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The Three Poetry Groups-Lyrical-Narrative-Dramatic


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The Three Poetry Groups

Poetry can be broken down into three main groups or directions, lyrical, narrative and dramatic. "Traditionally, the lyric expressed personal emotion, the narrative propelled characters through a plot, the dramatic presented an enactment." New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Although all have their roots in music, all three were originally sung and chanted, the musical element has always been secondary to the narrative and the dramatic while lyrical poetry is often still sung. "Lyrical poetry retains most prominently the elements which date back to its origins in musical expression singing, chanting and repetition with musical accompaniment." NPOPP.

Lewis Turco's Book of Forms suggests that it is a matter of voice. Lyrical poetry is the poet speaking to him or herself or nobody, narrative is the poet speaking through a narrator to an audience and dramatic verse is the poet speaking through character interaction he/she has created.

Lyrical Verse The vast majority of poems written are "lyrical verse", written in the first person as an emotional or subjective (emphasizing the personal or individual) response to an experience. But, even narrative or dramatic poetry can sometimes be categorized as also lyrical as in the case of the ballad, a lyrical narrative.

Appropriately the name "lyrical" originates from "lyre" (a musical instrument). Most poetry began by being sung or chanted around campfires, in Greek theatre or later by the troubadours, but lyrical poetry took a turn in the 15th and 16th centuries when it began to be composed to be read from the written word and it took on a whole new genre.

The musical qualities of lyrical poetry do not mean that the poetry is written always to be sung, nor does it mean that the poetry possesses musical characteristics as harmony, pitch, syncopation, counterpoint, and other structural forms of a tonal, musical line or sequence ( although those qualities can be present). However it does mean the poetry "employs specific themes, meters, attitudes, images and myths". NPOPP

Although the term "lyrical verse" is too general to specifically define, its qualities can be highlighted. Here is an attempt to describe lyrical poetry by renown poets and with these descriptions in mind, lyrical poetry would probably be best written as a combination of some or all of the following:

The characteristics of lyrical poetry focus on an image or an object, the meaning of a concept, an experience or event, a talent or encounter. It is often a meditation.

Winter (1595)

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tome bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd, and ways be foul,                                 
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit, tu-who - a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit, tu-who-a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
---William Shakespeare (1554-1616)

Lyrical verse is:

Hope is the thing with feathers (1862}

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
           --- Emily Dickinson 1830-1886
               note: #s differ depending on the collection.
               T.H. Johnson #254 / R.W. Franklin #314



  • "brief". (Poe)
  • "one, the parts mutually support and explain each other, all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influence of metrical arrangement." (Coleridge)
  • the "spontaneous over flow of powerful feelings". (Wordsworth)
  • "an intensely subjective and personal expression" (Coleridge)
  • an "inverted action of mind upon will" (Schopenhauer).
  • "the utterance that is overheard" (Mill)
  • " a short poem expressing the thoughts and feelings of a single speaker. Often written in first person and often with song like immediacy and emotional force". Donald Hall

Narrative Verse simply tells a story and is most often found in epic form. It is often objective, distanced from the subject and usually written in the third person as an observer. It describes an event in time and place as it unfolds and is "rooted in local intention" or takes a particular point of view of the event. It often will dramatize the crisis or climax and can be narrative, dramatic and lyrical in presentation, such as the ballad. The story telling can be fact or fiction and is presented in verse to separate from other types of literature.

Lewis Turco in his Book of Forms says as a matter of voice, the story narrated or told by a third person. Verse forms compatible as narratives are the epics, ballads, Blank Verse, and the French Pastorale, and the Lai or Lay family of forms.

In the Art and Craft of Poetry, Michael Bugeja tells us there are six elements to narrative poetry. Here is my shorter version of Bugeja's concept.All narratives should include:

  1. Topic: the subject must have a beginning, middle and end which naturally creates a sequence of events and provides a sense of passage of time. And something has to happen in that passage of time, there is action in a narrative.
  2. Theme: "an undercurrent of meaning runs through a narrative" Bujeia. The story is told in a sequence which logically builds to a conclusion. (the conclusion is fore told by the illustration of events)
  3. Voice: someone has to tell the story. If it is told by a narrator, the story is told as coming from I or we (not the poet), if the theme is happy the narrator must be happy, if angry the narrator must be angry..etc. If the story is told by a storyteller, the story is told entirely in the third person. The tones in the voice of the storyteller remain detached, the tone of voice connected to the theme belongs to the characters in the story.
  4. Viewpoint: Every story can be told from a different viewpoint. If the poem will tell the story from the viewpoint of the poet, a narrator should be the voice. If the poem will tell the story from a viewpoint different from the poet's the voice should be one of a storyteller. Use whichever will give the best impact.
  5. Moment: This does not imply the moment in time itself (winter, time of chivalry, September 11, last night), nor past tense versus present tense but, "when the reader is allowed to enter the story". (1.) immediately with the experience fresh and emotional as if we were there, here the narrator can only describe the events as they happen without comment. (2.) relatively close to the event giving perspective to the meaning of the details and scenes. In this moment the narrator describes events from the character's point of view and provides his/her own comments. And (3.) much later, removed from the event when it happened, where our perspective is more important than the details. Therefore the narrator or storyteller comments on the events putting them in perspective. (you really have to read the book)
  6. Ending: either open where the conclusion is not explained but simply illustrated or closed with the conclusion wrapping up the loose ends.

Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not,
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Some Narrative Forms

Acritic Verse              Ballad                            Bergerette                     Bylina                         Choka                        Chu Ci                         
Duma Epics Idyll Kyrielle Lai Lai Nouveau
Minute Poem Nibelungen Onegin Stanza Ottova Rima Utendi Virelai
Vilelai Ancien

Dramatic verse speaks through a character. Although it too, got its beginnings from music and chant, just as the lyrical and narrative verse did, dramatic poetry characterizes the song or words. The dramatic poem, like the other two comes in all styles, shapes and sizes and can at the same time be dramatic, lyrical and or narrative. How is that for mucking up the definition?

The primary thing to remember is the dramatic poem characterizes. The poem is told through one or more characters voice, perspective and language. It is the voice of the poet speaking through the parameters of one or more characters developed by the poet. Personality, motive and viewpoint are the focus. The poem is written though dialogue. The forms are those of drama itself, tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, the monologue, dialogue, soliloquy.

                    Clown Song from Act V Scene I Twelfth Night This is the final monologue of the play; the clown addresses the audience.

                     When that I was and a little tiny boy,
                     With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
                     A foolish thing was but a toy,
                     For the rain it raineth every day.

                     But when I came to man's estate,
                     With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
                    'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gates,
                     For the rain it raineth every day.

                     But when I came, alas! to wive,
                     With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
                     By swaggering could I never thrive,
                     For the rain it raineth every day.

                    But when I came unto my beds,
                    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
                    With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
                    For the rain it raineth every day.

                    A great while ago the world begun,
                   With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
                    But that's all one, our play is done,
                    And we'll strive to please you every day.
                                            ---William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Some Dramatic Forms

Comedic Dialogue           Eclogue                           Eclogue Débat  Dub Poetry Fabliau
Kakawin                            Litany                           Persona Monologue                      Soliloquy                      Tenso or Tenzone       

~~ © ~~ Poems by Judi Van Gorder ~~

For permission to use this work you can write to Tinker1111@icloud.com

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