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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Ode

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ODE (Gr. g387), from adBecv, to sing), a form of stately and elaborate lyrical verse. As its name shows, the original signification of an ode was a chant, a poem arranged to be sung to an instrumental accompaniment. There were two great divisions of the Greek melos or song; the one the personal utterance of the poet, the other, as Professor G. G. Murray says, "the choric song of his band of trained dancers." Each of these culminated in what have been called odes, but the former, in the hands of Alcaeus, Anacreon and Sappho, came closer to what modern criticism knows as lyric, pure and simple. On the other hand, the choir-song, in which the poet spoke for himself, but always supported, or interpreted, by a chorus, led up to what is now known as ode proper. It was Alcman, as is supposed, who first gave to his poems a strophic arrangement, and the strophe has come to be essential to an ode. Stesichorus, Ibycus 'and Simonides of Ceos led the way to the two great masters of ode among the ancients, Pindar and Bacchylides. The form and verse-arrangement of Pindar's great lyrics have regulated the type of the heroic ode. It is now perceived that they are consciously composed in very elaborate measures, and that each is the result of a separate act of creative ingenuity, but each preserving an absolute consistency of form. So far from being, as critics down to Cowley and Boileau, and indeed to the time of August BOckh, supposed, utterly licentious in their irregularity, they are more like the canzos and sirventes of the medieval troubadours than any modern verse. The Latins themselves seem to have lost the secret of these complicated harmonies, and they made no serious attempt to imitate the odes of Pindar and Bacchylides. It is probable that the Greek odes gradually lost their musical character; they were accompanied on the flute, and then declaimed without any music at all. The ode, as it was practised by the Romans, returned to the personally lyrical form of the Lesbian lyrists. This was exemplified, in the most exquisite way, by Horace and Catullus; the former imitated, and even translated, Alcaeus and Anacreon, the latter was directly inspired by Sappho.

The earliest modern writer to perceive the value of the antique ode was Ronsard, who attempted with as much energy as he could exercise to recover the fire and volume of Pindar; his principal experiments date from 1550 to 1552. The poets of the Pleiad recognized in the ode one of the forms of verse with which French prosody should be enriched, but they went too far, and in their use of Greek words crudely introduced, and in their quantitative experiments, they offended the genius of the French language. The ode, however, died in France almost as rapidly as it had come to life; it hardly survived the 16th century, and neither the examples of J. B. Rousseau nor of Saint-Amant nor of Malherbe possessed much poetic life. Early in the 29th century the form was resumed, and we have the Odes composed between 1817 and 1824 by Victor Hugo, the philosophical and religious odes of Lamartine, those of Victor de Laprade (collected in 1844), and the brilliant Odes funambulesques of Theodore de Banville (1857).

The earliest odes in the English language, using the word in its strict form, were the magnificent Epithalamium and Prothalamium of Spenser. Ben Jonson introduced a kind of elaborate lyric, in stanzas of rhymed irregular verse, to which he gave the name of ode; and some of his disciples, in particular Randolph, Cartwright and Herrick, followed him. The great "Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity," begun by Milton in 1629, may be considered an ode, and his lyrics "On Time" and "At a Solemn Music" may claim to belong to the same category. But it was Cowley who introduced into English poetry the ode consciously built up, on a solemn theme and as definitely as possible on the ancient Greek pattern. Being in exile in France about 1645, and at a place where the only book was the text of Pindar, Cowley set himself to study and to imitate the Epinikia. He conceived, he says, that this was "the noblest and the highest kind of writing in verse," but he was no more perspicacious than others in observing what the rules were which Pindar had followed. He supposed the Greek poet to be carried away on a storm of heroic emotion, in which all the discipline of prosody was disregarded. In 1656 Cowley published his Pindaric odes, in which he had not even regarded the elements of the Greek structure, with strophe, antistrophe and epode. His idea of an ode, which he impressed with such success upon the British nation that it has never been entirely removed, was of a lofty and tempestuous piece of indefinite poetry, conducted "without sail or oar" in whatever direction the enthusiasm of the poet chose to take it. These shapeless pieces became very popular after the Restoration, and enjoyed the sanction of Dryden in three or four irregular odes which are the best of their kind in the English language. Prior, in a humorous ode on the taking of Namur (1695), imitated the French type of this poem, as cultivated by Boileau. In 1705 Congreve published a Discourse on the Pindarique Ode, in which many of the critical errors of Cowley were corrected; and Congreve wrote odes, in strophe, antistrophe and epode, xx. 1 which were the earliest of their kind in English; unhappily they were not very poetical. He was imitated by Ambrose Philips, but then the tide of Cowley-Pindarism rose again and swept the reform away. The attempts of Gilbert West (1703-1756) to explain the prosody of Pindar (1749) inspired Gray to write his "Progress of Poesy" (1754) and "The Bard" (1756). Collins, meanwhile, had in 1747 published a collection of odes devised in the Aeolian or Lesbian manner. The odes of Mason and Akenside were more correctly Pindaric, but frigid and formal. The odes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Tennyson are entirely irregular. Shelley desired to revive the pure manner of the Greeks, but he understood the principle of the form so little that he began his noble "Ode to Naples" with two epodes, passed on to two strophes, and then indulged in four successive antistrophes. Coventry Patmore, in 1868, printed a volume of Odes, which he afterwards enlarged; these were irregularly built up on a musical system, the exact consistency of which is not always apparent. Finally Swinburne, although some of his odes, like those of Keats, are really elaborate lyrics, written in a succession of stanzas identical in form, has cultivated the Greek form also, and some of his political odes follow very closely the type of Bacchylides and Pindar.

See Philipp August Bockh, De metris Pindari (181 I); Wilhelm Christ, Metrik der Griechen and Romer (1874); Edmund Gosse, English Odes (1881). (E. G.)


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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Ode'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. http://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/bri/view.cgi?number=24344. 1910.

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