Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER XIV

ODE

An ode is a longer lyric with some development of its theme. The term is applied properly to a poem written in a fervid exalted strain. There have been poems called odes, of course, that do not meet these requirements; Joseph Warton's Ode on Shooting and Fergusson's Ode to the Bee are on themes as lacking in dignity as Gray's amusing Ode to a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes. But seriousness and elevation in subject-matter are generally characteristic of this rather vague type of poem. Furthermore, there are distinguished poems in the language not called odes by their authors, but certainly worthy of being included in this category. Such are Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, Coleridge's Hymn before Sunrise, and Shelley's Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. Certain great poems like Lycidas, Adonais, and In Memoriam, though they have length, development and dignity, are more properly elegies' than odes, but Tennyson's Ode on the Death of The Duke of Wellington, because of its encomiastic character, is properly included among the great odes.

From these remarks it becomes evident that the propriety of terming a poem an ode is a question of content rather than of form. To go further into the matter is, therefore, outside the province of this book; we have merely to point out the verse forms that have been associated with the ode, though all but one of these forms have been used as well for other

No special chapter of the book has been devoted to dirges and elegies because no particular forms have become exclusively associated with poems of this class. The elegiac quatrain and the In Memoriam stanza are exemplified in Chapter IX.

types of lyrics. A classification of odes from the point of view of form may divide them into three groups, regular stanzaic, called Sapphic, or Horatian odes; regular strophic or Pindaric odes; and irregular Pindaric or free odes.

As these names imply, the ode is of classical origin. It was cultivated extensively in Italy and France in the later Renaissance period and introduced into England by Spenser. His Epithalamium is our first English ode. His example was followed by Ben Jonson and the seventeenth century lyrists, Milton, Herrick, Randolph, and Marvell. The odes of these poets are of the type called Horatian, but except in Jonson's satiric ode To Himself on the failure of his New Inn they have nothing in common with Horace's odes, or Carmina, except that they are written in a regular stanza form. The stanzas are of the types much used in the seventeenth century -tail-rimed stanzas composed of variously arranged long and short lines. In the latter part of the century, Cowley introduced the irregular Pindaric. He had during the Interregnum, chanced upon a copy of the odes of Pindar printed without any distinction of strophe, antistrophe, and epode, the characteristic divisions of the form. As Cowley had not sufficient knowledge of Pindar's meters to discover that these poems have the most exact strophic correspondences, he thought the lines varied irregularly without any definite scheme, and paraphrased and imitated Pindar according to this lawless principle. “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." This formless form introduced through a misapprehension, at once became fashionable and has ever since remained as a recognized type of English verse.

2 For more detail on the history of the ode see Edmund Gosse's introduction to his collection, English Odes, Lond., 1889. * Edmund Gosse.

>

The later seventeenth century turned out irregular Pindarics in great numbers, but none except those of Cowley himself and Dryden are in any sense contributions to English poetry. Dryden's great odes, Alexander's Feast and St. Cecilia's Day, are among the few English odes written to be sung by a chorus on public occasions, as was usually the case with poems of this class among the Greeks.

The true Pindaric ode had been tried by Jonson in his Ode to the Memory of Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison, but he had no imitators. To Congreve belongs the credit of having reintroduced the Pindaric form, but there was no interest shown in the type for fifty years, until Gray wrote his Progress of Poesy and the Bard in correct Pindarics. Later, Collins and Akenside followed Gray's example. The romantics of the early nineteenth century found the two other forms of the ode better suited to their genius, and with a very few exceptions, strict Pindarics were neglected again until Swinburne wrote several of them, notably his Birthday Ode for the Anniversary Festival of Victor Hugo. Since the time of Gray, all three types of ode have continued to be written. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson and Swinburne have all contributed distinguished examples to our literature. Lowell in his Commemoration Ode has given us the greatest ode written this side of the Atlantic. Other American poets to use the form with praiseworthy ability are Sidney Lanier and William Vaughn Moody.

The relative merits of the three ode forms are easy to see. The regular Pindaric with its strict elaborate structure and widely separated correspondences, has the severe symmetry of classical architecture. This is suitable for a theme like the Progress of Poesy, which can be divided into stages of development which fit evenly into the formal strophic divisions. In this rigid limitation in subject matter the Pindaric form is like that of the ideal sonnet. The Horatian form, with its free variation as to stanza type and number of stanzas, is more suitable for most themes, besides being

[ocr errors]

much easier to handle. The irregular or free ode is far from being as easy as it looks, for the changes in structure from line to line and stanza to stanza should not be haphazard, but should come in response to the thought changes of the developing theme. The advantage this type has over the other two is that the stanzas may be made long or short as the thought dictates; there need be no temptation toward padded, discursive thought, the besetting sin of ode writers. On the other hand, this unbridling of Pegasus may carry the undisciplined poet into what he feels is lyric enthusiasm, but is in reality the tenuous region of wordy vacuity. Tbe ode has always been a rhetorical form, and the line between good and bad rhetoric can only be determined by experience and disciplined taste. Perhaps the best advice to the aspiring singer is not to write an ode if he can help it. However, if he cannot, here are a few examples of ways in which it has been done successfully.

Stanzaic Odes.--Horatian and Sapphic are terms usually applied vaguely to any kind of stanzaic ode, the classification being based on form rather than subject. The earliest and one of the greatest stanzaic odes in English is the Epithalamium which Spenser wrote for his own weddingday, June 11, 1594. The first of its twenty-three stanzas follows:

Ye learned sister, which have often times
Been to the aiding others to adorn,
Whom ye thought worthy of your graceful rimes,
That even the greatest did not greatly scorn
To hear their names sung in your simple lays,
But joyed in their praise;
And when ye list your own mishaps to mourn,
Which death, or love, or fortune's wreck did raise,
Your string could soon to sadder tenor turn,
And teach the woods and waters to lament
Your doleful dreariment:
Now lay these sorrowful complaints aside;

And having all your heads with garlands crowned,
Help me my own love's praises to resound;
Ne let the same of any be envied:
So Orpheus did for his own bride,
So I unto myself alone will sing;

The woods shall to me answer, and my echo ring. The stanzas, except the last, contain either eighteen or nineteen lines, the former type rimed as in the one just quoted, ababccbcbddeffeegg, and the latter with an additional rime worked in near the end. The basic meter is pentameter varied usually by three trimeters and a final hexameter. Though the stanzas are not exactly alike in this respect, the one quoted, for instance, containing a tetrameter-they all, except the last, end with a hexameter refrain line. This use of the alexandrine which relates the Epithalamium stanza to the Spenserian, has been much followed by subsequent poets in the construction of their ode stanzas. Shelley's Ode to Liberty is in general modeled after the Epithalamium. It has nineteen stanzas of fifteen lines each, with the rimes arranged, ababcdddcecedee. The pentameter is interrupted by tetrameters and an alexandrine, and another alexandrine concludes each stanza. The odes of Keats are none of them so long as this, but they are all, except the Ode to Psyche, formed of ten or eleven line stanzas of pentameter with interwoven rimes. The Ode to a Nightingale has eight stanzas rimed ababcdecde; the eighth line is always a trimeter:

My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains,

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy Happiness,
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,

In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

« PreviousContinue »