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Literary Terms and Definitions: L

This page is under perpetual construction! It was last updated 3 September 2014.


This list is meant to assist, not intimidate. Use it as a touchstone for important concepts and vocabulary that we will cover during the term. Vocabulary terms are listed alphabetically.

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I] [J] [K] [L] [M]

[N] [O] [P] [Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y] [Z]

LAI (plural lais, also spelled lay): A short narrative or lyrical poem, usually in octosyllabic couplets, intended to be sung. Helen Cooper called the genre the "mini-Romance" since the typical theme and content deals with courtly love and the other concerns of medieval romance. Unlike the medieval romance, however, the lais are not designed in an episodic manner, i.e., they are not meant to be told in a series of short tales that can be combined and stacked in a single sequential narrative. The main traits individual lais have in common with each other is a particular geographic origin and self-identification as being a lai. Geographically, they are based on older Celtic legends imported to northwestern France by the Bretons. The oldest narrative lais, usually referred to as the contes or les lais de Marie de France, were composed by an Anglo-Norman woman named Marie. (In spite of her common scholarly epithet, she appears to have lived in England.) Her exact identity is a matter of much scholarly discussion. The oldest Old French lais outside of Provençal were written by Gautier de Dargiès (early 1200s). The term "Breton lay" was applied to English poems in the 1300s that were set in Brittany and were similar to those of Marie de France. A dozen or so examples of the Breton lays survive in English, the best known examples being Sir Orfeo, Havelok the Dane, Sir Launfal, and Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale" and "Wife of Bath's Tale." In the last 400 years, poets have used the term lay more generally as a loose term for any historical ballad or any narrative poem focusing on adventure and the supernatural. See also Bretons, romance, and courtly love.

LAISSE: A stanzaic verse paragraph. The Song of Roland, for instance, in written in a series of such units.

LAMENT: A formulaic expression of grief or sorrow for the loss of a person, position, or culture. It is typically non-narrative. Examples include The Lamentations of Jeremiah, David's Lament for Saul and Jonathan, the 1563 Complaint of Buckingham by Sackville, and more loosely the Anglo-Saxon poems, the Wife's Lament and Deor. Contrast with dirge.

LAMPOON: A coarse or crude satire ridiculing the appearance or character of another person.

LANGUAGE: A particular system of signs used by members of a group to communicate with each other. These signs can be verbal sounds, sign language gestures, or written markings like letters.

LANGUE (French, "language"): In Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of semiology, de Sauusure makes a distinction between parole and langue. Parole is the use of language--i.e., manifestations of actual speech and writing. Parole contrasts with langue, the invisible underlying system of language that makes parole possible.

LARYNGEAL: (1) Concerning the larynx. (2) A theoretical sound that probably existed in Proto-Indo-European, but which survived later only in Hittite.

LATE MODERN ENGLISH: English as spoken from about the year 1800 to the present.

LATERAL: Any sound made with the air blowing out of the oral cavity on either or both sides of the tongue.

LATINO/LATINA WRITING: Twentieth-and twenty-first-century writing and poetry by Hispanic immigrants or their children. Most scholars use the term Latino to refer to literature written in English with short sections or phrases in Spanish, though a few critics use the term exclusively in reference to original Spanish writings from the New World that are later translated into English (such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez's works.). More precisely, Latino writing is often subdivided further into nationalities, such as Chicano/Chicana (for Mexican-Americans) or Cubano/Cubana (for Cuban-Americans), and so on. Following the grammatical conventions for gender in Spanish, these words take an -o suffix in reference to male authors and an -a suffix in reference to female authors. Cf. Chicano Literature.

LAWS OF HOSPITALITY: Called xenia in Greek, the term refers to the custom in classical Greece and other ancient cultures that, if a traveler comes to a town, he can ask any person there for food, shelter, and gifts to help him on his journey. In Greek tradition, the host was considered responsible for his guest's comfort and safety, and a breach of those laws of hospitality was thought to anger Zeus (Roman Jupiter), the king of the gods.

