Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Lyric Poetry as a Narrative Speech Genre: On the dialogue between genre theory and cognitive science

Ludmila Comuzzi[1]

Saratov State University after N. G. Chernyshevsky, Balashov Institute, Balashov, Russia

0. Introduction

The primary subject of this article, the narrativity of lyric poetry, overlaps with the issues of the literary genre theory, which now makes up a wider field of interdisciplinary research. This is done partly to think about the ways in which literary theory might come together with cognitive science and partly to argue, together with Brian McHale (McHale 2009) and other scholars promoting transgeneric narratology (Hühn 2004, 2014; Hühn and Sommer 2012), that contemporary narratology’s relative neglect of poetry is “a scandal” (cf. McHale 2009: 3).

Lyric poetry has always been opposed to the narrative poetic genres, on the one hand, and to the other two basic genres within the triad “epic – drama – lyric,” on the other. Gérard Genette in The Architext: An Introduction, however, modernized the map of genre theory by proposing the concepts of intertextuality and architextuality as ways in which texts allude to one another and resemble one another enough to be categorized as the same literary type (Genette [1979] 1992; Gorman 2005). He also debunked the long-held doctrine that the three genres doctrine was Aristotelian, demonstrating that it dates back to Romanic and Germanic Romanticism. However, whether or not the narrativity of poetry is an object of analysis is an issue that has sparked new discussions between classicists and narrative theorists in the last few years. The point that I wish to make in this article, originally presented at the ENN 3 Conference in Paris, was criticized later at the Belye Chtenia Conference in Moscow (see the reply to my article in Narratorium 2013 – the follow-up of Belye Chtenia 2012 [Tataru 2013; Chevtajev 2013]). Furthermore, a special issue of Narrative in 2014, devoted to “narrative in poetic form,” features, along with the seven other essays, polemics between Brian McHale (2014) and Bruce Heiden (2014). Heiden, a true classicist, claims that “narrative in poetry” is a mirage created by structuralist narratology and that approaching poetry “through the lens of narratology” leads to misconceptions that “block and distort one’s view of poetry and of narrative as well” (2014: 270). McHale advocates a position, previously expressed in his essay “Beginning to Think about Narrative in Poetry” (2009), that inquiry into narrative in poetry might “capture something […] that the reader experiences” and poses a question in return: “if that something isn’t what narrative theory calls “narrative,” then what is it?” (McHale 2014: 286, 287). 

Monika Fludernik’s (2008) and Ansgar Nünning and Roy Sommer’s (2008) studies on the narratology of drama (see also Hühn and Sommer 2012) have brought further evidence to shake the myths still besetting poetics which hold that narrativity obtains in epic only. However, even though narrative and poetry and narrative and drama cut across each other, the very possibility of consolidating the efforts of literary theory and those of cognitive science has yet to bear all its fruits. This can be explained partly as a result of specialization: some scholars concentrate on narrative, others on poetry (or drama), but few specialize in both (McHale 2009: 2). Genre, a phenomenon of immense scope with numerous manifestations and functions, has every right to become a “crossroads” for literary theory, narrative theory and the natural sciences.

1. Genre and gene

Literary-theoretical discussion around the term “genre” can be roughly summed up in the question “Is it a stable structure or a metamorphic substance?” In the 1920s this question triggered a polemical dialogue between the two Russian literary theorists, Mikhail Bakhtin and Jurij Tynjanov. Bakhtin laid stress on genre’s stability in the sense that literature, as well as other spheres of communication, have their lives and their stories driven by collective orientations toward a completion: “Literary genre by its nature reflects the most stable, ‘dateless’ tendencies in the evolution of literature. Genre always retains undying archaic elements. […] Genre is self-productive and self-rejuvenating in every individual work of a particular genre. […] Genre represents creative memory in the process of literary development. This is exactly the reason why genre can secure the entity and the continuity of this development” [2] (Bakhtin 1972: 178–179, original emphasis). Tynjanov insisted on genre’s variability and transformation in the course of evolution in literature: from epoch to epoch, from one author to another, genres would change beyond recognition, more in their essential traits than in the minor ones (cf. Tynjanov 1977a: 273). Regarding Puškin’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus as a case of radical generic change in respect to the poem’s historical predecessors, Tynjanov stressed that it was more “a leap” than a stage in “regular evolution,” more “a displacement” than “a development” (1977b: (255–256, original emphasis). In an afterthought to this observation, however, he admitted that, in spite of its transformation, the poem “has retained something that is enough to make this ‘non-poem’ a poem” (256).

Tynjanov didn’t come to a definition of literary genre, having confined himself to a rather paradoxical statement to the effect that the problem of genre is “the most difficult, the least investigated” (1977a: 273) of all problems of literary theory. Nor did he follow to completion the biological parallel to his theory of evolution in literature, which was conceived by him in the simile “genre as gene” jotted down in his notebook.[3] This biological image and Bakhtin’s famous metaphor “the memory of genre” imply in their core more ideas in common than in contradiction.  

Further evidence to the essential congruity of Bakhtin’s and Tynjanov’s “genetic” visions is the idea Bakhtin set forth in The Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel, notably that literary genres are analogous to genealogic lines. This is best illustrated in Bakhtin’s analysis of the powerful Rabelaisian image of a huge, self-renewing collective human body which is born, grows, dies and renew itself in the course of time (cf. Bakhtin 1975b: 316–355). It is also clearly implied in the anatomical imagery that pervades his writings on the novel, as in the opening paragraph of “Epic and Novel”: “The generic skeleton of the novel is still far from having hardened, and we cannot foresee all its plastic possibilities” (1975a: 447). Bakhtin portrays the novel as “the only genre, born and raised by the new epoch of the world history and for this reason much akin to it”; while the other big genres are “partly dead by now,” they “are received by this epoch by inheritance ready-made and all they must do is adapt to […] the new conditions of existence” (Bakhtin 1975a: 448). 

