Lyrics Before the Lyric: Course Blog

Astrophil and Stella Close Readings

Poem 16

Love is characterized as something beautiful and dangerous, but controllable. Admitting that he does not know real love, the narrator raves about realizing that real love is more like poison than light. The narrator explains he completely underestimated Love, which he personifies as a spirit that could fill him. While he originally settled for beautiful women who were “many carats fine,” the emotionally experience was controllable; there was no “restless flames” of love as he fooled around with these beautiful women as a “young lion” might— completely oblivious to what he was missing. Once he sees Stella, however, Astrophil realizes he may have judged those who “some pin’s hurt did whine.” After learning her name as she beholds him, the narrator claims to have “a lesson new have spell’d” about love. Characterizing this lesson as a first hand experience where only “by being poisoned doth poison know;” thus, only now by loving does Astrophil truly understand the pain of love, unable to decide “shall [he] say curst or blest?”


Poem 24

In Poem 24, the narrator laments those who do not appreciate the intangible aspects of their lives (such as men who fail to appreciate love and the wonder love brings to his life).  The narrator characterizes these men as “base and filthy” at heart who are only capable of valuing material goods. Consequently, the more they desire material gain, the “more blest more wretched grow.” They only know of objects they can hold and are unable to conceptualize the beauty and value of “the richest gem of love and life”. Unappreciative, these men tear down beautiful souls and debase the value of their love “with foul abuse.” Though this man has everything the narrator clearly desires (love, Stella), these are still “unfelt joys,” which is to the narrator the biggest tragedy. Therefore this man “exil’d for aye from those high treasures, which he knows not) grow rich in only folly . This poem utilizes plays on the word rich (“richest gem;” “rich” only in folly) to indicate Lord Rich, the villain of the play.


the way we read now

“The Way We Read Now” breaks down surface reading and depth reading, without reductive definitions for both. The author is invested in moving beyond the influence of psychoanalysis and Marxist views, which have influenced readers throughout the years. “The Way We Read Now” suggests that subjective interpretations of readings are as valuable as “facts”. This insight can be applied to the Lyric, as many of the poems we read in class rely on our subjective examination. Although “The Way We Read Now” provides a different approach towards reading analysis, the piece is slightly confusing when it speaks about Mary Crane’s view of the unconscious versus Jameson’s view of the unconscious in symptomatic reading. Furthermore, it is difficult to understand which theory the author supports.


I approached these poems with our Wednesday discussion in mind, focusing on the sense of voice that each evokes; one poem in particular, “To Rosemounde,” offered a unique portrait of poetic voice and the function of poetic language.

As a ballad to a particular woman, “Rosemounde,” this poem exemplifies the interplay of distance and intimacy that we examined last week in the religious lyrics. On the one hand, the speaker identifies his love object by name; this gesture of intimacy is complicated, however, by the placement of her name in the title—a formal space, exterior to the poem. Moreover, her name only appears once in the body of the text, within the speaker’s own words: “‘Suffyseth me to love you, Rosemounde, / Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce’” (15-16) The speaker addresses these words “to myself” (14) rather than to Rosemounde, adding a level of irony to the ballad form. Perhaps that irony is best read as a kind of resignation at the fact that the speaker’s love is unrequited—he speaks, he implies, to no one but himself.

And yet, his closing tone verges on triumphant—he declares that “My love may not refreyde nor affounde” (21). His love may be unreciprocated, he implies, but this is no quietus—instead, it seems to become a source of strength. The poem reveals, therefore, a remarkable shift in voice; what begins as a reification—“as the cristal glorious ye shyne, / And lyke ruby ben your chekes rounde” (3-4)—and an admission of weakness—“It is an oynement unto my wounde” (7)—concludes with a sense of fortification, and an easing of the initial asymmetry between the speaker and Rosemounde. It’s as if, for the speaker, poetic language serves as a kind of sieve—allowing him to acknowledge and sort out his painful attachment to Rosemounde, and thus to reclaim his emotions.

In sum, this poem seems to me to invoke a component of M.H. Abram’s description of lyric, from “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric.” It serves as a “meditation” on the vicissitudes of the speaker’s love, and enables him to come to terms with his own frustration—to own what plagues him.

