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in ancient Greece, a poem accompanied by a musical instrument, usually a lyre. Although the word is still often used to refer to the songlike quality in poetry, it is more generally used to refer to any short poem that expresses a personal emotion, be it a sonnet, ode, song, or elegy. In early Greek poetry a distinction was made between the choral song and the monody sung by an individual. The monody was developed by Sappho and Alcaeus in the 6th cent. B.C., the choral lyric by Pindar later. Latin lyrics were written in the 1st cent. B.C. by Catullus and Horace. In the Middle Ages the lyric form was common in Christian hymns, in folk songs, and in the songs of troubadourstroubadours
, aristocratic poet-musicians of S France (Provence) who flourished from the end of the 11th cent. through the 13th cent. Many troubadours were noblemen and crusader knights; some were kings, e.g.
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. In the Renaissance and later, lyric poetry achieved its most finished form in the sonnets of Petrarch, Shakespeare, Spencer, and Sidney and in the short poems of Ronsard, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Herrick, and Milton. The romantic poets emphasized the expression of personal emotion and wrote innumerable lyrics. Among the best are those of Robert Burns, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Lamartine, Hugo, Goethe, Heine, and Leopardi. American lyric poets of the 19th cent. include Emerson, Whitman, Longfellow, Lanier, and Emily Dickinson. Among lyric poets of the 20th cent. are W. B. Yeats, A. E. Housman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Federico García Lorca, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Elinor Wylie, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Lowell.


See J. M. Cohen, The Baroque Lyric (1963); C. D. Lewis, The Lyric Impulse (1965); J. Erskine, The Elizabethan Lyric (1967); P. Dronke, The Medieval Lyric (1968).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of three genres of literature (with the epic and drama) that reveals an author’s (or persona’s) world conception directly as an outpouring of his feelings, thoughts, impressions, moods, and desires.

A lyric image—the microcosm of the poet’s feeling, thought, or experience—can express the wisdom of the ages, profound sociopolitical conflicts and conflicts of the human spirit and history, and intense philosophical and civic aspirations. Thus, the lyric is divided thematically into philosophical, civic, love, and nature lyrics. Examples of the philosophical lyric include G. P. Derzhavin’s “God,” V. A. Zhukovskii’s “The Inexpressible,” A. S. Pushkin’s “Futile Gift, Bestowed by Chance,” E. A. Baratynskii’s “Truth,” and F. I. Tiutchev’s “The Fountain.” Civic lyrics include Pushkin’s “To Chaadaev,” M. Iu. Lermontov’s “Farewell, Thou Unwashed Russia,” T. G. Shevchenko’s “Testament,” N. A. Nekrasov’s “Meditation at the Front Entrance,” M. Tsvetaeva’s “Newspaper Readers,” O. Mandel’shtam’s “Midnight in Moscow,” A. A. Blok’s “Russia,” V. V. Mayakovsky’s “Poem About a Soviet Passport,” and A. T. Tvardovskii’s “The Monument’s Rugged Pedestal Is Crumbling.”

“A great poet,” wrote V. G. Belinskii, “in speaking about himself, about his own ‘I,’ speaks about the universal and about humanity, because everything that humanity lives by lies in his nature” (Poln. sobr. soch, vol. 4, 1954, page 521). But in the lyric the objective world is revealed through the poet’s attitude, and its artistic equivalent is his emotional perception of the world, his experience of it. The world of events, the actual result of experiences and strivings, and the sphere of the hero’s actions usually remain outside the range of the lyric work. And even when the author introduces some features of the outside world—descriptions of scenery, everyday life, or people—they become dependent on the subjective observer, so that descriptive elements, as a general rule, acquire expressive functions and become “conductors” of the lyrical experience, either as its reflecting “mirrors” (as in A. A. Fet’s “September Rose”), as emotional “signals” (A. Akhmatova’s “Onto my right hand I pulled/ A glove intended for my left”), as its symbols (Lermontov’s “The Soul”), or as a contrasting counterweight to the subjective state of mind (in Tiutchev’s “Spring”). The generic essence of the lyric is most graphically evident in works whose theme is “the soul itself, or subjectivity as such” (Hegel); in such cases, “feeling is self-sufficient and serves as its own objective” (A. N. Veselovskii, Istoricheshaia poetika, 1940, page 286).

