An ode is a formal lyric poem that is written in celebration, appreciation, or dedication. They are generally directed as a specific person, place, idea, or object. Unlike other forms of poetry, the ode does not have a strict line or stanza requirement. Traditionally they aren’t very long but encompass a variety of other structures, such as the elegy and sonnet. Usually, the tone is serious, genuine, and reflective. The subject matter, as stated above, can vary but it is always something the poet feels deserves attention.
Types of Odes
The word “ode” comes from the Greek word “aidein,” meaning to sing. Today, we recognize three traditional ode forms. They are the Pindaric ode, the Horatian ode, and the Irregular ode.
The first, the Pindaric ode, also known as the Greek ode, derives its name from a Greek poet who wrote songs performed by dancers and choruses of singers. They celebrated major events and moments in history. These songs were irregular in their length, metrical patterns, and rhyme but were consistently made up of three parts. The three sections: the strophe, antistrophe and epode.
There are a few well-known examples of a Pindaric ode, including William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Reflections of Early Childhood.’ Take a look at these lines from that ode:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
The poet is looking back on the past, remembering a time in which the natural world pleased his spirit and eased his heart. That time is no more though. He looks around him at all of humanity and mourns our inability to appreciate the natural world. The “ode” is directed at a love for the natural world and elegizes the loss of its place within the human heart.
Another fairly well-known example of a Pindaric ode is Thomas Gray’s ‘The Progress of Poesy’.
The next type of ode we’re going to take a look at is the Horatian. It comes from the Latin tradition of the Aeolic ode and is written with the intention of crafting a calm and contemplative tone. These odes were meant to bring peace to the reader. The ode was named for the 1st-century-BC poet Horace. These written works are usually concerned with themes of love, joy, and the act of writing. These poems are short and made up of around two quatrains. Take a look at ‘Ode on Solitude’ by Alexander Pope as an example of Horatian Ode,
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
In these lines, and throughout the poem, Pope expresses his appreciation for solitude and the peace it can bring about.
An irregular ode is a poem that does not conform to either the structures set out in the Horatian or Pindaric forms. The verse is generally irregular and the stanzas lack any sort of prescribed order. There is no formal rhyme scheme in this kind of ode, giving the poet the freedom to experiment with their verse. Keats’ odes are some of the most famous examples of the irregular form. Here are a few lines from Keats’ ode ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ written in 1819:
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
This is only one small part of what many lovers of poetry consider to be Keats’ best ode. It is dedicated, as the title suggests, to a nightingale. Throughout the poem, Keats touches on themes of life, death, and the fleeting nature of pleasure.
History of the Ode in English
When considering the long history of the ode in the English language it is necessary to look back to Edmund Spenser. Best-known for his epic, The Faerie Queene, Spenser also wrote the earliest odes in the English language ‘Epithalamium’ and ‘Prothalamium’. Moving forward in time to the 17th century, poets like Abraham Crowley and John Dryden took on a practice of writing variants of the Pindaric Ode form.
The ode as a form of writing gained traction in the works of poets like William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. These poets more often than not used the ode form to address emotional responses, personal fears, and pleasures. Additionally, this time period saw poets reaching out to inanimate objects and intangible forces (such as a season or emotion) as the subjects of odes as well.
Other important odes in classic Romantic and contemporary poetry:
- ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats
- ‘Ode to the West Wind’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- ‘The Lady to Her Guitar’ by Emily Brontë
- ‘Ode to Thread’ by Pablo Neruda
- ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’ by Tim Turnbull