The two theories sketched above seem to have been reconciled in contemporary Russian literary theory with its systemic approach embraced by the methodology of historical poetics which, in turn, has driven out of fashion the concept and principles of structure. Russian followers of the historical (diachronic) tradition consider the morphological-structural treatment of genre as a “classificatory cell,” popular in the 1970s, but overly restrictive and inappropriate. Proceeding from the philosophical idea of its genesis, they define genre as “a historically cognized type of a form-content unity (entity) in literature” (Lukov 2006: 143). Structuralists, however, never denied the fact that the walls between the “genre cells” are penetrable, or that in the course of historical development there emerge “transitory, mixed and hybrid forms” that co-exist with ‘pure’ genres (Kagan 1972: 423). Indeed, after Bakhtin, Tynjanov and the French philosophy of language, it is impossible to conceptualize genres as rigid structures: they are recognized as “genes of discourse,” both literary and non-literary, permeating every form of human existence. Thanks to the achievements of the relatively new linguistic theory of speech genres, derived from Bakhtin (1979), an isomorphism of the two forms of existence – the “unconscious” genres of everyday discourse and the consciously created genres of literature – is now well established. In Russia, the first research center devoted to speech genres emerged at the Saratov University a few decades ago. Its leading researchers, Olga Sirotinina, Konstantin Sedov, Vadim Dementjev and others, have identified the psycho- and sociolinguistic traits of numerous “everyday-life genres” extending from children’s speech acts, anecdotes, gossip and domestic rows to political discourse and beyond (cf. Dementjev and Sedov 1998; Sirotinina 1999; ARJ 2007; Dementjev 2011).

To date, however, few practical steps have been taken in Russian scholarship to apply interdisciplinary approaches to literary and non-literary genres. In this respect, an hypothesis that deserves greater attention than it has enjoyed so far in Russian literary theory is Vladimir Vaxrušev’s conception of literary genre as an element within the universal system of connections: “gene (nucleus-prototype) – microcosm (organism, text) – macrocosm (history, the Universe)” (Vaxrušev 2003: 24; see also Vaxrušev 2004, 2007). The biological parallel Vaxrušev outlines starts from his etymological analysis of the term “genre,” which triggers a chain reaction of associations between the literary genre and the biological gene: genre – genealogy – genotype – genitive – genius, etc. This is very much in tune with Bakhtin’s metaphor “genre memory” and enhances Tynjanov’s literary-evolutionary concept of “genre as gene.” The parallel between literary genres and the genres of history (from the great tragedies and farces of history to the minor tragedies, dramas and comic episodes in the lives of common people) analyzed by Vaxrušev correlates with Richard Dawkins’ (2006) theory of “meme” (a unit of information in human memory) and Charles J. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson’s (1981) culture-gene co-evolutionary theory, which posits that cultural values act like genes.

The third line of argumentation, which is philosophical, has led Vaxrušev to assert that “Genre as an ideal type is a variant of Plato’s idea of a model generating other phenomena, analogous to it, though not necessarily similar to it in appearance” (Vaxrušev 2007: 8). On this philosophical basis, genre is defined as an entity built around “an idea-image-concept nucleus” (Aristotle’s entelechy) – the inner motive and at the same time the aim of a phenomenon which, potentially, contains its composition, style and form. This model-idea generates phenomena and processes which have two basic functions: they are “self-aimed” (thus performing a ludic function) and at the same time they aim at cognition and reproduction of life (thus performing the cognitive function) (Vaxrušev 2003: 24; 2007: 8). These two functions dictate a distinction between the two basic types of genre: 1) subjective (those created consciously by people in science, art, etc.) and 2) objective (the genres born out of life itself, historically and socially) (Vaxrušev 2003: 22).

Drawing on the conceptualizations of genre outlined above, we come to a more or less comprehensive understanding of genre that can be summed up in the following two theses: 

1)    Genre is an entity, a structure with a nuclear concept which programs the meaningful development and form of a process or an object. Generic ideas program texts, organisms, natural and historical processes. In its structure and properties, genre is analogous to DNA. If a DNA molecule represents a duplex of two polymeric spirals connected by hydrogen chains, the structure of a speech genre consists of, at minimum, four spirals generated by the generic “polymers”: theme, image, ideology (involving emotions and evaluations) and language (or style). Like a DNA molecule, genre is stable (it encodes and preserves information – the “memory” of genre) and is capable of transmitting information through matrix processes from generation to generation, thus ensuring new combinations of properties open to new combinations of the linked “genes.”

Genre is a cognitive model generating power that enables an organism to cognize the environment as well as adapt to it and transform it. Poems, and literary works in general, being variants of “real life genres,” carry the same concepts and traces of cognitive processes that are intrinsic to man’s thought in every other sphere of activity. What distinguishes the meanings born by poetic types of discourse is that they are more artistically elaborate and emotionally charged than those in other forms of expression. Analysts should be concerned not so much with looking for unique concepts akin solely to a specific, poetic mode of thinking, but with the peculiarities of concept representation in a particular poetic genre.    

