What is meant by a lyric?

We have previously discussed the ballad in the context of the classical epic. We stated that Beowulf could be seen as a compendium of ballads, straining to become an epic. But a ballad can be considered more than mere ‘proto-epic’. Ballad (like ballet) comes from ballare, meaning ‘dance’, as does the word ball. It was a part of what became categorised as lyric poetry. It sat alongside the sonnet (from sonetto, meaning little sound or song), the ode and the hymn (both are Greek words for song). Further Greek influence into the art of the song and dance are seen in the Chorus (‘round dance’),  the psalm and the lyric (‘harp music’). These are the basic sub-categories from which springs a wealthy tradition: lyric poetry.

We should think structurally about how the lyric grew – the chorus comes from ancient Greek tragedians, the odes from their poets. This is the bedrock, the foundation stone of the lyric. On top of this sits a plethora of layers that represent different epochs  & forms. The second layer is the one formed in the Middle Ages, containing rhyme, the stanza, and the sonnet structure. Among the chief architects of this layer were the Provencal troubadours discussed earlier. Here are the layers of lyric poetry that we shall go through below:

  1. The Bedrock – Lyric Poets of antiquity, notably Pindar and Horace
  2. The Bards and Minstrels of the Middle Ages – notably the Provencal Troubadours
  3. The Renaissance
  4. Baroque
  5. The Romantics of the Revolutionary Era
  6. Lyric Poet’s of the Industrial World

Greek lyric poetry is inhibited by the extent to which it survives, fragmentary and elusive. Early lyricism, in the form of Strabo and Alcaeus, are almost entirely lost. Even Pindar’s work exists at less than half of its original breadth. Furthermore, there are a host of names mentioned in encyclopaedias and quotations on which we have nothing. It is a very early form of Greek literature beginning in the seventh century BC. The Romans would have encountered much more of these lyric poets than ourselves and we can be comforted in the fact that much of the Greek beauty and grace was transmuted through their works – Horace, Catullus, Sidonius Apollinaris and the writer of The Vigil of Venus to name a few. The chief models that inspired the modern European are the Greek Pindar and the Roman Horace. After these, Anacreon, Catullus and the poets of the Greek Anthology are also influential.

When we talk of Greek and Roman lyric poetry, we are predominantly talking of the ode. The ode contains an emotion stirred and sustained by one or more of the nobler and less transient events of human life, particularly those in which temporary and physical facts are transfigured by the spiritual and eternal. In short, the ode is an interplay of emotion and reflection. Its form can differ depending on which of the primary classical poets one seeks to emulate. We shall now look at the two chiefs of the Graeco-Roman ode separately before delving into their influence on the higher levels of lyric poetry.

Pindar (522B.C.-442B.C.): Subject and Form

Pindar was Theban born and Athenian trained. He seems to have

Pindar with lyre in hand by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres

been apart from the full current of Greek life and thought which paced throughout the Peloponnese in the fifth century BC. His intensity is reserved for the emotional and the aesthetic rather than the intellectual. His surviving poems are his victory odes to the athletes of the Olympian games which glorify the athletes’ family more than the unique personality of the winner. For him the victory was a unit to be appended to the existing legend. Pindar’s work is an exaltation of nobility.

Their form is not entirely consisted. The odes are divided into stanzas. Poems built on a single stanza are called monostrophic, but most are triadic, taking the form A-Z-P – called the strophe, antistrophe and epode respectively. The antistrophe matches the strophe almost exactly while the epode is a briefer stanza differently arranged but on a similar rhythmical basis. The units of A and Z correspond throughout the entire poem, as does P, resulting in a rather complex structure. We are reminded that Pindar’s odes do not rhyme – that was a Middle Ages intrusion. The shape is subtle and rhythmical. A stanza will look like:







——–d’ (shortened)





Compare this to the sonnet of the Renaissance, which is far clearer:















If you are confused do not worry – even the Romans struggled with Pindar. Horace, the calm, restrained, elegant, enlightened Epicurean, said Pindar’s poetry was like a torrent rushing down rain-swollen from the mountains, overrunning its banks, boiling and roaring. In other words: don’t analyse, but rather get swept away. In truth, it is difficult for our brains to do this. Lyric poetry without the rhyme, without the music, is a shadow of itself. Pindar seems to wish not to be logical, but to be nobly inconsequent – as divinely astonishing and unique as the triumphal moment upon which he writes.