LAX VOWEL: In linguistics, a vowel made with mostly relaxed tongue muscles [i], [e], [u], and [o], in contrast to the tense vowels like [I], [U], etc.

LEARNED WORD (Note how the word learned is pronounced as two syllables in this phrase): A word--often technical in nature--used primarily in bookish contexts such as scientific or scholarly discussion rather than in everyday life. For instance, "x-ray crystallography" is a learned word, while "crystal" is a conversational word.

LEGEND (Latin, legendus, "that which ought to be read"): As J. A. Cuddon puts it, a legend is "a story or narrative that which lies somewhere between myth and historical fact and which, as a rule, is about a particular figure or person" (484). It is a traditional narrative often focusing on a specific location or specific historical figure. Like the myth, a legend often provides an etiological narrative, and it often fills in gaps in historical records. Unlike myths, legends usually do not involve powerful gods or world-altering supernatural events--though they can to a small degree. Famous examples of legends are the legend of Faust, the Flying Dutchman, the Wandering Jew, King Arthur, Skandarbeg, and Pecos Bill. Often real historical figures like Salvatore Giuliano and Che Guevara attract legends in their wake. Often tales that were originally myths about deities can devolve into legends, such as might be the case with several Arthurian legends. On the other hand, narratives that start as historical legends can also eventually turn into full-fledged cultural myths themselves, as Alfred Lyall has demonstrated.

LEIT-MOTIF (also spelled leitmotiv): From the German term for "lead motif," a leit-motif originally was coined by Hans von Wolzuegen to designate a musical theme associated with a particular object, character, or emotion. For instance, the ominous music in Jaws plays whenever the shark is approaching. That particular score is the leit-motif for the shark. Other examples are found in musical compositions such as "Peter and the Wolf" and many Wagnerian operas. In literature, critics have adapted the term leit-motif to refer to an object, animal, phrase, or other thing loosely associated with a character, a setting, or event. For instance, the color green is a leit-motif associated with Sir Bercilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; thus, the appearance of the Green Chapel and a green girdle should cause the reader to recall and connect these places and items with the Green Knight. In Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, the moon is a leit-motif associated with the fairy court, and it appears again in the stage scenery and stage discussion of Bottom's play about Pyramis and Thisbe. The leit-motif is not necessarily a symbol (though it can be). Rather, it is a recurring device loosely linked with a character, setting, or event. It gives the audience a "heads-up" by calling attention to itself and suggesting that its appearance is somehow connected with its appearance in other parts of the narrative. Contrast with theme and motif, below.

LENAIA: An Athenian religious festival occurring shortly after the Dionysia. While the Dionysia focused on tragedies, with only short interludes of comedy, in the Lenaia, comedies were performed as the main entertainment. Contrast with Dionysia. See comedy.

LENGTH: Duration of a vowel sound. Vowels can be long or short in English writing--which often uses a single symbol to represent two or more sounds. Examples include the vowels represented by <a> in fate (long) and fat (short). See lengthening below.

LENGTHENING: The change of a short vowel sound into a long one. Vowels can be long or short in English writing--which often uses a single symbol to represent two or more sounds. Examples include the vowels represented by <a> in fate (long) and fat (short).

LENITION: The softening of a consonant sound, i.e., the replacement of a hard and abrupt sound by a more hissing or continuous sound that makes the syllable containing it easier to pronounce in the midst of other surrounding sounds. See i-mutation for more information.

LEONINE VERSE: Verse using internal rhyme in which the middle and end of each line rhyme. More specifically, in the leonine verse of medieval Latin, hexameters (or alternate hexameters and pentameters) would have the word before the caesura and the final word in each line rhyme with each other, such as the ecclesiastical Stabat mater. C. H. Holman provides the following Latin example with slightly less grandeur than the Stabat mater:

Ex rex Edvardus, debacchans ut Leopardus. . . .

Here, the red letters illustrate the leonine rhyme. An English example appears in Tennyson's The Revenge:

And the stately Spanish men to their flagship bore him then,
Where they laid him by the mast, old Sir Richard caught at last,
And they praised him to his face with their courtly foreign grace.

