Sunday, March 12, 2006

On Lyricism.

Lyricism, like the term ‘voice’, is one of those all-englobing terms that we often find in literary criticism. Since its origins go back to the lyre, that instrument found in ancient Greece which the Oxford Modern English Dictionary describes as, ‘an ancient stringed instrument like a small U-shaped harp, usually accompanying the voice’[1], it is not surprising that, since then, the term has acquired all sorts of meanings. Indeed, at some stages of its long history, the term as either been used to praise the exalted language of poets, or on the contrary to condemn the over blown style of poets who maybe went a bit too far over the top. The poet indulging in the art of the lyric is always walking on a tight rope. He tries to balance himself by reaching a just equilibrium, but falls flat on his face as soon as he elevates himself too much. What is common to these two views of lyricism is their sense of elevation. We shall not concentrate on the pejorative aspects of the term here, but rather on what the Oxford Dictionary of Modern English calls the ‘songlike’[2] quality of lyricism. For over the years the musical instrument has surrendered its place to the voice of poets. If lyric poems have often been thought of as the expression of the poet’s subjectivity, they are, nevertheless, much more than that.

We still have not defined what we mean by ‘lyricism’, and maybe to define it is very difficult, if not impossible. Maulpoix, who has written an insightful study on the subject of lyricism, gives the following definition:

J’appelle aujourd’hui lyrisme cette en allée qui ne va à proprement parler nulle part, mais durant laquelle le marcheur connaît avec exactitude son poids et son vertige.[3]

Lyricism is language aspiring for height, trying to reach what Gerard Manley Hopkins named ‘heightened language’. Hopkins was referring to poetry when he used the expression. By ‘heightened language’ it seems that he was trying to describe what made poetry different from everyday language. The ‘heightened tongue’ tries to elevate itself above the ordinariness of day to day communication. One of the aspects of poetry which enables this heightening is its lyrical quality. It is the poet’s old dream of chanting as high as the bird, of elevating his song to the gods.
[1] Julia Swannell, ed. The Oxford Modern English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p.637.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jean-Michel Maulpoix, Du Lyrisme. Paris : José Corti, 2000, p.10. English Translation:
Today, I call lyricism this forward leap which does not really go anywhere, but during which one knowns one's weight and vertigo with precise exactitude.

from Tomas Sidoli,Writing the Tongue: A Study of Seamus Heaney's Electric Light. Grenoble: T.E.R, 2005, p.17.

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