Unintentional lyrics

For the past few weeks, we’ve discussed what defines a lyric and I think Woolf’s essay on religious lyrics, like the other texts we’ve read, break down commonly held definitions of the lyric. I want to start at the very end of her essay: “from this unselfconscious, ‘unpoetical’ approach, poetry often sprang” (15). This conclusion is drawn from her comparison of medieval meditative lyrics and the metaphysical lyrics. Poems belonging in the latter category, she argues, are consciously crafted lyrics characterized by stylistic elaborateness and “complex and ingenious [thoughts]” (11). Medieval lyrics, on the other hand, have an “insistence on one simple emotion, movingly expressed” (11). Woolf argues that despite the fact that medieval religious lyrics don’t observe stylistic conventions of “the lyric,” (indeed, she calls them “unpoetical”), they are in fact more lyrical because of their understatedness.

While she acknowledges that it is “impossible to distinguish between limitations of style that were intentionally adopted and those which were the inevitable result of historical conditions,” (11) I think this is one of the most interesting points in her essay. How much of the lyric is consciously crafted and to what extent does this consciousness define the lyric as a lyric? Do lyrics have to satisfy a series of definitions as laid out by the authors whose handouts we read during our first meeting? For me, her essay raises more questions about the boundaries of “the lyric” and I’m realizing that the term is a lot more elastic than I had originally thought before taking this class.

Lark in the Morning

In my typical longwinded fashion, I got a little lost in my thoughts on the Troubadours. While I recognize they are different types of poems with different subject matter, I was struck by the anthologists decision to open and close the collection the way they did. While the chronology of the two authors makes sense, with the first being the quintessential original Troubadour (Guillem de Peitus, who lived from 1071-1127) and the last author the quintessential final Troubadour (Guiraut Riquier, who lived 1230-1292). The first poem appropriately focuses on beginnings of a love and the last on the end of a career. But, while the Troubadours focused the subjects of their songs on fin’ amor— or the interplay of sentiment, power, politics, and eroticism in forming love— only the first poem really discusses that (4). The final poem is more a tribute to the Riquier’s career and the Troubadour movement. Though it is no leap to say that the lyrics of these Troubadours reflected the cultural experiences of their day, examining the poems of Guillem de Peitus and Guiraut Riquier offers insight of the role of art in society.

One of Guillem de Peitus’ earlier poems and the first in the anthology, “A New Song for New Days”, beckoned in the new era of the Troubadours. Peitus was already a member of the landed aristocracy, however, making his experiments with form and content less risky. This poem employs natural and spry imagery to incite a playful tone. Everything about the poem is bright as it jokes about new loves, seduction, and sex. The first stanza plays with these ideas of nature and rebirth where everything is new— new days, new songs, etc. There is a feeling that everyone gets what they deserve, for “it’s only fair a man should find/ his peace with what he’s sought so long”

The next three stanzas depict the game of love. The narrator waits for his lady to embrace him. Portrays the torments of the game of love and their relations ambivalence. Again utilizing natural imagery with their love as a hawthorne bough, Peitus describes the rain and shine of a relationship, with all the fights and make ups. It is almost as though it is all worth it when “we two made peace in our long war” so that he can ultimately “get my hands beneath her clothes!” He talked his way into her pants and jokes he no longer has to deal with that because “we’ve got the bread, we’ve got the knife” I took that to mean all that’s left is to dig in and physically enjoy one another (I was really unsure about this, though, does anyone have any better ideas?). This message of sexual gratification is not unusual for the time, but the statement is stated assertively in this poem and reflects the less vocalized sexual aspects of courtly love.

Unlike Guillem de Peitus, Guiraut Riquier was one of the last great members of the Troubadour tradition, living from 1230-1292. One of his better known poems, “It Would Be Best If I Refrained From Singing,” waved the Troubadour tradition out. While Guillem de Peitus had the good fortune of being landed aristocracy and many subsequent Troubadours saw a rise in patronage, by the thirteenth century patronage was dropping off in response to the political unrest and the fall of Southern France. There was a lot less money around and few aristocrats could afford to patronize the arts. Thus, the Troubadours began to fall off and Riquier was left watching the golden era fall.

An appropriate farewell to the book, this final poem recognizes the end of the Troubadours. Despite his love for song writing and art, Riquier dismisses himself as “born behind my time.” A reference to the rest of the movement, Riquier recognizes that songs should “spring from gladness,” but deems himself incapable. Instead, Riquier spends the first two stanzas wallowing in his grief reflecting on his past, present, and inevitably tumultuous future, deciding he has “every cause to cry”.

