Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
A lyric poem is a (usually short) poem detailing the thoughts or feelings of the poem’s speaker. Originally, lyric poems, as the name suggests, were sung and accompanied by the lyre, a stringed instrument not unlike a harp. Even today, we often use the term ‘lyricism’ to denote a certain harmony or musicality in poetry. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest short lyric poems written in English from the Middle Ages to the present day.
1. Anonymous, ‘Fowls in the Frith’.
We begin our whistle-stop tour of the lyric poem in the thirteenth century, a whole century before Geoffrey Chaucer, with this intriguing and ambiguous anonymous five-line lyric:
Foulës in the frith,
The fishës in the flod,
And I mon waxë wod;
Much sorwe I walkë with
For beste of bon and blod.
A ‘frith’ is a wood or forest; the poem, written in Middle English, features a speaker who, he tells us, ‘mon waxë wod’ (i.e. must go mad) because of the sorrow he walks with.
Because the last line is ambiguous (‘the best of bone and blood’ could refer to a woman or to Christ), the poem can be read either as a love lyric or as a religious lyric.
We have gathered together more classic medieval lyrics here.
2. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’.
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind …
One of the most popular and enduring lyric forms has been the sonnet: 14 lines (usually), in which the poet expresses their thoughts and feelings about love, death, or some other theme. In the English or ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet the poet usually brings their ‘argument’ to a conclusion in the final rhyming couplet.
Here, however, Sir Thomas Wyatt offers an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, but he introduces the distinctive ‘English’ conclusion: that rhyming couplet. In a loose translation of a fourteenth-century sonnet by Petrarch, Wyatt (1503-42) describes leaving off his ‘hunt’ for a ‘hind’ – in a lyric poem that was possibly a coded reference to his own relationship with Anne Boleyn.
3. Robert Herrick, ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’.
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes …
This very short lyric poem, by one of England’s foremost Cavalier poets of the seventeenth century, is deceptively simple. It seems to be simply a description of the woman’s silken clothing, and its pleasure-inducing effects on our poet.
But the poem seems to hint at far more than this, as we’ve explored in the analysis that follows the poem (in the link provided above). It might be described as one of the finest erotic lyric poems of the early modern period.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’.
The Heart asks Pleasure – first –
And then – Excuse from Pain –
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering …
So begins this short lyric poem from the prolific nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86).
The poem examines what one’s ‘heart’ most desires: a common theme in lyric poetry. The heart desires pleasure, but failing that, will settle for being excused from pain, and to live a life without suffering pain.
5. Charlotte Mew, ‘A Quoi bon Dire’.
Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was a popular poet in her lifetime, and was admired by fellow poets Ezra Pound and Thomas Hardy. ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’ was published in Charlotte Mew’s 1916 volume The Farmer’s Bride. The French title of this poem translates as ‘what good is there to say’. And what good is there to say about this short poem? We think it’s a beautiful example of early twentieth-century lyricism:
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead …
Click on the link above to read this tender lyric poem in full.
6. W. B. Yeats, ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light …
The gist of this poem, one of Yeats’s most popular short lyric poems, is straightforward: if I were a rich man, I’d give you the world and all its treasures. If I were a god, I could take the heavenly sky and make a blanket out of it for you.
But I’m only a poor man, and obviously the idea of making the sky into a blanket is silly and out of the question, so all I have of any worth are my dreams. And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’. But Yeats, using his distinctive lyricism, puts it better than this paraphrase can convey.
7. T. E. Hulme, ‘Autumn’.
A touch of cold in the Autumn night –
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer …
This short poem by arguably the first modern poet in English was written in 1908; it’s a short imagist lyric in free verse about a brief encounter with the autumn (i.e. harvest) moon. This poem earns its place on this list of great lyric poems because of the originality of the image at its centre: that of comparing the ‘ruddy moon’ to a … well, we’ll let you discover that for yourself.
8. H. D., ‘The Pool’.
After Hulme’s free verse lyrics came the imagists – a group of modernist poets who placed the poetic image at the centre of their poems, often jettisoning everything else. H. D., born Hilda Doolittle in the US in 1886, was described as the ‘perfect imagist’, and ‘The Pool’ shows why.
In this example of a short free-verse lyric poem, H. D. offers what her fellow imagist F. S. Flint described as an ‘accurate mystery’: clear-cut crystalline imagery whose meaning or significance nevertheless remain shrouded in ambiguity and questions. Here, H. D. even begins and ends her poem with a question. Who, or what, is the addressee of this miniature masterpiece?
9. W. H. Auden, ‘If I Could Tell You’.
Lyric poems weren’t all written in free verse once we arrived in the twentieth century. Indeed, many poets of the 1930s, such as the clear leader of the pack, W. H. Auden (1907-73), wrote in more traditional forms, such as the sonnet or, indeed, the villanelle: a form where the first and third lines of the poem are repeated at the ends of the subsequent stanzas.
In this tender lyric poem, Auden explores the limits of the poet’s ability to communicate to the world – or perhaps, to a loved one?
We have analysed this poem here.
10. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Syntax’.
Duffy’s work shows a thorough awareness of poetic form, even though she often plays around with established forms and rhyme schemes to create something new.
First published in 2005, ‘Syntax’ is a contemporary lyric poem about trying to find new and original ways to say ‘I love you’. Duffy’s poem seeks out new ways to express the sincerity of love, explored, fittingly enough, in a new sort of ‘sonnet’ (14 lines and ending in a sort-of couplet, though written in irregular free verse). A love poem for the texting generation?
We introduce more Carol Ann Duffy poems here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.