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What Is an Ode?
An ode is a short lyric poem that praises an individual, an idea, or an event. In ancient Greece, odes were originally accompanied by music—in fact, the word “ode” comes from the Greek word aeidein, which means to sing or to chant. Odes are often ceremonial, and formal in tone. There are several different types of odes, but they are all highly structured and adhere to poetic forms.
What Is the Structure of an Ode Poem?
An ode poem is traditionally divided into three sections, or stanzas:
- The strophe. In a Greek ode, the strophe usually consists of two or more lines repeated as a unit. In modern usage, the term strophe can refer to any group of verses that form a distinct unit within a poem.
- The antistrophe. The second section of an ode is structured the same way as the strophe, but typically offers a thematic counterbalance.
- The epode. This section or stanza typically has a distinct meter and length from the strophe and antistrophe, and serves to summarize or conclude the ideas of the ode.
The English Romantic poets wrote many odes, all of which explored intense emotions. While Romantic odes deviate in form and meter from the traditional Greek ode, they all tend to follow some kind of traditional verse structure. For example, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” believed to have been written in response to the loss of his son, is written in iambic pentameter.
What Are the Different Types of Ode Poems?
There are three main types of odes:
- Pindaric ode. Pindaric odes are named for the ancient Greek poet Pindar, who lived during the 5th century BC and is often credited with creating the ode poetic form. A Pindaric ode consists of a strophe, an antistrophe that is melodically harmonious, and an epode. Pindaric poems are also characterized by irregular line lengths and rhyme schemes.
- Horatian ode. Named after Roman poet Horace, who lived during the 1st century, the Horatian ode consists of two- or four-line stanzas that share the same meter, rhyme scheme, and length. Unlike the more formal Pindaric ode, the Horatian ode traditionally explores intimate scenes of daily life.
- Irregular ode. Irregular odes follow neither the Pindaric form nor the Horatian form. Irregular odes typically include rhyme, as well as irregular verse structure and stanza patterns.
Famous Examples of Odes
Here are famous examples of each of the three types of ode poems.
Pindar’s odes were delivered to boys and young men who triumphed in the Greek Classical games, and were performed with song and dance. A Greek chorus would move to one side of the stage to deliver the strophe, shift to the other side of the stage for the antistrophe, then deliver the epode from center stage. Pindaric odes experienced a revival in the 1550s in France, and derive from poetic imitations of Pindar’s style.
For a classic example of a Pindaric ode, consider the first three stanzas of “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth:
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.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
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.
Horace broke away from the strict structure of the Pindaric ode and focused on more personal, informal topics. Horatian odes were revived during the Renaissance, but were not meant for public performances: they are more often intimate reflections on friendship, love, and poetry itself.
One of the most famous masters of the Horatian ode was John Keats. Another English romantic poet, Keats wrote odes that feature beautiful, lush imagery, and a deep exploration of the poet’s own emotions. Keats odes that are much studied and loved today include “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “To Autumn,” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” the first stanza of which you’ll find below:
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.
Also known as the Cowleyan ode, after English poet Abraham Cowley, the irregular ode relaxes the structure of the ode poem even further. American poet Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” written in 1928, is an example of an irregular ode. Here is an excerpt:
Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sough the rumour of mortality.
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