An ode is a formal lyric poem that is written in celebration of something or in dedication to something. They are often written to celebrate beauty, music, or love.
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.
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.
‘Ode to My Suit’ is a wonderful example of a more modern ode. It is devoted to a single subject, as traditional odes are, but rather than speaking about a lover, dream, or desire, the speaker is thinking about his suit.
Every morning, suit,
you are waiting on a chair
to be filled
by my vanity, my love,
my hope, my body.
only half awake
I leave the shower
to shrug into your sleeves […]
It is one of several odes in which the poet focuses on everyday, seemingly mundane things. He praises them for what they give to his life while elevating them so other people can see what he sees in them. Others include a pair of socks and a tomato.
John Keats wrote some of the best-known odes in the English language. His most famous, ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ is quoted below. The first stanza reads:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
The poem was written at Charles Brown’s house after Keats was struck by the melancholy singing of a nightingale. He explores themes of death and immortality and paints the former as unavoidable. The bird lives through its song in a way human beings can’t.
It’s important to take note of the amount of time Keats devotes to the bird and the emotions it evokes. This is a traditional part of an ode, the singular interest in a subject and how it makes the poet/listener feel.