It is difficult enough to recapture the full significance of Greek tragedy or early comedy, without the acting, the scenic effects, the chorus, the dancing, the great theatre, and the intense concentration of the Athenian audience. But there at least we grasp the myth and are still struck by the primal fascination of the developing drama. With the lyric poetry of Pindar we have but words whispering through the air – phantoms of a dance long gone.

Horace (65B.C.-8B.C.): Subject and Form

Horace is the greatest Roman lyricist. His odes differ from Pindar in that they are not composed for a single moment, but for Rome itself – its thriving civilisation and its bright future. He preferred the earlier Greek models of Sappho and Alcaeus from seventh and sixth century Greece, as opposed to fifth century Pindar. Horace compared Pindar to a swan – strong-winged and loud-voiced soaring above the plain. This swan is much more apt for the lyric poet than the eagle, sometimes attributed to

Horace Von Werner
Horace as depicted by Anton von Werner

Pindar – the eagle symbolises power, to be feared as much as it is admired. By calling him a swan, Horace is paying homage to Pindar while acknowledging that he himself is not of the same breed.

Horace maintains that he is like the bee – hard-working, low-flying, gathering sweet myriads from nature’s wonderment. Hence, Horace’s odes are more structured. They are all precisely arranged in four stanzas or, less often, couplets. If Pindar was the choir, the festival, the many-footed dance, then Horace is the solo singer, sitting in a pleasant room or quiet garden with his lyre. And perhaps the garden is the apt choice for Horace the bee. He was an ex-slaver’s son who fled Rome during the civil war but returned to work his way up to become friend of an emperor. He is the poet who built his monument syllable by syllable. Horace is classical constraint and sensibility to Pindar’s passionate romanticism.

It is important to note here that romanticism is not anti-classical, as is oft touted. The bold free-pattern odes of Pindar compliment the brief delicately moulded lyrics of Horace. Between them we have the two strains of lyrical thought that echoes down the ages. And that is the point. Shelley may be romantic-in-chief, but he is no more anti-classical than Dryden. They are divergent flows from the same source.

Other Classical Lyricists

The next most famous Greek after Pindar is Anacreon. His main influence is through his imitators, as his own texts are largely lost. His subject-matter is the lighter aspects of life – youth is a flower to be plucked while love is a naughty Cupid rather than an overmastering daemon. The imitators, called Anacreontics, created works that are simple, easy, and distinctly made for singing. One famous modern example of Anacreon’s legacy is the Star-Spangled Banner, written to the tune of a modern Anacreontic song called Anacreon in Heaven.

Elsewhere in classical lyrical influence we have the Greek Anthology, an enormous collection of epigrams and lyrics in short form, and Catullus. Catullus was a Roman who belonged to the generation before Horace. His life was as short and passionate as his own poems. He left behind him love-lyrics which have never been surpassed for intensity of feeling and directness of expression.

Lyric Poetry in the Renaissance

Lyrical poetry did not re-emerge in the same way of Greek and Latin drama in the Renaissance. It was less the unearthed jewel than it was layered cake – layer 3 of 6 mentioned above, to be precise. The lyric poet of the renaissance used layer 2 techniques of rhyme, sonnet, ottava rima and stanzas in conjunction with the subtler classical patterns. The most important change the classics gave was their nobler spirit. By the Baroque era (level 4), the idea of the ode would be popularised for the purpose of modern man. It meant writing a song in the classical manner to an audience that would stretch on into eternity. Let us look at what these poets of the Renaissance and Baroque eras took from Greece and Rome’s greatest lyricists, looking at the each country in turn:

The Ode in Renaissance and Baroque France

Pindar, unlike Horace, was not known throughout the Middle Ages. As such his position in the Renaissance was more exotic and made a deeper impact on Renaissance poets. The first edition of his odes was printed by the famous Venetian publisher Aldus in 1513. He was soon published in France by Luigi Alamanni (Lyon 1522-23). In the following decades, Pindar’s influence grew strength by strength in French minds, with no little help due to one Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), ‘the first who in all France, had ever Pindarized’.

We have met Ronsard before, looking briefly into his failed epic The Franciad. Just as he tried with Virgil, he likewise tried with Pindar. Ronsard would have travelled widely in the king’s service as a royal page, and had an excellent teacher at the College de Coqueret, a small unit of the university of Paris, in one Jean Dorat. Under the influence of Dorat, Ronsard became chief among the Pléiade, a group of youthful enthusiastic poets proclaiming a revolution in the ideals and techniques which defined French poetry. They named themselves after the group of seven stars which join their light into a single glow. That single glow to which they strove was closer synthesis between French poetry and Graeco-Latin literature, with the two meeting on an equal basis.