Lyric works, conveying as they do the shifting colors and shades of inner life and fleeting discrete spiritual states, may be extremely brief; such cases clearly demonstrate how the lyric differs in its external structure from the epic, which tends to be monumental in scope and to develop in time and space. A lyric poem of just two lines may be a complete and artistically consummate work:

I hate her and love. “But why?” you will ask.
I don’t know myself, but I feel thus—and pine.

While turning a unique emotional state into an artistic image, lyric poetry invests it with a universalized significance; the lyric work offers the reader ready-made forms of expressing his own experience of an analogous state. This is why lyric poems are memorized and quoted in “everyday” life; the clearest example of this “anonymous” universality of lyric feeling is the song— for example, A. A. Surkov’s “The Dugout,” K. M. Simonov’s “Wait for Me,” and M. V. Isakovskii’s “The Migrant Birds Are Flying.” At the same time, the lyric can express any state of mind as a concrete personal experience in the form of an individual’s internal monologue. The contemplative, perceiving, and thinking self usually dominates a lyric work, but in certain forms, such as landscape and philosophical lyrics, the self is sometimes only surmised and is not present as part of the composition.

The lyric is generally considered “subjective,” or “personal,” if the lyric self is based on the author himself, that is, on his own genuine feelings, “snatched alive and instantly turned into lyric emotions” (D. N. Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, Sobr. soch., vol. 4, St. Petersburg, 1912, p. 99). However, the subjectivity and personal authenticity of lyric feeling do not necessarily coincide literally with the author’s biographical experience. The lyric poet, in typifying (or “objectifying”) his life experiences, “estranges himself from them” (Fet) and artistically completes and transforms them; as a result, a fact of personal biography grows into a work of art, and the poet’s self-expression grows into an expression of the thoughts and hopes of his contemporaries. An example of this is the natural, unostentatious shift from “I” to “we” in Lermontov’s “Meditation.”

In “objective,” or “role-playing,” lyric poetry, the author recreates thoughts and feelings that are not his own, making obvious the dichotomy between the “I” of the lyric persona and the biographical profile of the author—for example, A. N. Apukhtin’s “The Madman” and A. T. Tvardovskii’s “I Was Killed Outside Rzhev.” However, the difference between the two types of the lyric, while important for studying the psychology of creativity, is partly obliterated in the reader’s perception by the emotional character of any lyric work, where emotions are always expressed openly, as if they were the author’s own.

The specific problem of the author’s image in the lyric is stressed by the concept of the “lyric hero” used in Soviet criticism. The term “lyric hero” (first introduced by Iu. Tynianov for the lyric poems of Blok) indicates that while there can be a certain unity or closeness between the real biographical personality of the lyric poet and its reflection in his art, the two are not identical. In the 1950’s and 1960’s discussions of the term’s parameters led to polemical debates on the degree of this closeness. Some took the lyric hero to mean an extremely generalized “I,” purified of empirical data, biographical facts, and coinciding completely with the “we” of a generation, social group, or people. Others understood the term as a covert denomination of subjective self-expression in the lyric.

Obviously, the concept of the lyric hero acquires a strict, definite content chiefly through the analysis of the work of those poets in whose poetry the lyric “I” is not merely a sign of a single attitude to the world or a prism of the author’s consciousness (as with Tiutchev, for example) but rather is attributed with stable biographical, psychological, or even thematic features so that the “I” emerges as a figure endowed with a complete set of characteristics (as in the poetry of Blok and, to a lesser extent, of Esenin). This special form of expressing the author’s consciousness developed with the lyrics of romanticism; in Russian poetry, the discovery of the lyric hero in this specific sense belongs to Lermontov. Apparently, the psychologically typical figure of the lyric hero occupies an intermediate position between the authorial “I” of lyric diaries, letters, epistles, and similar forms (for example, Pushkin’s “I Loved You”) and the persona in role-playing lyrics. The lyric hero is a kind of “role,” but one that has not lost its connection with the intellectual and psychological profile of its prototype, the author.

The classification of the lyric genres often changes, and no system has been found that can reflect the real complexity and variety of lyric genres. In folk art, for example, the lyric genres are classified according to their practical intention and the circumstances in which they are performed: ritual, game, dance, and family songs, for example. In ancient literature lyrics were classified by form of performance: dramatic recitations (elegies and iambic verse), sole lyrics, and choral lyrics. In Renaissance and classicist European literature genres were classified by aesthetic tonality and social function (such as the ode, elegy, epistle, and song). In the 19th century genres were classified primarily by their thematic characteristics (as philosophical, civic, love, and nature lyrics).

