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This article develops a semantic model of lyric poetry using the mathematical resources of René Thom’s catastrophe theory. In doing this, its central aim is to show that the semantic organization of the lyric can be understood as an embryonic articulation of the basic actional competencies that underwrite narrative expression. In terms of detail, the model shows that any lyric can be conceived as a system involving three macro-structural components (the speaker’s consciousness, an indifferent or hostile environment and a desired object) whose reciprocal interactions define what Thom identifies as a cusp catastrophe. In turn, this catastrophist system is shown to correspond with A. J. Greimas’ notion of a narrative program, and thus narrative is identified as the superimposition of numerically different lyrical trajectories upon one another. The end result of this is a revised understanding of lyrical semantics that postulates a commonality in how both lyric and narrative refer to the world.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Literary Semantics: an international review


Walter de Gruyter

Publication Date





33 - 53

Total pages



Lyric, Narrative, Catastrophe Theory, Yeats, Semantics