Ode: Definition, Characteristics & Structure

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Definition of Ode

      The term ‘ode’ is derived from a Greek word aeidein, which means to chant or sing. In ancient times, the ode was usually performed at a ceremonial occasion, with music. Ode is a type of lyrical stanza, where poets praise people, natural scenes, and abstract ideas. Ode is a literary technique that is lyrical in nature, but not very lengthy. It is highly solemn and serious in its tone and subject matter, and usually is used with elaborate patterns of stanzas. However, the tone is often formal. A salient feature of ode is its uniform metrical feet. Of course, poets cannot always strictly maintain the metrical feet while presenting their elevated themes. Ode expresses exalted or enthusiastic emotion in respect of a theme which is dignified, and it does so in metrical form which is a rule complex or irregular. An ode is expected to show a usually free flow of feeling and imagery. Sir Edmund Gosse in the introduction to his English Ode remarked:

      “Any strain of enthusiastic and exalted lyrical verse, directed to a fixed purpose, and dealing progressively with one dignified theme.” Pindar was the greatest Greek poet of ode in antiquity. For the sublime and soaring qualities of his poetry, he was compared to an eagle. Among the Romans, Horace is the most accomplished writer of odes. His imaginative flight or rapture is less than that of Pindar, but he excels in his grace and elegance.

Odes in English

      In ancient Greece, where odes were first written, they were designed to be read out loud, in public settings, to honor the person or thing in question. Often, odes were read at funerals (much the way we read eulogies today) or coronation ceremonies, and were the Greeks’ primary way of giving honor to their leaders and heroes. In later eras, the ode was used in praise of non-human things, especially natural phenomena. Odes in the English literature are the lyrical poems in which poets use a certain metrical pattern, rhyme scheme and can express their noble and lofty sentiments in serious and sometimes satirical tone. Since the themes of odes are inspiring and lofty that bears significance, therefore have universal appeal. English odes are lyrical stanzas in praise of, or dedicated to someone or something that capture the poet’s interest or serves as an inspiration for the ode. The earliest odes in the English language, using the word in its strict form, were the Epithalamium and Prothalamium of Edmund Spenser. Here we have a type of ode between regular and irregular base on a single type of elaborate strophe and rime scheme. The notable ode writers of English literature include John Donne, Thomas Nashe, William Shakespeare, Abraham Cowley, Thomas Gray, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Allen Tate, and some others.

      After the Renaissance, the odes of Pindar attracted attention, but their complex form was not understood. There were several imitations of Pindar in 17th century, but most of them proceeded on the assumption that the Pindaric ode was an essay in irregular verse. In the 17th century, the most important original odes in English are by Abraham Cowley. These were iambic, but had irregular line length patterns and rhyme schemes. Cowley based the principle of his Pindariques on an apparent misunderstanding of Pindar’s metrical practice but, nonetheless, others widely imitated his style, with notable success by John Dryden. Towards the end of 18th century, Thomas Gray wrote two famous Pindaric odes - The Progress of Poesy and The Bard. The English ode thus came to mean more or less a lyric of no definite length with suggestions of an irregular verse pattern, reminiscent of misunderstood Pindar. It is generally exalted and dignified in substance, feeling and style.

      Milton’s ode On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1629) shows the influence of Pindar, as do the poems written for public occasions by his contemporary Abraham Cowley. However, the Cowleyan (or irregular) ode, originated by Cowley, disregarded the complicated metrical and stanzaic structure of the Pindaric form and employed freely altering stanzas and varying lines. Dryden’s famous poems, Songs on St, Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast are also of this model. Swift unsuccessfully tried to imitate Pindar and it is in connection with one of his experiments in this direction that Dryden is said to have told him, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.” The odes of the 19th century romantic poets such as Keats, Shelley and Coleridge and of such later poets as Swinburne and Hopkins tend to be much freer in form and subject matter than the classical ode.

      The Romantics made a big deal out of writing odes and John Keats was the master. He wrote odes to all kinds of things — nightingales, Grecian urns, even melancholy. Some odes follow the formal rules set by the two most famous Greek writers of odes, Horace and Pindar. These poems are called — surprise, surprise — Horatian and Pindaric, respectively. But other odes, like Keats’s, follow a form and meter of all their own. The ode dates back to the Greek choral songs that were sung and danced at public events and celebrations. The Greek odes of Pindar, which were modeled on the choral odes of Greek drama, were poems of praise or glorification. Around 1800, William Wordsworth revived Cowley’s Pindarick for one of his finest poems, the Intimations of Immortality ode. It contains eleven stanzas of varying lengths. The lines in each stanza are of irregular length and the rhyme-scheme if any is capricious. Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, written in fourteen line terza rima stanzas, is a major poem in the form. Perhaps the greatest odes of the 19th century, however, were Keats’s Five Great Odes of 1819, which included Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on Melancholy, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Psyche, and To Autumn. 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 (1869-1943), which is often known as The Ode to the Fallen, or simply as The Ode. W.H. Auden also wrote Ode, one of the most popular poems from his earlier career when he lived in London, in opposition to people’s ignorance over the reality of war. In an interview, Auden once stated that he had intended to title the poem My Silver Age in mockery of the supposedly imperial Golden age; however chose Ode as it seemed to provide a more sensitive exploration of warfare. Ode on a Grecian Urn, while an ekphrasis, also functions as an ode to the artistic beauty the narrator observes. The English ode’s most common rhyme scheme is ABABCDECDE.