Lyrics of the 19th and 20th centuries are also divided into the meditative works, which contain emotional reflections upon “eternal themes” (for example, Lermontov’s “I’m bored and I’m sad,” Tiutchev’s “Autumn Evening,” and Esenin’s “I don’t regret, nor call, nor weep”), and the suggestive works, which charm with their “captivating vagueness” (for example, Fet’s “The Singer” and B. Pasternak’s “Winter Night”). Another generic division is developing that includes songs, lyric verse, and monumental lyric works (such as Mayakovsky’s About This).

Lyrics find the imagistic and expressive potential to transform and typify spiritual life in the very nature of the word—in the phonetic value and sound combinations of words, the internal form of words, the synonymy of language, and the syntactic and intonational organization of speech. The lyric author finds that the “unexpected expressiveness of words” substitutes for the need for any other method of describing events (N. Aseev). The word’s potential is realized in lyrics—the word “becomes denser,” that is, every phonetic, intonational, and rhythmic element and every nuance of stress, pause, and rhythm acquires significance. Speech becomes saturated with alliteration and assonance, similes, tropes, various forms of parallelism, and syntactic figures. The rhythmic organization of speech heightens its emotionality. Therefore, lyric expression gravitates toward poetic speech, and at certain stages of its development (in the work of troubadours, minstrels, and Meistersinger), lyric poetry merges with music.

The sources of the lyric are lost in antiquity. The very earliest ritualistic folk songs are exceptional models of lyric poetry. Immortal lyric works were written in antiquity (Sappho and Anacreon in Greece and Catullus in Rome), in the sixth- and seventh-century Arab East (Imru al-Qays), in Provence (troubadours), in medieval China (Li Po, Tu Fu), and in Iran (Hafiz) and other countries. Dante’s lyric poetry resounded between two magnificent epochs, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and Petrarch’s sonnets heralded the beginning of a new era. In 19th-century Europe, lyric poetry flowered in the critical periods of the beginning and end of the century, as seen in the works of Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth (England), Musset and Verlaine (France), Goethe, Schiller, and Heine (Germany), Leopardi (Italy), Mickiewicz (Poland), and Rilke (Austria). The cataclysms of the 20th century were reflected in the lyrics of Pablo Neruda (Chile), García Lorca (Spain), and Nazim Hikmet Ran (Turkey).

In Russia the entire wealth of lyric genres is represented in the poetry of Zhukovskii, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tiutchev, Nekrasov, Fet, Blok, and I. Annenskii. Outstanding models of lyric poetry were created by the Soviet poets Mayakovsky, Esenin, E. Bagritskii, Pasternak, N. Zabolotskii, and Tvardovskii. Soviet lyrics are characterized by the development of the monumental and songlike genres and an attraction toward dramatized forms of poetic speech. Thematically, Soviet poetry has a wealth of forms of civic lyric poetry, which is imbued with the zeal for unity between the poet and the people that is the determining feature of socialist realist poetry.


Hegel, G. W. F. Estetika, vol. 3. Moscow, 1971.
Belinskii, V. G. “Razdelenie poezii na rody i vidy.” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 5. Moscow, 1954.
Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, D. N. “Lirika kak osobyi vid tvorchestva.” In Voprosy teorii i psikhologii tvorchestva, vol. 2, issue 2. St. Petersburg, 1910.
Zhirmunskii, V. M. Kompozitsiia liricheskikh stikhotvorenii. Petrograd, 1921.
Eikhenbaum, B. M. Melodika russkogo liricheskogo stikha. Petrograd, 1922.
Larin, B. “O lirike kak raznovidnosti khudozhestvennoi rechi.” In his Estetika slova i iazyk pisatelia. Leningrad, 1974.
Ginzburg, L. Ia. O lirike, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1974.
Skvoznikov, V. D. “Lirika.” In Teoriia literatury [book 2]. Moscow, 1964.
Gachev, G. D. Soderzhatel’nost’ khudozhestvennykh form. Moscow, 1968.
Timofeev, L. I. Osnovy teorii literatury, 4th ed. Moscow, 1971.
V. A. BOGDANOV and I. B. RODNIANSKAIA (on the lyric hero) [14–1449–5; updated]
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. (of poetry)
a. expressing the writer's personal feelings and thoughts
b. having the form and manner of a song
2. (of a singing voice) having a light quality and tone
3. intended for singing, esp (in classical Greece) to the accompaniment of the lyre
4. a short poem of songlike quality
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


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