In common usage, lyric poetry refers to short poems that reflect a single, focused, and highly subjective point of view. Initially associated with the ancient Greek stringed instrument the lyre, the lyric genre has Page 633 | Top of Article its roots in songs performed by a single poet and thus characterized by metrical regularity and unitary voice. In nineteenth-century America, lyric poems customarily displayed clearly identifiable metrical patterns and predictable rhyme schemes. The rules for lyric composition became so thoroughly codified that the poet Sidney Lanier characterized mid-century American poets as captivated by a "morbid fear of doing something wrong" (Lubbers, p. 4). Despite this widespread formal conformity, however, the lyric was immensely popular in America throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
Walt Whitman's (1819–1892) 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass introduced a degree of flexibility touching both form and content that greatly expanded the freedom of future poets, but Leaves also provoked much public outcry and led to Whitman's being marginalized as a radical for much of his life. The most significant innovation in the nineteenth-century lyric came about through the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson's (1830–1886) poetry in the 1890s. Unlike Whitman, whose poetry aspired to the scope and grandeur of the epic, Dickinson retained classic lyric brevity while transgressing the boundaries of rhyme, meter, syntax, and subject matter that had characterized the nineteenth-century American lyric.
DEFINITION AND HISTORY OF THE GENRE
Scholarly efforts to establish a clear history of the lyric genre have been exceedingly vexed. Ernest Rhys's 1913 observation that "of all the categories, the lyric is the most lawless and has the least hesitation about breaking bounds" accurately identifies the core problem (p. vi). An important consequence of broad-based scholarly agreement over the unruliness of lyric poetry has been the emergence of a generalized working definition that alludes to historical origins but leaves plenty of room for formal variation. The following definition from the Oxford English Dictionary fairly characterizes the sort of loose definition that has become the standard:
Of or pertaining to the lyre; adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung; pertaining to or characteristic of song. Now used as the name for short poems (whether or not intended to be sung), usually divided into stanzas or strophes, and directly expressing the poet's own thoughts and sentiments. Hence, applied to the poet who composes such poems.
Within the scope of this working definition, the issue that bears most directly on the lyric in America during the period 1870 to 1920 is the lyric's status as a conveyance of individual subjectivity. This aspect of the lyric acquires particular importance in relationship to the rise of individualism in nineteenth-century American culture and the influence especially of Emersonian individualism, in which the intersection of private and public experience is a primary concern.
Precisely because scholarly discussions of the lyric center on the balance of public and private content, the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803–1882) thinking on individualism must be considered in any assessment of the American lyric from the middle of the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. As Harold Bloom noted in May 2003, "Emerson remains the central figure in American culture" (p. 4). This preeminence is not, however, founded on universal agreement as to the exact nature of Emerson's influence but rather on continuing controversy spawned by enigmatic utterances such as the now famous 1842 journal entry in which Emerson states, "Union is only perfect when all the Uniters are absolutely isolated" (p. 216). This language seems to justify fears Alexis de Tocqueville expressed in Democracy in America (1835), where he describes individualism as disposing "each individual to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows" and leave "the greater society to look after itself " (p. 506). Supporters of the Emersonian tradition point to his underlying idealism as ultimately connecting individual isolation with collective experience, while those critical of Emerson's influence see his promotion of isolated individuality as disengaging the individual from effective social action.
The history of critical responses to Emily Dickinson's poetry illustrates the way assumptions about the private or public reach of the lyric shape interpretation. As part of his preface to the 1890 first edition, coeditor Thomas Wentworth Higginson situates Dickinson at the private pole of lyric tradition, explicitly identifying Emerson as a source for Dickinson's writing and advising readers to view the text as an "expression of the writer's own mind" without "whatever advantage lies in the discipline of public criticism" (Buckingham, p. 13). William Dean Howells's (1837–1920) 1891 review of the first edition positions Dickinson at the opposing, public pole of lyric tradition when he asserts that "the interesting and important thing is that this poetry is as characteristic of our life as our business enterprise, our political turmoil, our demagoguism, our millionarism" (Buckingham, p. 78). Contemporary scholarly assessments convey similarly contrasting approaches to the public potential of Dickinson's lyric poetry. Paula Bernat Bennett represented the tendency to accentuate Dickinson's lyric isolation when she declared in 2002 that Dickinson could "afford to write in a void and write the void into her poetry, cutting its links to the social world and to the
material connections she shared with others" (p. 228). Yet in the same collection of essays on Dickinson, Shira Wolosky echoes Howells's comments when she argues that "Dickinson's texts are scenes of cultural crossroads, situated within the many and profound transitions taking place around her" (p. 138).
