Definition of Ode
An ode is a lyrical stanza written in praise for a person, event, or thing. The form developed in Ancient Greece and had a very specific and elaborate structure involving three parts known as the strophe, antistrophe, and epode. Originally, Greek odes were set to music. The form was later popularized and adapted in Renaissance England and led to a new set of conventions, which we will explore below.
The word ode comes originally from the Greek word ᾠδή (ōidē), meaning “song.” The definition of ode has thus clearly changed over time, as now it is often used colloquially to refer to any praise or glorification of an individual or thing.
Types of Odes
In Ancient Greek poetry there were three types of odes: Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular. Not surprisingly, the Pindaric ode is named after the Greek poet Pindar, and the Horatian ode is named after the Roman poet Horace.
- Pindaric: Pindar is often credited with creating the ode form. This original form of the ode contained the formal opening of the strophe, the mirroring stanza called the antistrophe (which has the same meter and length of the strophe), and the concluding epode, which has a different meter and length than the previous two sections. These ode examples were originally performed by a chorus and accompanied by dancers and instruments such as the aulos and lyre.
- Horatian: Known as a homostrophic ode, each stanza in the Horatian ode form has the same meter, rhyme scheme, and length. This is not the only difference from the Pindaric ode; Horatian odes are also less formal and more intimate and reflective. Horatian odes generally have two- or four-line stanzas.
- Irregular: Irregular odes use rhyme scheme and meter, but do not have the same stanzaic structure as either the Pindaric or Horatian odes. There is no correspondence between the different parts, as there is in the other two forms, and the rhyme scheme requires lines only to rhyme somewhere, and not in a particular place.
Common Examples of Ode
Though technically the ode is a lyrical poem with certain conventions of meter and rhyme, we often use the word conversationally to describe any outpouring of praise for someone or something. For example, here are some recent news headlines that have nothing to do with the poetic form:
- “A rapper’s relatable ode to paying off student loans.” (CNN, 3/30/16)
- “State of the Union 2016: Barack Obama urges change in mindset among Americans, politicians. It has been described as an ode to unfinished business.” (ABC, 1/13/16)
- “An ode to donuts.” (The Daily Californian, 6/29/15)
Significance of Ode in Literature
The ode has held an elevated position in the history of literature. Pindaric odes were often written and performed to celebrate athletic victories while, much later, Romantic poets wrote odes in English to celebrate their strongest sentiments and deepest admirations. The ode suited both of these time periods well due to the love of drama in both Ancient Greece and in the Romantic period at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century. The first known odes written in English were the “Epithalamium” and “Prothalamium” by Edmund Spenser, but the form really took off with the irregular odes of Abraham Cowley. The Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the most famous examples of odes in the English language.
Examples of Ode in Literature
Creatures for a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.
(“Victory Ode” by Pindar)
This ode example is a translation of the poet who created the entire form, Pindar. In it, we can see the grandiose theme of victory and the glory of man.
Ye learned sisters which have oftentimes
Beene to me ayding, others to adorne:
Whom ye thought worthy of your gracefull rymes,
That even the greatest did not greatly scorne
To heare theyr names sung in your simple layes,
But joyed in theyr prayse.
And when ye list your owne mishaps to mourne,
Which death, or love, or fortunes wreck did rayse,
Your string could soone to sadder tenor turne,
And teach the woods and waters to lament
Your dolefull dreriment.
Now lay those sorrowfull complaints aside,
And having all your heads with girland crownd,
Helpe me mine owne loves prayses to resound,
Ne let the same of any be envide:
So Orpheus did for his owne bride,
So I unto my selfe alone will sing,
The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring.
(“Epithalamion” by Edmund Spenser)
Edmund Spenser’s “Epithalamion” is one of the two first examples of ode in the English language. Coming from Elizabethan England, this first stanza of Spenser’s ode reveals the large themes that he will be dealing with in his poem. There is also the allusion to the legendary Greek musician and poet Orpheus, which further ties Spenser’s poetic form to its origins in Ancient Greece.
Wake up, you little sleep head, awake
And give great joy to life that’s found in dreams
From Nature’s most sweet sounding streams
A thousand turns their twisty journeys take
The dancing flowers, that above them blow
Breathe life and music as they flow
Now the vast waves of sound drift along
Deep, beautiful, vast and strong
Through the fields and vales and valleys they glide
And rolling down the mountain side
Daring and carefree the water pours
From the highest edge they jump and falling, they roar.
(“The Progress of Poesy” by Thomas Gray)
Thomas Gray’s “The Progress of Poesy” is an excellent English example of ode in the Pindaric tradition. In this short poem we can see the strophe and mirroring antistrophe; Gray has chosen stanzas of three lines with a rhyme between the first lines of each to strengthen their connection. The final stanza is double the length and has a slightly different rhyme scheme; this acts as the concluding epode. Gray uses imagery and language that glorifies nature and art, typical of the Pindaric ode.
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
(“Ode on Solitude” by Alexander Pope)
Alexander Pope’s “Ode on Solitude” is a beautiful example of an ode in the Horatian tradition. Pope uses four-line stanzas, which are typical of Horatian odes. Furthermore, his stanzas are homostrophic, which is to say there is no variation between meter, rhyme scheme, and length from one stanza to the next. The theme of this ode is also more contemplative and personal in nature, as is fitting for a Horatian ode. Instead of talking about the grand beauty of nature, Pope reflects on the quality of solitude and how it allows the speaker more time for meditation.
THOU still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
(“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats)
John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is perhaps the most well-known ode ever written (though more so in name than in content, perhaps). This is an example of an irregular ode; there is rhyme throughout, but it is not as strict as other rhyme forms. Keats wrote this poem to glorify the virtues of classical Greek art; therefore, no other poetic form is as fitting as the ode, which is an example of classical Greek art itself.
Test Your Knowledge of Ode
1. Which of the following statements is the best ode definition?
A. A figure of speech which shows appreciation for someone.
B. A lyric poem that glorifies something or something.
C. Something that is extremely repulsive or unpleasant.
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2. Which of these is not an form of the ode?
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3. Which of the following statements is true?
A. The Roman poet Horace is credited with having created the ode form.
B. Pindaric odes have the same length and meter in each of three stanzas.
C. Irregular odes contain meter and rhyme scheme.
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