2. Narrative vs. non-narrative genres of poetry: a formal opposition or a fuzzy set?

Western scholars are more open-minded than Russian scholars in terms of the ways to apply to traditional studies of literary narratives the tools provided by cognitive science, rhetoric and linguistics. The results obtained by Seymour Chatman, Monika Fludernik, David Herman, James Phelan, Marie-Laure Ryan, to name a few, make up the foundations of postclassical narratology, a matter I will not elaborate on here. Special mention must be made, however, of the work being carried out by the American literary scholar Patrick Colm Hogan. Starting with his book The Mind and its Stories (2003), Hogan has embarked on a cross-cultural study of the relation between two crucial elements of literature and the human mind: narrative and emotion. He claims that the tendency to think of narrative and non-narrative verbal arts as distinct from one another “is a misconception” if the structure of plots and the universal features of lyric poetry are taken into consideration (152). Moreover, he argues that his theory, cognitive in nature, can be extended “even beyond literature to aspects of our ordinary lives, such as religious belief […] and the narrative study of lyric poetry helps us to see this” (152).

Indeed, instead of opposing narrative and non-narrative genres of poetry, it is possible to see them as a fuzzy set of text types embracing those having prototypical, historically rooted generic traits as key reference points, as well as those with varying degrees of modification. The latter might have marginal and hybrid forms created in the course of historical development.

Thanks to the fundamental accomplishments of poetics, the problem of classifying the prototypical genres of poetry is actually solved (suffice it to mention in this regard Boris Tomaševskij’s “Poetics” [1925]). The typical traits of the ode, the elegy, the epigram, the epistle and the poem, which Tomaševskij presented as “the non-fabulary” (nefabulyarnye janri poezii), seem to be radically transformed by fragmentary modernist discourse and by “the language games” of postmodern art. On closer observation, however, they turn out to be nothing more than the new products of modernization, “the upgrades” of the original, historically rooted genres, but with the aim of reconstructing or searching for “eternal truths” and meanings. 

A sample of such an upgrade could be the poem “Nemota” (literally, “muteness, voicelessness”) by the Russian-writing Ukrainian poet Viktor Letzev (2003):




так ни это

нет нет

это так

нет уже

так ни это

это совсем

так нельзя

это все

не сказать

так ни это




so neither this

no no

this is so

not already

so neither this

this at all

can’t be so

this all

can’t be said

so neither this

A structurally direct question – “What’s the genre of this poem?” – would stir up a host of opinions, going as far as “postmodernist bullshit.” But if we put the question another way: “Which of the following generic traits are more recognizable here: those of an epic poem or those of an elegy?” this would open the way to some degree of consensus. 

“Muteness” is part of Letzev’s cycle of poems, awarded the Andrej Belyj Prize in 1997, the highest poetic award in Russia. Its very composition seems to follow the stages of the lyric speaker’s growing consciousness. His consciousness grows from dumbness in Part 1, called “Sostoyaniya. Proyavleniya. Somneniya” [“States. Revelations. Doubts”], to “Distinction” in Part 2 [“Razlichenija”] and “Maturing” in Part 3 [“Stanovlenija”]. “Muteness” appears in the first part of the cycle, recreating the states of a person who seems to have survived something like a serious accident and has lost the ability to speak and understand. Like “Muteness,” the other “songs” of Part 1 are as undecipherable, obscure and profoundly sad. Gradually, however, as the lyric teller’s inner vision puts together his memory puzzles, he starts to see the growth of a new “tree of life.” This extended metaphor is charged with positive emotions:

Этот ствол зверей прямой золотой

золотой прямой поток

этот росток прямой

этот ребенок корней золотой

этот человек…

This trunk of beasts erect golden

golden erect stream

this sprout erect

this golden child of roots

this man…

To put it briefly, the genre of “Muteness” would reveal the characteristics of an elegy packed up into the genre of a mad song. It is also part of a lyric cycle, the intention of which is similar to that of Biblical “Genesis.” This linguistically modernized imitation of the growth of “the man of Wasteland’s” voice-consciousness turns out to be alluding to the story of creation.

3. Specific traits of poetry and the relationship between narrative and lyric poetry

Most literary genres are “programmed” for storytelling although in narrative genres the teller’s discourse foregrounds the plot and eventfulness while in lyrics the speaker’s discourse is more about “psychological events” as a mental reaction to “what has happened.” The aim of narrativity is to tell “that something happened” while that of lyricality is to tell “that something is” and “what the lyrical teller thought about something” (Phelan 2007: 22; qtd. in McHale 2009: 12).

While the distinctive traits of narrative and drama have long been recognized (narrativity and performativity, respectfully), that of poetry is still unclear. An evident answer would be “lyricality.” But lyricality can dominate prose as well, especially that of the modernist tradition; moreover, not all poetry is lyric poetry. Another supposed trait of poetry could be metaphoricity, but the evidence of linguistic and cognitive research has confirmed metaphoricity to be constitutive of language and thought in general, and not solely of poetry. The concepts associated with poetic thought – frames, gestalts, scenes, scenarios, images, etc. – are not much different from those found in human thought generally, be it in science, politics, religion or everyday life.

