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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

2 - The sonnet and the lyric mode


‘Let us inspect the lyre’ (Keats): introduction

At first glance the relationship between the sonnet and lyric seems transparent: if one adopts the common definition of a mode as an overarching and transhistorical category encompassing many genres, surely the sonnet is not merely an instance but also a textbook example, even a prototype, of the lyric mode. Lyric is, for example, often defined in terms of its length, and, according to common though not unchallenged definitions, the sonnet weighs in at fourteen lines; lyric is frequently represented as the genre of internal and individualized emotions, and the principal subject traditionally associated with the sonnet is love; lyric is typically associated with song and music, as is the sonnet. To be sure, many critics have claimed that prototypical status for elegy, maintaining that its emphasis on death and loss renders it a prime example of the preoccupation with absence often attributed to lyric. But the candidacy of that genre for the status of prototype does not preclude and may even support another contender, since the sonnet too often dwells in and on loss, whether it be the death of the lady in the originary sonnets by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), her loss in poems by many of his followers, or the permutations on disappearance and absence in numerous later sonnets (‘So help / me God to another dollop of death, / come on strong with the gravy and black-eyed peas’, Rosanna Warren implores in her witty sonnet ‘Necrophiliac’, 2–4).

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