Perhaps as a function of its brevity, the themes of lyric poetry often seem to emerge in a "sudden" shift of perception. Actually, there is due preparation, but some feeling or insight about human experience does seem to come suddenly into focus. Robert Langbaum has called this the "epiphanic" mode, and has suggested that it is the dominant modern convention of the lyric. (In religious usage, "epiphany" suggests revelation.) Again, most of us are familiar with this convention because we have experienced versions of it elsewhere (for example, in some popular songs and short stories).
The most challenging issues of lyric poetry, however, probably have to do with our third expectation-- that it is structurally coherent. What interconnected elements of a poem can suggest to us its themes? In the newspaper "poem," we found coherence between the "stanza" form and the diction (the appearance on the page seemed to focus attention on significant word choices), and between the characters (neighbor and blind person) and the implied attitude of the speaker ("neighbors" should care). In many lyric poems, in fact, the speaker is perhaps the most important element of all.
The typical "speaker" of a lyric poem is a conventional construct, someone who may be associated with the historical author, but who is not really that author speaking in his or own person. The importance of this conventional speaker is that he or she is in one way or another the agent of revelation. For example, in one common sequence, the speaker has an experience, responds to it with feelings, and comes to understand the meaning of the events or objects he or she describes. This meaning discovered by the speaker may then become for us the epiphany. But it is a bit more complex than this.
Whether we realize it or not, we can respond to this conventional speaker in the same way that we might respond in real life. But whenever a real-life speaker says something, we respond to two things--to the idea the speaker is expressing and also to the speaker himself or herself. Whenever we read a lyric poem, we can do the same, and either or both of these responses will lead to the significant insight we expect from a lyric poem. That is, the insight may be (1) the same as the speaker's or (2) related to the character of the speaker or (3) both.
The insight we derive that is identical with the speaker's is not usually delivered directly. In fact, if the speaker does seem to be saying something directly to us, it may be ironic. For example, an Emily Dickinson speaker, preparing us for a theme about people who think they are "somebody" (they are pompously "public, like a frog"), says slyly,
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--. . .
Do you believe the "nobody" self-assessment of this speaker? Of course, an ironic tone may also be present in less direct poetic statements. Another Emily Dickinson speaker:
What soft, cherubic creatures
These gentlewomen are!
One would as soon assault a plush
Or violate a star.
Does the speaker really think these "gentlewomen" are "cherubic"?
In both of these lyric poems, the reader needs the whole poem to determine more fully the attitude of the speaker, and thus the significant insight we will come to share with him or her. Yet we should also note that in both of these poems, our acceptance of the insight is contingent on an implicit judgment we make about the character of the speaker. As in real life, we will assume the speaker is "right" and will accept the insight that is suggested, only to the extent that he or she seems worthy; that is, the speaker must seem not only trustworthy, but also possessed of wisdom. The speaker's "voice" must convey credibility.
Sometimes, the character of the speaker figures more overtly, in ways that relate to the theme itself. For example, if one of Wordsworth's favorite early themes is that "feelings" are more valuable than "reason," his speakers often become an integral part of that theme. In "We Are Seven," there is a a very "rational" adult speaker, who keeps insisting to a child that her family no longer numbers "seven" because some of them are dead. We feel mild irritation with this speaker; our sympathies go with the equally insistent, but more intuitive child, for whom the dead members are still alive because she feels their presence--"their graves are green, they may be seen." On the other hand, in Wordsworth's "Strange Fits of Passion," we find ourselves siding with the speaker (who in fact solicits our sympathies), in opposition to those implied persons who would judge him. He admits to us that what pops into his head, his "wayward thoughts," can only be told into a "lover's ear," that others would consider his thoughts "strange," evidence of irrational "fits." And the associative flash that he reports, connecting the moon's sudden drop behind the hill with the possible death of his beloved, is indeed irrational. But we like this speaker, and with him, take delight in observing such interesting (and universal) vagaries of the human mind.
Sometimes our sympathies may be wonderfully enlarged when we perceive in the character of a speaker, not commonality, but difference from ourselves. To a male reader, Emily Dickinson's striking "I Started Early--Took My Dog--" can open up new insight if, in responding to the character of the speaker, he takes in the fact that she is female (there are references to "Apron" and "Boddice"), and that next to the huge ships in the harbor she feels small, like a "Mouse-- / Aground-- upon the Sands--." In a highly charged progression of sexual images, the ambivalent-sounding speaker also tells of her retreat from a pursuing, polite, yet extremely powerful, potentially engulfing sea, personified as male suitor.
