A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

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The journey from Ancient Greece.

The annals of time make it clear that, for all of today’s diversity in lyric-based music, the modern lyric’s roots lie beneath the hills and ruins of Ancient Greece. Greek dramatists and poets had been composing to accompanying music for several centuries when, in the 4th century B.C., a new sport emerged: spoken-word contests. Music and poetry have made the journey since, their shared source of creative inspiration and similar mathematically-inclined structures making them like fraternal twins – able to separate in daily life, but yoked from the womb.

The following examples demonstrate how poetry informed lyrics and music, with an emphasis on pieces that were either put to song or celebrated song, beginning with the father of the narrative poem, Homer:

From Hymn to Earth the Mother of All
Homer (7th century B.C.)

O universal mother, who dost keep
From everlasting thy foundations deep,
Eldest of things, Great Earth, I sing of thee!
All shapes that have their dwelling in the sea,
All things that fly, or on the ground divine
Live, move, and there are nourished–these are thine;
These from thy wealth thou dost sustain; from thee
Fair babes are born, and fruits on every tree
Hang ripe and large, revered Divinity!

By the early 5th century B.C., choruses began to develop for Greece’s fledgling theater culture. Euripides can be credited as setting the format and positioning for the traditional chorus that evolved into the envoi in Renaissance ballads and the refrain in modern music.
Chorus from The Bacchai
Euripides (480-406 B.C.)

Where is the home for me?

O Cyprus, set in the sea,
Aphrodite’s home in the soft sea-foam,
Would I lend to thee;
Where in the wings of the Lovers are furled,
And faint the heart of the world!

Ay, or to Paphos’ isle,

Where the rainless meadows smile
With riches rolled from the hundred-fold
Mouths of the far-off Nile,
Streaming beneath the waves
To the roots of the seaward caves!

Underground in the Middle Ages.

Lyrical, musically fed poetry waned after Greece, although some Roman poets occasionally wrote to music. The music-poetry relationship went underground during the Middle Ages, but out of southern England and France, a few courageous court-poets wrote words to music and spread them from village to village, igniting the Provencal troubadour movement, the first spark of modern lyric-based music.

From The Cambridge Songs
(c. 1000)

Wind is thin,

Sun warm,
The earth overflows
With good things.

Spring is purple

Flowers on the ground,
Green in the forest.

Quadrupeds shine

And wander. Birds
Nest. On blossoming
Branches they cry joy!
Among the most exquisite poet-lyricists in world history was Marie de France, the most popular female poet of the Middle Ages.
From Song from Chartivel
Marie de France (1155-1189)

Hath any loved you well, down there,

Summer or winter through?
Down there, have you found any fair
Laid in the grave with you?
’s death’s long kiss a richer kiss
Than mine was wont to be–
Or have you gone to some far bliss
And quite forgotten me?

What soft enamoring of sleep

Hath you in some soft way?
What charmed death holdeth you with deep
Strange lure by night and day?
A little space below the grass,
Our of the sun and shade;
But worlds away from me, alas,
Down there where you are laid.

Swooning over troubadours.

Not only did the Provencal troubadour poets seed Italy for the Renaissance with poetic forms, but also with lyrical forms that were meant to be accompanied by music. From Sicily to Tuscany to Bologna, the music of the troubadours swooned over a people ready to unlock their hearts and minds. The Renaissance began with ballata, sonnets, madrigals, canzones, and canzonettas – all initially set to music.

Strambotti Siciliani (Sicilian Love Song)
(12th century)

More than honey the words you speak are sweet,

Honest and wise, nobly and wittily said,
Yours are the beauties of Camiola complete,
Of Iseult the blonde and Morgana the fairy maid.
If Blanchefleur should be added to the group,
Your loveliness would tower above each head.
Beneath your brows five beautiful things repose:
Love and a fire and a flame, the lily, the rose.
Anonymous Song (Spain)

There in the flower garden

I will die.
Among the rose bushes
They will kill me.
I was on my way,
Mother, to cut some roses;
There in the flower garden
I found my love,
There in the flower garden
They will kill me.

The unlikely poet.

The troubadour movement also reached England through the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. A century after Chaucer’s time, when Sir Thomas Wyatt brought Italian lyrical poetry into the country, English poets explored the relationship between song and words. Among them was an unlikely bard, King Henry VIII, who wrote some of the finest music of the Renaissance.