What is it then that makes poetry distinct from prose? The answer might seem superficial and naive: it is poetry’s formal structures that are noticeably measured and rhythmical. This assertion, more probably than not, goes against the preferences of the majority of literary scholars who believe that poetic form is supplementary. Yet, there is enough theoretical evidence specifying various formal ways of meaning-formation that are unique to poetry. Roman Jakobson, for one, considered meter (“verse design”) and rhyme (“regular recurrence of equivalent phonemes”) to be the constituent features of poetry (1960: 364, 367). He demonstrated, with a score of convincing linguistic arguments, that poetry is “a province where the internal nexus between sound and meaning […] manifests itself most palpably” if compared to other types of speech where verse and rhymes can also be used (but for other purposes), and that particularly dense accumulation of similar or contrastive phonemes, patterned in lines and stanzas, “acts like an ‘undercurrent of meaning’, to use Poe’s picturesque expression” (373). In Yurij Lotman’s structural-semiotic theory, a literary text, whether prosaic or poetic, is presented as “a structure of structures” or “a secondary semiotic system” in contrast to conventional code systems (including everyday communication) (cf. Lotman 1972: 21, 24). A poetic text, when compared to a prosaic one, is “a specifically organized semiotic structure” of heightened regularity in which the meaning-forming functions of graphics, repetition and elaborately ordered rhythmic patterns come to the fore (14, 33, 39).

McHale claims that the three criteria distinctive of poetry are segmentivity, gapping and measurement/countermeasurement. Segmentivity – the ability to make meaning by selecting and arranging segments of varying sizes – is “the underlying characteristic of poetry as a genre” (McHale 2009: 16). It makes poetry fragmentary, leaving it full of gaps such as blank spaces caused by line terminations, “gearing up the reader’s meaning-making apparatus […] to bridge the gap and heal the breech. A gap is a provocation to meaning-making; we intervene to make meaning where ready-made meaning fails. […] we know it from narratology, which acknowledges narrative gaps and gap-filling to be one of the engines driving narrative progression” (16).

The significance of the balance of “measurement/countermeasurement,” as McHale presents it, is close to “co-opposition” ( so-propotivopostavlenie), the term coined by Lotman to designate the inseparability of the two basic relations between textual elements: binary opposition and equivalence (difference and similarity, contrast and identity) (Lotman 1972: 38, 40). Lotman’s method consists in examining the text through its basic pairs of oppositions to comprehend its structural-meaningful unity and coherence. The web of meaningful interrelations within a literary text structure is woven on different levels: phonic, lexical, grammatical, narrative, mimetic and ideological. The literary text is the product of interrelations of the various textual subsystems, such as sound and sense, rhyme and reason, style and plot, character and ideas, etc. (cf. Lotman 1972: 63–119). McHale finds it useful to countermeasure one “segment” of a poetic text to another, stating that this

gives us tools for beginning to think about narrative in poetry. If poetry is measured and countermeasured, so, too, is narrative. […] narrative is certainly segmented in various ways, at various levels and scales. On the level of story, the “flow” of events is segmented into sequences of various scales – “moves,” subplots, episodes – and ultimately into discrete events. On the level of discourse, narration is segmented into multiple, shifting voices […] while “point of view” is segmented by constant micro-shifts of focalization. […] In poetic narratives, narrative’s own segmentation interacts with the segmentation “indigenous” to poetry to produce complex interplays among segments of different scales and kinds. (McHale 2009: 17)

Thus, segmentivity, which is conditioned by poetry’s peculiar rhythmic pattern, helps us “capture something of the fine-textured counterpoint of verse, syntax and narrative” (McHale 2014: 268). It drives or slows down a poem’s narrative progression, counter-measuring its metric scheme by phrases, lines and feet, thus foregrounding “the point” which would be less audible if told in prose.

4. Meter vs. Rhythm: the core principle of narrative text

All the distinctive features of a poetic text, as characterized briefly in the previous section, are manifestations of one universal law: the law of rhythm, regulating the physiological, psycho-emotional, cognitive, speaking and aesthetic activities of a speaker or writer which are reflected in his or her speech acts (texts) in the alternations of periodical discourse units of different levels. A rhythmic unit of discourse can be realized by any speech or text segment insofar as it is isochronous. It can be a prosodic unit, a word, a clause, a phrase or a supra-phrasal unit. It is also rhythm that governs the alternations of images, characters, voices, events and other meaningful dimensions of a text.

It is obvious that the meter/rhythm correlation, crucial for poetry, lies at the base of all its co-oppositions or its possible correlations of measurement/countermeasurement. The Russian poet and theoretician of modernism, Andrej Belyj, once wrote that meter (as a regular alternation of feet) is the dominant principle in the poem, while rhythm counterpoints meter, making the poem variable and dynamic (cf. Panov 1989: 343–344). Originally a term of versification, meter is seen today in a much broader sense as a structural norm of rhythm, capable of triggering: a) an expectation of reiteration of a certain element in a discourse or other process as it unfolds; b) the feeling of “a breach” when an expectation is unfulfilled (cf. Volkova 1974: 81). Meter functions as a measure of proportion and correlation of any text’s segments. The metric scheme enables the reader’s mind to build up a mental network of “expectations”: it functions as a metronome, correlating the current experience with a projection to the future, that is, as an organization of expectancy and cognition. 

The meaning-making correlation of meter/rhythm (or measurement/ countermeasurement) is crucial for all narratives, but in poetry it is amplified. Evident fragmentariness together with greater measurement (symmetry) makes the process of meaning reconstruction more efficient. Gaps, caused by segmentation, make poetic frames quasi-empty. Consequently, they contain fewer “triggers” for activating scenes and scenarios. The reader is forced to make a greater effort to reconstruct the mental schemes, since the gaps often occur at the poem’s turning points or transitions from one state to another. These points contribute to the “tellability” of the poem, that is, to its “point.” 

