The eddas and sagas are literary works written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries but incorporating memories preserved orally from preliterate times of (a) Norse myths, in prose and verse form, (b) heroic lays with common Germanic roots, (c) raiding and trading voyages of the Viking Age (800–1030 CE), and (d) the settlement of Iceland from Norway, Britain, and Ireland starting from the 870s and of life in the new country up to and beyond the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. In their writing, these works show the influence of the learning and literature introduced to Iceland from the 11th century on through the educational system of the medieval Church. During these centuries, the Icelanders translated the lives of the principal saints, produced saga biographies of their own bishops, and recorded accounts of events and conflicts contemporary with their authors. They also produced conventional chronicles on European models of the kings of Norway and Denmark and large quantities of works, both translated and original, in the spirit of medieval chivalry. The eddas and sagas, however, reflect a unique and original departure that has no direct analogue in mainland Europe—the creation of new works and genres rooted in the secular tradition of oral learning and storytelling. This tradition encompassed the Icelanders’ worldview in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries and their understanding of events, people, and chronology going back to the 9th century, and their experience of an environment that extended over the parts of the world known to the Norsemen of the Viking Age, both on earth and in heaven. The infrastructure that underlay this system of learning was a knowledge of the regnal years of kings who employed court poets to memorialize their lives, and stories that were told in connection with what people observed in the heavens and on earth, near and far, by linking the stories with individual journeys, dwellings, and the genealogies of the leading protagonists. In this world, people here on earth envisaged the gods as having their halls and dwellings in the sky among the stars and the sun, while beyond the ocean and beneath the furthest horizon lay the world of the giants. In Viking times, this furthest horizon shifted little by little westwards, from the seas around Norway and Britain to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and eventually still farther south and west to previously unknown lands that people in Iceland retained memories of the ancestors having discovered and explored around the year 1000—Helluland, Markland, and Vínland—where they came into contact with the native inhabitants of the continent known as North America.
Pastoral refers to any representation of the countryside or life in the countryside that emphasizes its beautiful and pleasurable aspects. Although the term has come to be used broadly to describe paintings, novels, and popular media, it originated and developed in the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome. Poems about shepherds and cowherds, also called bucolic, first appeared in the Idylls of Theocritus (3rd century bce), and these inspired the Roman poet Virgil to write a set of poems called the Eclogues (c. 42–37 bce). Virgil’s ten poems have been immensely influential. Indeed, pastoral’s long and relatively unbroken European history can be traced to the ongoing popularity of the Eclogues. These poems helped establish the defining elements of the mode: shepherds, who spend much of their time in song and dialogue; the topics of love, loss, and singing itself; a leisurely life; and a natural landscape of endless summer. In the Middle Ages, when Virgil’s eclogues were still read but rarely directly imitated, an explicitly Christian version of pastoral developed; this version was based in the shepherds of the Bible, both the literal shepherds who witnessed Jesus’ birth and the figurative shepherds referred to by Jesus or mentioned in the Psalms. In this biblical or ecclesiastical pastoral, authors used shepherds to discuss priestly duties and the state of the church more generally. Pastoral flourished in the Renaissance, when poets brought together Virgilian and Christian traditions, along with topical concerns about court politics and rural controversies, such as enclosure, to invent a new kind of poetry. During and after the Romantic period, pastoral lost its distinctly shepherdly focus and merged with a broader category of nature writing. As one of several possible approaches to nature, pastoral was reduced to its idealizing and nostalgic qualities, and it was often contrasted with more realistic or scientific representations. From the perspective of the longue durée, pastoral is a capacious category that includes many different attitudes toward rural people and rural life, even the realism of labor and exile. Despite this variety, pastoral is recognizable for the feelings it hopes to generate in its readers about rural life: the delight that the senses take in nature, the sadness at the loss of people and places, and the intense crushes of adolescence.
Stephanie Burt and Jenn Lewin
Ideas about song, and actual songs, inform literary works in ways that go back to classical and to biblical antiquity. Set apart from non-musical language, song can indicate proximity to the divine, intense emotion, or distance from the everyday. At least from the early modern period, actual songs compete with idealized songs in a body of lyric poetry where song is sometimes scheme and sometimes trope. Songs and singers in novels can do the work of plot and of character, sometimes isolating songwriter or singer, and sometimes linking them to a milieu beyond what readers are shown. Accounts of song as poetry’s inferior, as its other, or as its unreachable ideal—while historically prominent—do not consider the variety of literary uses in English that songs—historically attested and fictional; popular, vernacular, and “classical”— continue to find.