The name leonine traditionally comes from a 12th century poet, Leo, the Canon of Saint Victor's in Paris, whose Latin verses used this device. It predates him, however, appearing in the Ars Amatoria of Ovid and in the Old English Rhyming Poem. See also internal rhyme and contrast with interlaced rhyme.

LETOPIS (Russian, "writing by years"): The term in Russian for the Old Russian chronicles, annals written in chronological order, describing historical events, saints' lives, and legends. The oldest such chronicles in Russia appear in compilations from around 1039 A.D., during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise; the so-called Primary Chronicle begun about that year chronicled evenuts up to 1110 A.D.(Harkins 54). The most famous surviving Russian texts in the genre are the Laurentian Chronicle of 1377 and the Hypatian Chronicles of about 1420 (54).

LEVELING: Also called merging, in linguistics, this process is the loss of earlier distinctions in sounds or word forms. Probably the most dramatic leveling in the history of English was the loss of distinct case endings during the period of the Viking invasions.

LEXICON: In an over-simplified sense, we might say lexicon is a fancy term scholars use when most people would simply say dictionary, i.e., a complete list of words and their definitions. To be more accurate, we might define lexicon as all the material found in the dictionary--i.e., a list of all the available terms in a language's lexis.

LEXIS: Not to be confused with the popular car, a lexis is the complete stock of morphemes, idioms, and words possessed by a language---i.e., all the units of potential meaning. See lexicon.

LIBELLI MISSAE: Books containing liturgical formulae such as Eucharistic prayers.

LICENSING ACT: By an order of 1581, new plays in Britain could not be performed until the Master of Revels licensed the works. Acting companies required a separate license (which the the Court of High Commission granted) to actually publish or print the play--though as Greenblatt notes, in practice actors often often pirated and printed plays without this license. From 1610, the Master of Revels was responsible for licensing plays for both publication and performance (Greenblatt 1142). In John Milton's time, a similar Licensing Act passed under Puritan influence in 1643. It demanded that all British writers submit their works to a parliamentary body for review. If the body disapproved, they would issue no license and thus make it illegal to publish the material. John Milton strongly opposed this licensing process, leading him to write Areopagitica as an argument in favor of free speech. See also Areopagus. Contrast with the Censorship Ordinance.

LIGATURE: Any written symbol that involves squishing two or more letters into each other. The symbol for the letter ash in Old English, for instance, is an a and an e crunched together.

LIGHTING: The placement, type, direction, and brightness or dimness of lights used on stage. Often lighting can establish mood, highlight specific characters, actions, or scenes, or serve symbolic purposes.

LILITH: Lilith is alternatively depicted as the first wife of Adam before Eve's creation or a female mother of medieval demons. The lilitu or lilitim, the daughters of Lilith, appear in biblical texts such as Isaiah 34:14 (in the NIV, lilitim is translated vaguely as "night creatures.") Isaiah alludes to Lilith and her daughters as part of his description of the Lord's day of vengeance. Lilith and her daughters developed originally from Babylonian mythology, where an early version of Lilith appears in both The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BCE) and probably in the Sumerian Terra-Cotta "Lilith Relief" (c. 2000 BCE). In Chaldean mythology, in Jewish Midrashic and Talmudic texts, and in the medieval Zohar, Lilith is described as a slayer of infants and women in pregnancy and childbirth and as a seductress of virtuous men.

A number of apotropaic magical amulets survive depicting Lilith. They date from 200 BCE to about 1700 CE, and they were apparently designed to ward off her destructive powers. The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a medieval Hebrew text, draws on much older traditions in which Lilith is Adam's first wife. God creates her from the dust of the earth along with Adam, but Lilith refuses to submit to Adam's authority or to allow him to take a dominant sexual position with her. Accordingly, she flies away from him. In other medieval legends, she mates with demons in the land of Nod, and thus gives birth to the malignant lilitim or lilitu, the evil daughters of Lilith mentioned above.

