Lyric and Bondage

Professor Richard Strier's talk on this topic was about the simple thesis that the idea of psychological bondage is central to the tradition of lyric poetry, not only in its subject matter but in the very nature of its form as well. In lyric poems, we are faced with what seems an opposition between freedom and constraint, but as we interrogate the poems further, this opposition comes to seem misleading. The poems, from Petrarch on, yearn for freedom, though they're more explicit about what they want freedom from (to borrow Isaiah Berlin's terms) than what freedom, sheer and absolute, would allow them to do or to be. The poets on the other hand consistently and freely choose constraint - whether the constraint of loving someone, of loving God, or of writing within the severe constraints of the sonnet. And ultimately, these constraints prove more fruitful than the unimaginable state of pure freedom. The constraint of relation to a biological other produces offspring (a good answer if your kid is asking where babies come from), and that of relation to a spiritual Other produces growth. Similarly, the constraints of literary form produce works of art; as Robert Frost said, writing poetry without form is like playing tennis without a net. Perhaps freedom itself is a misleading concept; Luther thought so, since free will is impossible for humans who must either be enslaved to the devil or to God. Our freedom is limited by the fact that we are free to choose, but we are not free not to choose. The history of lyric poetry, almost in opposition to its own protesting voice, suggests that the free choice of constraint is what makes the world turn.