The group produced three landmark works:

  1. The Defence and Ennoblement of the French Language (1549) by Joachim Du Bellay
  2. Book of Odes (I-IV) (1550) by Ronsard himself
  3. The staging of Captive Cleopatra and Eugene (1552) by Étienne Jodelle

As they produced, they made extravagant claims on originality, heaped contempt on predecessors, and entered daring experiments from which they later recoiled. The thesis of Du Bellay, the closest thing we have to a Pléiade manifesto, was that it was unpatriotic for a Frenchman to write in Latin, but it is also an admission of inferiority to write in French without trying to equal the greatness of antiquity. ‘Look [to] the Roman city and the Delphic temple’, Du Bellay said and ‘write odes still unknown to the French muse.’ Nationalism narrows culture. Extreme classicism desiccates it. The synthesis between the

La Pléiade, who sought to place French alongside the Classical languages in esteem

two is what created the great works of Western Europe. We have already seen it in England with Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. In France it was tried first by Ronsard and Boileau, later to be perfected by Racine and Corneille.

Though there were Horatian advocates such as Gabriel Harvey, and Ronsard himself was compliant to the Horace’s favourite Epicurean consolation – ‘don’t worry, leave everything to the gods’, Ronsard would follow Clément Marot (1496-1544) when he took on the classical ode in his First Four Books of the Odes in Pindaric fashion. Ronsard wanted to do more than imitate Pindar; he wished to exceed him. He kept the A-Z-P structure but found writing on the Olympics unacceptable. He wrote instead on the achievements of the French nobility of his time, as well as more local and humble celebratory occasions. His tone is often less ecstatically triumphant than Pindar. By 1551 he had abandoned his attempt to rival Pindar, straying away from A-Z-P toward the comfort of the couplet. The boasts of playing a Theban string diminished. Just like The Franciad, Ronsard was too soft and his public too shallow. But he could console himself in the fact he was the main contributor to French level 3 lyric poetry.

In the Baroque Age, much of that Renaissance energy had dissipated to become a cold and calculated method. For the ode, and the Pindaric ode in particular, it became harder to believe that the poet was as overtaken by excitement as they so claimed. When Boileau writes in his ode on the capture of Namur

What wise and sacred drunkenness

This day overmasters me?

We know perfectly well that he is sober and endeavouring to write a Pindaric Ode with impeccable precision. Not only are individual words jarring, but the whole theme of Namur, capturing and annexing foreign land in the name of King Louis XIV, is at odds with Boileau’s detestation of war. We simply do not believe his excitement.

The Ode in Renaissance and Baroque Italy

Petrarch had been the first modern enthusiast for the discreet and lasting charm of the ode. His style was closer to Horace than Pindar, but, situated in the time that he was, his style is less cemented than those who came later. By the end of the fifteenth century Italy was producing figures such as Florentine scholar Landino, and his greater pupil Politian who were more firmly founding Horace’s modern reputation. It is more difficult to discern the Horatian odes than the Pindarics. Horace was known throughout the middle ages, and his strict worker-like odes are less appealing to the vigour of the Renaissance poet, though the first publishing of Horatian odes conclusively does appeare in 1531, its contrubtor being Torquato Tasso’s father, Bernardo.

Pindaric Ronsard-like figures also existed on the Italian peninsula, chief among them Gabriello Chiabera (1552-1638). His epitaph would be written by none less than Pope Urban VIII who called him ‘first to fit Theban rhythms to Tuscan strings’. Chiabera’s Heroic Poems (Canzioni eroiche) contain some one hundred poems with twelve in the structure of Pindar. The rhymes are unevenly distributed, a typical pattern being abab cddc efef. His subject-matter was the triumph of Florentine galleys against the Turks. He implants much classical imagery into his work, but the feeling is that he does so because it is required, not because it excites him. It must be remembered that Italy had been the first to develop the Renaissance. It can also be seen as the first to find Baroque intrusions – classical reference being a substitute for imagination and invention – and the odes of Chiabera are one such instance.

Horace in Spain

Spain in the Renaissance was a stronghold of the Horatian Ode. Garcilaso de la Vega (1503-36) used what are known as ‘lyre’ stanzas – three seven-syllable and two eleven-syllable lines, borrowed from Bernardo Tasso, while Fernando de Herrera’s (1534-97) poem to Don Juan of Austria is really a triumphal ode. The greatest Spanish lyricist was Luis de León (c. 1527-91) who took influence in his Song of Solomon not just from Horace but also from the pastoral elements of Virgil discussed earlier.

