Part 3 of a trilogy of articles in which Andrea T Judge discusses the history and evolution of lyric and epic poetry and what they mean to us today.
It is only a trick of the historical lens that leads us to see philosophy as a discipline separate from the sciences. Originally the word meant 'lovers of knowledge', and it certainly did not restrict these thinkers from fields like astrology, physics, biology and mathematics. The efforts of men in many ways ill-equipped to understand the world were sometimes misguided or insufficient, but in their own way, they could be illuminating. The most interesting of their theories, in terms of our studies in poetry, are those most ambitious and aggrandising: their ideas on what the universe was composed of and how it worked.
Specifically, we are interested in the theories of those among the Greeks who were looking for the essence of the universe – those who sought that mysterious spirit you got when you reduced all difference from the tangible world, that which we all have in common. In poetic terms, these men were seeking 'O'. Of course, the great paradox of studying 'O' is that you are essentially studying nothing. The 'O' represents the void; it is a form self-same from every angle, and even back then it meant nothing as a word. What is remarkable is not that the worldview of the Greeks discovered the 'O' as the end of difference, rather the other way round – that in order to understand the universe and everything about it, the Greeks thought the best method would be to seek the end of all difference. Their guiding principle of science and cosmology was directed by 'O', rather than by demonstrable observations of the world around them – so much so that when Leucippus and Democritus developed atomism, a conceptual precursor of atomic theory, it had no empirical evidence to back it up. After the classical ages, it fell into oblivion for almost two millennia.
To the extent that 'O' also means death, it seems less audacious to see it as the telos (the 'end') towards which philosophies were naturally directed. And atomism, the doctrine dictating that everything in the world is subdivided into equal, indestructible, unchangeable atoms (allowing only for some slight differences in their shape), was a quest strictly informed by the tension between both the 'O' and the 'I'. On one hand, it sought the essential 'stuff' that everything is made of, the material of each atom (or, the atom for all materials), which is the 'O'. On the other, by propounding an equal individual unit as the component of the universe, Democritus was postulating 1, which is also 'I'. And 1 is not the end of difference, but its fundamental building block: Democritus saw an 'I' in the universe. He saw a difference. For 'I' is difference itself, much as 'O' is the end of difference. And the atom was the predicate of both difference and non-difference.
This becomes of poetic interest when we compound it with some of the other directions taken by the Greeks in their quest to follow 'O' (and 'I') and find the essence of the world. By far the most popular cosmological philosophy of the time was the theory of the four elements developed by Empedocles, which would later be picked up by Plato and Aristotle. Arising at a similar time as atomism, it stated that the universe was composed of four elements (air, fire, water, earth), and that combinations of these four elements produced all the objects of the world. Inasmuch as these four elements represent not objects but the common substance of objects, they are, of course, a rudimentary expression of 'O'. More importantly, they provide a unified groundwork for a study not so much of the sciences, but of poetics and poetic imagery. For it is not hard to imagine that Empedocles, had he set himself to literature, would have argued that all the great classical poetic images – the sea, the sky, the clouds, sunlight, dust, rain – were no more than raw forms of the four elements. Traditional tropes of poetry like, say, the sea, the wind, or darkness, to the extent that they possess qualities of non-difference (they are endless, fractal, lacking defined boundaries, substantially unstable, mutable and shapeless, equal in all parts), are indeed signifiers for 'O'. Now if the language of lyric poetry has traditionally demonstrated particular concern with these images and tropes, and these tropes in turn are expressions of 'O', then does this suggest that there is a link between what we know as lyric poetry and the telos of the 'O'?
There are several words which Empedocles would have reconnected to the four elements – the words 'sea', 'river', 'rain', 'vapour', 'foam' are forms of water. 'Dust', 'ash', 'mud', 'clay', 'rubble', 'mountain', 'stone' are forms of earth. 'Wind', 'mist', 'fog', 'breeze', 'clouds', 'smoke' stand for air. 'Light', 'sun', 'flame', 'heat', 'warmth' are all of fire. What follows from Empedocles' suggestion is that it is possible to represent O linguistically. Words describing objects which have qualities of blurred borders, equality of composition, undefined temporality will all ring with the sound of 'O'.
