The ode—originally accompanied by music and dance, and later reserved by the Romantic poets to convey their strongest sentiments—is a formal address to an event, a person, or a thing not present. The name comes from the Greek aeidein, meaning to sing or chant, and belongs to the long and varied tradition of lyric poetry.
Types of Odes
There are three typical types of odes: the Pindaric, Horatian, and Irregular. The Pindaric is named for the ancient Greek poet Pindar, who is credited with innovating this choral ode form (as opposed to monodies, odes sung by individuals, which were written by Greek lyric poets Alcaeus and Sappho). Pindaric odes were performed with a chorus and dancers, and often composed to celebrate athletic victories. They contain a formal opening, or strophe, of complex metrical structure, followed by an antistrophe, which mirrors the opening, and an epode, the final closing section of a different length and composed with a different metrical structure. The William Wordsworth poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is a very good example of an English language Pindaric ode. It begins:
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 Horatian ode, named for the Roman poet Horace, is generally more tranquil and contemplative than the Pindaric ode. Less formal, less ceremonious, and better suited to quiet reading than theatrical production, the Horatian ode typically uses a regular, recurrent stanza pattern. An example is the Allen Tate poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” excerpted here:
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.
The Irregular ode has employed all manner of formal possibilities, while often retaining the tone and thematic elements of the classical ode. For example, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats was written based on his experiments with the sonnet. Other well-known odes include Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Robert Creeley’s “America,” Bernadette Mayer’s “Ode on Periods,” and Robert Lowell’s “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”