Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Lyric poetry

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Lyric poetry is a form of poetry that does not attempt to tell a story, as do epic poetry and dramatic poetry, but is of a more personal nature instead. Rather than portraying characters and actions, the lyric poet addresses the reader directly, portraying his or her own feelings, states of mind, and perceptions.

Although its name, from the word lyre, implies that it is meant to be sung, this is not always the case. It certainly had its beginnings in song, but since the advent of mass literacy and the printing press, much lyric poetry is purely meant to be read.


The earliest surviving lyric poems in the Western tradition are arguably the Song of Solomon and the Psalms, but there are many fine examples in classical literature. Some of the best ancient lyric poets are Sappho, Catullus, and Horace.

During the Middle Ages, lyric poetry is dominated by the courtly love tradition in most European languages. This is upper-class poetry meant for the courts of the nobility, whether the poet is himself a prince, such as William IX of Aquitaine, or a lower-class troubador in the service of one prince or wandering from court to court.

Some non-courtly love lyric poetry has survived from the medieval period. Many of the poets who wrote in the courtly love tradition also produced other lyric poetry, and a few poets of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, such as François Villon, wrote outside the courtly milieu.

The turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance is best exemplified in the person of Francesco Petrarca, whose sonnets celebrating his love for Laura took Europe by storm and gave his name to one form of the sonnet, one of the most perennially popular forms of lyric poetry. The Renaissance, and particularly Elizabethan England, saw a great flowering of lyric poetry. With the new emphasis on the individual, rather than the community, the lyric poet, who addresses the reader directly in the first person, became a prominent figure on the literary scene.

Much of the lyric poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is little read today because of its dependence on classical mythology and standard forms. Notable exceptions are John Milton, who wrote lyric poetry in addition to his great epic poems, and the Metaphysical poets, such as Andrew Marvell and John Donne.

It is not until the end of the eighteenth century, with such poets as Goethe and Wordsworth, that another flowering of great lyric poetry began. Poetry of the Romantic period has retained its freshness and popularity.

The nineteenth century also brought a rise in darker, more realistic poetry with such poets as Baudelaire. The set forms of lyric poetry also begin to be dissolved and broken, so that much twentieth-century lyric poetry is not dependent on rhyme or regular meter.


Although lyric poetry has a long and close association with love, and European lyric poetry in the vernacular arose with the courtly love tradition, it is not exclusively love poetry. Many of the courtly love poets (whether troubadors, trouvères, or Minnesänger) also wrote lyric poems about war and peace, nature and nostalgia, grief and loss. Notable among these are Christine de Pisan and Charles, Duke of Orléans, two of the great French lyric poets of the fifteenth century.

Spiritual themes are also prominent in lyric poetry. Some of the best medieval poets wrote exclusively religious poetry. Prominant among these are such poets as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Note that it is sometimes hard to distinguish love poetry and religious poetry, since God and especially the Virgin Mary are often addressed in much the same terms as an earthly lover, and particularly like the noble lady in the courtly love tradition. Such modern poets as John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T. S. Eliot have continued the tradition of fine literary poetry based on spiritual or noumenous experience.

Nature is also a common theme of lyrical poetry, often being portrayed as a reflection of (or contrast to) the poet's state of mind.


Although arguably the most popular form of lyric poetry in the Western tradition is the 14-line sonnet, either in its Petrarchan or its Shakespearean form, lyric poetry appears in a bewildering variety of forms.

Ancient Hebrew poetry relied on repetition and chiasmus for many of its effects. Although much Greek and Roman classical poetry was written in forms with set meters and strophes, Pindar's odes seem as formless to the ear accustomed to rhyme and meter as such modern poetry as Rilke's Duino Elegies.

In some cases, the form and theme are wed, as in the courtly love aubade or dawn song in which lovers are forced to part after a night of love, often with the watchman's refrain telling them it is time to go. In other cases, the theme and form are at odds, and part of the interest of the poetry is in how and whether the poet can bring a successful union between two apparent opposites.

A common feature of lyric forms is the refrain, whether just one line or several, that ends or follows each strophe. The refrain is repeated throughout the poem, either exactly or with slight variation.


Much lyric poetry depends on regular meter based either on number of syllables or on stress. The most common meters are as follows:

  • Iambic - two syllables, with the long or stressed syllable following the short or unstressed syllable.
  • Trochaic - two syllables, with the short or unstressed syllable following the long or stressed syllable.
  • Anapestic - three syllables, with the first two short or unstressed and the last long or stressed.
  • Dactylic - three syllables, with the first one long or stressed and the other two short or unstressed.

Some forms have a combination of meters, often using a different meter for the refrain.

Each meter can have any number of elements, called feet. The most common meter in English is iambic pentameter, with five iambs per line. The most common in French is the alexandrin, with twelve syllables. In English, the alexandrine is iambic hexameter.

Rhyme and alliteration

These two elements are common to structuring lyric poetry in the Western tradition and make poetry difficult to translate effectively. Old Norse poetry depended heavily on alliteration. Continental Europe and England developed complex rhyme schemes and used alliteration as an auxiliary device.

Although to the lay ear, rhyme is the hallmark of poetry, it has become less and less common in poetry in European languages in the twentieth century.

Principal lyric poets by period and language

This list includes the important lyric poets of each period, grouped together by language.