The personification of the four elements and all their natural predicates was assigned, by the Greeks, to gods and goddesses – a very obvious way of counterpoising an 'I' to the naturalistic expression of the 'O.' As an individual, a god/dess is necessarily an 'I' in every sense – of word, letter or sign. You had a god/dess of the sea, of the heavens, of the wind, of each individual river. Anything that was non-differentiated and ascribed to the 'O' (including, say, death or love) was given an equivalent in the dimension of the 'I'. As representatives of the 'I' (and like everyone who can say 'I'), gods have an agency, and the attempt to invest agency onto natural phenomena with no agenda was an aspect of the tension between 'I' and 'O'. This ties in to the fact that ancient lyric poetry is most commonly addressed to the gods, from the Greek representatives to the poetry books in the Bible. After the dark ages, when writing returned to Europe in a predominantly Christian scenario, lyric poetry was no longer allowed to address multiple gods and allegorical figures were introduced. Characters like 'Lady Love' or 'Lady Philosophy' are elementary examples of an alliterative tradition which remains unique to the middle ages. Then came Dante's Beatrice and Petrarch's Laura, and from then on, the default addressee of lyric poetry evolved away from a divine force and towards the figure of a loved one.
Thus the 'I' and the 'O' evoke each other in what is known as poetry of address (often considered a synonym for lyric poetry – an ill-advised affiliation, as we will see). The 'O' is produced simply by placing speech against an 'I'. Calling the god or goddess or beloved necessarily implies an 'O', even if it is not explicitly written. Rimbaud's "O pale Ophelia" and Leopardi's "Silvia, do you remember..." are not substantially different – you can extract the first letter from the former line and add it to the beginning of the other, and it makes no difference. Unless the preponderance of the 'O' is reverted by the poet later in the text (for instance, by rejecting or condemning the addressee, as Baudelaire does when spitting "Hypocrite reader!"), the poem will stay under the domination of the 'O' and therefore remain lyric throughout.
The fact that 'O' can be represented linguistically suggests that the same could be done with 'I'. But while words like 'dust' and 'clouds' can be linked back to 'O', the words representing 'I' must possess, like the gods, an agency, and this can seldom be achieved with nouns. First names, which imply someone who can say 'I', are a better option. More flexibly, you can use words which perform agency and action linguistically. The most common example of this are verbs. A verb, as something that acts but can never be acted upon, is the kinetic element of the sentence and is therefore most easily associated to 'I', which is constitutive but never constituted. There are of course plenty of exceptions. Inactive verbs like dying and surrendering are related to 'O' (and are, in fact, typical themes of lyric poetry). Conversely, some verbs are inflexibly active – fighting, destroying, winning. Others yet, the vast majority, determine their active or inactive quality by the context of use – burning can refer both to 'burning the houses of the enemy' and to 'burning in the flames of the enemy'.
We mentioned that a lyric poem is a poem dominated by the 'O'. Given the potential 'I' quality of verbs, then, one of the simplest labels of the lyric is the transition from 'I' to 'O' – that is to say, starting a phrase with an active verb and closing it with a signifier of 'O'. Here are some very famous examples, with signifiers for the 'I' in bold and signifiers for the 'O' in italics:
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)
These thoughts that wander through eternity ... (John Milton)
O thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars! (Christopher Marlowe)
A more complicated version of the same basic effect:
I am no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils
A mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand. (Sylvia Plath)
Here, the succession of verbs and elements makes for a (surprisingly regular and very harmonious) I-O-I-I-O-O sequence – fundamentally, still a transition from 'I' to 'O'.
We also note in the quote by Milton that it is not a 'natural element' that stands for the 'O', but 'eternity', a word about time. This is not a distortion of the original concept. Time is a category which makes its own distinction between 'I' and 'O' signifiers: 'now' and 'today', as platforms for individualisation and specification, belong to the 'I'; 'forever', 'never', 'always' and the like all stand for the 'O'. The exact same is true of space, where 'here', 'there' stand for the 'I', and 'nowhere' or 'everywhere' for the 'O'. Numerical or quantitative words fall under the same rules. See Blake's opening to the poem 'London', which is a typical case-study for the lyric sentence-structure: "I walk through every chartered street." (Note, in passing, that this is an example of a lyric without an addressee, showing that equating poetry of address to the concept of the lyric is illusory). But perhaps the best example of how a temporal category can be used to produce the lyric is given to us by Edgar Allan Poe in his celebrated text 'The Raven', with the repetition of 'nevermore' following upon every line and therefore closing every stanza with an 'O'.
Since one way of achieving the lyric is by a transition from 'I' to 'O' signifiers, then inverting the order of those signifiers will produce the opposite result – and this is what we call the epic effect. The passage from 'O' to 'I' results in a feeling which is the absolute opposite to that of the lyric – a sense of exhilaration rather than tenderness and melancholy. For instance:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul. (William E. Henley)
This is the opening stanza to a short poem called 'Invictus', renowned for its epic atmosphere. It is composed of four stanzas, all of which repeat the effect of the first – the transition from the 'O' signifiers in italics to those of the 'I' in bold. The last two lines end with a repetition of active verbs next to words indicating agency: "I am the master of my ship, I am the captain of my soul." A real epic combo.
