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What Is an Ode?
An ode is a lyrical poem that expresses praise, glorification, or tribute. It examines its subject from both an emotional and an intellectual perspective. Classic odes date back to ancient Greece, and they contain three sections: a strophe, an antistrophe, and an epode—effectively a beginning, middle, and end.
Classic odes adhere to the style of ancient poets, most notably Pindar (a Greek) and Horace (a Roman). Irregular odes also exist, and these frequently mimic the styles of Greek poets Anacreon and Alcaeus.
English language odes became popular during the Elizabethan era. The most notable progenitor of English language Elizabethan odes was Edmund Spenser, who lived during the second half of the sixteenth century and overlapped with English literary giants William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Spenser’s odes Epithalamium and Prothalamium established a template for the form.
3 Types of Odes
There are three main types of odes: Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular. Here are the characteristics of each:
- Pindaric odes: Named for Pindar, a legendary lyrical poet of Ancient Greece, Pindaric odes contain a strophe, an antistrophe, and an epode. The strophe and antistrophe share a common meter and length. The epode has its own unique meter and length. In Ancient Greece, Pindaric odes were performed for audiences using dancers and a chorus. Pindar himself embraced mythology and made ample references to it in his poetry.
- Horatian odes: Named for the Roman poet Horace, these poems were rarely performed on a stage. They were meditative and designed for personal reading or small group recitations. Standard Horatian odes feature traditional stanzas and rhyme schemes.
- Irregular odes: Thematically, irregular odes tread similar ground as Pindaric and Horatian odes. In terms of structure and rhyme scheme, they are looser. Most odes in contemporary poetry are irregular odes that take liberties with the form.
3 Examples of Odes
The best way to understand the differences between the types of odes is to see examples. Here are examples of Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular odes:
1. Pindaric Ode
A famous English language poem that is written in the Pindaric style is “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth, published in 1807. One of its verses reads:
Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor's sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.
2. Horatian Ode
An English language poem that demonstrates the Horatian form is “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” by Andrew Marvell from 1650. An excerpt reads:
The forward youth that would appear
Must now forsake his Muses dear,
Nor in the shadows sing
His numbers languishing.
’Tis time to leave the books in dust,
And oil th’ unused armour’s rust,
Removing from the wall
The corslet of the hall.
So restless Cromwell could not cease
In the inglorious arts of peace,
But thorough advent’rous war
Urged his active star.
And like the three-fork’d lightning, first
Breaking the clouds where it was nurst,
Did through his own side
His fiery way divide.
3. Irregular Ode
For an example of an irregular ode, look to Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind,” published in 1820. An excerpt reads:
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision; I would ne'er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
Shelley wrote during the Romantic era, when poets sought to push boundaries and embrace relatively irregular forms. Another enduring ode from this era is John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” published in 1819 and inspired by the song of its namesake bird. Keats also published “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in the very same year, and it remains widely read to this day.
What Are the Differences Between an Ode and an Elegy?
Odes and elegies are similar and share many characteristics. Dating back to the eighteenth century, the elegiac stanza traditionally has the following characteristics that distinguish it from an ode:
- It is a quatrain—i.e. comprised of four lines
- It contains an ABAB rhyme scheme
- Each line is written in iambic pentameter
5 Examples of Famous Elegies
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Many of the great poets have contributed to the form. Some examples include:
- John Milton, “Lycidas” (1637): A pastoral elegy that uses descriptions of nature to articulate feelings of loss and remembrance. As was standard for the London-born Milton, “Lycidas” is brimming with Christian themes.
- Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751): A somber meditation on death inspired by the 1742 passing of the poet Richard West.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats” (1821): An elegy written in the Spenserian style of iambic pentameter with an ABABBCBCC rhyme scheme. The poem memorializes John Keats, following in the tradition of authors using elegy to honor their literary compatriots.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.” (1850): A Victorian-era elegy for Tennyson’s dear friend and would-be brother-in-law Arthur Henry Hallam.
- Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865): An elegy inspired by Lincoln as well as the loss felt throughout America in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Many contemporary elegies contain no set form, and even the nineteenth-century elegies by the likes of Whitman and Tennyson take ample liberties with meter and rhyme scheme. This differentiates them from traditional odes, which follow a stricter structure.
3 Tips for How to Write an Ode
While odes have embraced more irregular forms with passing years, there are still a few characteristics that make an ode poem distinct from other poetry. If you’re looking to write your own ode, remember these rules:
- Use quatrain stanzas. Classic odes (Pindaric and Horatian) use four-line stanzas known as quatrains. Irregular odes like Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind” may deviate from this, but the most idiomatic phrasing of an ode should contain a stanza pattern with four lines per stanza.
- Choose a grand or intensely personal subject. Depending on the style of the ode you are writing, your subject matter may vary, but in many cases, it should be big and bold. Pindaric odes pay tribute to gods and the majesty of nature, as is the case in Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Horatian odes also contain larger-than-life subjects, but they tend to be more personal to the poem’s speaker, or perhaps even the poet themselves.
- Be precise about the length of your lines. Pindaric odes typically have a fourth line that is shorter than the rest of the quatrain. Horatian odes typically have a third line that is shorter than the rest of the quatrain. If you are writing an irregular ode, you have more freedom, but a loose structure pushes odes closer to adjacent forms of poetry, such as the elegy.
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