What is an Ode?

An examination of the history, form and use of the Ode; an iconic but seldom discussed form of poetry.

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An Ode is a form of lyrical verse, celebrating or glorifying an event or person.


The origins of the Ode lie with the Ancient Greeks, where the Pindaric Ode was used to celebrate athletic victories. These poems were intended to be public spectacles, and the form evolved as part of an elaborate performance, involving a full choir. This grandeur was intended to demonstrate just how special the victory was.

The first datable Ode was composed in 520BC by Simonides of Ceos to celebrate the victory of Glaucus of Carystus in a youth boxing match at Olympia. Odes of this time—and later, by Pindar—were not rigid in their form but more ecstatic and jubilant, and thus the form was less important than the joy within them.

Odes were a more mercenary affair than we might think. A poet could be commissioned to write a piece but later renegotiate their terms. These disputes could then become public, with the poet ridiculing their patron instead. Simonides was noted to have agreed to compose an Ode for Anaxilas, tyrant of Rhegium, to celebrate his victory in an Olympic chariot race but only when Anaxilas agreed to raise the price of his initial offer.

This brings us to an interesting discussion about the context of the Ode. From the dawn of history, poets have enjoyed a certain status, firstly for their insights and later for the lasting legacy of a poem. Patrons were not simply buying a piece of writing, but rather they were insuring their legacy; that their names would be remembered, through the context of the poem. In modern times, we have Laureates acting in this same capacity, despite more extensive record keeping.

Around four centuries years after Pindar, the Roman poet Horace embellished the form, writing Odes as a strict set of quatrains, and drawing on more philosophical matters. Instead of dwelling on the greatness of the city and lineage of an athlete, Horace would chose to focus on more normal subjects such as close friends.

Horace introduced many Greek metres into Latin, regularising them. In turn, while there was certainly a loss of spontaneity, Horace’s work was elegant in quality. He would advise fellow Latin poets not to attempt to replicate the work of Pindar. Instead he pushed for a sense of perfection through years of study.

More recent times have seen Pindar almost forgotten in favour of Horace. Abraham Crowley is a notable 17th Century poet who drew on Pindar for inspiration, though his work also played out in Iambic fashion. Modern poetry of sporting matters often ignores the victory itself, perhaps as a result of a contrarian approach endemic to Modernism, or perhaps in search of something greater.


A classical Ode has three parts: the Strophe, the Antistrophe, and the Epode. Irregular Odes do exist, though most follow this format.

The Strophe and the Antistrophe form a pair of alternating stanzas. In a choral setting, the Strophe would be chanted by the choir, moving from East to West while the Antistrophe would be chanted in response, moving from West to East. The Antistrophe is intended as a response, so while the Strophe may be elated and triumphant, the Antistrophe deals with contrasting tones and issues. In a poem about war, the Strophe may talk of victory, while the Antistrophe would focus on death and loss.

The Epode forms a conclusion. While previously the choir would have sung while moving as two units, during the Epode they come together or permit the choir leader to sing for both sides.

There are two major formal styles of Ode: the Horatian and the Pindaric.

The Pindaric Ode can use any number of lines, metre or rhyme scheme the poet chooses, with the Epode differing whatever way the poet decides.

The Horatian Ode is more rigid. Once the rhyme scheme has been set in the first stanza, this must be repeated throughout, and four-line stanzas (or quatrains) are the preferred length.

There are also minor forms of the Ode, including the Sapphic Ode, named after the Greek poet Sapphos. In this variant of the form, there is a tight metre imposed across three lines:

– . ? – . . – . – –
– . ? – . . – . – –
– . ? – . . – . – ? – . . – –

In this notation, the dash represents a long syllable while the period . denotes a short syllable, with the question mark ? as a free syllable to be used at the poet’s discretion.


The Ode should be used to celebrate. It a joyous form, perfectly suited to grand declarations though this does not always have to be carried in a sincere fashion. As the Ode tends to be very dramatic, it is rife for satire to take root.

In modern times, the use of the word ‘Ode’ has somewhat diminished the impact of the form, with it being used on everything from commercials to greeting cards, though as the Neo-Formalist movement continues to grow, and with that, the use of formal terms, it is about time for the Ode to be elevated once more.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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