Lyric Poetry


Lyric poetry maintained a small but dedicated following in the Hellenistic world, especially from the seventh century b.c.e., and in the Greek-speaking Mediterranean, with a focus in Alexandria. It was relatively uncommon in the Latin world, although it was popular in China, Japan, and Persia.

Many poems of the ancient world were epics written for dramatic use, whereas lyric poetry was of a personal nature and depended not on characters and actions but in addressing the listener directly—most poems were recited or sung—and portrayed the state of mind of the poet.

The Greek term lyrikos, first appears in the seventh century b.c.e. and comes from the word for "lyre", which often accompanied the recitations. Some scholars point out that seventh-century lyric poetry is predated by finished meters of the earliest surviving lyric poems, which suggest that the custom was much older.

The lyric age seems to have come about when poets devised poems tied to a particular occasion. Alcman’s "Maiden Song" is one of the earliest known lyric poems attributable to a particular poet and is about a festival to the gods, but there is little remarkable about it except that it has been preserved to the present day.

The other well-known Greek lyric poets include Alcaeus, Anacreon, Archiochus, Bacchylides, Ibycus, Lasus, Mimnermus, Pindar, Sappho, Simonides, Steseichorus, Theognis, and Xenophanes. Some of these have remained obscure, but a few, such as Sappho, are well known.

Born on the island of Lesbos in the seventh century b.c.e., she was hailed as being "the tenth muse", with her poetry collected and arranged in nine books. Little is actually known about her life, although much has been extrapolated from her poems or speculated upon by later writers.

The study of lyric poetry is by no means new. Greeks in the period after Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) wrote about lyric poets, with Dichearchus writing about Alcaeus, and Clearchus of Soli writing On Love Poetry about Sappho and Anacreon.

A body of lyric poems was edited by scholars at the library at Alexandria, with the literary tradition encapsulating nine lyric poets: Alcaeus, Alcman, Anacreon, Bacchylides, Ibycus, Pindar, Sappho, Simonides, and Steseichorus, all of whom lived in the period 650–450 b.c.e. Outside the Western classical world lyric poetry has been used in India in ancient times, but most of it remains anonymous.

Lyric poetry was also popular in Han dynasty China and the period of the Warring States and Three Kingdoms, with important poets being Cao Cao (155–220 c.e.), Cao Pi (the former emperor Wen, 187–226 c.e.), and Cao Zhi (192–232 c.e.).

The best-known Japanese lyric poets are Ariwara no Narihara (825–880), Ono no Komachi (c. 825–c. 900) and Saigyo (1118–90). The Persian tradition includes Anvari (1126–89), Asadi Tusi (d. 1072), Attar (c. 1142–c. 1220), Ferdowsi (935–1020), Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), Nezami (1141–1209), and Rudaki (859–941).

While translations of Greek and Latin poetry and literature have been available in the West for many centuries, access to Chinese and Japanese material has long been limited. The very style and atmosphere of Oriental lyric poetry was more evasive to effective translation and transliteration to European languages until recently.