The Ode is a special kind of lyric, more dignified, stately and elaborate than the simple lyric. Like the lyric, it also originated in ancient Greece. The Greek poet Pindar was the first to write Odes, and later on, the form was practiced with certain modifications by the Roman poet, Horace.
The word ‘ode’ is simply the Greek word for ‘song’. It was used by the Greeks for any kind of lyric verse, i.e. for any song sung with the lyre or to the accompaniment of some dance. However, as far as English literature is
concerned, the term is now applied to only one particular kind of lyric verse. An English Ode may be defined as, ‘a lyric poem of elaborate metrical structure, solemn in tone, and usually taking the form of address” very often to some abstraction or quality. Edmund Gosse defines the ode as, “a strain of enthusiastic and exalted lyric, verse, directed to a fixed purpose, and dealing progressively with one dignified theme.”
The Characteristics of an Ode:
From these definitions, the essentials of a modern English Ode may be summed up as,
1. It is in the form of an address, often to some abstraction. It is not written about but written to.
2. It has lyric enthusiasm and emotional intensity. It is a spontaneous overflow of the poet’s emotions.
3. Its theme is dignified and exalted. It has ‘high seriousness’.
4. Its style is equally elevated; it is also sufficiently long to allow for the full development of its dignified theme.
5. The development of thought is logical and clear.
6. Its metrical pattern may be regular or irregular, but it is always elaborate and often complex and intricate.
Its Two Kinds:
There are two important forms of the ode
(1) The Pindaric Ode; and
(2) The Horation Ode.
(1) The Pindaric Ode
Pindar the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece (6th to 5th century B.C.) was the father of the Pindaric or Choric’ Ode. Pindaric Odes were written generally in honour of the gods or to sing the triumphs or victories of rulers or athletes. Hence-they are also known as “triumphal” odes. A Pindaric Ode has a fixed stanza-structure or pattern. The number of stanzas may vary, but they are invariably arranged in groups of three, each group being called a triad. The first stanza in each triad is called a ‘strophe’- it was chanted by the dancing chorus as it proceeded in one direction. The second stanza in each triad is called an ante-strophe’- it was chanted by the chorus as it returned. The third stanza in each triad is called an ‘epode’, and it was sung when the chorus was stationary. Just as the total number of stanzas in a Pindaric Ode may vary (Pindar’s odes range from one triad to thirteen in length) so also there could be variations in the metrical length of individual lines. Thus the Pindaric Ode has a fixed stanza- pattern but enjoys great rhythmical and metrical freedom.
The Poet Cowley (1618-67) was the first poet of England to imitate consciously the Pindaric odes. However, he did not understand the regular structure of the Pindaric and introduced a verse form with long irregular stanzas without any fixed system of meter or rhyme. The true Pindaric in triadic form was written with success by Dryden (Ode to St. Cecilia and Alexander’s Feast) and then by Gray (The Bard and the Progress of Poesy). After Gray, Pindaric of the triadic form fell out of use till it was revived again by Arnold and Swinburne.
Though the true Pindaric did not take root in the English soil, the ode in long irregular stanzas, first used by Cowley, has grown and flourished and has become one of the recognized and popular verse-forms of England. The title Pindaric is no longer used for it. But some of the greatest odes in the English language are of this irregular kind. To name only a few: Tennyson’s Ode on the death of Duke Wellington; Shelley’s Ode to Liberty; and Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. In other words, the term Ode is now loosely
used for any lyric which is sufficiently elaborate and dignified. No fixed pattern of stanza or meter is now considered necessary.
(2) The Horatian Ode
The Horation Ode. This kind of Ode has been named after the Latin poet, Horace, who imitated Pindar but with far-reaching modifications. The Horation Ode consists of a number of stanzas with a more or less regular metrical structure but without any division into triads of the Pindaric. It may be rhymed or unrhymed. This kind of Ode is light and personal without the elaboration and complexity of the Pindaric. Many of the Finest English Odes are of this lighter sort. Some notable examples are Collin’s Ode to Simplicity and Ode to Evening; Gray’s Eton Ode, Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty; Shelley’s Ode of the West Wind; and Keats’ Ode to Nightingale.
It was in the hands of Keats that the Ode attained its highest possible perfection. His odes are the finest fruits of his maturity. They represent Keats at his best. All the characteristic qualities of his poetry find full and vivid expression in them. As has been well said. Shelley’s genius finds perfect expression in the lyrics, Keats’ genius in The Odes. The six great odes of Keats The Ode to Psyche, to Melancholy, to Nightingale, to a Grecian Urn, to
Indolence, and to Autumn, have received the highest praises from all critics of Keats. These odes are a unique phenomenon in English literature. Nothing like them existed before, and in them, Keats may be said to have created a new class of lyric poetry. They are Keats’ greatest claim to immortality.