The word ode first appeared in English in the 1580s. It comes from the Middle French ode via the Late Latin ode, meaning “lyric song,” which was derived from the Ancient Greek aeidein, meaning “to sing or chant.”
The History of the Ode
Odes originated as Greek choral songs performed at religious festivals. They recounted stories concerning heroes, gods, and victories in battle. The original odes were set to music and followed a specific, complex three-part structure utilizing a strophe (the first section), an antistrophe (the second section), and an epode (the final section).
The form was adapted by Latin poets who loosened the structure and wrote in a less formal tone. Eventually, the ode was popularized in Renaissance England. In the English tradition, the term ode was used more loosely and meant either a poem of praise or a poem containing an emotional outburst.
According to former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, “By the nineteenth century [the ode] was a longish lyric poem, often with an elaborate stanza structure written in lines of varying and irregular length and often with different formal patterns in different parts.”
Types of Ode
There are three types of ode: Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular.
The Pindaric Ode
This style was named after ancient Greek poet Pindar, who is often credited as the creator of the ode. Pindar’s odes were choral poems about heroics intended for musical accompaniment and performed at public events. Pindaric odes follow a three-part structure that consists of a strophe, an antistrophe, and a concluding epode. These odes have varying line lengths and irregular rhyme patterns between sections. The strophe and antistrophe typically follow the same rhyme and meter, while the epode introduces a new pattern.
The Horatian Ode
This type of ode was named after Latin poet Horace, and unlike Pindar’s heroic odes, the Horatian form is more intimate, contemplative, and informal in tone and subject matter. These are also called homostrophic odes, as a consistent meter, line length, and rhyme scheme is used throughout the entire poem. They are generally written in couplets (two-line stanzas) or quatrains (four-line stanzas).
As the term indicates, these are odes that do not follow the conventions of the Pindaric or Horatian forms. Traditionally, these poems follow certain patterns of rhyme and meter, but they do not adhere to the same structures of the other types. As of the mid-1900s, many irregular odes have been written entirely in free verse, their writers no longer utilizing even an irregular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
The Elements of an Ode
The ode form often contains the three elements: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode.
The strophe is the first part of a choral ode. Traditionally, in Greek choral odes, which were recited, the strophe was chanted by the chorus as it moved across the stage. In the modern interpretation, the term strophe signifies the first distinct unit of an ode.
The antistrophe can be understood as the reversal of the strophe. In ancient Greek odes, the antistrophe occurred as the chorus moved back across the stage to its original side after reciting the strophe. However, in modern odes, the antistrophe is simply the second distinct unit in an ode’s structure. It is melodically identical in rhyme and meter to the strophe, and it serves as a kind of response to the strophe.
The epode is the “after song.” It is the third and final section of an ode and traditionally occurred when the Greek chorus came together in the center of the stage. While the strophe and antistrophe share the same rhyme and meter, the epode introduces a new metrical structure to the poem.
Odes may also contain rhyme and meter, as well as an invocation, where the poet typically begins by directly addressing the ode’s subject.
Odes and Other Lyric Poetry
An elegy is generally a formal lament for the death of a person or a solemn meditation on the question of death.
A sonnet was originally a type of love poem spoken by a lover and explicating their suffering and hopes. There are two types of sonnet: Italian (Petrarchan) sonnets and English (Shakespearean) sonnets. These sonnet types employ different rhyme schemes and metrical patterns.
Odes are long, lyric poems that explore serious subject matters. These poems generally use a formal and generally laudatory tone, as well as an elevated style. Odes are also often called praise poems.
Notable Poets Who Wrote Odes
- Marilyn Chin, “Ode to Anger”
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Dejection: An Ode”
- Shira Erlichman, Odes to Lithium
- t’ai freedom ford, “ode to an African urn”
- Thomas Gray, “The Progress of Poesy”
- Terrance Hayes, “Ode to Big Trouble”
- Robert Herrick, “An Ode to Ben Jonson”
- Horace, The Odes
- Ben Jonson, “An Ode to Himself”
- John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
- Yusef Komunyakaa, “Ode to the Chameleon,” “Ode to the Guitar”
- Federico García Lorca, “Ode to Walt Whitman”
- Thomas Lux, “Ode to the Electric Fish that Eat Only the Tails of Other Electric Fish”
- Andrew Marvell, “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland”
- Airea D. Matthews, “Black Ecstatic Ode”
- Bernadette Mayer, “Ode on Periods”
- Pablo Neruda, Elemental Odes
- Sharon Olds, “Ode of Girls’ Things”
- Pindar, Victory Odes
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind”
- Edmund Spencer, “Epithalamion,” “Prothalamion”
- D. Wright, “The New American Ode,” “The Ozark Odes”
- William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
- Matthew Zapruder, “Ode to Fluffy”
Examples of Odes
1. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind”
Shelley’s famous poem opens with these lines:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing
This is an irregular ode, as it does not utilize the Pindaric three-part structure nor Horatian quatrains. That said, the poem does employ a regular meter (iambic pentameter) and introduces readers to a new stanzaic form composed of five sonnets, each of which contains four tercets (three-line stanzas). Shelley based his rhyme scheme on the Italian terza rima, which means there is a rhyme scheme of ABA, BCB, CDC, DED, and then a final EE couplet.
2. Allen Tate, “Ode to the Confederate Dead”
The second stanza of Tate’s poem opens with these four lines:
Autumn is desolation in the plot
Of a thousand acres where these memories grow
From the inexhaustible bodies that are not
Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
Tate’s Horatian-style ode employs a consistent rhyme scheme (ABAB in this section). The poem doesn’t have a triad structure, as in a Pindaric ode, and although the diction is refined, the tone is more informal and contemplative. Rather than praising these dead soldiers, Tate contemplates the meaning of their death and death in general.
3. Thomas Gray, “The Progress of Poesy”
Gray’s poem is an English version of a Pindaric ode. It opens with the following strophe:
Awake, Aeolian lyre, awake,
And give to rapture all thy trembling strings.
From Helicon’s harmonious springs
A thousand rills their mazy progress take
This ode contains three triads—each containing a strophe, antistrophe, and epode—and similar to Pindar’s laudatory odes, it praises nature and art.
4. Leila Chatti, “ode to ugly things”
Chatti’s poem is a modern irregular ode. She begins by writing:
God bless ugliness. There is beauty
in every ugly thing. I don’t mean
those eyes and teeth drifted
apart like untethered boats, because they are beautiful.
I mean your sister, third grade,
her braces, each band
a yellow figure-eight, her favorite color,
and trapped between the interstice
of her front incisors, a gleaming broccoli bud.
Chatti does not follow the traditional triad structure of the Pindaric ode. Although she does write in couplets, which echoes the Horatian ode structure, she does not utilize its consistent rhyming pattern. Instead, this poem is written entirely in free verse, adhering to no metrical pattern or rhyme scheme at all.
Further Resources on Odes
The poet Robert Hass has an excellent section on odes in his poetry handbook A Little Book of Form.
The Academy of American Poets has a page containing a brief history of odes which also includes links to further odes to read.
Brette Sember wrote a “How To” guide for anyone would like to try to write an ode.