LIMERICK: A five-line closed-form poem in which the first two lines consist of anapestic trimeter, which in turn are followed by lines of anapestic dimeter, and a final line in trimeter. They rhyme in an AABBA pattern. Typically, they are used in comic or bawdy verse, making extensive use of double entendre. Here is an example typical of the metrical and linear arrangement:

A student from dear old Bryn Mawr
Committed a dreadful faux pas
She loosened a stay
In her new décolleté
Exposing her je ne sais quoi.

The limerick first gained popularity in the 18th century. The first originator is unknown, but many give credit to a group of poets who lived in the town of Croom in County Limerick called the Fili na Maighe ("Gaelic poets of the Maigue") who were renowned for their quick wit and sardonic style. An alternative legend is that the limerick arose from an 18th century rivalry between the poetic publican Sean O'Tuama and his friend Andrias MacCraith. The two had a spectacular falling out, and wrote a series of insulting verses about each other, which according to legend, started the tradition of the limerick.

LIMINAL (Latin limin, "threshold"): A liminal space is a blurry boundary zone between two established and clear spatial areas, and a liminal moment is a blurry boundary period between two segments of time. Most cultures have special rituals, customs, or markers to indicate the transitional nature of such liminal spaces or liminal times. Examples include boundary stones, rites of passage, high school graduations, births, deaths, marriages, carrying the bride over the threshold, etc. These special markers may involve elaborate ceremonies (wedding vows), special wardrobe (mortarboard caps and medieval scholar's gown), or unusual taboos (the custom of not seeing the bride before the wedding). Liminal zones feature strongly in folklore, mythology, and Arthurian legend. See the Other World for further information. For in-depth discussion, see Victor Turner's Drama, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society.

LIMITED POINT OF VIEW: See discussion under point of view.

LINGUA FRANCA (Latin, "Frankish Language"): Any language that gains international currency as a language of trade or business.

LINGUISTIC ANALOGY: See analogy, linguistic.

LINGUISTICS (from Latin lingua, "tongue'): The study of language as a system, as opposed to learning how to speak a foreign language.

LINK: Chaucer scholars use the word "link" or "linking passage" to refer to the material connecting the individual tales in the Canterbury Tales to the surrounding stories. These links often take the form of dialogue, interruptions, or interactions between the pilgrims. The presence of the links allows editors to reconstruct parts of the Canterbury Tales in a specific order, but due to the incomplete nature of the Canterbury Tales, many of the narratives lack linking material before or after the story. Linking material that appears before a story in a fragment begins and which suggests what may have come before is called a headlink. Material that appears at the end of a story or at the end of a fragment and suggests what will come next is an endlink. See fragment.

LINKING R: In his linguistic textbooks, Algeo notes this phenomenon for students. He describes it as an /r/ pronounced by otherwise r-less speakers when the following word begins with a vowel. For instance, in prestigious RP British pronuncation, the /r/ is silent in the words farm and far. However, these British speakers will actually add an /r/ to the word far if the next word starts with a vowel, e.g., far away (26).

LIQUID: A semi-consonant sound produced without friction and thus capable of being sounded continuously in the manner of a vowel--or at least made until the lungs exhaust their supply of air. The sounds of [r] and [l] are liquids.

LISTS: An arena or field for chivalric combat and tournaments with bleachers or balconies set to one side where nobility might sit to observe. The lists would normally have pavilions (fancy round tents) at either end to house contestants, who would fight with each other on horseback. The most famous events held at the lists were jousts, in which mounted knights would ride toward each other and attempt to knock their combatants off their horses by using a blunted lance (if training) or a hardwood lance (if dueling or conducting a trial by combat). Sometimes, especially during the late medieval period, the lists would have a long fence or barrier running lengthwise, so that each contestant's horse would be forced to keep to one side of the field, thus reducing the risk of a knight being trampled to death. If such a barrier was set up, the contestants were technically "tilting" rather than "jousting," though in common speech, the two words were used interchangeably. Rules for jousting and tilting varied considerably from place to place and century to century.