The third and fourth stanzas look outside of Riquier’s own experience to condemn the course the world has taken. Riquier views the world as losing its purity and becoming “mostly lies.” Recognizing the Troubadour tradition to be impossible in this climate because the world is “far from love,” Riquier describes the social climate that makes the Troubadour tradition impossible. With the political turmoil, the nation has moved away from God, love, and even happiness. Everyone focused on power. Riquier leaves us with the lasting thought that France abandoned the golden age of the Troubadours and the new and lively world featured in Peitus’ poem in search of power.

Consequently, as first and last poems, the anthologists did a lovely job tracing the rise and fall of the movement. As readers, the social climate becomes evident.

Lark on Genette

Since she is having trouble accessing the blog, I am posting Lark’s comments:

Genette’s argument about the relationship between genres and modes seems convoluted and ultimately unstable. He tries to draw a distinction between the two terms and proves that they are only different through language. However, in the Lyric, the two terms appear identical in function and purpose. He refutes the idea that the relationship between the two terms is not based on “simple inclusion,” yet he fails to provide adequate evidence from Aristotle’s Poetics that suggests that Aristotle discovered a foundational difference between the two terms. Genette also uses the term “theme” quite loosely throughout the piece, which leaves the reader to assume that the term “mode” and “theme” are interchangeable, (which they are not). Despite the weaknesses in the argument, Genette is calling into question the presumption that the three major genres share a specific “natural foundation,” (pg. 3).  He believes that any definition of the term “genre” must involve historicity and I agree (pg. 68-69). Question: Why does Genette have a problem with representation in the Lyric?

Aristotle’s conception of tragedy

When I first began reading, I was surprised at the methodological/mechanical nature of Aristotle’s analysis of the tragedy. He claims that tragedy has six components–“plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song”–and then proceeds to explain what he considers an effective plot, character, so on and so forth (64). 

I want to focus my blog post on the definition of tragedy as a work that incites “fear and pity” (70). An exemplary tragedy incites fear and pity, and does so by following a certain set of rules: “It follows in the first place that good men should not be shown passing from prosperity to misery, for this does not inspire fear or pity, it merely disgusts us. Nor should evil men be shown progressing from misery to prosperity. This is the most untragic of all plots, for it has none of the requisites of tragedy; it does not appeal to our humanity, or awaken pity or fear in us” (72-73). Aristotle concludes by noting, “our pity is awakened by undeserved misfortune” (73).

My thoughts on this aren’t well formed yet, but I think what I’d like to note is simply that the definition seems very restrained and rigid, at least compared to an Early Modern notion of a tragedy. A Shakespearean tragedy always ends with deaths–a denouement that would likely satisfy Aristotle. But Shakespeare’s tragedies are, at least to me, much more ambiguous in their structures. Structurally speaking, a Shakespearean tragedy and comedy are very similar before their respective resolutions (marriages vs weddings). A tragedy could easily become a comedy and vice-versa with some plot change. Even a play like Romeo and Juliet, for example, there are both deaths and weddings. The wedding comes before the first death (Mercutio’s) in Act III. So I’m curious to discuss what others think about the borderline formulaic qualities of an Aristotelian tragedy (ironically, something he tries to push against in his Ars Poetica) and also why he seems to simply disregard the comedy and devote most of his attention to tragedy and the epic.

Unity and History in Horatian Lyric

In your posts this week, you all noticed Horace’s emphasis on “unity” or “consistency” as a foundation of his poetics.  That’s a good place to begin in a course that seeks to problematize our ideas of genre.  To what extent is unity an important quality of genre?  What does unity look like in a poem, and what would its opposite (diversity?  heterogeneity?) look like?  On the level of rhetoric, Horace advocates a unity of style and content (or style and speaker), which is known as “decorum.”  This is why, for instance, Shakespeare’s commoners tend to speak in a low register while the nobility speaks in a higher register.

For the purpose of this course, a central question about uniy is, how can “unity” be a part of literary history?  Is there an inherent problem when we try to consider aesthetics and history together?  Because, after all, that is what we do when we think about the history of the lyric genre.  Horace, by his insistence on the importance of audience, suggests that there is a contingency inherent in good poetry, which is to say, that good poetry understands and speaks to its immediate audience more than to “posterity,” and that poetry must adjust and adapt to its immediate circumstances of composition and performance.

