Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Essay: The Ode

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

The ode is a poetry form that originated in Greece, where it was called aeidein, which simply meant "song". It was usually a choric song accompanied by a dance.

The first type of ode we will examine in this paper is of a ceremonious and dignified nature, commemorating the gods and the heroes of the past and emphasizing moral episodes, and is called the choral or Pindaric ode in honour of the Theban poet Pindar (ca 518-442 BC)1. It comprises three parts: the strophe, of a complex metrical structure, the antistrophe, mirroring the opening, and the epode, of a different length and in a different meter from the first two parts. The strophe (two or more lines repeated as a unit) was sung by the chorus, which was answered by another group in the metrically harmonious antistrophe. The two groups would then sing together in the epode (a summary line). More often it was the same group that first sang the strophe while dancing to the right, the antistrophe while dancing to the left, and the epode while standing still in the middle of the stage. More stanzas could follow patterned on the first three, in any pattern the poet wished, the pattern of the first three stanzas was then repeated at the end of the poem.

Pindar's four books of epinicion odes, rich in complex metaphors, greatly influenced the Western world since their publication by Aldus Manutius in 1513. The games themselves were to Pindar actually only a means to deal with themes of wider and deeper significance and therefore have universal value.

Grecian urn

The Pindaric ode was first adapted to the vernacular language with the publication of Pierre de Ronsard's four books of French "Odes"(1550). The first English poet who claims to have written a Pindaric ode was a certain John Soothern in a volume published in 1584. He was soon followed by others, like Michael Drayton.

Many of the great poets of the past have written Pindaric odes, although sometimes their work doesn't follow all classical rules, as is the case for example with Milton's great ode2"On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (1629). This poem, suspended between the great events of the past and the future, dispenses with the typical triadic form; it consists of a prelude of four stanzas followed by a hymn of twenty-seven stanzas.

Only a few decades later Abraham Cowley, who will be mentioned later in this paper, went even further and gave up the metrical and stanzaic forms of the Pindaric ode, while still calling his odes Pindaric, remarking that he followed the "spirit" rather than the letter of his original. Cowley was greatly admired by John Dryden (1631-1700), who followed his example of irregular Pindarics, emphasizing that his most important rule was that "the ear must preside and direct the judgement to the choice of numbers", a principle whose most renowned achievement is "Alexander's Feast", an ode in honour of St. Cecilia in which Dryden skilfully manipulates and adapts his metres and sounds to the different emotions described in the poem. Its purpose is a combined critique of music and poetry framed in the modern idea of harmony. There are not many good irregular Pindaric odes after this in spite of many attempts.

One of the most remarkable writers of classical Pindarics was Thomas Gray (1716-71), whose greatest achievements in this form are "The Progress of Poesy" and "The Bard", poems full of oblique, sometimes intricate allusions and striking images, like Pindar's poems, and having poetry itself as their subject matter, poetry as a life-giving force subduing negative passions, and art as catharsis and sublimation. Gray also wrote Horatian odes, like the famous and light-hearted "On the Death of a Favourite Cat" and the "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College", an ode in which childhood races past with depressing speed.

The Horatian ode, the second main type of ode, is so called in honour of the Latin poet Horace (65-8 BC), and has been of much greater impact on the English ode than the Pindaric ode. It was normally written in regular stanzas, following the pattern set in the first stanza. It dealt with reflective and intimate themes, like friendship and love, and was usually quite serene in tone. Horace himself was a keen observer and practised Epicureanism. Even when he dealt with personal problems, like the ode in which he addressed Pyrrha's inconstancy (an ode translated by Milton), he did so to universalize sorrow and certain characteristics of human nature. His odes contain unforgettable eloquence and wisdom in their simplicity.

Horace was known in the Middle Ages, but hardly imitated. One of the earliest English versions of the Horatian ode was produced by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47). After him, Horace was imitated by many other poets. One of the most remarkable poems written after Horace in the 17thcentury was Andrew Marvell's "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from England", a poem that imitates Horace's odes celebrating Augustus in the concision of the language and the rapid succession of the images. The stanza form used in this poem seems to have been devised by Marvell himself. He uses two four-stress lines followed by two three-stress lines to achieve an equivalent of the Horatian Alcaic strophe in the English language.

Another notable Horatian was Cowley, who seems to have influenced Pope's "Ode to Solitude". Pope said of Cowley: "Who now reads Cowley? / Forget his epic, nay Pindaric art, / Yet still I love the language of his heart." And indeed, his bombastic Pindaric odes are much inferior to his Horatian ones. The same can be said of Pope. His attempt at the Pindaric form in "Ode for Music on St. Cecilia's Day" is usually considered of quite low quality on the whole.

In more modern times, the Horatian ode was primarily revived by Matthew Prior, Mark Akenside, William Collins, who takes a middle course between a protean naturalization and a hymnal monotheism and poses a number of interlaced questions in his volume of odes (published in 1747), as well as Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson in the 18thcentury, a century in which poetry was deeply affected by Horace, and Matthew Arnold in the 19thcentury. In his "Horatian Echo" (1847), Arnold distances himself from the political concerns and turmoils of his time to express a gentle melancholy and subtle carpe-diem mentality.

