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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).
Often dismissed as a mere purveyor of mellifluous trifles, Samuel Daniel crafts an extraordinary passage that anticipates and elucidates some of the most provocative issues in Shakespeare’s ‘A Lover’s Complaint’. In Daniel’s ‘Complaint of Rosamond’, the ghost of Rosamond describes her seduction by a monarch, preceding that story by addressing a plea for sympathy and help to the narrator. Seductive itself, the language of her opening appeal draws attention to the instability of the role of auditor and the interplay of cooperation and collusion it potentially entails – problems central to Shakespeare’s contribution to the same genre, to many of his other texts, and to our own lives within and outside the academy.
The work of those students of conversational interaction known as discourse analysts, which has received far too little attention thus far from literary critics, aptly glosses the interaction between auditors and speakers in both Daniel’s and Shakespeare’s complaints. Most practitioners of this discipline are linguists by training, but such thinkers as the sociologist Erving Goffman and the psychologist Richard J. Gerrig have also contributed influentially. Although analyses by the discourse analysts are sometimes compromised by a positivistic and inappropriately benign model of the workings of conversations, their classifications of the various positionalities participants may assume are germane to many other kinds of language as well.
Students with a keen sense of curiosity - or possibly merely a keen sense of mischief - could fruitfully exercise either predilection by asking their teachers for a brief definition of lyric. The complexities of responding to that demand, like the problems a similar query about tragedy would generate, demonstrate the complexities of the literary types in question. But despite the difficulty of defining lyric, exploring the forms it took during the English Renaissance can illuminate this mode as a whole, some of its most challenging and exciting texts, and the workings of the early modern era. Aristotle posits an apparently clear-cut division of all literature into lyric, epic, and drama, basing the distinctions on the mode of presentation: lyric is sung, epic recited, and drama staged. This division remains influential, lying behind the work of Northrop Frye and many other modern theorists.