To think about some of these issues, examine the poem called “Poscimus si quid” (1.32.)  This poem alludes to the lyric tradition as Horace perceives it, coming out of Greece and being renewed and recreated in Italy (“Come, my Greek lyre / and sound a Latin song.”)  It presents lyric poetry as a throughline in history, accompanying acts of war with songs on very different topics, such as Venus (the goddess of love) or Bacchus (the god of wine.)  This poem also engages the “vatic” nature of lyric, which perceives the poet as a divinely inspired, prophetic speaker.  There is a sense that the composition of poetry is outside of the poet’s control, and must be prayed for and granted by divine intervention.  Horace seeks to insert himself in the lineage of the Greek lyric poets, but he must do so in his own time, at the “feasts of sweet Jupiter.”

1. “The Art of Poetry”

What are we doing when we write good poetry? In “The Art of Poetry,” Horace offers an answer. The function of poetry, he maintains, is both aesthetic and normative. A good poem both articulates moral truths and conveys a sense of “unity” (98). Yet Horace’s definition is more complicated than it seems. His language reveals his struggle to obey his own poetic doctrine. His anxiety manifests itself in his ambivalence about whether and when to diverge from literary tradition. It also emerges in his relationship to contradiction. In the end, he leaves the reader not only with a definition of poetry, but also with a redefinition of the poet’s relationship to contradiction and to his or her literary predecessors.

At first blush, Horace’s vision of poetry seems austere. He urges the poet, for instance, to censor his language according to the age of his audience – to “dwell upon the qualities that are appropriate to a particular time of life” (103). He defines the chorus as the moral voice of any tragedy, which should “side with the good characters” and “commend moderation…[and] justice” (103). The poet’s task, he contends, is not to indulge his own fancies, but rather to communicate “maxims” (107). When, occasionally, he endorses diversion from the norm – suggesting, for example, that the poet “give fresh meaning to a familiar word” or to “coin words” (99) – he qualifies his own advice, reminding the poet to do so “with discretion” (99). Thus, Horace enacts his own emphasis on poetic self-censorship.

Horace’s portrait of the aesthetic dimension of poetry is more nuanced than it seems. On the one hand, he exhorts the poet to create a “single and unified” work whose parts are “unsatisfactory” unless they “put together the whole” (98-99). For this reason, he condemns any “purple passages” that undermine a sense of harmony (99). Should a poet introduce a new character, for instance, he should “be sure that it remains the same all the way through as it was at the beginning, and is entirely consistent” (101). Horace also admonishes the poet not to conflate oppositional terms –e.g. to associate “what is wild with what is tame” (98). Yet this commitment to non-contradiction itself contradicts his more liberal suggestions—e.g. his endorsement of neologisms and “inven[tion]” of new tropes and characters (101).

What to make of this tension? Horace seems to acknowledge it, subliminally, both in his description of the writing process and in his definition of wisdom. He confesses, for example, that the act of writing can often transform a poet’s intention into its opposite. “I try my hardest to be succinct,” he writes, “and merely succeed in being obscure; I aim at smoothness, only to find that I am losing fire and energy” (98). This inversion of intention can doom a “sublime” poetic vision to a “turgid” (99) poem. It recasts the poet as the medium rather than the prime mover of his art, and thus reveals the paradox implicit in Horace’s own essay. Even as he offers creative advice he exposes the possible fruitlessness of that advice, given his emphasis on the unpredictable and even oppositional relationship between poet and poem.

Horace also acknowledges the inevitability of dissonance in his characterization of language and meaning. The paradox of the artistic project, he suggests, is that it presupposes that a work of beauty, coherence, and permanence can emerge from the finite and “fallible” (108) human mind. The nature of language also compounds that paradox; the meaning of words, Horace notes, does not inhere in the words themselves, but depends rather on their “usage” (100) [Here he anticipates Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning as “use” (The Blue Book, p. 6)]. This seemingly impossible challenge of producing a work of lasting art out of an unstable and nebulous medium embodies Horace’s impulse to reconcile contradictory terms.

Horace’s attitude toward contradiction emerges most palpably in his progression from the orthodox definition of wisdom as differentiation to a definition of wisdom as intimated reconciliation. Describing the traditional conception of wisdom, he writes: “This, once, was wisdom: to distinguish between public and private things, between sacred and profane, to discourage indiscriminate sexual union and make rules for married life, to build towns, and to inscribe laws on tablets of wood” (109). After acknowledging this convention, he proceeds implicitly to his own conception of what constitutes wisdom (which he defines earlier as the “foundation…of good composition” (107)). Rather than conclude with an affirmation of the orthodox view, he takes his own (reluctant) advice to deviate from the norm. Asking himself whether or not a fine poem is the product of “nature or of art” (110) he concludes with a ‘both…and’ rather than an ‘either…or.’ The two, he writes, should “enter into a friendly compact with each other” (110). In the end, Horace thus adheres to his own normative and aesthetic code—at once paying tribute to tradition and advancing his unique vision of artistic unity.