Chinese poets

Bai Juyi
Cao Cao
Cao Pi
Cao Zhi
Cui Hao
Du Fu
Du Mu
Han Yu
Jia Dao
Li Bai also known as Li Po
Li Houzhu
Li Qiao
Li Qingzhao
Li Shangyin
Lu You
Luo Binwang
Mei Yaochen
Meng Haoran
Ouyang Xiu
Pi Rixiu
Su Shi
Su Xiaoxiao
Tao Qian
Wang Wei
Xie Lingyun

Greek poets


Japanese poets

Ono no Komachi
Ariwara no Narihira

Latin poets


Persian poets

Omar Khayyam
Asadi Tusi

Middle Ages and Renaissance

Hebrew poets

Yehuda Alharizi
Menachem Ben Saruk
Dunash Ben Labrat
Yehuda Halevi
Shmuel Hanagid
Solomon Ibn Gabirol
Abraham ibn Ezra
Moshe Ibn Ezra
Itzhak Ibn Khalfon

Chinese poets

Gao Qi

English poets

Geoffrey Chaucer

French poets

William IX of Aquitaine
Bertran de Born
Arnaut Daniel
Charles, Duke of Orléans
Christine de Pisan
Jaufre Rudel
Bernart de Ventadorn
François Villon

German poets

Walther von der Vogelweide
Wolfram von Eschenbach

Hindu poets

Amir Khusro

Italian poets

Dante Alighieri
Guido Cavalcanti
Francesco Petrarca

Persian poets

Amir Khusro
Auhadi of Maragheh
Alisher Navoi
Mahmud Shabistari
Khaqani Shirvani
Obeid e zakani

Sixteenth century

English poets

Thomas Campion
Walter Raleigh
William Shakespeare
Philip Sidney
Edmund Spenser

French poets

Joachim Du Bellay
Pierre de Ronsard

Spanish poets

Teresa of Avila
Saint John of the Cross
Garcilaso de la Vega
Lope de Vega

Seventeenth century

Dutch poets

Joost van den Vondel

English poets

John Donne
John Dryden
George Herbert
Robert Herrick
Ben Jonson
Andrew Marvell
John Milton
Henry Vaughan

German poets

Martin Opitz

Japanese poets

Matsuo Bashō

Spanish poets

Luis de Góngora

Eighteenth century

English poets

Robert Burns
William Cowper
Thomas Gray
Oliver Goldsmith

German poets

Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Friedrich Schiller
Johann Heinrich Voß

Hebrew poets

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto

Japanese poets

Kobayashi Issa

Nineteenth century

English poets

Matthew Arnold
William Blake
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Robert Browning
George Gordon, Lord Byron
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Emily Dickinson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Thomas Hardy
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Gerard Manley Hopkins
John Keats
Rudyard Kipling
D. H. Lawrence
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
George Meredith
Edgar Allan Poe
Christina Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Algernon Charles Swinburne
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Walt Whitman
John Greenleaf Whittier
William Wordsworth

French poets

Charles Baudelaire
Tristan Corbière
Théophile Gautier
Victor Hugo
Jules Laforgue
Stéphane Mallarmé
Alfred de Musset
Gerard de Nerval
Arthur Rimbaud
Paul Verlaine
Alfred de Vigny

German poets

Achim von Arnim
Clemens Brentano
Joseph von Eichendorff
Hoffmann von Fallersleben
Heinrich Heine
Friedrich Hölderlin
Gottfried Keller
Eduard Mörike
Ludwig Tieck
Ludwig Uhland

Italian poets

Gabriele D'Annunzio
Giacomo Leopardi

Japanese poets

Taneda Santoka
Masaoka Shiki
Ishikawa Takuboku

Russian poets

Mikhail Lermontov
Aleksandr Pushkin
Ivan Turgenev

Twentieth century

Chinese poets

Guo Moruo
Mu Dan
Xu Zhimo

Dutch poets

François Haverschmidt
Hendrik Marsman
J. Slauerhoff

English poets

W. H. Auden
Hart Crane
E. E. Cummings
T. S. Eliot
Robert Frost
Allen Ginsberg
Robert Graves
Geoffrey Hill
A. E. Housman
Langston Hughes
Ted Hughes
C. Day Lewis
Robert Lowell
Archibald MacLeish
Louis MacNeice
Marianne Moore
Wilfred Owen
Sylvia Plath
Ezra Pound
Edwin Arlington Robinson
Theodore Roethke
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Carl Sandburg
Siegfried Sassoon
Edith Sitwell
Stephen Spender
Wallace Stevens
Sara Teasdale
Dylan Thomas
Robert Penn Warren
William Carlos Williams
William Butler Yeats
Shel Silverstein

Flemish poets

Hugo Claus
Jotie T'Hooft

French poets

Guillaume Apollinaire
Louis Aragon
André Breton
Paul Eluard
Max Jacob
Saint-John Perse
Paul Valéry

German poets

Gottfried Benn
Bertolt Brecht
Paul Celan
Stefan George
Rainer Maria Rilke

Hebrew poets

Yehuda Amichai
Hayyim Nahman Bialik
Leah Goldberg
Avraham Shlonsky
Shaul Tchernichovsky

Italian poets

Grazyna Miller
Eugenio Montale

Japanese poets

Yosano Akiko
Wakayama Bokusui
Miyazawa Kenji
Noguchi Yonejiro

Polish poets

Czesław Miłosz

Russian poets

Osip Mandelstam
Vladimir Nabokov
Boris Pasternak

Spanish poets

Vicente Aleixandre
Luis Cernuda
Rubén Dario
Federico García Lorca
Antonio Machado
Gabriela Mistral
Pablo Neruda
Octavio Paz

Twenty-first century

Persian poets

Shahyar Ghanbari
Iraj Janatie Ataie
Ardalan Sarfaraz
Zoya Zakarian

Iraj Janatie Ataie Official Website

Ardalan Sarfaraz Official Website

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