometimes trespassed on the domain of the lyric. The epigram is often musical and commonly short, and here the resemblance between it and the lyric ends. For the epigram is intellectual rhetorical, and conscious, addressed to stir in the hearer an approval of art; the lyric is emotional, poetic, and unconscious, in so far as a piece of artistry often involving a loving elaboration may exist for its own end and only secondarily for the pleasure which it is its legitimate function to occasion in the hearer or reader. However, it would be unfair to the lyric to exclude from its domain, that admirable variety of verse which has of late been denominated vers de société. Here, although, as one of its most successful exponents has put it, "a boudoir decorum is, or ought always to be, preserved; where sentiment never surges into passion, and where humor never overflows into boisterous merriment," 1 there is yet abundant opportunity for the display of some of the daintiest graces of the poetic art. The line of demarcation is difficult to draw: clearly the malevolence of satire is not lyrical, nor [8] the broad humor of parody and farce, any more than the ballad, where narrative outweighs the emotions involved, or the drama, where action transforms the unity of a single mood into the changing pageant of passion in clash with passion. That our conception of the lyric, like that of everything else, has broadened with the process of the suns, it will be one of the provinces of this book to make plain in its place. For the present let this suffice for the delimitation of our subject.



[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[2] 1 For a discussion of this topic, with the conclusions of which the present writer does not agree, see F. B. Gummere, The Beginnings of Poetry, New York, 1901, chapter II.   zurück

[7] 1 F. Locker-Lampson, in preface to Lyra Elegantiarum, p. ix.   zurück





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Felix Emanuel Schelling: The English Lyric.
Boston u. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company 1913, S. 1-8.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001016472
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t6vx0dp89





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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer