Lyric, Narrative, Dramatic, the ancient distinction, held until the 18th-century. It derives from Aristotle (who used the word “epic” rather than “narrative”). From the 19th-century on, it has lost categorical force.
Lyric, poetry written from the first-person point of view of the poet. Originally poems intended to be recited or sung to the accompaniment of a lyre.
Narrative, epic poetry, poetry that tells a story in which a variety of characters speak and interact. What had been the stuff of narrative poetry has become the purview of novels and prose fiction nowadays.
Dramatic, poetry told in the point of view of a character.
This categorization of types held from the time of Aristotle (4th C. BCE) until the time of Johnson (18th C. CE). Most poetry today, however, is written in the lyric mode. “Dramatic” and “Narrative” being largely taken over by prose fiction. The subgenres, mostly subgenres of lyric, must still be recognized, however.
The Ode: The ode comes in a number of flavors—Pindaric, Horatian, English, Irregular. We’re not going to cover them individually. Some are very strict in form, some very loose.
Its origins are in the Latin poetry of the Roman Empire, and there its form is very strict. Some English poets imitated Latin form. But most practitioners of the Ode in English have taken only some of the particulars of the Ancient ode to heart as they reproduce the form. The ode is a longer poem, serious or meditative in nature, commonly about events of a public nature, written in formal language and usually having a strict stanzaic structure.
It’s hard to come up with a better definition than that because the actual poems that call themselves odes vary a lot. You will notice for example that Pope’s “Ode on Solitude,” is a short poem—unusual for an ode—and that Keats’ “great odes,” are about very private matters. In fact, from the late 18th century on, odes commemorating public events rarely survive the event of their publication. The odes we read today do not seem so public. Let’s look briefly at two odes, one with a regular stanza, the other irregular.
Regular odes, such as those of Keats, are often composed in very elaborate stanzas. Students often find these difficult to read both because of the form and because of the elaborate language.
Here’s the first stanza of the “Ode to a Nightingale.” It’s intimidating even to look at:
This is exactly the kind of thing that makes students say they hate poetry. It can make you feel stupid. That’s a false impression however. You can scan the poem and note the rhyme scheme if you like. We’re going to be concerned with the language—which is the most significant feature that separates the ode from other forms.
What should you notice about it? You may or may not have found the Shakespearean sonnet difficult. If you did, it was not because the language was difficult; it was because the language is old. If you’d lived in 1595, you would not have had trouble reading Shakespeare. On the other hand, Keats’ ode has always been difficult. It uses words that were unusual or specialized even in its own day. It also has the most formal syntax possible, and allusions only educated people could get. (Did the average coal miner of the early 19th century know of the river “Lethe,” the classical river of forgetfulness through which the dead soul passed in order to forget its early life as it crossed into the underworld? It was one of five rivers in Hades.)
Here’s a paraphrase: Listening to you, little nightingale, makes my heart ache and I feel a drowsy numbness pain my senses as though I’d drunk the deadly poison Hemlock or as though I’d drunk some other dulling drug to the bottom of the glass. If I’d listened to your song one more minute, I think I would have sunk down into the river of forgetfulness. It’s not because I envy your happy life that I feel this way; it’s because you are too happy in your happiness. It’s because you—light-winged spirit of the trees—sing your strong, beautiful song about summer (in a musical place full of green trees and lots of shadows) so easily, so naturally. [Whereas I, the poor human poet, have to work so damn hard to make my poems—and I don’t end up with anything so beautiful as your song.]
The meaning isn’t hard. Only the language.
As far as the stanza goes I want you to notice that although it is as formal as a sonnet, the stanza was freely chosen. If Keats had written the ode in some other stanza, it would still be an ode. The length of the stanza and of the poem is up to the poet as well. He’s not restricted to a certain number of lines.
Beyond the structure (it needs to have some structure), and the language (formal) and the subject matter (serious), any restrictions the poet puts on him or herself are freely chosen.