To “measure” the sense-making countermeasurement in a narrative text, an analyst must decide on a text unit relevant for its formal and semantic structure. I have adopted as the basic unit of composition point of view, which is also basic for narrative rhythm. My reasoning is related in principle to Boris Uspenskij’s theory of point of view and perspective as it was presented in his Poetika kompositsii (1970; Uspensky [1970] 1973). What I focus on is the countermeasurement of a narrative text’s metric structural pattern to the deviations from this pattern caused by the dynamics of the points of view in it.

Formally, as our previous research in the linguistic nature of narrative has shown (Tataru 2011), a point of view is usually expressed within one supra-phrasal unit, so that the transition from one point of view to another can be followed as one supra-phrasal unit is followed by the next one.

Semantically, point of view is a multifaceted unit which involves the subject’s spatial-temporal position, his voice and his axiology. It represents one fabula-motivated event or state from the perspective of the narrator or the participant of the story. In other words, point of view is the highest hierarchical feature of a narrative text within which all four basic planes of the story world – the spatial, the temporal, the plane of discourse and the plane of modality – are synthesized and guided by one perceiving and speaking subject.  

Point of view is also a category surpassing the limits of the narrative text. As David Herman pointed out in “Narratology as a Cognitive Science” (2000), it can be brought into a productive reciprocal relation with research by ecological psychologists on affordances, originally a psychological term related to the ways animals react to the environment: “in the case of humans, narrative can be thought of as a sort of ‘meta-affordance,’ a global framework for dovetailing perception and action (including communicative action) in an emergent, information-rich environment” (Herman 2000). It this sense, point of view can be understood as a social-cultural “affordance” enabling a human to adapt to the environment.

Turning back to measuring the correlations between the metrical patterns of a narrative text, whether poetic or prosaic, and the dynamic fluctuations of its rhythm, it is possible to start from following its formal segmentation into supra-phrasal units as the formal “bearers” of points of view and proceed to interpret the specific patterns of their combinations. Here the linguistic category of “textual network,” which involves interplay of the spatial, temporal, discursive and modal subsystems of the text, has proved to be helpful (cf. Tataru 2011: 35–37). Briefly stated, analysis of the textual network involves two procedures:

1) an overview of the system of referential (linguistic) means signifying each of the four planes of the point of view (spatial, temporal, modal and various types of narration – direct speech, represented speech, free indirect discourse, stream of consciousness, etc.); and

2) identifying the regularities of their combinations. The alternations of the subjective/objective points of view result in specific rhythmic patterns on each of the four levels. These patterns capture “schematically” the text’s deeper, cognitive structures: frames, scripts and gestalts.

5. Narrative rhythm in Robert Herrick’s and Ernest Hemingway’s lyrics

To illustrate how this model of narrative analysis might apply to poetry, I propose to consider several non-narrative poems of different genres, written in different epochs.

We start with a mini-verse by Robert Herrick, “the greatest song-writer ever born in England” (Herrick 1898: ix–x), a poet-cavalier at King Charles’ II court and a vicar who, paradoxically, proselytized in his lyrics in favor of the Epicurean philosophy of carpe diem. The first of his works selected for analysis is a distich of a highly generalized quality (Herrick 1898): 


When what is lov’d is present, love doth spring;

But being absent, love lies languishing.

This couplet is the philosophical mini-monologue of a lyric speaker, but the abstract scenario it represents is not devoid of narrativity. Firstly, it is meant for the reader’s inner reflection. The character – “love” – is personified: the verb “spring” is suggestive of vigorous physical activities typical of a person (to move upward or forward in quick motions, to leap); the verb “lies” signifies immobility, lack of motion. The actions involve a counterpoint of emotions: excitement, agitation/apathy, depression. The spatial frame is empty, giving freedom for the reader’s mind to reconstruct it. A spring of excitement would rather move a person outside, in nature, or make him walk back and forth in his parlor. An ebb of emotions would make him lie in bed. The participle “languishing” is suggestive of the Baroque atmosphere of the scene and of the character’s appearance. In the seventeenth century it was fashionable to faint in every possible circumstance, especially when a person was in love, and to look pale. That fashion was accentuated by the fashions in dress and makeup: tightly drawn corsets (playing their part in making their owners swoon now and then), white powdered faces, white wigs, jabots, frills, etc. The “voice” articulates the speaker’s involvement with the character’s states and emotions, conveying a sense of sympathy and similar experience. The speaker does not only observe and reflect on some abstract lover’s typical actions, but simultaneously sums up his own experience.

The temporal frame actualizes the recurrences of the universal plot. The anaphoric “when” creates parallelism (symmetry) and frequency: “every time in similar circumstances there happen the same things.”

The couplet’s measure is obvious: two scenes generated by two different spatial points of view are co-opposed by an antithesis enhanced by the repetition of the key word “love” in parallel clauses. On the syllabic-tonic level, the text is almost perfectly measured by iambic pentameter. But the perfection of measurement is broken by a spondee in the final clause: three stressed syllables in succession made still weightier by alliteration in the sonorous l (love lies languishing). Extra stresses slow down the tempo of energetic iambs and draw our attention to the state of the lover. This counter-measurement makes up the turning point in this mini-narration.

To sum up: this lyrical-philosophical mini-monologue, however abstract and non-narrative it might appear, has a generalized plot summed up in two mini-scenarios and a teller who is partly identified with the character to express his own evaluations through the states and actions of that character. It is also a perfectly clear mini-lesson on Epicurean philosophy actualized through the gaps in the lines, frames and scenes: “love is life, absence of love is illness.” All these meaningful shifts are made prominent via a rhythmical deviation from the almost perfect metric scheme at the levels of versification (iambic pentameter) and syntax (parallelism).