The Arabic language has a rich history of literary criticism and theory, starting from the 8th century ce up to the 21st century. This literary criticism and theory engages with a poetic tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times. The inquiry into literary quality was motivated by an interest in evaluating poetry, a general concern with eloquent speech, whether in verse or prose, and by the desire to articulate the beauty of the Quran. The transmission of Aristotle’s Poetics into Arabic also spurred interest in the poetic, particularly in Arabic philosophy. The study of eloquence crystallized into a standardized science by the 13th century ce, with branches focusing on (1) the role of syntax in literary beauty (the science of meanings); (2) simile, metaphor, and metonymy (the science of elucidation); and (3) rhetorical figures (the science of rhetorical figures). The aesthetic developed in the early criticism of the 9th and 10th centuries was concerned with articulating the merits of an idealized classical style of pre-Islamic poetry, from which the “modern” poets of the early Abbasid period diverged. This classically oriented aesthetic was dominated by a concern with the truthfulness and naturalness of poetry, typical of the style of the “ancients,” on the one hand, and the limits of unrealistic imagery and affected artificiality, which characterized the more ornate modern Abbasid style, on the other. This binary outlook shifted after the 10th century, however, to an aesthetic of wonder. A theory of aesthetic experience began to develop, therefore, which was based on the ability of poetic language to evoke wonder in the recipient. As a result, wonder-enhancing characteristics such as strangeness, the unexpected, and the rare became essential components of aesthetic judgment. Moreover, the ability of language to make meaning manifest in ways that allow for an experience of discovery and hence wonder, became the foundation of aesthetic inquiry in post-10th century Arabic literary theory.
Luis J. Rodríguez is a Chicano memoirist, novelist, poet, children’s author, and activist. Born in 1954 in Mexico, his family migrated to the United States when he was young. As a youth, he spent many years immersed in the street gangs of Los Angeles while concurrently partaking in community protests and mobilizations that became known as the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It took Rodríguez several years to extract himself from a life of crime and addiction to drugs, though all the while he was writing, painting, and being inspired by revolutionary figures. His first book of poetry was published in 1989, but it was his memoir of gang life, Always Running—La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA, released in 1993 in the aftermath of the LA riots, that garnered him mainstream literary attention. Always Running and its sequel, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing, eighteen years later, can be labeled testimonio for detailing a Latina/o “lived” experience and fighting social injustices. In many ways Rodríguez can be deemed a “classic” Chicana/o author: he addresses the experience of migration and writes in both English and Spanish; he explores themes of prejudice and identity for Mexican Americans in the United States; and he considers the role of heteropatriarchal aspects of Mexican culture in defining his relationships (with women and children). His steadfast dedication to Native American/indigenous spirituality is a more recent focus in his life and writings, situating him among a long list of Chicana/os who have embarked on the “Red Road,” that is, life as indigenous-identified subjects. But what most arguably sets Rodríguez apart from fellow Chicana/o writers is his allegiance—throughout all his works in all genres—to proletarian politics and concerns for the working classes. His critiques of deindustrialization and its subsequent effects, particularly poverty, are reflected, for example, in his depictions of the Bethlehem Steel Mill of LA, where Rodríguez worked.
If poetics customarily deals with generalities, history seems to insist on particulars. In the 21st century, various literary critics have sought to manage these competing imperatives by developing an “historical poetics.” These critics pursue sometimes very different projects, working with diverse methodologies and theoretical frameworks, but they share a desire to think again about the relation between poetics and history. Some critics have pursued an historical poetics by conducting quantitative studies of changes in metrical form, while others have investigated the social uses to which poetry was put in the cultures of the past. Both approaches tend to reject received notions of the aesthetic or literary, with their emphasis on the individual poet and on the poem’s organic unity. Much work in historical poetics has focused instead on problems of genre and reception, seeking the historical significance of poetry in what is common and repeated. Sometimes this work has involved extensive archival research, examining memoirs, grammar books, philological tracts, and other materials in order to discover how poetry was conceived and interpreted at a particular time. These methods allow critics to tell histories of poetry and to reveal a history in poetry. The cultural history of poetic forms thus becomes a history of social thought and practice conducted through poetry. For other critics, however, the historical significance of a poem lies instead in the way it challenges the poetics of its time. This is to emphasize the singular over the common and repeated. In this mode, historical poetics aims both to restore poems to their proper historical moment and to show how poems work across history. The history to be valued in such cases is not a ground or world beyond the poem, but the event of the poem itself.