The Ode in Renaissance & Baroque England

The ode was first introduced into England in Shakespeare’s time and for that playwright it meant one thing: love-poetry. Shakespeare was building on early English odes such as Thomas Watson’s έκατομπαθία (1582), or Passionate Century of Love, and Pandora (1584) by John Southern. The latter was imitative of Pindar, stating

Vaunt us that never man before,

Now in England, knewe Pindars string

But for the first work that is truly Pindaric we must proceed to Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1629). It has the rhyming scheme aabccbdd but is Pindaric in its controlled asymmetry and vivid imagery. Milton, by fusing Christian biblical learning with classical imagery, had finally surpassed that Swan of Thebes.

Ben Jonson also attempted the Pindaric vein, with interesting results contained within his Ode on the Death of Sir H. Morison. His favourite poet though was Horace, and this shines

Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson: imitator of Pindar, translator of Horace

through in the above mentioned ode with the line ‘and in short measures, life may perfect be’, aligning us closer to Horace’s busy bee than Pindar’s soaring swan. Jonson learnt of Horace in school, where the Latin poet was a key part of the curriculum and had translated his Art of Poetry. His love of Horace had effect on later Horace-like poems such as Andrew Marvell’s Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland, often called the finest Horatian ode in England.

Milton, now the master of the English Pindaric ode, also tried his hand in translating Horace. It taught him the art of compression, which he carried into his sonnets. Milton’s example of compressed beauty would be transmitted to Wordsworth and many a later poet.

Later English poets of the ode include Abraham Cowley (1618-87) who saw himself as the inventor of the English Pindaric Ode. He was rightly determined not to make a plaster cast, but to re-create and rival Pindar. The triadic form was replaced by irregular verse. He was not the first to do so – Milton, Vaughan, and Crashaw had already published more serious poems in equally free forms.

As we move toward the end of the seventeenth century, England faced similar constraints as France. The best of rigid baroque compositions come when the poet has a sense of humour, as exhibited in Edward Young’s Imperium palegi. By Young’s time, the tradition of introducing annual birthday odes for the king had been in place since the time of Shadwell, who was made Poet Laureate in 1688.

During the baroque period, when the better poets felt a deep but tranquil emotion, which could not issue in ‘Pindaric rage’, they often turned to Horace’s manner. This we see in Pope’s early Ode on Solitude, Collins’ To Evening and To Simplicity, and Watt’s Day of Judgement.

Accent-Stress and Music Making

Modern adaptation of the ode is a difficult practice. Where the stress accent should fall, particularly in the Horatian ode, was pivotal, and not always consistent. They depended on whether the lines should be spoken or sung. Singing the ode, as some believed was the whole point, created long drawn syllables that complicated the pattern. Horace would have encountered these difficulties in his own time when he created works modelled on Alcaeus and Sappho. Some would attempt to sculpt odes on modern stress-accents – chief examples being Longfellow’s Evangeline and Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea. Among the Latin-based languages, the stress was perhaps easier. Notable attempts were made by Villegas in Spain, Chiabera and later Giosue Carducci in Italy, and, of course, Ronsard in France.

Once we had entered into the practice of reshaping accent-stress, there were those who sought to broaden the ode so it could fit to more contemporary music. Their sentiments were noble. Ode, after all, means ‘song’, and Pindar would have been used for group singers while Horace was more suited to the solo affair. By the end of the Renaissance musicians and lyricists sought to putting the ode to music. Horace was for the chamber group or solo singer, Pindar was for choir and orchestra. The first English opera (The Siege of Rhodes) had been performed in 1656. A few years later the Restoration had the effect of restoring more than monarchy in England, as it once more bridged the cultural flow from the continent, namely the new Italian music of high and dignified emotion. Gorgeously decorative and quite unreal, it was supremely Baroque. By 1687, John Dryden produced a technical masterpiece, his Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, set to music by the Italian composer Draghi. St Cecilia was the patron of music and in his work Dryden included Ovidian reminiscences with Biblical imagery. He would go on to write Alexander’s Feast in the same vein, which would later be set to music by Handel.

Beethoven Ode to Joy
Beethoven at work: One of many who returned music to the ode

In Baroque music, Horatian odes would become more suited to the fugue while the Pindaric are for the toccata and chaconnes. Attempting this was engaging in the highest of arts and would see the likes of Bach engaged to his fullest power. In the revolutionary era, or layer 5 if we stick to our mapping, the ode was best exemplified through use of the growing symphony. In layer 6 the ode’s musical influence can be seen in late classical works such as Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and Vaughan Williams’ Serenade for Music.