Based partly on how we react to people in real life, we can almost always react to a "speaker" in a lyric poem. From the speaker's words we can construct a situation and derive an attitude. In many cases, we assume the speaker is worthy, a sensitive observer and interpreter whose moments of discovery we can directly take over as our own. In some dramatic monologues, on the other hand, our discovery may be primarily about the character of the speaker (who often is not aware of his own shortcomings). Occasionally, the speaker/situation may seem unreal- -in real life, people do not speak to the West Wind or to a Grecian urn. Yet an attitude or insight is still present. Even when the speaker seems invisible or anonymous (we have no clues pointing to a real person speaking the words), the disembodied "voice" suggests an attitude. Some recent critics have suggested that all lyric speakers are haunted by multiple "voices"; rather than being agents who determine and control insight, they can speak only in the "voices" of the surrounding culture, only what its biased language system permits them to speak. Yet there is still some significant theme expressed.
Rewards and Challenges of Reading Lyric Poetry
This discussion has focused in a general way on two conventional aspects of lyric poetry with which, though we do not often think about them, we are familiar. These are "stanza" form, which we assume is appropriate to feeling and theme, and the "speaker," who is often the most important agent of the theme. Beyond these, in lyric poetry, we assume structural coherence may be found in all of its elements.
Several final comments on the rewards and challenges of reading lyric poetry:
a.) The element of epiphany, of revelation, is perhaps the major reason we think lyric poetry can matter in our lives. Though extremely brief (Rossetti called it a "moment's monument"), a good lyric poem can have an enduring effect. We can find and take back with us new ways of seeing or feeling, or find that an old, seemingly inexpressible feeling has been given shape for us.
b.) In its brevity, lyric poetry thrives on exclusion, leaving a good deal of context to be supplied by a reader. It thus reminds us how much reading is a creative process, to which we bring not only our knowledge of the conventional possibilities of literary form, but also all of the unique experiences that each of us, as individuals, has undergone. The situations described in the preceding examples--a "rational" adult's conversation with an "unreasonable" child; anxious, irrational feelings about losing a lover, aroused so suddenly by the setting of the moon; the powerful and significant fantasizing that can take place during a walk by the sea--all become meaningful only as our prior experiences and knowledge make them so.
c.) Even "difficult" poems--those with seemingly unrelated objects and situations, with fragmented sequences and syntactical dislocations--can be assumed to have unity; if we work at them, we can "make sense" of them. Meanings may not immediately be apparent; epiphanies, though they seem to be "sudden" revelations, may take time to be discovered. Yet there is pleasure to be had in the working out of meanings. (We are always justifiably pleased whenever we use our talents and powers.)
d.) In lyric poems, we may discover joy, surprise, and playfulness. Authors do "play" with their themes. Responding to this aspect of lyric poetry is much like listening to the jazz musician who improvises on a musical theme. Many jazz afficionados listen first for the main theme, then follow as the musician begins to fly with it, and then, understanding what the artist is doing at a particularly inspired moment, they will whisper in quiet admiration--"yeah!" In reading lyric poetry too, when one appreciates how the author has skillfully played with the theme, how apparently discordant lines turn out to be interesting variations that come back always to the same idea, one may have a silent, admiring "yeah!" response.
e.) Finally, the experiences of reading are cumulative. We can build on them. Because "texts" absorb and reflect each other, the more we read, the richer can be our experience of any one poem. With individual authors, for example, we can read many of Blake's Songs of Experience in light of his Songs of Innocence (and vice versa); or we can enrich our understanding of the single word "thing" in Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" if we know his use of the same word in the Tintern Abbey "Lines" (where the speaker sees into the life of "things"). We can also recognize this "intertextuality" between the texts of different authors, and also between literary and non-literary texts. Thus, the more that we read, the more that we extend our participation in our common literary and cultural community (with its shared assumptions, expectations, and conventions), the more we will understand and enjoy experiences that have been among the most intense and meaningful that human beings have ever put into words.
Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©Brooklyn College.