Lyric poems have often been treated as expressions of pure or immediate feeling. “Amaze,” by Adelaide Crapsey, exemplifies the pervasiveness of thought even in a seemingly innocuous trifle. Philosophers and aestheticians have wrestled with the relationship between thought and feeling in poetry. Notable formulations come from Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, but the most persuasive is from an essay by Herder, “On Knowledge and Sensation in the Human Soul.” The opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Mallarmé’s sonnet “Le Cygne” illustrate how poems struggle to confront feelings, with the smallest words—connectives, deictics, pronouns—bearing the burden of capturing the movement of the mind in thought. The apodictic language of de Manian deconstruction misses the subtleties, as do quasi-mystical theories of the power of imagery and New Critical faith in the formalized rhetoric of “the poem itself.” “Loving in truth” are the opening words of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella; this first sonnet and the entire cycle instantiate poetic discourse as the unending search amid the byways of truth. In a study of Wallace Stevens, Charles Altieri calls the thinking of poetry “aspectual,” and Stevens’s poem “Metaphors of a Magnifico” presents the basic task of poetic cognition through its satire of the magnifico’s failure to think. “Lyric poetry’s exemption from rationalism,” as one new study puts it, is really an exemption from preemptive assertion in the service of exploring and representing the mind’s coursing.
Apostrophe is a rhetorical figure that is most commonly found (and thought of) in lyric poetry. It also occurs in other literary and cultural forms—memoir, prose fiction, song, theater, and cinema. Derived from the Greek prefix “apo” (away from) and “strophe” (turn or twist), the word “apostrophe” is often confused with a punctuation mark, a single inverted comma used in English to denote a possessive (as in “ the Queen’s English” or “the cat’s whiskers”). In this context, an apostrophe stands in for something absent. Anglo-Saxon, a heavily inflected language and the basis for modern English, had a genitive case where nouns used in a possessive way tended to end in “es” (“cyninges” was the Anglo-Saxon for “King’s”). This more common sense of the word “apostrophe” denotes, therefore, a punctuation mark that stands in for an elided letter “e” or vowel sound. In the context of rhetoric and poetry “apostrophe” has come to denote what occurs when a writer or speaker addresses a person or entity who is dead, absent, or inanimate to start with. The figure is described by Cicero and Quintillian. The former described it as a “figure that expresses grief or indignation.” Quintillian emphasized its capacity to be “wonderfully stirring” for an audience. For both rhetoricians, apostrophe was something that occurred in a public context, usually a debate or trial, and was part of the arsenal of political rhetoric. Apostrophe has therefore a double valence beyond the common understanding as a punctuation mark that stands in for a missing possessive “e.” It denotes what occurs when a speaker turns from addressing her audience to addressing another figure or entity, one who may or may not be present, alive, or even animate. And it has also come to denote that very process of addressing the absent, the dead, and the inanimate. The figure occurs in medieval rhetoric and poetry, in Shakespeare’s poetry and plays, and has come to be identified with lyric poetry itself, especially through the work and legacy of the literary theorist Paul de Man. For him, a poem describing a set of circumstances has less claim to the status of lyric poetry than a poem apostrophizing aspects of those circumstances. In part as a result of de Man’s influence, apostrophe has come to be connected with different forms of complicated affect—most notably grief, embarrassment, and any number of ways in which human life can be seen or experienced as vulnerable, open to question, or imbued with potential. It has also been used to explore complicated legal and ethical terrains where the boundary between the living and the dead, the present and the absent, the animate and the inanimate can be difficult to draw or ascertain. Two areas of contemporary criticism and thought for which the employment of the figure is most resonant are therefore eco-criticism and “thing theory” (most notably the work of Jane Bennett). The possibilities of apostrophe continue to be regularly employed in political rhetoric, song, poetry, theater, fiction, and cinema.