LITERAL: A literal passage, story, or text is one intended only (or primarily) as a factual account of a real historical event rather than a metaphorical expression, an allegorical expression of a larger symbolic truth, or a hypothetical example. The most common mistake students make is confusing the terms true, factual, and literal. Some things are true but not factual. Some things are meant literally but they are not factual. And some things are presented factually that aren't true. For instance, in Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, Rice presents her narrative as an actual biography of a vampire. The material is presented using various trappings of factuality, and the writing style encourages readers to suspend their disbelief and imagine that the vampire Louis Dulac literally exists as he dictates his story, rather than encouraging the reader to think of Louis Dulac as an unreal symbol or some abstraction like "sexualized death" or "commercial consumption." It's only late in the tale that Louis turns into a symbol for modernity. Earlier in the tale, the presentation of details such as the tape recorder running out of tape, and other interruptions by the reporter, and the historical reality of New Orleans and Paris help encourage a literal mindset. However, the story is not true in the sense we normally mean the word, even though it is meant to be read in a literal manner.

On the other hand, contrast this untrue-but-factually-presented story with Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare. In this account, we have talking rabbits and loquacious terapins. They engage in a race, and the lazy rabbit ends up losing to the slower tortoise because that turtle keeps up his pace while the rabbit naps. This story is not meant to be read literally. Turtles and rabbits cannot talk, nor do they engage in marathons with each other. Aesop is not presenting the material to us in a factual manner akin to that of biology textbook or a newspaper clipping. However, the point to the story is indeed true. The story's symbolic or allegorical point is a larger truth that supersedes factuality. It's indeed true that talent is irrelevant if not put to use, that the underdog can win if the better runner doesn't try, and that slow-and-steady can win the race when the competition doesn't focus on extended effort. If the reader responded to the fable with scorn because it "wasn't factual" or "wasn't literally real," the reader would miss the lesson and the larger point. Being so literally minded can cripple one's enjoyment of literature. See extended discussion under fourfold interpretation and allegory.

LITOTES (pronounced lee-TOE-tays): A form of meiosis using a negative statement. (See more under discussion of meiosis.)

LOAN TRANSLATION: See calque.

LOANWORD: A word borrowed or adapted from another language.

LOATHLY LADY: The motif of a ugly hag who will under set conditions transform into a beautiful maiden, or more rarely a beautiful maiden cursed to revert to a hideous or inhuman shape under different conditions. This motif is found in fairy tales, folklore, mythology, and Celtic legend. Examples include Princess Melusine in French dynastic mythology, Dame Ragnelle, and the old woman in the Wife of Bath's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The frog-prince and the story of "Beauty and the Beast" are two examples in which the older and more common gender roles are reversed. The idea perhaps originates in the common psychological longing for transformative wish fulfillment. It might be akin to the emotional engine driving the European legend of Cinderella, the Ovidian myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, or the more recent play My Fair Lady. All three involve a metamorphosis into a better state of feminine existence--at least in the eyes of a masculine audience. We also see a vague remnant of this ancient wish fulfillment in American pop culture--especially films such as Pretty Woman and She's All That, in which respectively an uncouth prostitute transforms into a refined society lady worthy of a millionaire husband and in which a nerdy high school misfit transforms into an acceptable candidate for prom queen.

LOCATIVE: A grammatical case in many Indo-European languages that indicates location.

LOCUS AMOENUS (Latin, "pleasant place"): A pleasant locale and time, traditionally a green Edenic garden on a temperate but sunny spring day--especially in the month of May. This is the traditional setting for the opening of a dream vision narrative and for romantic liaisons.

LOCUS CLASSICUS (Latin, "classic place"): A passage often cited as authoritative or illustrative on a particular point or subject. For instance, when it comes to explaining what a neologism is, the opening lines of the poem "Jabberwocky" have become the English teacher's locus classicus, and so on.

