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Poetry Guide: Ode

Ode is a form of stately and elaborate lyrical verse. A classic ode is structured in three parts - the strophe , the antistrophe and the epode but different forms such as the homostrophic ode and the irregular ode exist.

Greek origins

There were two great divisions of the Greek melos or song; the one the personal utterance of the poet, the other, the choric song of his band of trained dancers. Each of these culminated in what have been called odes, but the former, in the hands of Alcaeus, Anacreon and Sappho, came closer to what modern criticism knows as lyric, pure and simple. On the other hand, the choir-song, in which the poet spoke for himself, but always supported, or interpreted, by a chorus, led up to what is now known as ode proper. It was Alcman, as is supposed, who first gave to his poems a strophic arrangement, and the strophe has come to be essential to an ode. Stesichorus, Ibycus and Simonides of Ceos led the way to the two great masters of ode among the ancients, Pindar and Bacchylides.

The form and verse-arrangement of Pindar's great lyrics have regulated the type of the heroic ode. It is now perceived that they are consciously composed in very elaborate measures, and that each is the result of a separate act of creative ingenuity, but each preserving an absolute consistency of form. So far from being, as critics down to Cowley and Boileau supposed, utterly licentious in their irregularity, they are more like the canzos and sirvcntcs of the medieval troubadours than any modern verse. The Latins themselves seem to have lost the secret of these complicated harmonies, and they made no serious attempt to imitate the odes of Pindar and Bacchylides.

It is probable that the Greek odes gradually lost their musical character; they were accompanied on the flute, and then declaimed without any music at all. The ode, as it was practised by the Romans, returned to the personally lyrical form of the Lesbian lyrists. This was exemplified, in the most exquisite way, by Horace and Catullus; the former imitated, and even translated, Alcaeus and Anacreon, the latter was directly inspired by Sappho.


Ode in Continental Europe

The earliest modern writer to perceive the value of the antique ode was Ronsard, who attempted with as much energy as he could exercise to recover the fire and volume of Pindar; his principal experiments date from 1550 to 1552. The poets of the Pleiad recognized in the ode one of the forms of verse with which French prosody should be enriched, but they went too far in their use of Greek words crudely introduced. The ode, however, died in France almost as rapidly as it had come to life; it hardly survived the 16th century, and neither the examples of J. B. Rousseau nor of Saint-Amant nor of Malherbe possessed much poetic life.

Early in the 19th century the form was resumed, and we have the odes composed between 1817 and 1824 by Victor Hugo, the philosophical and religious odes of Lamartine, and the brilliant Odes funambulesques of Theodore de Banville (1857).

The golden age of German ode, both of the Pindaric and the Horatian varieties, is associated with the late 18th century and such writers as Klopstock and Schiller, whose An die Freude (Ode to Joy) inspired the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The German ode inspired first Russian odes, written by Mikhail Lomonosov, notably Morning Meditation on the Greatness of God and Evening Meditation on the Greatness of God on the occasion of the Northern Lights (1742-44). But the most popular and enduring Russian odes were composed by Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin during the reign of Catherine the Great. His ode On God, often regarded as the greatest piece of 18th-century Russian poetry, was 15 times translated into French and 8 times into German during the poet's lifetime.

English ode

The initial model for English odes was Horace, who used the form to write meditative lyrics on various themes. The earliest odes in the English language, using the word in its strict form, were the magnificent Epithalamium and Prothalamium of Spenser. In the 17th century, the most important original odes in English are those of Abraham Cowley and Andrew Marvell. Marvell, in his Horation Ode on Cromwell's Return from Ireland, used a simple and regular stanza (aabb, two four-foot lines followed by two three-foot lines) modelled on Horace, while Cowley wrote "Pindarick" odes which had irregular patterns of line lengths and rhyme schemes, though they were iambic. The principle of Cowley's Pindaricks was based on a misunderstanding of Pindar's metrical practice, but was widely imitated, with notable success by John Dryden.

With Pindar's metre being better understood in the 18th century, the fashion for Pindaric odes faded, though there are notable "actual" Pindaric odes by Thomas Gray, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard. The Pindarick of Cowley was revived around 1800 by Wordsworth for one of his very finest poems, the Intimations of Immortality ode; irregular odes were also written by Coleridge. Keats and Shelley wrote odes with regular stanza patterns. Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, written in fourteen line terza rima stanzas, is a major poem in the form, but perhaps the greatest odes of the 19th century were written by Keats. After Keats, there have been comparatively few major odes in English. One major exception is the fourth verse of the poem For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon which is often known as "The ode to the fallen" or more simply as "The Ode".

Ode in music

A musical setting of a poetic ode is also known as an ode. Horatian odes were frequently set to music in the 16th century, notably by Ludwig Senfl and Claude Goudimel. Dryden's "Ode on St. Cecilia's Day" was set by Handel, and Schiller's Ode to Joy was used in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Odes to dignitaries were often set also, such as the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne by Handel. Byron's Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte was set by Arnold Schoenberg.

Pop Music

Ode to Billy Joe is a song by Bobbie Gentry.

Ode to my Family is a song by Cranberries.