Herrick’s other poem, “The Mad Maid’s Song,” is one of his best-known. The title names the genre and its variant – “mad song,” which became popular after Shakespeare’s Ophelia.


Good-morrow to the day so fair,

Good-morning, sir, to you;

Good-morrow to mine own torn hair,

Bedabbled with the dew.                          


Good-morning to this primrose too,

Good-morrow to each maid

That will with flowers the tomb bestrew

Wherein my love is laid.                           


Ah! woe is me, woe, woe is me,

Alack and well-a-day!

For pity, sir, find out that bee

Which bore my love away.                      


I’ll seek him in your bonnet brave,

I’ll seek him in your eyes;

Nay, now I think th’ave made his grave

I’ th’ bed of strawberries.                         


I’ll seek him there; I know ere this

The cold, cold earth doth shake him;

But I will go or send a kiss

By you, sir, to awake him.                     


Pray, hurt him not, though he be dead,

He knows well who do love him,

And who with green turfs rear his  


And who do rudely move him.                   


He’s soft and tender (pray take heed);

With bands of cowslips bind him,

And bring him home; but ’tis decreed

That I shall never find him.

The spatial and temporal frames together with the portrait are given in much greater detail than in “Presence and Absence”: early morning, the heroine at her lover’s tomb. The vegetation images of the scene (primrose, bands of cowslips, green turfs) allude to Ophelia who died while hanging her wreaths over the willow tree. The symbolism of the vegetative “deadly language” is similarly encoded in John Millais’ famous painting.

The girl’s loose torn hair together with a satin shirt were such stale attributes of a crazy woman in seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries’ literature and theater that Richard Sheridan, a hundred years after Herrick’s “Hesperides,” ridiculed this stock image in his burlesque comedy Critic (Sheridan 1779). In the scene of the rehearsal of a pompous tragedy, the two characters, the theater amateur Mr. Dangle and the critic Mr. Sneer, make sardonic comments about the absurd moments of the performance directed by Mr. Puff. In the following dialogue, they deride the “white satin” worn by the “stark mad” heroine and her confidante, who “is to be mad too, according to custom”:

Puff. Yes, sir: now she comes in stark mad, in white satin.

Sneer. Why in white satin?

Puff. Oh, Lord, sir, when a heroine goes mad, she always goes into white satin – don’t she, Dangle?

Dan. Always – it’s a rule. (Sheridan 1880: 40)

Just a single detail, “torn hair,” is enough for the reader to reconstruct the culturally stereotypical appearance of the heroine. The girl’s hair is contrasted to the gentleman’s bonnet, which he wears in full accordance with etiquette.

The choice of heroine, who is also the lyric teller, determines the type of discourse: a stream of consciousness. This term might seem inappropriate here since it is normally associated with modernist techniques of writing, not with traditional verse. I use “stream of consciousness,” not just “monologue,” keeping in mind the difference between “controlled” and “free associations,” the latter driving attention from one object to another by a sudden or striking stimulus – a process of thought typical for altered states of mind and captured by the stream-of-consciousness method of writing (cf. Chatman 1978: 189). Herrick surely couldn’t have been aware of twentieth-century theories of stream of consciousness, either psychological or narrative, but his heroine’s monologue, though presented in traditional verse, is actually a verbalization of irrational “free associations” typical for a person stricken by madness. I thus use the term “stream of consciousness” in this psychological sense. Textually, this mad maid’s monologue belongs to the generic consciousness of the late Renaissance, so in its technical traits it is different from the stream of consciousness of the modernist novel. Herrick, however, masterfully models the irrational flow of the girl’s associations of images. For instance, in stanza 4 the pronoun “him” in the first two lines refers to a bee, probably a real bee the girl could see on the flowers growing on the grave. The bee is then associated with an evil power that had taken her beloved one away from her. Repetition of this image in the two parallel clauses reinforces her strange intention to seek the bee in the gentleman’s hat and in his eyes. In stanzas 6 and 7 the irrational idea to bring her dead lover back pops into her mind, but then there occurs a sudden bitter return to reality: “but ’tis decreed / That I shall never find him.” These alternations of real/mental objects of the girl’s points of view make up a rhythmic pattern carrying the key concept in fluctuations that terminate at the most desperate note – a momentary return to sanity, recognition of irreparable loss. 

The exclamations “Ah! woe is me, woe, woe is me, / Alack and well-a-day!” enhance the affectation of the monologue. This phrase, from The Old Testament, is also uttered by Ophelia who falls in despair because of Hamlet’s fake madness: “O, woe is me / To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” (Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1, lines 168–169).

The metric scheme of a ballad is evenly measured, the breaches marking the turning points. The pitiful exclamation “Ah! Woe│ is me, │ woe, woe │ is me” contains two spondees, halting the flow of iambs and at the same time the perception of the objects of her attention. In stanza 3, for instance, a stress on negation “Nay, now │ I think │ th’ave made │ his grave ││ I’ th’ bed │ of straw- │ ber- ries” turns the first foot in the third line from iamb to spondee and marks an unmotivated transition from “the bee in the bonnet” to “a bed of strawberries” (stanza 4). The repetition “cold, cold earth” in stanza 5 causes three stresses abreast and again marks a turning point in the heroine’s flow of thoughts, from the decision to find her lover (the focus of her mental vision) to affectation to him as if he were alive: “The cold, cold earth │ doth shake │ him.” But these unexpected breaches do not prevent the song from being musically rhythmical. “The Mad Maid’s Song has been set to music in various genres, from classical (Diamond [1960] 2010) to progressive rock (see the official clip of “The Crimson Trinity” [2012] 2015).