OVERVIEW OF SIGNIFICANT LYRIC PUBLICATIONS, 1870–1920
Sarah Piatt (1836–1919) published sixteen volumes of poetry during the course of her life, but her most significant lyrics were published in the periodical press of her day. Poetry volumes such as A Voyage to the Fortunate Isles (1874), That New World (1877), and A Woman's Poems (1871) show Piatt's dedication to standardized verse forms and predictable female topics, thereby confirming the widely held critical view that she aspired to the accessibility and transparency of the genteel tradition. However, the great many poems Piatt published in periodicals present her as developing a far more complicated style, one that departs from an idealized version of female experience and moves in Page 635 | Top of Article the direction of dialogue-based lyrics that project the realist's vision of life as constituted by struggle and conflict. A clear example of her periodical poetry is "Palace-Burner," a poem published in the Independent in 1872. The poem comments directly on an illustration that appeared in Harper's Weekly depicting a woman who participated in the Paris uprising of 1871. Piatt's association with both the genteel tradition and an emergent realism that challenged genteel social conventions define her as a transitional writer whose openly political poems clearly connect with the work of twentieth-century women poets like Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds.
The publication of Poems by Emily Dickinson in 1890 struck a responsive public nerve and led to the subsequent publication of two more volumes within six years: Poems by Emily Dickinson, Second Series (1891) and Poems by Emily Dickinson, Third Series (1896). Readers were ready for poetry that broke the genteel mold both in terms of content and style. Dickinson's severe compression of meaning and high level of semantic and syntactic complexity did just that. Even the highly edited lines of poems like "Much madness is divinest sense" (p. 22) demanded that readers step outside the box of convention. Complete publication of all Dickinson poems did not take place until 1955, when Thomas H. Johnson's variorum edition presented all known poems in an attempt to honor the many nuances of Dickinson's handwritten manuscripts. As a result, readers saw for the first time the extent to which Dickinson's reliance on the dash, her unusual capitalization, her startling word choices, and her experiments with rhyme characterized the entire body of nearly eighteen hundred poems. Dickinson's willingness to experiment with form, her persistent iconoclasm, and her defiant female voice have exerted a major influence on male and female poets from the nineteenth century to the present.
The 1893 publication of Oak and Ivy by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) marked the emergence of America's first major black literary professional. In Lyrics of Lowly Life (1895) especially, Dunbar significantly contributed to the ongoing process of situating African American slave experience in a linguistic environment far removed from the racial stereotyping all too common in American culture. As a lyricist Dunbar's chief accomplishment may be his insertion of black dialect into traditional English verse forms, giving black speakers the central role in communicating lyric experience. The complex subjectivity of speakers captured in poems like his much anthologized "We Wear the Mask" announce sharp tensions within black consciousness that would later surface in the prose of W. E. B. Du Bois and the poems of Langston Hughes. Throughout the six volumes of poetry Dunbar published during his lifetime, his careful modulation of tone and his management of rhyme, together with his mastery of metrical form and voice qualities, constitute a significant poetic achievement. His dedication to conveying the experiences of a particular community suggests parallels with writers like Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, whose work is associated with the experience of white New Englanders.
Stephen Crane's (1871–1900) oracular lyrics immediately reminded many readers of the epigrammatic and formally innovative poems of Emily Dickinson. In the two volumes published during his lifetime, The Black Riders, and Other Lines (1895) and War Is Kind (1899), Crane consistently employs abstract language to symbolize the clash of spiritual aspiration with the absurdity of actual experience. His abandonment of metrical patterns and his departure from regular rhyme combine with his tendency to construct poems around opposing points of view to communicate a free-floating subjectivity. The resulting sense of unanchored selfhood defines Crane as a precursor of the modernists, who were similarly interested in confronting existential questions and exposing the inadequacies of cultural institutions. His persistent irony and reliance on symbols echoes Dickinson while also pointing to the future achievements of writers like T. S. Eliot.
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935) was a hugely successful poet; he published twenty volumes of poetry and was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes (1922, 1925, 1928). Four of his poetry books appeared before 1920: The Torrent and the Night Before (1896), The Children of the Night (1897), The Town down the River (1910), and The Man against the Sky (1916). Robinson even won the admiration of President Theodore Roosevelt, who published a favorable review of his poems. Despite a characteristically nineteenth-century concern with traditional poetic form and immediate accessibility, Robinson consistently describes a recognizably modern world, one filled with darkness, confusion, struggle, and loss of traditional values. Most famous for lyric portraits, like his frequently anthologized poem "Richard Cory," Robinson illuminates the troubled interior experiences of individuals, families, and communities. Like Dickinson and Robert Frost, Robinson writes about New England, though he departs from both by writing poems that deliver clear and unambiguous messages, often commenting directly on contemporary social ills.
