An Explanation of Ode Poems

Pablo Neruda wrote odes to such pedestrian objects as a bar of soap and a pair of socks. John Keats was more high-minded with odes on melancholy, indolence and the famous Grecian urn. Odes are poems that may be elevated, ordinary, patriotic, love-besotted and, occasionally, elegiac. They are formal lyric poems of classical origin and variable form.

What's in a Name?

Poetry is music captured in words, and odes are songs, sparkling or banal, that address a person, an occasion or an absent thing. The word "ode" comes from the Greek aeidein: to chant or sing. Odes were originally spoken to music and dance, and they have been tasked with carrying sentiments of undying affection, nationalistic nostalgia, the grief of loss, and the glory of nature, even when just carefully composed for the page. The form developed as it traveled from Greece to Rome to Europe to be embraced by poets as dissimilar as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alan Ginsberg.

Pindaric Ode

Pindar was a lyric poet from Thebes who lived around the time of 552 to 442 BC. He wrote civic poems, set to music, in celebration of athletic triumphs -- an accompaniment to the laurel wreath given to the victors. A Pindaric ode opens with a formal metrical strophe or stanza, which was sung by the chorus in Pindar's day. The open is countered by an antistrophe -- a mirror image of the beginning, also chanted by the chorus marching down the opposite side of the stage. Then the final section, the epode, has a different length and beat and was sung with the entire chorus at a standstill -- very theatrical. William Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality" is a famous English-language example of the Pindaric ode, although not composed for performance by a Greek chorus.

Horatian Ode

The Latin ode or the Horatian ode is a quieter, more lyric version of the form, named after the Roman poet Horace, who was born about 65 BC. The stanzas follow a regular pattern, as they do in John Keats' "To a Nightingale," and are almost melodic. An Horatian ode has multiple stanzas, and the end word of every line in the stanza rhymes with another line in that stanza. For example, "To a Nightingale" begins: "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:" Alan Tate's well-known 20th-century poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is an Horatian ode.

Irregular Odes

Modern poets favor the irregular ode which in theme and tone, according to the Academy of American Poets, echoes the classic ode. But the subjects range from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's "Ode to an Onion" to American Lucille Clifton's "homage to my hips" and the style or structure is not fixed. Contemporary odes may be humorous, sarcastic, or romantic and, occasionally, hark back to the structural origins of the form. Oxford professor Armand D'Angour wrote a classic Pindaric ode in both Greek and English to be read at the Olympic ceremonies in London in 2012. The most famous irregular ode goes to Keats, whose "Ode on a Grecian Urn" was actually an experiment with the sonnet form that produced one of the most celebrated poems in the English language.

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