Harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers
The poem appeals to the ear. At one boundary we have the lyric as a poem dependent upon music for its full effectiveness. The word lyric derives from the Greek lyra, or “musical instrument.” The Greeks spoke of lyrics as ta mele, “poems to be sung.” The musical element is so intrinsic to poetry that the lyric never entirely forgets its origins in musical expression—in singing, chanting, recitation to musical accompaniment. The poet was once a performer, a bard, a scop, a troubadour. In the Renaissance the lyric was repeatedly associated with the lyre and the lute. Here is how Milton evokes the juncture of poetry and music in his poem “At a Solemn Musick”:
Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav’ns joy,
Sphear-born, harmonious sisters, Voice, and Vers,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Of the nine celestial sirens assigned to the nine spheres of the universe, Milton is here specifying two—Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred song, and Erato, the muse of lyric poetry—and calling upon them to join together. Before the eighteenth century, writers or critics seemed to make little or no apparent distinction between melodic lyrics, such as Campion’s ayres (“Whoever dreams of a poem where language begins to resemble music, thinks of him,” Charles Simic writes) or the songs of Shakespeare’s plays, and nonmusical written lyrics, such as Shakespeare’s sonnets or Donne’s love poems.
Yet it was during the Renaissance that English writers first began to write their lyrics for readers rather than composing them for musical performance. They began to shape their poems to a visual medium. The space for writing as writing, for the poem as something to be read, opened up, for a written poem, unlike an oral one, has a spatial dimension. It becomes a physical object on the page. It appeals to the inner ear, to unique experience. As the idea of the individual emerged during the Renaissance, so did the lyric poem take on fresh elements for expressing that newfound selfhood. The lyric became an instrument of greater inwardness. Later, that dimension of inwardness would start to feel like lyric poetry itself. And some poetry would start to aspire to the pure condition of music.
Poet and author Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry. Over the course of eight collections of poetry, four books of criticism, and the long-running “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post, Hirsch has transformed the quotidian into poetry in his...