Lyrics and Poetry: what’s the difference?

Many people don’t realise where the term “lyrics” came from.

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In my first post related to National Poetry Month, I issued this challenge: “Listen carefully to songs on the radio. You might be surprised how many of them are poetry set to music. ”

Many people don’t realise that’s where the term “lyrics” came from.

A lyric poem is one that focuses on the feelings and thoughts of the poet, rather than describing something (an ode) or telling a story (a ballad). These poems were often set to music, especially that of a lyre – this is where the term “lyrics” for the words of a song came from. So when people talk about the lyrics of a song, it’s a throwback to the origins of the love song in popular poetry, centuries ago.

That’s the sort of poetic wordy-nerdy-ness that makes me ridiculously happy.

One of the most famous lyric poems in the English language is Wordsworth’s poem that is commonly, and somewhat affectionately, called Daffodils – even though that’s not actually its title. It gets quoted – and misquoted – a lot in films, TV shows and books.

Daffodils.jpg

It’s a beautiful poem that transports the reader’s vision to the field of daffodils, but also transports their thoughts into the reader’s mind to explore how the flowers made him think and feel.

As with all older poems, there are some words in it that don’t really get used much anymore:

  • Jocund means joyful or cheerful.
  • Gay – in the context of this poem – means happy.
    (To clarify further, daffodils are, like most things in the plant kingdom, completely uninterested in one’s sexuality. I like to think that this is probably why they’re happier than many people.)
  • Pensive means thoughtful.

Now that those tricky words are sorted, you should be able to make perfect sense of this beautiful poem.

‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

If you’d like to hear a magnificent reading of this poem, I suggest you try the recording by English actress Noma Dumazweni.  The reading by Jeremy Irons is quite nice, too.

 

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4 thoughts on “Lyrics and Poetry: what’s the difference?

  1. I love thinking of songs as forms of poetry. I often tell people one of my favorite poets is Pete Wentz. The lines in a lot of those FOB songs are so goregous. “constellation of tears on my lashes”. Like how dare you. Meanwhile there are other songs like Best Song Ever by One Direction that discusses how her dad was a dentist?

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