Robert Frost (1874–1963) continues to be one of the most influential of the American lyric poets writing between 1910 and 1920. He published eleven Page 636 | Top of Article books of poetry, including three before 1920, A Boy's Will (1913), North of Boston (1914), and Mountain Interval (1916). Emerson was a powerful influence on Frost, particularly through his promotion of individualism and his emphasis on colloquial style. A distinctive feature of Frost's lyrics is his ability to communicate the sounds of actual speech, or what he termed "the sound of sense," through poems that employ traditional meter, rhythm, and rhyme. Like Dickinson and Robinson, Frost writes largely about New England, and he does not hesitate to focus on the dark side of life. Unlike Dickinson, though, Frost carefully resolves the structure of his poems in an effort to achieve a single unified effect, so his poems frequently present a particular speaker and sustain a consistent tone. Unlike Robinson's poems, Frost's are often more complicated than they appear, so even the most popular of his poems, like "The Road Less Traveled" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," are frequently misinterpreted. Part of the reason for this difficulty is Frost's remarkable ability to make complex observations in simple language. As a consequence, first readings of Frost poems can give the illusion of carefree innocence, when in fact his subject is the inner turmoil of deeply troubled speakers.
Like Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) achieved considerable fame as a consequence of her poetic dexterity and her choice of subject matter rather than for her innovations in lyric form. Millay published eleven volumes of poetry over the course of her life but won greatest critical acclaim for her first book, Renascence (1917), despite the fact that in 1923 she was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1922 volume Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Millay is widely viewed as representative of the modern woman liberated from Victorian mores. Even though her work displays the conventional formal features that also characterize Frost's lyrics, the content of Millay's poetry is altogether more liberal. Often associated with the Bohemian life of New York's Greenwich Village, Millay made no secret of her political radicalism, her feminism, and her willingness to expand the acceptable range of female experience. Though her later poems depart from the sharply cynical stance of her early work, she never ceased to delight in the mental and emotional intensity she associates with independent selfhood. The title and opening line of her most famous sonnet—"I will put chaos into fourteen lines"—effectively conveys her courageous approach to life and her dedication to traditional English verse forms.
The brief but significant emergence of imagism between 1912 and 1917 signaled a sharp departure from the patterned writing of the genteel past and the
verbal extravagance of romanticism by encouraging a rising generation of poets to imagine more concise possibilities for lyric poetry. While no absolute consensus exists concerning the precise definition of imagism, poets associated with the imagist movement generally employed free verse while seeking to anchor language in the physical world as a way of freeing the mind from preconceived concepts. Rather than writing poems with messages, imagists focused on concrete images, metaphorical juxtapositions that compel readers to construct their own meanings, and rhythms that favor the musical line rather than traditional meter. Through the energetic advocacy of prominent experimental writers, including, most prominently, Ezra Pound (1885–1972), Hilda Doolittle (H.D., 1886–1961), and Amy Lowell (1874–1925), imagism assumed an important role in advancing the modernist aesthetic that viewed poetry as timeless and removed from the world of politics and commerce. Urging instead the development of a rich interior experience, imagism gave weight to the subjective pole of lyric tradition. Perhaps the most famous imagist poem, Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," concentrates meaning in two highly compressed lines Page 637 | Top of Article that sharply contrast natural and industrial imagery in stark, black-and-white colors to urge perception beyond binary oppositions. Pound's dedication to linguistic compression and focused symbols suggests imagist correspondences with Dickinson's brevity and concern with original expression.
Pound's early interest in poetry sprang from his study of the Middle Ages, particularly the troubadour tradition, and his desire to make poetry a vital part of modern culture. His first book of poems, A lume spento, appeared in Italy during Pound's first visit to Venice in 1908 and clearly shows the influence of his early studies. While in Europe, however, Pound rapidly established himself as a central figure in the imagist movement, editing the 1914 anthology Des imagistes and advocating the value of concise description, precise diction, and the metrical freedom central to modernist poetics. Pound's second volume of poetry, Lustra (1916), is wide-ranging in its experiments with technique, expanding the possibilities of English lyric poems by incorporating Chinese, Greek, and Provençal models. With the advent of the First World War, Pound decisively parted with his early aestheticism, portraying the absurdity of the aesthete in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). In 1919 Pound published the poem "A Pact," in which he affirms his American heritage by declaring his descent from Whitman. "We have one sap and one root," he writes, "Let there be commerce between us" (p. 269). Along with Mauberley and Lume spento, Pound published four other important volumes of poetry between 1908 and 1920: Ripostes (1912), Cathay (1915), Quia Pauper Amavi (1919), and Umbra (1920). Much of Pound's broad influence on twentieth-century poetry comes through his affiliations with other poets and his pronounced skill as an editor, especially the editorial assistance he provided Eliot with The Waste Land.
