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Poetry 101: What Are the Defining Characteristics of a Lyric Poem? Definition of Lyric Poetry with Examples

Written by MasterClass

Apr 23, 2019 • 6 min read

Lyric poetry is a category of poetry, encompassing many different subgenres, styles, cultures, and eras of time. The defining traits of a lyric poem are a songlike quality and an exploration of emotions and personal feelings.

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What Is a Lyric Poem?

A lyric poem is a short, emotionally expressive poem with a songlike quality that is narrated in the first person. Unlike narrative poetry, which recounts events and tells a story, lyric poetry explores the emotions of the speaker of the poem. Lyric poetry originated in ancient Greek literature and was originally intended to be set to music, accompanied by a musical instrument called a lyre, which resembles a small harp. Lyric poetry traditionally follows strict formal rules, but because there have been many different types of lyric poetry over centuries, there are now various different forms of lyric poetry.

What Are the Origins of Lyric Poetry?

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle created three distinctions of poetry: lyrical, dramatic, and epic. The lyric poem, in ancient Greece, was specifically meant to be accompanied by music from a lyre. The Greek poet Pindar was one of the first famous lyric poets. When Romans translated lyric poetry to Latin in the classical period, and the poems came to be recited and not sung, the meter and structure of the poems remained. In Europe, during the Renaissance, poets created lyric poetry with influence from ancient Greece, Persia, and China.

In the sixteenth century, William Shakespeare popularized lyric poetry in England. It remained dominant in the seventeenth century thanks to poets like Robert Herrick, and later, in the nineteenth century, through the work of poets including Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and later on in the century, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Lyric poetry only began to go out of style with the arrival of modernist poets like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, who questioned its relevance and rebelled against its constraints.

What Are the Common Meters Used in Lyric Poetry?

Lyric poetry follows a formal structure that dictates a rhyme scheme, meter, and verse form, but there is a lot of variety in the types of meter poets choose to follow. The most common meters used in lyric poetry include:

  • Iambic meter. In poetry, an iamb is a two-syllable “foot” with stress on the second syllable. Iambic pentameter, by far the most common lyric form in English lyric poetry, is a meter in which each line has five iambs. Think of the rhythm as sounding like a heartbeat: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. For example, take this line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

  • Trochaic meter. Trochaic meter is the inverse of iambic meter. Each trochaic foot, or trochee, consists of a long, stressed syllable followed by a short, unstressed syllable: DUM-da. In trochaic tetrameter, each line has four trochaic feet: DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da. For example, take this passage spoken by Oberson in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Flower of this purple dye,
Hit with Cupid's archery,
Sink in apple of his eye.
When his love he doth espy,
Let her shine as gloriously
As the Venus of the sky.
When thou wakest, if she be by,
Beg of her for remedy.

  • Phyrric meter. This meter consists of two unstressed syllables, also known as a dibrach. Phyrric meter is not enough on its own to construct an entire poem but appears when the rhythm of a line has two short syllables followed by longer, stressed syllables. It is notated as “da-dum.” Not all poets agree with the classification of a Pyrrhic meter. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, negated the existence of Pyrrhic meter, saying that “The pyrrhic is rightfully dismissed. Its existence in either ancient or modern rhythm is purely chimerical…” However, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson used Pyrrhic meter frequently. For example, in this line from his poem In Memoriam, notice how the words “when the” and “and the” are two soft, unstressed syllables:

When the blood creeps and the nerves prick.

  • Anapestic meter. An anapest is two short, unstressed syllables followed by one long, stressed syllable: da-da-DUM. Because this structure lends itself to musical verse with a rolling lilt, examples abound throughout history. Shakespeare, in his later plays, began to substitute anapests in iambic pentameter, breaking from the strict structure if five iambs and inserting an extra syllable occasionally. Anapestic meter can also be found in the lyric poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in comic poetry. The lymeric, for example, is created using anapests. Much of the poetry of Dr. Seuss uses anapestic meter. The classic poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore is a great example of this type of verse:

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

  • Dactylic meter. A dactyl is a long, stressed syllable followed by two short, unstressed syllables: DUM-da-da. It is the inverse of an anapest. For example, the first two lines of Robert Browning’s poem “The Lost Leader” show dactylic meter in action. Browning starts each line with three dactyls:

Just for a handful of silver he left us
Just for a riband to stick in his coat.

  • Spondee meter. A spondee, or a spondaic foot, consists of two long, stressed syllables. Spondaic meter can be interspersed with other kinds of verse to create variation in lyric poetry. For example, in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, this line begins with two spondees, and then three iambs:

Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go.

2 Examples of Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry encompasses many different forms and styles. Here are two examples of lyric poetry that showcase the variety of the form.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43” is an expression of the speaker’s love for her future husband. Setting it apart from a narrative poem, the poem has no characters or plot. Instead, it is a first-person display of emotions. It follows the form of an Italian sonnet—with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBACDCDCD—and there is no closing rhyming couplet.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Emily Dickinson’s famous poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” published posthumously in 1890, is another great example of lyric poetry. She uses iambic meter throughout, and reflects on mortality in the first person:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Learn more about how to read and write poetry with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.