Types of Poetry

When studying poetry, it is useful first of all to consider the theme and the overall development of the theme in the poem. Obviously, the sort of development that takes place depends to a considerable extent on the type of poem one is dealing with. It is useful to keep two general distinctions in mind (for more detailed definitions consult Abrams 1999 and Preminger et al 1993): lyric poetry and narrative poetry.

Lyric Poetry

A lyric poem is a comparatively short, non-narrative poem in which a single speaker presents a state of mind or an emotional state. Lyric poetry retains some of the elements of song which is said to be its origin: For Greek writers the lyric was a song accompanied by the lyre.

Subcategories of the lyric are, for example elegy, ode, sonnet and dramatic monologue and most occasional poetry:

In modern usage, elegy is a formal lament for the death of a particular person (for example Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.). More broadly defined, the term elegy is also used for solemn meditations, often on questions of death, such as Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

An ode is a long lyric poem with a serious subject written in an elevated style. Famous examples are Wordsworth’s Hymn to Duty or KeatsOde to a Grecian Urn.

The sonnet was originally a love poem which dealt with the lover’s sufferings and hopes. It originated in Italy and became popular in England in the Renaissance, when Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey translated and imitated the sonnets written by Petrarch (Petrarchan sonnet). From the seventeenth century onwards the sonnet was also used for other topics than love, for instance for religious experience (by Donne and Milton), reflections on art (by Keats or Shelley) or even the war experience (by Brooke or Owen). The sonnet uses a single stanza of (usually) fourteen lines and an intricate rhyme pattern (see stanza forms). Many poets wrote a series of sonnets linked by the same theme, so-called sonnet cycles (for instance Petrarch, Spenser, Shakespeare, Drayton, Barret-Browning, Meredith) which depict the various stages of a love relationship.

In a dramatic monologue a speaker, who is explicitly someone other than the author, makes a speech to a silent auditor in a specific situation and at a critical moment. Without intending to do so, the speaker reveals aspects of his temperament and character. In Browning's My Last Duchess for instance, the Duke shows the picture of his last wife to the emissary from his prospective new wife and reveals his excessive pride in his position and his jealous temperament.

Occasional poetry is written for a specific occasion: a wedding (then it is called an epithalamion, for instance Spenser’s Epithalamion), the return of a king from exile (for instance Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis) or a death (for example Milton’s Lycidas), etc.


Narrative Poetry

Narrative poetry gives a verbal representation, in verse, of a sequence of connected events, it propels characters through a plot. It is always told by a narrator. Narrative poems might tell of a love story (like Tennyson's Maud), the story of a father and son (like Wordsworth's Michael) or the deeds of a hero or heroine (like Walter Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel).

Sub-categories of narrative poetry:

Epics usually operate on a large scale, both in length and topic, such as the founding of a nation (Virgil’s Aeneid) or the beginning of world history (Milton's Paradise Lost), they tend to use an elevated style of language and supernatural beings take part in the action.

The mock-epic makes use of epic conventions, like the elevated style and the assumption that the topic is of great importance, to deal with completely insignificant occurrences. A famous example is Pope's The Rape of the Lock, which tells the story of a young beauty whose suitor secretly cuts off a lock of her hair.

A ballad is a song, originally transmitted orally, which tells a story. It is an important form of folk poetry which was adapted for literary uses from the sixteenth century onwards. The ballad stanza is usually a four-line stanza, alternating tetrameter and trimeter.

Descriptive and Didactic Poetry

Both lyric and narrative poetry can contain lengthy and detailed descriptions (descriptive poetry) or scenes in direct speech (dramatic poetry).

The purpose of a didactic poem is primarily to teach something. This can take the form of very specific instructions, such as how to catch a fish, as in James Thomson’s The Seasons (Spring 379-442) or how to write good poetry as in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism. But it can also be meant as instructive in a general way. Until the twentieth century all literature was expected to have a didactic purpose in a general sense, that is, to impart moral, theoretical or even practical knowledge; Horace famously demanded that poetry should combine prodesse (learning) and delectare (pleasure). The twentieth century was more reluctant to proclaim literature openly as a teaching tool.

 


Key-Terms:


structure and    development
lyric poetry
    • elegy
    • ode
    • sonnet
    • dramatic        monologue
    • occasional        poetry
    • epithalamion
narrative    poetry
    • epic
    • mock-epic
    • ballad
descriptive    poetry
dramatic    poetry
didactic poetry
prodesse et delectare