2. Ode XXII

Book III

Montium custos


This brief ode exemplifies the human impulse to collapse the binary between earthly pain and divine possibility. The poem itself acts as a kind of prayer—at once a verbal tribute to the “Virgin Guardian” and a pledge to carry out that tribute with a flesh-and-blood sacrifice of a “young boar.” Thus, Horace points implicitly to the limitations of language. It is not enough that he praise the “Virgin” in speech, he seems to say; he must also commit to a nonverbal, material sacrifice in order to communicate with the goddess.

The poem evokes this self-limiting quality in form as well as content. Twice Horace emphasizes the number three – describing the girls’ “three” calls to the goddess and commenting on her own “three-formed” nature. Yet the poem itself undermines that value—not only because Horace makes that reference twice, but also because the poem contains only two stanzas, with four lines each. Moreover, neither stanza (nor both taken together) form a complete sentence. Like a fragment, Horace implies, prayers are fundamentally incomplete, unable to transgress the boundary between the human and superhuman. This limitation also emerges in the truncated fourth line of each stanza.

Quid dedicatum

1) Discuss how the “Art of Poetry” implicitly defines poetry.  What qualities does a good poem have?  Is there anything in Horace’s definition that you find surprising?

For Horace, a good poem is one that skillfully unites “head and tail” (98). A poet is most likely to achieve this unity when he or she “[chooses] a subject that is suited to [his or her] abilities” (99). Furthermore Horace argues that consistency needs to be achieved both in terms of content and style. Whether the content of the poem follows “tradition, or [invents] something,” the key is to maintain internal unity within the story (101). In other words, the story has to be convincing with its depiction of a “parent, a brother, and a guest, the obligations of a senator and of a judge” and so on (107). Stylistically, Horace maintains that certain topics are only suited for certain meters; a “comic subject,” for example, “is not susceptible of treatment in a tragic style, and similarly the banquet of Thyestes cannot be fitly described in the strains of everyday life or in those that approach the tone of comedy” (100).

What surprised me about Horace’s Ars Poetica was the emphasis on poetic creativity. For some reason, I just assumed that the merits of classical poetry were chiefly judged by how well a poem imitates a classical precedent like Homer’s works. But Horace is fine with creative invention. In fact, he notes that a “hackneyed treatment” of a familiar theme is a waste of time and no better than a “word for word” rendition by a “slavish translator” (102). His understanding seems to be very Platonic in that a copy can never best the original. Instead, he urges his reader to use tradition, but “give fresh meaning to a familiar word” (99). The context of this quote is Horace’s advice on diction but I think it applies to content as well–use familiar themes, stories, images, but make them new. Creativity and tradition must also be in unity for a successful poem.

2) Next, choose one of Horace’s odes and do a close reading of the poem, paying particular attention to how (or if) it exemplifies Horatian poetics.  You do not need to discuss every line of the poem; simply choose the most interesting or relevant lines for your commentary.

Quid dedicatum contains a lot of structural parallelism that I *think* is called priamel (please correct me if I’m wrong). The poem begins by asking a set of questions, what does a poet ask from Apollo and what does he pray for? (1-3). Then, Horace answers with a series of negatives, “Not/ the fertile crops of wealthy Sardinia,/ not the lovely herds of sultry/ Calabria, not Indian gold or ivory” and so on (4-7). A poet needs only food–“olives, chicory, and mallows”–and a “sound mind” (16, 18). The contrast between the material possessions that a “rich merchant” might seek and what a poet prays for is achieved by diction. The description of the “fertiles crops” and “Indian gold or ivory” extend to multiple lines laden with detailed adjectives (e.g., “fertile crops of wealthy Sardinia”), while the foods that the poet requires can be summed up in a single line (4, 6). The poem’s rhetorical structure juxtaposes the wishes of a hypothetical rich merchant (or any other person) to the poet’s comparatively humble wishes through grammatical parallelism and diction. These stylistic choices make Quid dedicatum an example of what Horace might consider a poem with a good “head and tail” (98).

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