By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Put simply, an ode is a poem written about, or to, a particular thing or person. So Andrew Marvell wrote a poem about Oliver Cromwell, Percy Shelley wrote an ode to the west wind, and John Keats wrote odes to everything from a Grecian urn to the state of melancholy. Pablo Neruda even wrote an ode to his socks.
The ode is an example of the lyric poem: that is, a poem expressing the thoughts and feelings of an individual speaker. And indeed, like lyric poems, the ode was originally, in classical times, designed to be sung to music (lyric poems were originally accompanied by music played on the lyre, hence the name).
Broadly speaking, odes can take three forms: the Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular. The first two of these were named after classical poets who devised and perfected new types of ode, while the third, as the name implies, can take numerous forms and has no set stanza form or structure.
But what are the best examples of odes? Let’s take a look at some of the finest odes in all of literature, from classical times to the present day.
1. Andrew Marvell, ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’.
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try …
Marvell (1621-78) is now regarded as one of the greatest metaphysical poets in the English language, but during his lifetime it was for his political career that he was most famous.
In ‘An Horatian Ode’, one of his most celebrated poems, Marvell pays tribute to Oliver Cromwell (Marvell was a supporter of Cromwell during the English Civil War) but also praises King Charles’s personal demeanour, even when he was led to the scaffold to be executed.
2. Aphra Behn, ‘On Desire’.
Oh! mischievous usurper of my peace;
Oh! soft intruder on my solitude,
Charming disturber of my ease,
That hast my nobler fate pursued,
And all the glories of my life subdued.
Often subtitled ‘A Pindarick’, this ode from the pioneering woman writer Aphra Behn (1640-89) does not celebrate desire uncritically, but instead accuses desire of disturbing her peace of mind.
3. Thomas Gray, ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’.
The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?
This poem by Thomas Gray (1716-71) was occasioned by a real-life event involving the cat belonging to Gray’s friend, Horace Walpole (author of the first Gothic novel among other things). The cat spied the goldfish in a bowl and jumped right in to get them; as a result of this reckless act, the cat drowned.
Gray’s poem pokes fun at human sentimentality by describing the death of the cat in deliberately exaggerated terms, likening the cat’s plight to the tragic fall of an epic hero. But he also (with his tongue in his cheek) chastises women who are attracted to ‘gold’ things which will be their downfall …
4. William Wordsworth, ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
This is one of William Wordsworth’s best-known and best-loved poems. He wrote ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ between March 1802 and March 1804; it was published in 1807.
Philip Larkin once recalled hearing the poem recited on BBC radio while he was driving, and having to pull over to the side of the road, as his eyes had filled with tears. It remains a powerful poetic meditation on death, the loss of childhood innocence, and the way we tend to get further away from ourselves – our true roots and our beliefs – as we grow older.
But it is not merely elegiac: indeed, it becomes celebratory as Wordsworth comes to realise that the advancing years can still provide opportunities to catch some glimmers of that first encounter with nature as a child.
5. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Dejection: An Ode’.
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear—
This ode from one of the leading English poets of the Romantic movement had a curious genesis: Coleridge, who was married, had fallen in love with another woman, Sara Hutchinson, and wrote this poem to express his feelings of dejection or misery, and his inability to write as a result of his mental state.
6. Percy Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’.
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Percy Shelley (1792-1822) is one of the greatest of the ‘second generation’ Romantic poets who also numbered John Keats and Lord Byron among them. And ‘To a Skylark’ is one of Shelley’s best-loved and most anthologised poems.
The poem is an ode to the bird, but in many ways Shelley’s ode to a skylark is as much about poetic inspiration as it is about the bird itself.
As so often with Romantic poetry, the self of the poet, the stuff of poetic creativity, the individual soul of the artist, is at one with nature’s awe-inspiring beauty and majesty.
7. John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
This is one of the best-known and most widely analysed poems by John Keats (1795-1821); it is also, perhaps, the most famous of his five Odes which he composed in 1819.
Keats’s theory of Negative Capability is evident in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ in the ‘mysterious’ nature of the urn, which offers the viewer partial glimpses and hints of a long-vanished civilisation.
But Keats doesn’t seem to find this a bad thing. Indeed, he reminds us that imagined melodies are sweeter than those which we physically hear, which rarely live up to our expectations.
8. Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘Ode to Ethiopia’.
O Mother Race! to thee I bring
This pledge of faith unwavering,
This tribute to thy glory.
I know the pangs which thou didst feel,
When Slavery crushed thee with its heel,
With thy dear blood all gory.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the first African-American poet to attract a considerable following in the United States.
In this poem, Dunbar salutes Ethiopia as a mother-nation to many African Americans. He enjoins his fellow Americans of African descent to be proud, because he believes that his race are moving closer to freedom, and truth will, as the old line has it, set them free.
9. Allen Tate, ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’.
This long poem, published in 1928, is one of Tate’s best-known. Loosely inspired by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land of 1922, Tate’s ode is spoken by someone who cannot understand the Confederate side in the American Civil War.
As such, it is a kind of modernist response to the ode: a failure to write an ode, a failure of language, a failure to understand history – but the failures are all deliberate, and finely judged, by Tate himself.
Curiously, Tate’s was not the first poem to be written under the title ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead: a poem of that name had been written by Henry Timrod in the nineteenth century. Tate’s poem can thus be regarded as a kind of modernist response to that earlier ode.
10. Ashanti Anderson, ‘Ode to Black Skin’.
Ashanti Anderson is a contemporary poet, and a self-described ‘Black Queer Disabled poet, screenwriter, and playwright.
In this poem, published in Poetry magazine in 2019, we find a celebration of Blackness which draws on the worlds of nature and religion, utilising powerful metaphors and similes (the reference to being ‘Black / as and as if by magic’ is a linguistic masterstroke).