Hilda Doolittle, best known as H.D., was a close acquaintance of Pound's; having first met him in Philadelphia, she later entered his circle of writers when she moved to England in 1911. Pound assisted her with early publication by sending her poems to Poetry in 1913, attaching the signature "H.D., Imagiste," immediately linking her to the imagist movement. H.D.'s poems from this period, like "Oread" (1914), clearly represent the imagist aesthetic and rival Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" as a model of imagist technique. The lines "Whirl up, sea— / whirl your pointed pines" (p. 55) capture the tenets of clarity, precision, and provocative juxtaposition central to imagism. H.D.'s first volume of poems, Sea Garden (1916), is clearly in the imagist mode, displaying her skill with stark, sharply drawn images and innovative rhythms. Deeply distressed by the violence of the First World War and the loss of her brother Gilbert, who died in the conflict, H.D. became increasingly engaged with social and political concerns. In poems like "Euridice" (1917), she drew on her training in classics to reconstitute key myths, creating a distinct, female sensibility capable of redressing the failure of traditional symbol systems. In addition to "Sea Garden," her early volumes of poetry include Hymen (1921), Heliodora, and Other Poems (1924), and Collected Poems (1925).
Amy Lowell was a major presence in American poetry following her return from England, where she encountered imagism in 1913. Lowell introduced imagism to America and dedicated herself to experimentation with poetic form and content, drawing on her links to European poets as well as impressionist painters and musicians. She published nine volumes of poetry during the course of her life, the most important of which are Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), Pictures of the Floating World (1919), and What's O'Clock (1925). She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for What's O'Clock in 1926, though her best work probably appears in Pictures of the Floating World. In that volume Lowell presents a sequence of forty-three lyric poems under the heading "Two Speak Together" that chronicle her love for Ada Russell, her companion for the last decade of her life. Lowell is perhaps best known for her 1925 poem "The Sisters," in which she meditates on the challenges faced by women poets, citing Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson as important precursors.
T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) would become the most influential poet writing in English following his publication of The Waste Land in 1922. Like Pound, Frost, and H.D., Eliot was nurtured by the avant-garde experimentalism he encountered in Europe. Shortly after he arrived in England in the summer of 1914, Eliot met Pound, who dedicated himself to assisting Eliot with the publication of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." As he had done the previous year with H.D., Pound helped secure publication of Eliot's poem in Poetry. "Prufrock" introduces many of Eliot's central themes and stylistic devices, and it is the most important poem from this early phase of his long career. In this work Eliot sets out to dismantle the superficial gentility of the previous generation by urging disillusionment and proclaiming the impossibility of full immersion in experience. The speaker who begins by proposing "Let us go then, you and I" (p. 3) never actually goes anywhere. Instead, Eliot presents an intense lyric meditation on the impotence of individual imagination by clustering provocative images, like the often cited "eyes" and "formulated phrase" that send the speaker "Sprawling on a pin . . . Page 638 | Top of Article and wriggling on the wall" (p. 5). "Prufrock" also demonstrates Eliot's considerable skill at modulating emotional content appropriate to a vitiated imagination through images like the "pair of ragged claws" that scuttle "across the floors of silent seas" (ll. 73–74). Eliot's most important poetry volumes from these early years are Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1920), The Waste Land (1922), and Poems, 1909–1925 (1925).
William Carlos Williams (1883–1963) was the most important of the modernist poets to situate the lyric in a distinctly American idiom, though it took him much of the decade following his first book publication in 1909 to discover his passionate desire to do so. Like H.D., Eliot, and Lowell, Williams benefited from Pound's literary advice after he went to England in 1910. Pound sharply criticized Williams's 1909 Poems, condemning the work as both derivative and twenty years behind the times. Williams's next book, The Tempers (1913), clearly shows Pound's influence, particularly through the appearance of multiple dramatic monologues, but still fails to convey the dedication to American settings and culture that would characterize his best work. By 1915 Williams had separated himself from the European expatriate community of Pound, Eliot, and H.D., making an artistic home for himself in the avant-garde world of New York. His next book, Al que quiere! (1917), showed that Williams had come of age on his native turf. The short, enjambed lines, colloquial speech patterns, and shifts from almost photographic objectivity to autobiography reflect the determination to present the world as an unfolding process that would remain a central preoccupation for the rest of his life. In poems like "The Young Housewife" (1917), where his speaker salutes a "shy, uncorseted" (Collected Earlier Poems, p. 136) housewife, Williams invests ordinary details of American life with a sensual richness that vitalizes and elevates distinct moments in time. His aim as a poet was to scrutinize the world closely and not view life through the lens of theory or a preexisting symbol system. His phrase "no ideas but in things" (Selected Poems, p. 262) effectively conveys his determination to move beyond imagism to create an objective poetry concretely anchored in the immediate moment. Williams published a fourth book of poetry in 1921, Sour Grapes, but his 1924 Spring and All was the greatest achievement to emerge from this early stage of his writing career.
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