In this analysis we have attempted to follow the ways in which the metric scheme of the poem is countermeasured at the levels of spatial and discursive planes of the lyric speaker’s point of view, the psychological perspective guided by the shifts from one object of her attention to another (real / imaginary / real / imaginary … real) and the subtle breaks in predominantly regular feet alternations to accentuate the ideological message behind the story of a girl weeping for her dead lover. The scenario of the girl’s love is most probably stereotypical and is deliberately omitted by the poet. He leaves only the final episode and represents it in a scene stretched in time by imitating her crazy discourse interrupted by recurring lamentations. Intertextual “crossing” of various generic traits makes the end of her story as stereotypical and thus predictable: like Ophelia, the girl will die. It was a clichéd scenario in literature that madness is caused by despair as a reaction to neglect (as in Hamlet) or death of the hero (as is the case with the “stark mad” heroine in Sheridan’s play). It is the foregrounding of the girl’s frustrated incoherent erotic discourse that slows down the narrative dynamics of this “mad song” and enhances the reader’s co-experience, makes him feel what it is like to lose one’s love. This co-experience is caused by Herrick’s hedonistic perspective and, not to a lesser extent, by the counterpoint which lends a resonant chord to the poem’s regular metric order thanks to the rhythmical discursive fluctuations. This effect would be different were this story told in prose.

Herrick’s poems, with their clear ideological and stylistic tinge of the late Renaissance, can be classified generically without much effort: they bear prototypical features of the epistle, the ode, the song or the epitaph.

Making now a sharp turn to Ernest Hemingway’s poem “Riparto d’Assalto,” based on the writer’s World War I experience, we must be more sensitive not only to the modernist character of its narrativity, but also to its genre, which will be more difficult to recognize.

In his lyric poetry, Hemingway was as obsessed with the idea of telling the truth as he was in his novels and journalistic essays, which are much better known to the public. Moreover, Hemingway’s poems, more than his prose, reveal “a real man, not a myth […] Hemingway himself, rather than a fictional counterpart” (Gerogiannis 1992: xi). The effect of bitter performativity (the impression that we are hearing Hemingway himself) is even more stunning than in his prose because there he is particularly irascible and profane, as in the poem we quote below (Hemingway 1992: 46):

Riparto d’Assalto[5]


Drummed their boots on the camion floor,

Hob-nailed boots on the camion floor.

Sergeants stiff,

Corporals sore.

Lieutenants thought of a Mestre whore ––

Warm and soft and sleepy whore,

Cozy, warm and lovely whore:

Damned cold, bitter, rotten ride,

Winding road up the Grappa side.

Arditi[6] on benches stiff and cold,

Pride of their country stiff and cold,

Bristly faces, dirty hides ––

Infantry marches, Arditi rides.

Grey, cold, bitter, sullen ride ––

To splintered pines on the Grappa side

At Asalone, where the truck-load died.

                                                    Paris, 1922

Toponymically, the frame is to be evoked in the reader’s cultural memory. Mountains Grappa and Asalone were the sites of violent war actions in 1917–1918, when the Italian army was fighting the Austrians. The speaker eliminates from his account the culminating episode of the battle, focusing his attention on the state of mind of the participants (the Italian attack troopers) as they ride the camion to the scene of action. The ellipsis makes up a meaningful gap in the narration and marks the trauma of the speaker’s consciousness as he tries to block those mad bloody meaningless battles from his memory.

The discourse unfolds as the point of view alternates from the exterior to the interior: now the teller reports his own and the participants’ visual perceptions; now he shifts to their states of mind and thoughts:

- The teller’s represented audio-visual perception (boots on the camion floor);
- The characters’ represented  states (the corporals evidently had drunk the night before);
- The characters’ stream of consciousness (of the drowsing lieutenants: “the Mestre whore”);
- The teller’s/characters’ represented states (“Damned cold, bitter, rotten ride”);
- The teller’s/character’s represented visual perception (“Winding road up the Grappa side”);
- The characters’ represented states (“Arditi on benches stiff and cold”) with an intertextual inclusion of the patriotic slogans which Hemingway detested (“Pride of their country”);
- The teller’s represented perception (“Infantry marches, Arditi rides”);
- The teller’s/characters’ represented states (“Grey, cold, bitter, sullen ride”);
- The teller’s/characters’ represented perception (“To splintered pines on the Grappa side”);
- Narrative report of the event (“At Asalone, where the truck-load died”).

The astonishing metric scheme closely parallels the mechanized butchering of the soldiers. It is governed by a regular alternation of the external and internal planes of the point of view, generating a general narrative pattern: “Story Plane – Discourse Plane – Story Plane – Discourse Plane…” It is broken at times by the inclusion of a fragment of the lieutenants’ thoughts and, at the end, by a sharp turn in the perspective to a detached position of the all-knowing narrator who depersonalizes himself, calling the bravehearts “the truck-load.” In effect, the story is represented in two scenes – “In the truck” and “After the battle” – separated by a gap in the plot and in the perspective of its representation.

