There is an apocryphal story, dating from 1933, about some of the New(ish) Critics who stumbled discomfited from A.E. Housman’s lecture at Cambridge University on The Name and Nature of Poetry. Discomfited, and muttering that the lecture put the clock back twenty years. Housman was full of years (in his seventies), of honor, and of wickedly brilliant perversity. There he stood, devolving his rounded periods, all to the effect that the best poems were lyrical poems and that they were so good precisely because their meaning was unimportant or nonexistent. And how do we know that those lyrics (by Blake or Shakespeare) are so good? “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.” All of which was widely understood as a tacit snub to professional literary criticism (T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis). And to the academic study of literature. If Housman were right, then the final examination ought to give the grade A to the candidate whose skin bristled best.

That was the lecture in honor of Leslie Stephen in Cambridge in 1933. Over to C. Day Lewis, in Cambridge, Mass., with his lectures in honor of Charles Eliot Norton. The Lyric Impulse is very much an attenuated and watery version of The Name and Nature of Poetry, now re-told for our times. Mr. Day Lewis fears, with urbane despondency, that the academic study of literature and the professionalizing of criticism have produced a context in which there is a morbid dread of the truest kind of poetry: the lyric. The very simplicity and directness of the lyric make it unsatisfying explication-fodder. Poetry, it seems, is more and more cutting itself off from its true source, “the lyric impulse,” and from its manifestation, “the singing line.”

The historical part of the book has little that is new about it. Once again the progress of the lyric and of the ballad is traced, “country lyrics” are displayed as at a flower-show, and there is an agreeable murmur of quotations, tastefully chosen and gracefully deployed. All rather slight. But behind the slightness there is a devout, almost parsonical, tone. We are hearing a sermon about the dangers of extra-lyrical intercourse. Or perhaps not a sermon, a jeremiad.

The trouble with the argument is partly that, as with all such jeremiads, one can’t help suspecting that Jeremiah rather enjoys delivering them, that indeed he wouldn’t be himself without them. The history of literary opinion is strewn with grim warnings about the fact that poetry or the novel or the drama is dooming itself by pursuing irresponsible courses. The warnings die and are forgotten (the dog it was that died), and poetry and the novel and the drama somehow seem to go marching on. After all, the clearest and most indisputable evidence that there really was something gravely wrong with new poetry would surely be an opposite contingency: that for the first time in history a poet in his sixties (as Mr. Day Lewis is) saw no reason to prophesy woe when he was impinged on by the poetry of his juniors. There seem to be prima facie reasons for not being quite so glum about the moribundity of “the lyric impulse” as Mr. Day Lewis is.

In addition, he never establishes the fact from which he draws wistful conclusions: that the lyric is in decline. This is mainly because, although he claims to draw an important distinction between what is a lyric and what is lyrical, he does in fact shift from the one to the other when doing so will allow him to be more sad. “The genre I am dealing with is lyric poetry…a kind of poetry which today is under a cloud.” And the rest of the book circles around the question of where the cloud may have come from, when it is not self-evident that any such cloud is really hovering. His definition of a lyric: “a poem written for music—for an existing tune, or in collaboration with a composer, or in an idiom demanded by contemporary songwriters, or simply with music at the back of the poet’s mind.” He then (and “this is not the fidgety distinction it may at first seem”) distinguishes the lyric from the lyrical poem which, although it “has not forgotten its origin in music and has not lost the singing line,” has yet abandoned the pure simplicity of the lyric.

But is it the case that ours is an age that despises the lyric? Robert Graves? Well, yes—Mr. Day Lewis picks him out as the exception. Theodore Roethke? Scotland’s best poet (Hugh McDiarmid) and Ireland’s best poet (Austin Clarke) have both written exquisite lyrics. Naturally there aren’t many great lyrics around just now, but what is special about that? Most of the lyrics that are being written are probably not very good, but in that they resemble most of the other literature that is being written—or has ever been written.


The broader sense of lyrical is of course a very different matter, and there certainly would be cause for mild alarm if it were the case that contemporary poetry had lost touch altogether with music and its “singing line.” That particular phrase Mr. Day Lewis acknowledges he owes to William Empson, yet Empson was not speaking primarily about the necessity for poets to write pure lyrics, but about their necessity to combine the opposing beauties of speaking and of singing. Instead of a singleminded insistence on the need for a poet to be close to common speech, we must substitute the interplay of opposites. In Empson’s words, “One may agree that a poet should be enough in contact with the spoken English of his time, and also believe he has always needed to be free enough from it to sing.”

