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What is an Ode?

The main features are an elaborate stanza-structure, a marked formality and stateliness in tone and style (which make it ceremonious), and lofty sentiments and thoughts. In short, an ode is rather a grand poem; full-dress poem. However, this said, we can distinguish two basic kinds; the public and the private. The public is used for ceremonial occasions, like funerals, birthdays, state events; the private often celebrates rather intense, personal, and subjective occasions; it is inclined to be meditative, reflective. Tennyson’s Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington is an example of the former; Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, an example of the latter.
 
The earliest odes of any note- or any rate poems which could be put into the ode category- were written by Sappho (fl. c. 600 BC) and Alcaeus (fl. c. 611-580 BC). Fragments of Sappho’s Ode to Aphrodite and Alcaeus’s Ode to Castor and Polydeuces wtill survive.
 
Next, and more important, was Pindar (522-442 BC), a native of Thebes, whose odes were written for public occasions, especially in honour of victors in the Greek games. Modelled on the choric songs of Greek drama, they consisted of strophe, antistrophe and epode ; a patterned stanza movement intended for choral song and dance.
 
Pindar’s Latin counterpart was Horace (65-8 BC), but his odes were private and personal. They were stanzaically regular and based on limited metrical patterns, especially Alcaics and Sapphics. Between them Pindar and Horace were the begetters of the ode and both influenced the development of the form in Renaissance Europe. Meantime, the Provencal canso and the Italian canzone came near to the ode. Dante described the canzone as a composition ‘in the tragic style, of equal stanzas without choral interludes, with reference to one subject’.

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