From Past Times with Good Company
Henry VIII (1491-1547)

Pastimes with good company,

I love, and shall until I die.
Grouch who list, but none deny,
So God be pleased, thus live will I.
For my pastance,
Hunt, sing and dance,
My heart is set;
All goodly sport,
For my comfort,
Who shall me let?
From Song
John Donne (1573-1631)

Go and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids’ singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

It thou be'st born to strange sights,

Things invisible go see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till Age snow white hairs on thee;
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

Oh, baby.

The dawning of the Renaissance era was met with people eager to unlock and free their hearts and minds and give themselves over to the pleasures of life. One such eager reveler was William Shakespeare, who wrote 160 songs for use within his plays. These songs were meant to be accompanied by simple instruments – the drum, flute, and lute – and were often salvaged from older lyrics and tunes. "Sigh No More, Ladies" is a classic example of this era’s lyricism, including the "hey nonny nonny," which was Shakespeare’s equivalent of today’s, "Oh baby" or "yeah, yeah, yeah."

Sigh No More, Ladies from Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh nor more;

Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never;
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey nonny, nonny.

Sing no more ditties, sing no mo,

Or dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leavy.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey, nonny, nonny.

Champion of lyricism.

John Donne was one of the champions of lyricism in the 16th and 17th centuries, and many of his works were designated as "songs." "Go and Catch a Falling Star" is a reflection on life’s pilgrimage utilizing mystical aspects of magical herbalism, mythology, and love. Like most songs of the era, this was most likely written to be accompanied by the lute – the instrument of choice for minstrels and bards.

Go and Catch a Falling Star
John Donne (1572-1631)

Go and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,

Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,

Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

The Romantics.

As lyric poetry began to lose popularity, few notable works emerged. Then came the Romantics. Who better to write a lyric than those who prided themselves for placing emotion over reason? Poets such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron – and the Ancient Romans and Greeks who influenced them – became prime sources for some of the deeper rock lyrics of the 1960s.

Wanderer’s Night-Songs
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Thou that from the heavens art,

Every pain and sorrow stillest,
And the doubly wretched heart
Doubly with refreshment fillest,
I am weary with contending!
Why this rapture and unrest?
Peace descending
Come, ah, come into my breast!

O'er all the hilltops

Is quiet now,
In all the treetops
Hearest thou
Hardly a breath;
The birds are asleep in the trees:
Wait; soon like these
Thou too shalt rest.
Mad Song
William Blake (1757-1827)

The wild winds peep

And the night is a-cold;
Come hither, Sleep,
And my griefs infold:
But lo! The morning peeps
Over the eastern steeps,
And the rustling birds of dawn
The earth do scorn.

Lo! To the vault

Of paved heaven
With sorrow fraught
My notes are driven:
They strike the ear of night,
Make weep the eyes of day;
They make mad the roaring winds,
And with tempests play.

Negro influence.

While not European in nature, traditional Negro music spread across the United States in the 1900s. It formed the basis of three forms – blues, jazz, and gospel – that influenced such English rock bands as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, all of whom contributed enormously to the vault of poetics in modern music.

From Follow the Drinking Gourd
Traditional Negro Folk Song

When the sun comes back, and the first quail calls,

Follow the drinkin’ gourd,
When the old man is a-waitin’ for to carry you to freedom,
Follow the drinkin’ gourd.
Follow the drinkin’ gourd,
Follow the drinkin’ gourd,
For the old man is a-waitin’ for to carry you to freedom,
Follow the drinkin’ gourd.

Musical revolution.

In the mid-1960s, folk, blues, and rock fused together in three locations: San Francisco, London, and New York City (in particular Greenwich Village). All three cities had different scenes and expressions, but collectively they changed the face of the world by hosting musical and cultural revolutions.

In Los Angeles, a troubled soul combined rock lyrics with the pantheon of Ancient Greek, English, and French poets: Jim Morrison. Drawing comparisons to Greek wine god Dionysus, the Doors’ lead singer worked with odes, epics, ballads, and Greek choral structures to build many of his songs, led by the striking "The End."