Just as Mr. Day Lewis never really decides whether he is talking about the lyric or the lyrical poem, in the same way he wavers between suggesting that the lyric impulse is one of the important “tributaries” of the main stream of poetry and speaking of it as the “source” of poetry. It is hard to see why a poet who never wrote good lyrics (Pope, say) would have to be told that “his channel to poetry’s source has become clogged.” In the wider sense of lyrical, things would be different (but then Pope would be defended as a superbly lyrical poet). Is the complaint then that lyricism, the “singing line,” has disappeared from poetry along with the lyric? Otherwise, why so melancholy? If the pure lyric is not being successfully written very much just now, is it the case that everybody is producing the other genres neat? Ode and elegy and sonnet? Surely what matters is that the virtues crystalized in the lyric should in some way be at work in poetry. Poetry as a whole would be the worse if it had cut itself off from lyricism—but where is the evidence that it has? If Philip Larkin’s poems do not have a singing line, then where would such a line be found? Do poets like James Merrill and Louis Simpson and Richard Wilbur and W. D. Snodgrass despise the virtues of lyricism?

At one point Mr. Day Lewis almost comes to a decision: “today one could almost say there is no lyric poetry since every poem has a lyrical quality.” But what’s so depressing about that? It shows that the vital qualities of lyricism are active in contemporary poetry. Why is it essential that all kinds of verse should come neat? The old wine is in new bottles, and contrary to prophetic gloom the bottles don’t seem to have burst. It is not obvious that Graves or Frost or Auden were the worse for not abiding by a neo-classical purity. When it comes down to it, Mr. Day Lewis is taking a very neo-classical position, much as purists deplored Shakespeare’s bad habit of including comic scenes in his tragedies.

On one occasion, he lets his guard slip, and speaks—despite his title and despite the innumerable moments of caution—of “the lyrical impulse,” rather than the lyric one. Most of the time, though, he is forced into disparaging lyrical poems by speaking of them as “hybrids,” which is hardly an impartial term. It even turns out that Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal,” which is cited in the opening pages as wonderfully effective, is something of a hybrid since it doesn’t manifest the essential simplicity of a true lyric (which “coming straight from the heart must go straight to the heart”). No—and there seems almost to be a grain of resentment in Mr. Day Lewis’s tone—Wordsworth’s poem does gain something from “close reading,” and therefore it is not so pure a lyric as Clare’s “Peggy said good morning and I said goodbye.”

But it is hard to see why simplicity alone and in itself has to be thought essential. Wordsworth’s poem is greater than Clare’s (which is delightful) because it combines what would ordinarily be incompatible excellences: It is piercingly and directly simple, and at the same time very subtle and complicated and strange. If it were true that complexity in poetry could only ever be achieved by extinguishing all simplicity, then Mr. Day Lewis would be right in arguing that the lyrical poem is the enemy of the lyric. But Wordsworth’s poem is simultaneously a lyrical poem, an epitaph, and a nature poem—why should we have to feel gloomy about the fact that such a poem manages to do several things at once? Mr. Day Lewis’s uneasiness at finding himself in this position comes out when for no bona fide reason whatsoever he suddenly employs quotation marks and speaks of “the modern ‘lyrical’ poem.” Does he mean that modern poems are all pretending, and aren’t really lyrical either? (In which case, he is contradicting himself and is wrong to boot.) Or are the quotation marks just a sly rhetorical trick, sniffing suspiciously at the word lyrical rather as the word hybrid does?


There is no real acknowledgment here that the field of contemporary British and American poetry is vast and various. Who can speak with authority about all of it? Isn’t the importance of “the lyric impulse” that it creates lyricism rather than simply the lyric? Poetry has been the gainer because of the mixed marriages between the literary kinds. The relaxation of the classical severity of genres has brought many more advantages than disadvantages—as Wordsworth and Coleridge knew when they published those poems which are not simply lyrics or simply ballads but which manage to be both and are Lyrical Ballads.

This Issue

March 31, 1966