Odes, as we think of them today, originated with an ancient Greek lyricist named Pindar who lived in the fifth century BC. He wrote other types of odes, but he’s best known for crafting complicated ceremonial poems to celebrate Olympic victories. In honor of the winner, Pindar wrote poems celebrating the athlete’s glorious achievement, his family, and his ancient Greek city-state. A chorus performed Pindar’s words before an assembled crowd of sports fans.
In her essay And the Winner Is … Pindar!, poet and professor Stephanie Burk explains, “We now call those poems his epinician odes (from epi, “upon,” and nike, victory): Pindar seems to have written each one on commission—the sponsor whose chariot won the chariot-race, or the family of a winning boxer, paid Pindar to compose verse about the event, which was then performed, with music and dancing.” So, you can think of Pindar this way—he’s the original hype man.
Before you try to write an ode for yourself (or your teacher), it’s important to understand a few basic principles about this style. Most scholars divide odes into three categories: Pindaric odes, Horatian odes, and irregular odes. Each category has its own format and developed during a different time period. Pindaric odes originated in the fifth century BC, Horatian odes developed in the first century BC, and irregular odes came to prominence in the 1650’s before reaching peak popularity during the Romantic era (1800-1850). To learn more about odes, let’s look at some English-language examples within each category.
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The Progress of Poesy: A Pindaric Ode by Thomas Gray is an imitation Pindaric ode, published in 1757. It’s long—with 789 words spread over nine stanzas. By examining first stanza, we can identify some of the qualities unique to a Pindaric Ode:
Awake, Æolian lyre, awake, And give to rapture all thy trembling strings. From Helicon’s harmonious springs A thousand rills their mazy progress take: The laughing flowers, that round them blow, Drink life and fragrance as they flow. Now the rich stream of music winds along Deep, majestic, smooth, and strong, Thro’ verdant vales, and Ceres’ golden reign: Now rolling down the steep amain, Headlong, impetuous, see it pour: The rocks and nodding groves rebellow to the roar.
You can see that the verse above can be broken into smaller rhyming units consisting of four lines, each with a structured rhyme scheme. The exact meter and rhyming of a Pindaric ode does not follow a set of universal rules, but a triadic structure unites all Pindaric odes. In the traditional performance of an ode, the first verse, called a strophe, was delivered from one side of the stage. On the opposite side of the stage, the chorus delivered the antistrophe, or opposing idea. Both of these sections utilized the same nonce structure, consisting of a unique, one-time set of rules. The epode, written with a different structure than the strophe and antistrophe, acted as a synthesis of the two sides, and was performed in the center of the stage.
The three sections—strophe, antistrophe, and epode—are repeated three times in the nine stanza poem. Whereas the strophe and antistrophe have identical structures, the epode has a distinct secondary structure, repeated every third stanza in this poem. Typically, every fourth line in a Pindaric ode would have a shorter length, but Gray’s poem does not adhere to that convention.
Unlike Pindar, the Roman poet Horace composed poems using quatrains, which are four-line stanzas. Even today, all Horatian odes follow that construction. Horace penned his poetry for small group recitations rather than large public performances. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the thematic content of Horatian odes and how it differs from previous odes: “In contrast to the lofty, heroic odes of the Greek poet Pindar…most of Horace’s odes are intimate and reflective; they are often addressed to a friend and deal with friendship, love, and the practice of poetry.” The subject matter reflected the intimacy of the performances, where smaller gatherings allowed for greater nuance and subtlety.
Alexander Pope’s poem Ode on Solitude gives us an excellent English-language example of this form of poetry. In his poem, excerpted below, all of the stanzas follow the same rhyme scheme and metrical structure. Again, the poet has created a nonce structure, unique to this poem. It’s traditional for a Horatian ode to have the third line in each quatrain be the shortest, but Pope opted to make the fourth line shorter in the style of a Pindaric ode:
Happy the man, whose wish and care A few paternal acres bound, Content to breathe his native air, In his own ground. Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread, Whose flocks supply him with attire, Whose trees in summer yield him shade, In winter fire.
With the publication of Abraham Cowley’s Pindarique Odes, a new era of ode-writing began. Irregular odes set aside the formal structural elements of traditional odes, and they became more popular throughout the 1700 and 1800’s. Rather than mimic Horatian and Pindaric odes, poets tried to capture the spirit of a classic ode. They set aside the constraints of formal poetic forms—prescribed line length, meter, and rhyme scheme. Thematically, irregular odes often describe an intense moment. The poet explains how an image or scene sets off a personal crisis or an emotional revelation for the speaker.
While elegies and odes are both lyric poetry in praise of someone or something, the biggest difference between the two styles has to do with the subject matter. Elegies are typically written to mourn someone dead or lost. In regards to structure, elegies tend to use quatrains consisting of iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ABAB. As with odes, elegies sometimes deviate from the prescribed structure. For this reason, the best way to identify the correct form is by asking yourself, “Is the subject of this poem alive or dead?”
Then again, a modernist poem like Allen Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Deadblends the boundaries between an elegy and an ode, potentially confusing the matter. According to ModernAmericanPoetry.org, “By Christmas of 1926, [Tate] had completed a first draft of the poem, originally titled ELEGY for the Confederate Dead.” Ultimately, the poem focused more on the inner life of the speaker than it did on the dead confederate soldiers, so he changed the name.
When in doubt, many poets include the word “ode” or “elegy” in their completed poem. You can always title your ode “An Ode to…” in order to make your intentions clear. In Tate’s case, he signified that he wanted readers to interpret his verse as an ode poem, rather than as an elegy, by changing the title.
Before you write your lyric poem in praise of something (or someone) great, read a few famous odes to gather ideas. Brainstorm new and innovative ways to elevate your poem’s subject, but remember that Pindaric and Horatian odes follow time-tested guidelines that date back to ancient Greece and Rome. Pindaric odes require a triadic structure. If you want to break the rules, you can look to irregular odes for inspiration. Lastly, think about Horatian odes in terms of quatrains—they should suit your needs whether you decide to write an ode or an elegy.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.