A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

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Greek beginnings.

The ode was developed for choral accompaniments and individual singers. Patterned after the movements of the chorus in Greek drama, the ode was set up in three acts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. The strophe told one side of a story, while the antistrophe conveyed its counterpart. The epode, constructed with a different metrical pattern, recounted the adventure.

Poets quickly discovered that the ode was an ideal vehicle for their more inspired works. Two Greeks stood head and shoulders above the other poets of their time: Pindar, the Greek civilization’s greatest lyric poet, whose 45 surviving victory odes reverberated through time and formed the foundation of English ode writing; and Sappho, who mastered the single-voice ode and gave it a distinct feminine touch. "I had learnt by heart completely all the songs, breathing of love, which sweetest Sappho sang," wrote fourth century B.C. poet Athenaeus, alluding to her prolific output. Alcaeus and Anacreon also wrote beautiful single-voice odes, while at the same time shaping the structure into several other lyrical forms.

Pindar’s victory odes formed the foundation of English ode writing.
Alfred Elmore's Ode
Horace and others turned the ode into highly personalized, spoke-word poetry. (Alfred Elmore, A Greek Ode)

From choral to the spoken word.

The single-voice style became a favorite of the Romans, but Gaius Valerius Catullus, Horace, Juvenal, Ovid and others dispatched with the music and turned the ode into highly personalized spoken-word poetry. Catullus’ pining odes of unrequited yet celebrated love for his secret amor, the wife of a Roman senator, are among the most painfully romantic works in ancient literature. Of the group, Horace’s particular style withstood the test of time; the Horatian Ode joined the Pindaric Ode as root structures for future incarnations of the form.

That future arrived with a flourish in the Renaissance, when several Italian poets and 16th century Frenchman Pierre de Ronsard revived both Homeric and Pindaric structures but made the pieces strictly spoken-word. The ode’s basis as a musical form was relegated to antiquity. In the 16th century, Sir Edmund Spenser introduced the Horatian Ode to the blossoming English poetry scene with a pair of marriage hymns, "Epithamalion" and "Prothamalion."

The ode’s resurgence.

Because the Elizabethan poets and dramatists brought elaborate lyric poetry into the popular culture, England experienced an ode boom in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton found the form ideal for their blends of life observation and religious devotion. A contemporary, Abraham Cowley, devised a third ode form when he couldn’t master the Horatian or Pindaric structure. Cowley’s form, which used stanzas of varying length and meter, greatly influenced an 18th century revival through the works of John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and unsung lyrical poetry master William Collins.

Abraham Cowley
Abraham Cowley devised a third ode form when he couldn’t master the Horacian or Pindaric structure.
John Keats
John Keats composed a series of masterful odes.
As with other poetic forms, the Romantic poets mastered and elevated odes. In his brief 26 years, John Keats composed two of the world’s most famous poems, "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Arguably, Keats’ successors realized they couldn’t top his genius, and the ode faded until English poet W.H. Auden and American Allen Tate revived it in the early 20th century.

The ultimate celebration.

While Western poetry is home to many lyrical forms, the ode will forever retain a spot atop the throne of poesy. It is, quite simply, the most expressive and elaborate poem of celebration derived from a Western culture – a fact its creators, the early Greeks, knew better than any.