I. What is an Ode?
The word “ode” has two separate definitions, one stricter and one looser.
In the strict definition, an ode is a classical poem that has a specific structure and is aimed at an object or person. In this sense, odes usually express elevated emotion, and are often used to praise a leader or a work of art.
In the loose definition, an ode is any work of art or literature that expresses high praise. This could include a best man’s speech praising the groom, or an emotional eulogy at someone’s funeral.
In formal contexts, it’s best to avoid the loose definition and only use the word “ode” if you’re talking about classical poetry. If you’re talking about a work of art that expresses high praise but isn’t a classical ode, use the words “homage,” “encomium,” or “panegyric” instead.
II. Examples and Explanation
The ancient Greek poet Pindar was one of the earliest authors of classical odes. He wrote numerous “Victory Odes” dedicated to triumphant athletes who had won great victories at the Olympic Games. Pindar was the one who originally developed the poetic structure that we know today as the classical ode.
Pacific Rim could be described as an ode to Japanese TV and cinema, especially the kaiju (giant monster) genre. The entire film lovingly embraces all the tropes of this genre, even the silly ones, and incorporates them into its plot line with both genuine reverence and tongue-in-cheek humor.
III. The Importance of Odes
In ancient Greece, where odes were first written, they were designed to be read out loud, in public settings, to honor the person or thing in question. Often, odes were read at funerals (much the way we read eulogies today) or coronation ceremonies, and were the Greeks’ primary way of giving honor to their leaders and heroes.
In later eras, the ode was used in praise of non-human things, especially natural phenomena. Poets, for example, would write odes to the East Wind for guiding their ships across the sea, or odes to the mountains in all their inaccessible majesty. This was particularly common during the Romantic Era, when nature, feelings, and childlike wonder were held to be the highest virtues (today, we would probably think of the Romantic poets as hippies).
In the modern world, the function of the ode is fairly similar. It’s a writer or artist’s way of publically declaring their respect and admiration for a person or thing.
IV. Examples of Odes in Literature
“Row after row with strict impunity / the headstones yield their names to the element, / the wind whirrs without recollection; in the riven troughs the splayed leaves / pile up…” (Allen Tate, Ode to the Confederate Dead)
Although few poets in the modern world still adhere to the strictures of the classical ode, some do – especially those who want to refer back to an earlier era of creative writing, when poetry was more formal than it is today. Allen Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Dead has a classical ode structure, and seeks to honor those who died for the South in the Civil War. (The poem is not explicitly racist, but its author certainly was, and literary analysts have debated for years how much his hateful politics should influence our understanding of his literary accomplishments.)
Friederich Schiller’s Ode to Joy was a classical ode in praise of happiness itself, an optimistic poem envisioning brotherhood for all mankind. The poem would not have been particularly noteworthy (Schiller himself regarded it as a failure) but for the fact that Beethoven set it to music as part of his 9th Beethoven’s triumphant melody has become one of the most recognizable works of classical music in the world.
V. Examples of Odes in Pop Culture
The film Lincoln takes an extremely positive stance on the Civil War president. Indeed, its depiction of him is so positive that some critics complained about the film’s glossing over the more troubling aspects of Lincoln’s personal life and political career. Nonetheless, the film could certainly be described as an ode (in the broad sense) to Abraham Lincoln.
Opeth is a highly influential Swedish band that has been releasing death metal albums since 1995. On their most recent album, however, most of the songs sound like 1970s progressive rock rather than death metal, incorporating organ sounds and bluesy riffs with more relaxed vocal sounds; this album has been described as an “ode” or “homage” to progressive rock. According to one member of the band,progressive rock is one of their favorite styles of music, and they wanted to honor it despite the fact that they ordinarily play a very different style.
VI. Related Terms
Ekphrasis is a poem that describes a work of art. The poet’s job in this form is to capture in words the visual experience of looking at the work of art. Unlike a classical ode, an ekphrasis does not have to follow any particular structure. Often, of course, poets choose to write an ekphrasis about some art that they really like, in which case the poem becomes one of high praise, and therefore an ode in the broader sense. John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn is actually not an ode in the classical sense, but rather an ekphrasis. It is, however, an ode in the broad sense.