LOGOCENTRISM (lit. "word-centered"): Jacques Derrida's term for a tendency to privilege thinking based on a desire for absolute truth, which he associated with Western thought since Plato. He saw this tendency as inherently hierarchical and one which privileged the "real" over spoken words about the real, and which in turn privileged all spoken language over all written language--cf. Plato's idea of platonic forms. However, since the language we use to talk about reality is not the same thing as reality itself, and since we have no other means of communicating/thinking about reality than flawed language, Derrida saw logocentricism as inherently doomed to failure, an inescapable prison-house of words. Cf. deconstruction and différance.

LOGOGRAPH: See discussion under ideograph.

LOLLARD (possibly from Dutch, "mumbler"): Lollards were heretics in the 1300s and 1400s associated with a variety of causes including (1) translation of the scripture into English, (2) the right of women to preach and/or teach scripture, (3) denial of special priestly monopoly on scriptural interpretation, and (4) John Wycliff's doctrines regarding consubstantiation versus transubstantiation. Accusations of Lollardy, especially under Arundel's Constitutions, typically resulted in the heretic being burnt at the stake. In particular, women were vulnerable to charges of Lollardy if they spoke up concerning religious matters, preached, or taught, since orthodox medieval doctrine took the verses in 1 Timothy 2:11 quite seriously regarding female subordination. Several female medieval writers such as Margery Kempe were accused of this heresy--though interestingly her contemporary and her spiritual advisor, Julian of Norwich, was not. Chaucer's Harry Bailey states that he "smells a Lollard" when the Parson rebukes him for cursing. In more recent literature, T. H. White adapts Lollardy as an anachronism in The Once and Future King, where he associates them with discontent social groups like the fictional "thrashers" and with the real-world proto-communist doctrines of the revolutionary John Ball. See heresy for extended discussion.

LONG S: One Old English variation for writing the letter s that continued to be used in Shakespeare's day--even up through the 1790s. The long s looked much like the lower-case letter f without a horizontal crossbar.

LONG SYLLABLE: Any syllable with (1) a long vowel or (2) any syllable with a short vowel and two or more consonants following it. Such syllables typically take twice as long to sound as a short syllable--and thus become an important component of classical Latin poetry. In English poetry, meter traditionally relies on heavy and light stress rather than long and short syllables.

LONG VOWEL: See description under length.

LORDS' ROOMS: During the Renaissance, the most prestigious and costly seating in public playhouses were the lords' rooms. These rooms were partitioned sections of the gallery near the "above." (The cost was three pennies to sit in the lords' room, two pennies for a seat in the second-floor galleries, and one penny to watch as a groundling standing in the yard.) Interestingly, Greenblatt notes that the lords' rooms were not positioned or intended to provide the best view of the action taking place on stage below. Instead, the rooms were designed to make "their privileged occupants conspicuous to the rest of the audience" (1140).

LOST GENERATION: A group of twentieth-century authors who grew disillusioned after World War I and lived in Europe as expatriates. Ernest Hemingway is one of the more famous members of the Lost Generation. The designation, according to an apocryphal tale, was the brain-child of Gertrude Stein, who once declared to a group of various writers including Hemingway, "You are all a lost generation."

LOW COMEDY: In contrast with high comedy, low comedy consists of silly, slapstick physicality, crude pratfalls, violence, scatology, and bodily humor rather than clever dialogue or banter. See comedy.

LOW VOWEL: A vowel made with the jaw stretched open and the tongue lowered from the top of the oral cavity.

LUDDITE: The Luddites of the early 1800s were part of an anti-technological, anti-industrial grassroots movement in Britain. They protested specifically the introduction of textile machines as a threat to their jobs and more generally protested the jarring social changes from the Industrial Revolution, producing much propaganda for their cause. By 1813, they had demolished or burnt down severa; textile factories. Government intervention resulted in their imprisonment or forced deportation to colonies in America and Australia. The Luddite movement is partly the result of economic stress in a time of rapid social change, and partly it corresponds more generally to the Romantic movement, which tended to criticize man's alienation from nature and condemned urbanized and industrial life of the 19th century as spiritually and ethically sterile. William Blake went so far as to dub modern textile factories the "satanic mill." In many cases, Luddites and neo-Luddites have broadened their horizon of concern to embrace technology more generally and science more specifically as de-humanizing intellectual endeavors, frequently embracing the Frankenstein motif (which also dates from the early 1800s).