Characteristics of Ode

      An ode is different from a lyric in the sense that lyric is concerned with a single phase of emotion, but the ode deals with several phases - each expressed in stanza or paragraph-form. It is then, an expression of intense usually sublime emotion, and combines dignity of thought with elevation and complexity of form. The distinguishing features of ode are:

      (i) The subject matter of an ode is exalted and its tone and styles are elevated. Neither the theme nor its treatment can be trivial or undignified. The poet is serious both in his choice of subject and the manner of its presentation.

      (ii) An ode is longer than a lyric proper, for the emotion it embodies is of a kind that admits of development. It may be full of deep and sincere emotion, but its expression is expected to be much more consciously elaborate, impressive and diffuse.

      (iii) An ode often makes a direct address to the object it treats of. The opening lines sometimes contain an apostrophe or appeal, which is characteristic of the whole treatment of the poem. For example, Keats’ Ode. on a Grecian Urn begins with “Thou still unravished bride of quietness”; Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind begins with “O wild West Wind” and so on.

      (iv) Sometimes an ode has for its subject an important public event like a national jubilee, the death of distinguished personage, the commemoration of the founding of a great university etc. Marvell’s Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland and Tennyson’s Ode on the. Death of the Duke of Wellington are instances of this sort.

      However, in the strict definition, an ode is a classical poem that has a specific structure and is aimed at an object or person. In this sense, odes usually express elevated emotion, and are often used to praise a leader or a work of art. In the loose definition, an ode is any work of art or literature that expresses high praise. This could include a best man’s speech praising the groom, or an emotional eulogy at someone’s funeral. In formal contexts, it is best to avoid the loose definition especially while talking about classical poetry. For the works of art with high praise other than a classical ode, the words ‘homage’, ‘encomium’, or ‘panegyric’ are applicable.

Structure of Ode

      A classic ode is structured in three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Different forms such as the homostrophic ode and the irregular ode also exist. A strophe is a poetic term originally referring to the first part of the ode in Ancient Greek tragedy, followed by the antistrophe and epode. The term has been extended to also mean a structural division of a poem containing stanzas of varying line length.

      (i) Strophe: In Greek drama, the strophe (turning) signified the first section of a choral ode, and was recited by the Chorus as it moved across the stage. The strophe is essentially the first half of a debate or argument presented by the chorus. In reciting the strophe, the chorus moves from the right of the stage to the left. Because the size of the chorus during ancient performances would vary greatly, sometimes the entire chorus would perform both the strophe and the antistrophe, and sometimes the chorus would be split down the middle, with only one half reciting the strophe. In one section of Antigone, the chorus recalls the story of Danae, a woman whose father locked her away in her room to prevent her from having a child. This story implies that Antigone’s punishment of being entombed is unjust. Strophic poetry is to be contrasted with poems composed line-by-line non-stanzaically, such as Greek epic poems or English blank verse, to which the term stichic applies.

      (ii) Anti strophe: Antistrophe is the portion of an ode sung by the chorus in its returning movement from west to east, in response to the strophe, which was sung from east to west. The Chorus’s movement back to its original side was accompanied by the anti strop he. The antistrophe is the other half of the debate or further exploration of the argument initially presented in the strophe. The word itself means ‘to turn back’, which makes sense given that the chorus moves in the opposite direction of the strophe; for the antistrophe, the movement is left to right. The antistrophe serves as a response to the strophe, but it does not get the last word. The antistrophe only complicates the issue and makes it difficult to see the correct answer or path for characters to take. In one section of Antigone, the chorus recalls the story of Lycurgus, a king who mocked the god Dionysus and was therefore punished by being imprisoned and driven insane. This story implies that Antigone’s entombment is fair given her crime.

      (iii) Epode: Epode is the third part of an ode, which followed the strophe and the antistrophe, and completed the movement. Finally, the Chorus stood still to chant the epode, the final section of the ode, which used a new metrical structure. The epode, or ‘after song’, is the third and final section of the ode. In the epode, the chorus comes together in the center of the stage and delivers a final stanza. While the strophe and antistrophe are delivered in the same meter as one another, the epode is often slightly different. In many odes, the epode is omitted, so the strophe and antistrophe comprise the entire choral interlude.

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