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Theory of the Lyric

Theory of the Lyric

Jonathan Culler

ISBN 9780674979703

Publication date: 11/06/2017

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What sort of thing is a lyric poem? An intense expression of subjective experience? The fictive speech of a specifiable persona? Theory of the Lyric reveals the limitations of these two conceptions of the lyric—the older Romantic model and the modern conception that has come to dominate the study of poetry—both of which neglect what is most striking and compelling in the lyric and falsify the long and rich tradition of the lyric in the West. Jonathan Culler explores alternative conceptions offered by this tradition, such as public discourse made authoritative by its rhythmical structures, and he constructs a more capacious model of the lyric that will help readers appreciate its range of possibilities.

Theory of the Lyric brings Culler’s own earlier, more scattered interventions together with an eclectic selection from others’ work in service to what he identifies as a dominant need of the critical and pedagogical present: turning readers’ attention to lyric poems as verbal events, not fictions of impersonated speech. His fine, nuanced readings of particular poems and kinds of poems are crucial to his arguments. His observations on the workings of aspects of lyric across multiple different structures are the real strength of the book. It is a work of practical criticism that opens speculative vistas for poetics but always returns to poems.”
—Elizabeth Helsinger, Critical Theory


  • Culler is a veteran of the theory wars of the 1970s and 1980s, when he wrote what remain the clearest sympathetic explications of structuralism and post-structuralism. He has an exceptional ability to see the conceptual shape beneath a critical discourse, even if that shape is clouded by jokes or whiffs of bullshit, and to explain it in plain terms. Theory of the Lyric displays those skills. It begins with compressed but beautifully clear histories of both lyric and thinking about lyric; and, like other indispensable studies of this area such as Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Poetic Closure, it quotes in full a range of particularly well-chosen lyric poems, from Sappho and Goethe to A. A. Milne and A. R. Ammons, in order to establish its claims… Culler’s view of lyric has a flexibility that enables it to stand up pretty well to lyrics that might fly at it from left-field… What the book offers is something more like a study of the generative grammar of lyric poetry and of its practice than an all-encompassing model of what lyric has to be or could become.

    —Colin Burrow, London Review of Books


  • Jonathan Culler is Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cornell University.

Book Details

  • 416 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press