LULLABY: A song written for children, especially a calming one designed to help an infant go to sleep. The genre is often marked by trimeter or duple meter in its metrical line, repetition, soothing euphony, and simple diction. Many of William Blake's poems in Songs of Innocence have qualities of the lullaby--perhaps because of thematic connections in that work, or perhaps because of the Romantic poets' general fascination with innocence and its loss.

LU SHIH (Chinese, "regulated song"): A verse form popular in China in the T'ang and Sung dynasties. It was also referred to as the chin-t'i shih to keep the term distinct from the ku-shih or "old songs." The verse was characterized by extensive parallelism and an elaborate tonal pattern. This formal structure also influenced the fu or "prose poem" of later centuries.

LYRIC (from Greek lyra "song"): The lyric form is as old as Egypt (surviving examples date back to 2600 BCE), and examples exist in early Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and other sources. If literature from every culture through the ages were lumped into a single stack, it is likely that the largest number of writings would be these short verse poems. There are three general meanings for lyric:

(1) A short poem (usually no more than 50-60 lines, and often only a dozen lines long) written in a repeating stanzaic form, often designed to be set to music. Unlike a ballad, the lyric usually does not have a plot (i.e., it might not tell a complete story), but it rather expresses the feelings, perceptions, and thoughts of a single poetic speaker (not necessarily the poet) in an intensely personal, emotional, or subjective manner. Often, there is no chronology of events in the lyrics, but rather objects, situations, or the subject is written about in a "lyric moment." Sometimes, the reader can infer an implicit narrative element in lyrics, but it is rare for the lyric to proceed in the straightforward, chronological "telling" common in fictional prose. For instance, in William Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," the reader can guess from the speaker's words that the speaker has come unexpectedly upon a girl reaping and singing in the Scottish Highlands, and that he stops, listens, and thinks awhile before continuing on his way. However, this chain of events is not explicitly a center of plot or extended conflict between protagonist and antagonist. Instead it triggers a moment of contemplation and appreciation. Thus it is not a plot in the normal sense of the word.

(2) Any poem having the form and musical quality of a song

(3) As an adjective, lyric can also be applied to any prose or verse characterized by direct, spontaneous outpouring of intense feeling. Often, the lyric is subdivided into various genres, including the aubade, the dramatic monologue, the elegy, the epithalamion, the hymn, the ode, and the sonnet. Contrast with ballad, elegy, and ode.

LYRIC MOMENT (from Greek lyra "song"): A timeless period of introspection or memory in which a poetic speaker describes or recounts his or her feelings, impressions, and thoughts. This moment contrasts with the flow of events in a narrative poem. Some poems, such as Beowulf or the Iliad, are driven by the interactions of characters within a plotline of specific events occuring in a specific order. In contrast with these narrative poems, non-narrative poems, which seem to take place outside of time without a clearly established sequence of events, are said to take place in the "lyric moment." Such poems are often called lyric poems.

LYRIC POETRY: See discussion under lyric and lyric moment.

LYRICS: (1) The words to a song. (2) Samples of lyric poetry; see discussion under lyric.

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I] [J] [K] [L] [M]

[N] [O] [P] [Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y] [Z]


I consulted the following works while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these resources for more information than these humble webpages provide:

Works Cited:

  • Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub., 1993. [Now superseded by later editions.]
  • ---. "Poetic Forms and Literary Terminology." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000. 2944-61. 2 Vols.
  • Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles. The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition. U.S.A., 2004.
  • Baugh, A. C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2002.
  • Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. London: The British Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.
  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. [Originally published 1977 as Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche.] Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.
  • Catholic University of America Editorial Staff. The New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1967-79.
  • Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
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