The temporal network reveals a similar model of segmentation: the first segment, including the first 15 lines (the scene “In the truck”); and the second, the final line, which, syntactically, is a clause of the compound sentence. The whole of the first segment is built on elliptical sentences (“Hob-nailed boots on the camion floor. / Sergeants stiff, / Corporals sore. //”) and the use of present tense verbs (“Infantry marches, Arditi rides”) to represent the scene in the “here-and-now” mode. The effect of the time shift is enhanced by stretching it out through the use of time lapses, particularly through immersion into the thoughts of the drowsing lieutenants with their focal image of a whore, rather irrelevant for the present situation. The shift to the past simple tense (“died”) in the final clause creates a sharp temporal counterpoint, marking the narrative past. The effect of such an illogical montage of the episodes is that of breaking the temporal succession: “the present” of the story turns out to be its “past” while “the past of the story” refers to its present, also viewed from a distance by the detached narrator who contemplates the outcome of that battle from the present moment.

The modal network is more varied but still resonant with the spatial, temporal and discursive patterns. Its segmentation follows the pattern Evidential modality – Emotive modality – Hypothetical modality (stream of consciousness) – Emotive modality – Evidential modality – Epistemological modality. Again, it’s only the final clause that is marked by the narrator’s epistemology, revealing a great deal of reservation. Still, it is in his very coldness and reservation, in the purposeful selection of the scenes – one representing the physical and psychological state of the arditi before the mortal combat and the other stating detachedly their death – that his bitter social invective and personal pain for the perished are encoded.

Despite its crude vocabulary and lack of loftiness, “Ripparto d’Assalto” sounds like an epitaph. It is also a camouflaged invective epistle to those who reduced these young men to a mere “truck-load.” The sharp, mechanical four-beat “war march rhythm” also makes the epitaph barely recognizable. The metric measurement is counterbalanced by the spondees in which the free indirect discourse (“Damned cold, bit-ter, rot-ten ride // Grey, cold, bit-ter, sul-len ride”) is couched, adding extra stresses and breaking off the course of narration, as if echoing the bumpy “rotten ride.”

The vignette which concludes our analysis is a condensed case of Hemingway’s modernist fragmentary discourse (Hemingway 1992: 57):

I’m off’n wild wimmen

An Cognac

An Sinnin’

For I’m in loOOOOOOOve.

                          Paris, 1922

In spite of its minimalism, the frame and the scenario of the character’s escapades are depicted most vividly. The apostrophes, the irregularity of the lines’ length and the graphic deformation of the word “love” are all devices imitating the faltering tongue of a drunken man, the accentuation on “love” conveying a maudlin emotional evaluation. The metro-rhythmic pattern reinforces this effect, for the speaker seems to start singing and dancing awkwardly to anapests and amphibrachs, but suddenly falls out of the rhythm to start another song:

_ _ ∕  | _ _ ∕ _ |

_ ∕ _ |

_ ∕ _ |

_ _ _ ∕…….

The vignette is also counter-measured at the level of logic: the teller-character’s “adventures” and their motive appear to be disconnected. The irrational logic of this “drunken song” makes a sensitive reader recall the classical “mad songs.” Though the formal traits of an authentic “mad song” are not evident here, there is a palpable similarity between Herrick’s mad maid’s song and Hemingway’s drunkard’s discourse. The mad maids of the past sang to lament their lovers’ deaths while Hemingway’s singer’s stream of consciousness is a desperate cry for love, one of the dead values of modernity. The character’s mind, soaked in cognac, releases its irrational subjective “I” to articulate a discourse of alienation and sexual frustration.

6. Conclusion

Dividing poetic genres into “narrative” and “non-narrative” is an issue in need of reconsideration. Many lyric poems, traditionally categorized as “non-narrative,” evoke or imply narrative situations or display some degree of narrativity. Moreover, they employ a range of narrative devices, though less varied than in prose fiction.

The property intrinsic to poetry is its high degree of regularity, characterized by specific segmentation and fragmentariness, measurement and countermeasurement (the latter two resulting from the co-opposition of various text units). It is these features that underlie the formal manifestations of meaning-making.

Poems, including lyric poetry, can be thought of as a specific sphere of speech genres, with the nucleus or center formed by intrinsically narrative ballads and epic poems. Elegies, epigrams, odes and other traditional genres, where narrative events and happenings are either backgrounded or concealed in order to foreground the speaker’s emotional-intellectual reaction to them, would form the layer surrounding the nucleus. Other poetic genres form various layers around the center extending from those bearing modified and mixed but still recognizable generic traits to the periphery “inhabited” by the creations of modernist and postmodernist generic consciousnesses featuring radical transformations of the historically rooted genres. In their gnoseological dimension, poetic genres are types of literary texts marked by the epoch, national culture and writer’s individual “genre consciousness.” But however far culture might swerve away from its roots, however sophisticated or deconstructive specific genres might become in the minds of poets, no radical artistic developments or innovative techniques will annihilate genre as a prototype. Similarly, the course of natural evolution does not annihilate or radically change the structure of a living organism’s genes, for organisms can only mutate.


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[1]   Comuzzi is a surname I have taken recently. My previous publications and conferences have appeared under the name Ludmila Tataru.     

[2] All translations from the Russian are my own.

[3] The analogy between genre and gene as well as between literary and natural evolution in general might have been a consequence of Tynjanov’s lasting friendship with the biologist Leo Zilber. In his writings about literary evolution, Tynjanov used a number of biological terms: “convergence,” “divergence” and the like. He may have taken these terms over from Zilber to apply them to philology (see Commentaries of A. P. Chudakov and M. O. Chudakova to Tynjanov 1977b). 

[4] Translation from the Russian, as far as it was possible, was done by the author of this article.

[5] A division of “assault wagons” under the command of the Italian Army in 1918.  

[6]   Italian: “bravehearts” is the name of the Italian assault battalions.