Modern odes in the English language usually have an irregular pattern, but they do have a rhyming and stanza scheme. They also have some common characteristics, such as a) a dignified, elaborate subject matter; b) emotion and imagination; c) the subject in whose honour the poem is written is usually addressed directly (less frequently than formerly though); d) they are written to be read aloud; and they are of e) a lyrical nature originating in personal impulses and rising to more general reflections.

From the Romantic period onwards, no clear distinction is usually made any more between Pindaric and Horatian odes in the English language, and since the late 19thcentury, poets seem to be reluctant to call their poems odes, even when they show distinctive ode-like qualities, like Arnold's "Dover Beach" and Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland".

Some of the greatest modern odes include Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality", Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind", Keats's "Ode to the Nightingale" and Tennyson's "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington".

In his ode, which is essentially a free Pindaric poem as established by Cowley and perfected by Dryden, Wordsworth addresses an emotional crisis of his own life, ageing, which gives him occasion to reflect upon immortality. He starts with a clear definition of his personal problem and then expands this view by referring to two Platonic notions of immortality and by applying them to life in general, pondering that life has only apparently been impoverished by the loss of the "visionary gleam" of childhood. The recollection of such pure experience can renew its awareness in us, taking us back to a childhood state of bliss and faith in a moral order for which Nature can provide appropriate symbols. Coleridge based his "Dejection: An Ode", whose sixth stanza was described by Eliot as "one of the saddest confessions that I have ever read", on Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode", to which it was partly intended to be a reply. Coleridge's poem is much stormier than Wordsworth's and is also set in a more violent natural environment.

Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" is a political poem that should be read with relaxed attention rather than analysed word for word. Much more important in this poem are the sound and the connotation of each word and phrase, as well as the feelings it evokes. It is a poem written in the Italian terza rimaand using the wind as a symbol of inspiration (like Coleridge's "Dejection"), as well as the Romantic image of the Aeolian harp. In addition, again like Coleridge's "Dejection", it uses the image of the renovation of the spirit to depict the renovation of society. The wind, which for Shelley can enforce continuity between the natural imperialism of the past and the natural republicanism of the future, can also be compared to Keats's nightingale as a symbol of continuity and omnipresence. "To a Skylark" is written in the same evocative, suggestive mood.

Keats wrote odes universally regarded as above criticism and, like Shelley's odes, far more traditional in their structure of argument than those of Wordsworth or Coleridge. The themes of his poetry are the themes to which poets have returned again and again and again. The nightingale's song in "Ode to a Nightingale"3suggests a realm of ideal beauty and blissful immortality as contrasted with "the weariness, the fever, and the fret" of life. The rejection of the real world in favour of an ideal one are also to be intensely felt in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (a poem representing the Romantic ideal of Hellenism) and in "Ode to Melancholy", although in a less resolute way, in a mood overshadowed by a melancholic acceptance.

According to many critics, Keats's best ode is "To Autumn", a poem rich in not only visual, but also kinaesthetic and tactile images as well as onomatopoeia, and a poem in which Keats rejoices in the meaning of autumn, the acceptance of change and decay as part of life: "Thou hast thy music too". It is striking that there are no leaves in this poem dedicated to autumn, a season traditionally associated with the falling of leaves, while there are leaves in three of his other odes.

Here is the ode "To Autumn" in full:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or, by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Tennyson called his "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" "a fine rolling anthem" with a recurrent rhyming on low, dark-toned vowels echoing like a tolling bell and thus reinforcing the message of the poem. It is written in a Victorian tone, not the nostalgic tone of the Romantic poets we have just examined, and its reflections and imagery are clearly those of the author of "In Memoriam".

Other poets of the Victorian age include Landor, Swinburne, Thompson and Patmore.

The best ode of the 20thcentury is most probably the "Ode to the Confederate Dead" by Allen Tate, in which we feel the autumnal desolation of the graveyard and the poet's grief accentuated by his reserve.

Another ode worthy of mention is Louis MacNeice's "Ode", written in the form of a prayer for his son in a quite simple, casual style, a poem that accepts the limitations of human life and sadly also acknowledges the imminence of the war.

There have been many more odes written in the 20thcentury, although many of them were not called as such in their titles, as has already been mentioned. Auden, Yeats, Dylan Thomas and many others all wrote odes, in spite of their reluctance to call their poems odes, mainly because they didn't want to commit themselves to a dignified style and because of a certain aversion to classification typical of our time.


Britannica 2002 Deluxe Edition

Fry, P., The Poet's Calling in the English Ode, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1980

Hamilton, E. and Livingston J., Form and Feeling, Longman, Melbourne 1981

Heath-Stubbs, J., The Ode, Oxford University Press, London 1969

Jump, J., The Ode, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London 1974

Stillman, F., The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, Thames and Hudson (1978)

1 Pindar had adopted this form from Stesichorus (7th-6th centuries BC).

2 Milton didn't actually call any of his poems odes.

3 Keats conceived a new kind of ode in his "Ode to the Nightingale", based on a ten-line stanza in iambic pentameter except for the eighth line, in iambic trimeter. The rhyme scheme is ababcdecde.


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