The irregular ode is even more free. We have one on our syllabus. Here’s a sample stanza:
Ode: Intimations of Immortality from
Recollections of Early Childhood
You’ll notice that words like “celestial” (heavenly) and “yore” are very formal. The tone of the poem is serious, but the line length varies quite a lot—more even than it seems to from looking at it. The long lines are not all the same length nor are the short lines. (If you scan this yourself you will see this. The rhyme scheme is also unpredictable: ababa cddc in the first stanza but aabcbcded. (Where does that “e” come from? It’s part of an internal rhyme in line 16: “But yet I know, wher’er I go.”)
You’ll also notice that the number of lines within each stanza varies. It’s obvious why it’s called “irregular.”
Both the sonnet and the ode are formal poems, but for the most part the ode is a more open form in English than the sonnet. The poet is freer to choose the length and the stanza and the rhyme scheme. (But the poet may have less room for choice in the subject matter or tone.)
Ballad: Folk and Literary: Our third form gets us back to the very roots of poetry. One of the oldest reasons that poems have rhyme and meter is that these elements made the poems easier to memorize. We have kept rhyme and meter so long because they are pleasurable in themselves. But preliterate people used them also for their mnemonic value. The ballad is among the oldest forms in English verse. Not only can it be easily remembered, it can easily be set to music and sung. Virtually all ballads have in common the stanzaic form (but not every poem using this form is a ballad). The ballad stanza or ballad quatrain is a four-line stanza that rhymes abcb (or sometimes abab). It consists of either four lines in iambic tetrameter, or alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. The first is called “eights and eights” because there are eight syllables in each line. The second option is called “eights and sixes.”
Eights and eights:
O, she is young and she is fair
With evil eye that longs to roam.
But she is mine, and so beware
If e’er into her eye you come.
Eights and sixes:
When as King Henry rulde this land,
The second of that name,
Besides the queene, he dearly lovde
A faire and comely dame.
Early ballads—one of which is on our syllabus—were meant to be sung in the evening or on holidays to entertain weary hardworking people. They differ from literary ballads in that they have no individual author. They came into being before copyright, and, having no owners, and being easily remembered, were told and retold, written and rewritten over and over. Just about the only language today that circulates like a ballad did in the fourteenth century is a joke. People improved ballads in retelling or just replaced forgotten stanzas with their own. Once they were finally written (and many of course were never written down and have been lost) they very likely were written down in several versions.
Aside from their stanza form (they can be any length of course) the one thing they have in common with literary ballads is that they tell a story. Usually it’s a sad story, often a sad love story. Ballads also often have refrains: repeated lines or stanzas.
An example of a literary ballad is Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” I want you to notice that this ballad can properly exist in only one form—Keats’ final version. Although its story is quasi-medieval (it seems to tell the kind of story an ancient folk ballad would have told), it’s much more regular in its meter than the folk ballad is. It seems to have been written (as it was) by a self-conscious poet who was very carefully composing a poem, not by a wandering minstrel who is trading entertaining stories for bread. He will not be able to compensate for the imperfections in his meter with his voice. We will have more to say about Keats’ poem during class discussion.
Elegy : As with so many words in the study of poetry, this one has a complex history and may designate different things at different time. For the last several hundred years, however, the word has been used almost exclusively to signify mostly mournful poetry lamenting loss, usually through death, of a loved person. Elegies can be either general, as in Grey’s most famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” or specific, as Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” which was written to help the poet overcome the loss of his best friend Arthur Hallam.
Epic: One of the most basic and ancient classificatory divisions of all poetry is into the Narrative, Dramatic and Lyric. Although this three-fold distinction is of some use, particularly in understanding the poetry written before the 19th century, today, when what presents itself as poetry is overwhelmingly lyric poetry, it is no longer the primary rubric through which we learn to understand what poetry is. When it was, epic poetry, a form of narrative poetry was considered the highest form of the art. Narrative poetry, as the name reveals, tells a story. Epic poetry tells a particular type of story. Epic poetry is always long, traditionally 12 or 24 books (similar to chapters). It tells the story of a hero whose heroic deeds define not only heroism but the culture in which those deeds are performed. Achilles and Odysseus stand for the Greek culture that told their stories in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Adam and Eve stand for the whole Christian West in Milton’s Epic Paradise Lost. Epic poetry defines its culture through a limited view of lost past, a time of heroism and great deeds, when, as they say, giants roamed the earth. Although there have been many attempts to write epics since the 17th century, most scholars agree that the epic form came to its end at that time. What followed was either epic parodies, such as the “mock epic” form popular in the 18th century, in which the element of the epic were used to describe and mock ordinary events, and serious longer narratives that lack too many of the qualities or elements that the use of the word to describe them is more suggestive than literal, e.g. Wordworth’s “epic” poem about the development of a poetic mind (The Prelude) or E. B. Browning’s novel-in-verse, Aurora Leigh.