Though the institutionalisation of the term 'lyric' as synonymous for poetry since Petrarch, as well as the failure to extricate the structure of the epos from the canons of the epic genre, have led to a difficulty in identifying the binding quality of epic poems, these texts are in fact much more common than we expect. Almost every poet writes verse of an epic as well as a lyric kind. Poems which are usually dumped into the category of the lyric, even which are famed as illustrious examples of that field, may reveal themselves to be manifestly epic, notwithstanding traditional lyric 'symptoms' such as an addressee. Shelley's celebrated 'Ode to the West Wind' is a prime example. It opens with a wealth of 'O' signifiers ('being', 'ghosts', the death imagery of the seeds, 'stream', 'sky', 'clouds', 'Heaven', 'Ocean', 'rain', the 'aery' surge, the 'dying year', the 'closing night', 'vapours', 'summer dreams', 'sleep', the 'sense [which] faints') and gradually introduces a speaker – an 'I', first introduced in Part IV – which becomes increasingly pervasive. This transition, encapsulated in the poem's closing line ("If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?") is the defining quality of the epic, much like the opposite transition is that of the lyric.
Consider these two lines from Shelley's poem:
"Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!"
While the words tend towards the lyric (the final verbs are passive), they do include yet another example of the poem's epic drive – the passage from saying 'me' to saying 'I'.
'I' and 'me' are both signifiers of the self, but they define it respectively as the subject or object of the sentence; a linguistic passage from object to subject ('O' to 'I') is the equivalent of an epic transition, while one from subject to object ('I' to 'O') is lyric. This opens up the world of pronouns to the possibilities of the epic and the lyric. The objective case belongs to the 'O', while the subjective case belongs to the 'I'. So most poems using 'I' towards the beginning and closing with 'me' towards the end will tend to be lyric, and vice versa for the epic (note the pronouns in the above quote by Henley). The same can be said of individual lines: "I do not think that they will sing to me." (Eliot, from the Prufrock poem). But the principle holds true across the first, second and third person as well. So a poem starting with 'us' and closing with 'I' will be epic (the distinction between 'thou' and 'thee' has decayed, so the case of 'you' is contextually determined). Here is a sensational example: "How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?" From subjective case to objective case, and we have a lyric line. Note that in this passage from the Book of Psalms (one of the world's most ancient collections of lyrics) the signifiers for 'I' and 'O' are multiple, including various verbs and 'for ever' alongside the pronouns.
It should be clear by now that the tools available for poets to produce these two cardinal effects are numerous. Others which we shall only gloss over include:
a) Repetition. See Sylvia Plath's queen bee: "she is old, old, old." Repeating the word nullifies its specificity, and therefore ties it to 'O'.
b) Conjunctions like 'and', 'or' can nullify the value of difference between words, also relating them to 'O' – "I am: yet what I am none cares or knows." (John Clare). Starting a phrase or line with 'And' is the equivalent of starting it with the vocative 'O'.
c) Other active uses of pronouns. For example, if the pronoun 'my' is followed by an object internal to the speaker and a verb: "My heart aches" (Keats); "My nerves are bad tonight" (Eliot). In both cases it is lyrical, because the sentence implies an opening verb of perception: "[I feel] my heart/nerves/etc."
d) Logographic tricks, like never using capitalisation to imply that all the words are equal in value.
e) The use of symbols, which, like gods, are implicit signs of the 'I'.
The possibilities are multiple and well beyond our ability to list them all. One last effect would cause a wealth of confusion if left unexplained, so we shall point it out before closing – the idea that the lyric and epic effect of a phrase can be reversed by the simple use of negatives. An inspirational phrase like "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them" (Exodus, 20:5) has a clear epic ring to it – it sounds like the kind of thing you use at sport rallies – yet it passes from an active verb ('shalt') to a passive one ('serve') and from subjective case to objective case pronouns. This would file it under the category of the lyric. The trick lies in the fact that the negatives 'not' and 'nor' nullify the value of the verbs and in fact reverse their effects: 'shalt not' becomes passive, while 'nor serve' is now active. The 'I'-to-'O' transition is negated and flipped onto its head to become an 'O'-to-'I'. The sentence, then, becomes epic. It is a comparatively minor detail, perhaps, but the power of negation is not to be underestimated. The lyric turns to which it can lead are among the simplest you can imagine:
"To be, or not to be. That is the question." (William Shakespeare)