“I grieve” as make-believe – The Generation of Fictional Truth in 18th century Lamentation Poetry
Is lyric poetry a ‘fictional’ genre? Dating back to Plato, this is one of the central and oldest questions in the study of poetry. It seems that many pieces of lyric poetry (despite role poems and occasional poems) are characterised by a kind of drifting ‘fictionality’: they can be used as props by readers in a game of make-believe to generate ‘fictional truth’ about a fictive speaker, while at the same time, the reader wonders whether that ‘poetical I’ may be identified with the real poet. This results in a state between fictionality and of non-fictionality.
For many centuries, lyric poetry about the lamentation of the dead quite clearly stood on the side of the non-fictional occasional poem (“Autorfaktuale Lyrik”, for example, such a poem as Albrecht von Haller’s Trauer-Ode. Beim Absterben seiner geliebten Mariane gebornen Wyß, 1736). This changes during the 18th century: in the preface to The Complaint or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality (1742-1745), the author Edward Young states that the poem derived from his own family losses; even though there are fictive characters speaking. Also, Young’s reader Novalis knew about this biographical fact. And Novalis himself is known for having lost his young fiancée before he wrote his “Hymnen an die Nacht” (1799/1800). – But does this make Young’s and Novalis’ lyric poetry non-fictional? Is there ‘authenticity’ in them?
My paper will address these highly contestable questions in terms of Walton’s two principles of generating fictional truth within the readers’ game of make-believe:
- Genre convention: Until the late 18th century, lamentation poetry was rhetorically regularised. The speaker was the author.
- Reality principle: As long as the speaker in any poem is not clearly marked as being a ‘persona’, readers tend to consider him as the author and to add biographical facts from reality to their interpretations.
Even after the concept of fictionality of lamentation poetry had changed, these two principles went on working: poems like Young’s The Complaint and Novalis’ Hymnen an die Nacht were and still are often understood as being non-fictional.
 See Harald Fricke, Peter Stocker: ‚Lyrisches Ich’. In: Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturwissenschaft. Vol. 2, ed. by Harald Fricke et al. Berlin, New York 2000. pp. 509-511.
 Rüdiger Zymner: Lyrik. Umriss und Begriff. Paderborn 2009. pp. 10-12.