Lyric poetry is an ancient genre, enduring to the present day, but it is not continuous in its longevity. What happens to lyric poetry and how it changes during its numerous and sometimes lengthy periods of historical eclipse (such as the 18th century) may be as important to our understanding of lyric as an assessment of its periods of high achievement. For it is during these periods of relative obscurity that lyric enters into complex relations with other genres of poetry and prose, affirming the general thesis that all genres are relational and porous. The question of whether any particular properties of lyric poetry endure throughout its 2,700-year checkered history can be addressed by examining its basic powers: its forms; its figurative and narrative functions; and its styles and diction. The hierarchy of these functions is mutable, as one finds in today’s rift between a scholarly revival of formalist analysis and the increasing emphasis on diction in contemporary poetry. As a way of assessing lyric poetry’s basic operations, the present article surveys the ongoing tension between form and diction by sketching a critique of the tenets of New Formalism in literary studies, especially its presumptions about the relation of poetic form to the external world and its tendency to subject form to close analysis, as if it could yield, like style or diction, detailed knowledge of the world. Long overshadowed by the doctrinal tenets of modernist formalism, the expressive powers of diction occupy a central place in contemporary concerns about identity and social conflict, at the same time that diction (unlike form) is especially susceptible to the vocabularistic methods of “distant reading”—to the computational methods of the digital humanities. The indexical convergence of concreteness and abstraction, expression and rationalism, proximity and distance, in these poetic and scholarly experiments with diction points to precedents in the 18th century, when the emergence of Anglophone poetries in the context of colonialism and the incorporation of vernacular languages into poetic diction (via the ballad revival) intersected with the development of modern lexicography and the establishment of Standard English. The nascent transactions of poetics and positivism through the ontology of diction in the 21st century remind us that poetic diction is always changing but also that the hierarchy of form, figuration, and diction in lyric poetry inevitably shifts over time—a reconfiguration of lyric priorities that helps to shape the premises and methods of literary studies.
The term poetics designates both a field of study and the practice of a particular author or group of authors. Aristotle’s Poetics, the most important work of literary theory in the Western tradition, undertakes to describe in systematic fashion the major forms of literature, the components of each, and how these elements contribute to the effects desired. Aristotle proceeds on the assumption that there is a comprehensive structure of knowledge attainable about poetry, which is not the experience of poetry, but poetics. Such a poetics treats literature as an autonomous object of knowledge, whose major genres or forms it seeks to analyze. This is an explicit poetics; but we also speak of the poetics implicit in the work of an individual writer, or of a group of writers, or of the literature of an era, as in The Poetics of Dante’s Paradiso, or even The Poetics of Postmodernism, which focus on the characteristic techniques, compositional habits, and ways of treating subjects in the literary practice under consideration. As the latter title indicates, the term poetics is used even when the literature treated does not include much poetry. Poetics can be distinguished from literary history, in that it focuses on literature as a system of possibilities rather than as a historical sequence or a practice in history, although categories from poetics will be important for any study of the evolution of literature. In literary theory, poetics is set apart for concentrating on intrinsic characteristics of literature as a system, as opposed to treating it as a phenomenon to be explained in social, historical, economic, or psychological terms. Poetics is particularly distinguished from hermeneutics or interpretation, in that it does not attempt to determine the meaning of literary works but asks how they function: What are characteristics of different literary genres and their constituents? How do their various elements work together to produce the effects they do for readers? Many contributions to the theory of literature can be seen as contributions to poetics, insofar as they try to explain the nature of literature and describe some of its major forms, even if they are presented as arguments about the literary practice of a particular period or literary mode. Western poetics begins with Aristotle, whose poetics is based on drama: literature is defined an imitation of action, in which plot is central. In Chinese and Japanese cultures, by contrast, foundational poetics have been drawn from lyric poetry and have focused on affect and expression rather than on representation. In the history of Western poetics mimesis has remained fundamental, despite changes that, from time to time, treat literature as the expression of the experience of the author or the attempt to create certain experiences for the reader.