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Lyric poetry is a broadly inclusive category, including sonnets, ballads, songs, odes, elegies, and rondeaus, among others, but three features that might distinguish it are emotion, subjectivity, and melody. Lyric poems are meant to convey the personal feelings (emotion) of a single speaker (subjective) and are often melodic as if they could be sung. The Greeks named lyric poetry so because it was meant to be convey the emotions of a single speaker playing a lyre.
Lyric poetry is relatively short, especially compared to epic poetry, and it makes use of one speaker who presents his or her emotions or state of mind. The sonnet is one of the quintessential types of lyric poetry because sonnets typically address the subject of love. Lyric poetry is distinguished from narrative poetry because it does not tell a story like a narrative poem would. It does not present a sequence of events with a beginning, middle, and end. For ancient Greek writers, lyric poems would be set to a melody and accompanied by the lyre, a stringed instrument kind of like a harp. Occasional poetry is also typically lyric, and this would include poems written for a special occasion such as a wedding, the coronation of a monarch, or a death (though this would be called an elegy).
The term lyric poetry encompasses a broad range of different styles and formats, which makes it difficult to isolate overarching characteristics. (Sonnets, odes, and elegies are all examples of lyric poetry). That being said, lyric poems are always expressive: they are written from a first person perspective, and are revelatory of the feelings and thoughts of the speaker. Lyric poetry is therefore highly subjective in content. These poems are also characteristically short, though odes tend to break this general rule. This brevity leads to intense imagery and strength of language, for much must be said in a small space. Most of the works typically studied in school are lyric poems—poets such as Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, William Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Robert Frost all write lyric poetry. As you can see, the range and times that the genre spans are great.
So, we can safely generalize and say that lyric poems are usually short, subjective in their expression of thoughts and feelings, and from a first-person point of view.
Often lyric poetry dwells on brief moments and less substantial elements of life, whether as an event unfolding as the poem unfolds, or as a memory or recollection.
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