The Function of Tense in Lyric Poetry

Case Studies

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Theory: Tense in lyric poetry
2.1 Present tense
2.2 Past tense
2.3 Future tense

3. Case studies
3.1 William Blake: ‘London’
3.2 William Wordsworth: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’
3.3 An experiment: the switch of tenses
3.3.1 ‘London’ in past tense
3.3.2 ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ in present tense

4. Summary / Conclusion

5. Literature

1. Introduction

If one takes a look into a dictionary to find out how the word ‘tense’ is defined, one can find the following definition: ‘[Tense is a cover term for] any forms of a verb that may be used to show the time of the action or state expressed by the verb.’[1] In another dictionary, tense is defined as a ‘grammatical form which shows whether you are referring to the past, the present or the future.’[2] Defining tense with my own words, I would roughly describe it as a grammatical way of expressing temporal relations between various events and the time of speaking or writing. Tense, so to say, signals to the listener or the reader how the writer or speaker views an event.

Thus, tense plays an important role not only in every day’s communication but also in that kind of language which deviates from every day language, namely the language of lyric poetry. Thus, tense may also have an influence on the way one perceives a poem.

This term paper is concerned with the topic ‘Tense in lyric Poetry’. Initially, I would like to discuss the function and the occurrence of tense in lyric poetry as well as the way the reader experiences tense in poems. Therefore, I have chosen two well-known poems by William Blake and William Wordsworth. These poems will be studied not only with regard to tense, but also with respect to the meaning.

To achieve this goal, I will, first of all, give a theoretical contribution about the theme ‘Tense in lyric Poetry’ which includes small illustrations of English and German poetry. Secondly, I will discuss the theoretical statements with the help of the two poems selected.

This paper is the written form of an oral report which I gave in the seminar ‘Theory and Practice of Poetry Analysis’ together with two fellow students.

2. Theory: Tense in lyric poetry

In literary theory, the present tense is often described as the tense which is most appropriate for lyric poetry and the past tense is the adequate form for the epic (narrative) genre. Consequently, critics talk about ‘lyric present’ and ‘epic past’. Nevertheless, professor Müller thinks that tense cannot be a distinctive generic criterion because quite a lot of poems - even Romantic ones - are written in the past tense. For that reason, tense should be regarded as crucial because it is quite worthy of note to see which relations exist between the present and the past in lyric pieces.

The following two points (2.1 and 2.2) do mainly rely on an essay written by professor Müller.[3]

2.1 Present tense

As I have already mentioned, the present seems to be the most suitable tense for the lyric form. At this point we can draw the first restriction for the reason that especially those poems are written in the present tense which express the actual state of feelings and consciousness of a speaking and self-reflexive ‘I’. The following two extracts of the poems ‘Wake and Feel’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins[4] and ‘Loreley’ by Heinrich Heine[5] are good examples to make this point clear.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

These two passages convey the present thoughts and feeling of the lyrical ‘I’. The speaker reflects the own thoughts, feelings and behaviour in a self-critic way. The ‘I’ is talking about what he has done in former times or what he is doing at the moment of speaking. The present tense, so to say, makes subjectivity seem more dominant. However, it is remarkable that the utterances in these poems do not belong to everyday language. They describe the emotional (and environmental) world of the ‘I’ with words and phrases which deviate from the language used daily. This divergence from everyday language is one significant feature of poetry which also affects the use of tense in lyric. Another feature of poetry which is closely connected with tense is immediacy. In the Hopkins poem above, there is also one past form (we have spent). This form, although it is past, seems to reflect the present state of the “lyrical I” as well because the poem gives the impression that the lyrical ‘I’ tells the reader a story and therefore has to go back to the past now and then. Thus, the meaning of the poem still appears to be present. Consequently, one can draw the conclusion that the past is “absorbed” into the present. My personal opinion is that a present tense-poem causes an extremely close relationship between the author and the reader, because the speaker articulates his/her feelings in a very intense way. The whole Hopkins poem is very intensive and expressive and appears to be very close to reader. This would surely not be the case if it was written in past tense. But I will have a closer look at this topic in points 3.3.1 and 3.3.2 when I try to work out what happens when I switch the tenses of two poems. In summary, one can say that the present tense is the most suitable tense if there is an intense ‘I-expression’. And this is not only true for one specific period of lyric poetry, but for the entire genre.

2.2 Past tense

The past tense is said to be the ideal tense for the epic or narrative genre, as I have already pointed out on the previous page. Nevertheless, there are great numbers of famous poems which are written in the past tense. When a poem stands in the past tense, the described events and experiences are temporally set back. Especially when a report on experienced events is given, the past tense is most suitable, because the speaker tells the reader about an occurrence or an incident s/he made a longer time ago. My personal point of view concerning past-tense poems is the following: If a poem is written in the past tense, it gives an impression of an experience which was made in former times. Thus, it seems as if the speaker has already judged and evaluated the things s/he saw back then. Therefore, the whole scenery appears to be farther away from the speaker and as a result, there is no immediate relationship between the author and the reader. The following two extracts, one written by John Keats ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’[6] and the other one created by Joseph Eichendorff, which is a part of his novel ‘Ahnung und Gegenwart’[7] are examples for past tense-poems.


[1] Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. Ed. A.S.Hornby. 6th ed., 2000, 1339.

[2] Cobuild English Learner’s Dictionary. Ed. John Sinclair. 1990, 1014.

[3] Müller, Wolfgang G. “Gegenwart und Vergangenheit im lyrischen Gedicht“, AAA 28 (2003). 43-58.

[4] Taken from a copy handed during our report (Nov 22, 2006).

[5] Taken from a copy handed out in a seminar on German poetry of the 19th century (Summer Term 06)

[6] Taken from a copy handed out in the seminar (Dec 13, 2006).

[7] Taken from: Burdorf, Dieter. Einführung in die Gedichtanalyse. 2nd ed., 1997, 81.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Function of Tense in Lyric Poetry
Case Studies
College  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Anglistische Literaturwissenschaft)
Theory and Practice of Poetry Analysis
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
499 KB
Function, Tense, Lyric, Poetry, Theory, Practice, Poetry, Analysis
Quote paper
Stefanie Warnke (Author), 2007, The Function of Tense in Lyric Poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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