From The End
Jim Morrison (1943-71)

This is the end,

Beautiful friend,
This is the end,
My only friend,
The end...of our elaborate plans,
The end...of everything that stands,
The end...no safety or surprise,
The end...I’ll never look into your eyes

Can you picture what will be,

So limitless and free,
Desperately in need of some
Stranger’s hand
In a desperate land.
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane;
Waiting for the summer rain.
Bob Dylan successfully melded Classic, Renaissance, Romantic, and anti-Romantic poetic traditions by integrating mythology, lush (and surreal) imagery, timely themes, and nods to his personal poetic heroes. Were it not for the modern language, these lyrics could easily be mistaken for a medieval minstrel song.
As I Went Out One Morning
Bob Dylan (b. 1941)

As I went out one morning

To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s,
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains.
I offer’d her my hand,
She took me by the arm.
I knew that very instant,
She meant to do me harm.

"Depart from me this moment,"

I told her with my voice.
Said she, "But I don’t wish to,"
Said I, "But you have no choice."
"I beg you, sir," she pleaded
From the corners of her mouth,
"I will secretly accept you
And together we’ll fly south."

Just then Tom Paine, himself,

Came running from across the field,
Shouting at this lovely girl
And commanding her to yield.
And as she was letting go her grip,
Up Tom Paine did run,
"I’m sorry, sir," he said to me,
"I’m sorry for what she’s done.

Love or something like it.

Alanis Morisette began writing her own quirky, biting lyrics in 2002, often utilizing plays on words and old sayings to tell her stories.

Knees of my Bees
Alanis Morisette (b. 1974)

We share a culture same vernacular

Love of physical humor and time spent alone
You with your penchant for spontaneous advents
For sticky and raspy, unearthed and then gone

You are a gift renaissance with a wink

With tendencies for conversations that raise bars
You are a sage who is fueled by compassion
Comes to nooks and crannies as balm for all scars

You make the knees of my bees weak, tremble and buckle

You make the knees of my bees weak

You are a spirit that knows of no limit

That knows of no ceiling who balks at dead-ends
You are a wordsmith who cares for his brothers
Not seduced by illusion or fair-weather friends

You make the knees of my bees weak, tremble and buckle

You make the knees of my bees weak

You are a vision who lives by the signals of

Stomach and intuition as your guide
You are a sliver of god on a platter
Who walks what he talks and who cops when he’s lied

You make the knees of my bees weak, tremble and buckle

You make the knees of my bees weak
You make the knees of my bees weak, tremble and buckle
You make the knees of my bees weak
You make the knees of my bees weak, tremble and buckle
You make the knees of my bees weak
Most would consider the frank lyrics of gangsta rap artist and activist Tupac Shakur far removed from the almost-sweet sentiment of "Bees of My Knees." Beneath the brutal exterior, however, is that driving force behind so many songs – love.
from Nothin’ But Love
Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)

When I was young I used to want to be a dealer see

Cause the gold and cars they appealed to me
I saw our brothers getting rich slangin crack to folks
And the square’s getting big for these sack of dope
Started thinking bout a plan to get paid myself
So I made myself, raised myself
Til the dealer on the block told me, "That ain’t cool
You ain’t meant to slang crack, you a rapper fool"
I got my game about women from a prostitute
And way back used to rap on the block for loot
I tried to make my way legit, haha
But it was hard, cause rhymes don’t pay the rent
And uhh, it was funny how I copped out
I couldn’t make it in school, so finally I dropped out
My family on welfare
I’m steady thinking, since don’t nobody else care
I’m out here on my own
At least in jail I have a meal and I wouldn’t be alone
I’m feelin like a waste, tears rollin down my face
Cause my life is filled with hate
Until I looked around me
I saw nothing but family, straight up down for me
Panthers, Pimps, Pushers and Thugs
Hey yo, that’s my family tree, I got nuttin but love.

New folk movement.

In a musical climate where anything goes, an "underground" movement of new artists writing in the folk tradition has unfolded. Operating in the minstrel tradition, Joanna Newsom composes lyrics that can stand alone as poems as easily as they can be put to music.

from Sadie
Joanna Newsom (b. 1982)

This is an old song,

these are old blues.
This is not my tune,
but it’s mine to use.
And the seabirds
where the fear once grew
will flock with a fury,
and they will bury what’d come for you

Down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender

you and I, and a love so tender,
is stretched-on the hoop where I stitch-this adage:
"Bless this house and its heart so savage."

And all that I want, and all that I need

and all that I’ve got is scattered like seed.
And all that I knew is moving away from me.
(and all that I know is blowing
like tumbleweed)

And the mealy worms

in the brine will burn
in a salty pyre,
among the fauns and ferns.

And the love we hold,

and the love we spurn,
will never grow cold
only taciturn.