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Poetry Guide: Epode

Epode, in verse, the third part in an ode, which followed the strophe and the antistrophe, and completed the movement.

At a certain moment the choirs, which had chanted to right of the altar or stage and then to left of it, combined and sang in unison, or permitted the coryphaeus to sing for them all, standing in the centre. When, with the appearance of Stesichorus and the evolution of choral lyric, a learned and artificial kind of poetry began to be cultivated in Greece, a new form, the epode-song, came into existence. It consisted of a verse of trimeter iambic, followed by a dimeter iambic, and it is reported that, although the epode was carried to its highest perfection by Stesichorus, an earlier poet, Archilochus, was really the inventor of this form.

The epode soon took a firm place in choral poetry, which it lost when that branch of literature declined. But it extended beyond the ode, and in the early dramatists we find numerous examples of monologues and dialogues framed on the epodical system. In Latin poetry the epode was cultivated, in conscious archaism, both as a part of the ode and as an independent branch of poetry. Of the former class, the epithalamia of Catullus, founded on an imitation of Pindar, present us with examples of strophe, antistrophe and epode; and it has been observed that the celebrated ode of Horace, beginning Quem virum aut heroa lyra vet acri, possesses this

Epodes of Horace

The word is now mainly familiar from an experiment of Horace in the second class, for he entitled his fifth book of odes Epodon liber or the Book of Epodes. He says in the course of these poems, that in composing them he was introducing a new form, at least in Latin literature, and that he was imitating the effect of the iambic distichs invented by Archilochus. Accordingly we find the first ten of these epodes composed in alternate verses of iambic trimeter and iambic dimeter, thus:

"At o Deorum quicquid in coelo regit Terras et humanum genus;"

In the seven remaining epodes Horace has diversified the measures, while retaining the general character of the distich. This group of poems belongs in the main to the early youth of the poet, and displays a truculence and a controversial heat which are absent from his more mature writings. As he was imitating Archilochus in form, he believed himself justified, no doubt, in repeating the sarcastic violence of his fierce model. The curious thing is that these particular poems of Horace, which are really short lyrical satires, have appropriated almost exclusively the name of epodes, although they bear little enough resemblance to the genuine epode of early Greek literature.