Dramatic monologue: If epic provides the best example of narrative poetry, dramatic monologue provides at least the most identifiable example of dramatic poetry. Narrative poetry tells a story; dramatic poetry presents a situation. This type of poem was particularly popular in the 19th century, and the master practitioner is Robert Browning. Browning will allow an imaginary character to speak. And as there was no narrator to help orient the reader into the action, and there is never more than a single speaker whose words are available to us, the reader is compelled to reconstruct what is going on in the scene through the words of this single speaker. Complicating the situation still further is the fact that the tone of the speech is often at odds with the subject. The readers’ reaction is first stalled and then intensified by, for example, a murderer explaining in such a matter-of-fact way how and why he has killed his beloved. The dramatic monologue is often described as a speech from an unwritten play.
Villanelle: Like so many French forms, the villanelle is complex and difficult to write. Unlike the dramatic monologue, it is defined by form rather than content. In this it resembles the sonnet. It is a great form for showing off. It consists of 19 lines
- five tercets that rhyme aba, and
- an ending quatrain that rhymes abaa
The real distinctive feature of the form, however, is the repetition of the first and third lines of the first stanza in specific places throughout the poem. The first line of the first stanza will be repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas and the third line of the final stanza. The last line of the first stanza will recur as the last line of the third, fifth and final stanzas. In the best examples of the type, the meaning of the lines varies slightly with every iteration though the words do not change at all.
Sestina: Yet more complex is the sestina. Like the villanelle, the sestina has no set line length. In fact in the shortest possible version of the form, Lloyd Shwartz has published a sestina containing only six different words, one word per line. Most sestinas are much longer. What matters here is not meter or rhyme but the word that ends each line. The form consists of
- six six-line stanzas and
- one three-line final stanza (called an envoy).
The last word of each of the six lines of the first stanza must be repeated as the last word of each of the six lines of every other stanza before the envoy, in the following invariable order:
1-2-3-4-5-6 (in stanza one)
6-1-5-2-4-3 (in stanza two),
3-6-4-1-2-5 (in stanza three),
5-3-2-6-1-4 (in stanza four),
4-5-1-3-6-2 (in stanza five), and
2-4-6-5-3-1 (in stanza six).
5-3-2 (in the envoy)
You will notice that numbers are used to designate these words rather than letters; this is because there is no requirement that the words rhyme, and overwhelmingly they do not. In addition to the ending words, the envoy incorporates the other three words in the middle of each line in the order 1-4-6.
Forms tend to start as individual poems—nonce forms—whose forms other poets find so intriguing that they wish to repeat them. Hence there are innumerable other forms, many more obscure than these I’ve presented here. And new forms can always be created while old forms fall into disuse until some clever, historically minded poet recovers them. At the same time poets travel the world, or read the world’s books, in order to find and adapt foreign forms, the best example of which is perhaps the use of Japanese Haiku in English, a surprisingly successful transformation given how unlike the two languages are in even their basic understanding of the boundaries of a word.
Andrew Marvel, “An Horation Ode” (Links to an external site.)
Alexander Pope, “Ode on Solitude” (Links to an external site.)
Williams Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (Links to an external site.)
Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses” (Links to an external site.)
Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess” (Links to an external site.)
Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” (Links to an external site.)
Elizabeth Bishop, “Sestina” (Links to an external site.)
John Ashbery, “The Painter” (Links to an external site.)
John Milton, Paradise Lost, book I