What is the Meaning of the Poem "Ode to Joy"?
Schiller's "Ode to Joy" is a fairly thorough examination of the emotion of joy, its origins and its purposes. It is inextricably linked now with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and its distinctive "Freude" melody, but it's a fairly straightforward poem, and on its own it endeavors to create a feeling of, and appreciation for, the emotion of joy in the reader. It's also all-inclusive, since Joy is literally a character in its own ode.
Schiller's Universal Welcome to Everyone
The opening stanza and chorus of "Ode" are all-encompassing, welcoming the brotherhood of mankind into Elysium (Heaven), of which Joy is the daughter. There are far-flung images of restoration -- "Beggars become Princes' brothers" -- and mysticism -- "fire-imbibed ... thy magic powers reunite." Its climax is a "kiss to the entire world" -- Joy will embrace everyone, a concept that inspired philosopher/composers such as Nietzsche and Wagner in their world outlooks.
Joy as Motivator
The ode goes on to invest Joy in all natural surroundings -- "all creatures drink at nature's bosoms ... follow her rose-petalled path" -- as well as the natural psyche -- "the strong motivation ... moves the wheels in the universal time machine." It links mankind to this natural force: "run, brothers, run for your race ... joyfully, as a hero goes to conquest ... endure for the better world!" The force of happiness that fills all of blossoming nature is available to all men.
In Vino Veritas
Schiller devotes a huge section of his poem to imbibing wine, suggesting that, far from condemning liquor, Joy itself drinks deep: "Joy is bubbling in the glasses ... this glass to Him [God], the good spirit." The heavenly powers themselves enjoy the effects of wine in Schiller's vision, and he closes with the idea that a wine-tempered God is easy on sinners: "drink and chime in ... a mild sentence from the mouth of the final judge!"
Joy is Needed and Available
Schiller's meanings in "Ode to Joy" are simple: Joy is needed for life and motivation, it is heavenly in origin and is available to mankind through a loving God. The proof of His love is found not only in nature's motivation to create perpetually, but also in nature's good things, such as the fruit of the vine. This is the evidence that should give all men hope, and allow them joy in that hope.
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.