The Ode in the Revolutionary Period & Beyond

The greatest lyricist of the eighteenth century was Thomas Gray’s Progress of Poesy, a Pindaric Ode. He was a bard, decidedly not setting his odes to music. He was apart of the other branch of the ode which would stay entirely in spoken form. From Gray we would get Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley. As the scope for what event was suitable for an ode widened, there came added pitfalls. As Horace had known some two thousand years ago, imitating Pindar was difficult. During the nineteenth century ceremonial odes were being produced en masse – with more bad poems than good. The problem of the ode is the control of emotion. Emotion must be applied and directed to a point of maximum expressiveness. But maximum expressiveness is not the same as chaotic extravagance. There is a filter and a method to it, though it is decidedly difficult to master. With the best available wax, and selected high-grade feathers, what were constructed by these failed Pindars were artificial wings. Launching themselves into the azure air they fell, Icarus like, to doom.

Those who succeeded, though, carried with them a new vigour and richness that asserted the undeniable power of the ode. The heirs of Pindar in this epoch include Goethe, Shelley, Hugo, and Hölderlin. They were able to return the intended energy and emotion to the Pindaric ode that was lacking sincerity during of the baroque era. Baroque ode making had not been without its purpose, for it was Cowley that established the dithyrambic form in English. This is exampled by Shelley’s Ode to Naples, which is in ten irregular stanzas marked epode, strophe, and antistrophe, even numbered and Greek-lettered; but the names and numbers have no real sequence.

Wordsworth in typically reflective mood

Shelley was working his way to creating one of the finest Pindaric poems of all time – Ode to the West Wind.

As well as Cowley, Shelley was writing in the wake of one of England’s finest-ever ode creators in William Wordsworth. His modern Pindaric; Ode – Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, is Pindar adapted to modern stresses with the mood darkened for the modern spirit. It was the mark of a new turn for lyric poetry. This inward reflection, deep and meditative, with a final proclamation of victory, out of the suffering, was as Aeschylean as it was Pindaric. The struggle teaches wisdom.

Elsewhere, the stanza of the Horatian tradition became more intricate during the Revolutionary epoch. The thought was tranquil and often extremely private. Although more fertile in the baroque era under the auspices of Collins, we can say that the odes of Keats are in a sense a descendant of Horace. The voice of the Latin poet is unmistakably present in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, though only so far as Pindar is present in Horace himself. If Pindar is the swan and Horace the bee, then perhaps it is best to find a new bird of flight for Keats. The nightingale of his own ode seems a good choice. Pindar spoke for Greece, and all Greece listened. Horace uttered soft phrases for Rome, and it was heard by small groups with open ears. Keats writes for no such public, for the public has disappeared.

On the continent, Victor Hugo’s Odes and Ballads were more Pindaric than Horatian, though the study of Pindar was taken up with the most enthusiasm by the Germans, who now burst onto the classical tradition scene, eager to make up for lost time. Goethe admired Pindar more than any other non-dramatic Greek poet except Homer, reading and translating Pindar in his early twenties. Schiller famously leaves behind him his ode To Joy, later exalted in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Höderlin was the truest Grecian of his generation, translating much of Pindar and creating difficult hymns in free verse. We will see more of these figures later.

Moving on to layer 6, it could be stated that the bedrock of Pindar and Horace had become so diluted as to vanish from sight. Yet the essentials of Greek and Roman lyric poetry remains. Piercing vividness of imaginative detail; creation of great superhuman visions transcending ordinary life – these emotions echo of the classics. The musical ode had splintered off and would eventually wither away. The spoken ode now became fixed on noble ideals and adoration of beauty in a hermit-like retreat.

A multitude of essays could be written on the nineteenth century odes alone, and it would make a noble anthology indeed. They are more Pindaric than Horatian, some, like Hart Crane, consciously (‘I feel myself quite fit to become a suitable Pindar for the dawn of the machine age’), others, like Walt Whitman, unconsciously. Before the musical branch had entirely dissolved, works of note were still produced, namely Liszt’s rhapsodies which paralleled Swinburne’s technical virtuosity and corybantic energy.

From the mid-nineteenth century on there came the growing desire for originality. This abolishment of Parnassus and the Muses and all so-called ‘lofty pretentions’ will be treated in wider context later, but for now it is enough to say that, by the time Gerard Hopkins was writing on the shipwrecks of the Euryidice and Deutschland, the work was Pindaric and yet not so. It flowed molten-like into a strange mould. We were entering the era of the modern lyrical free verse.