The Romantic Poets and the Ode

      In most required literature courses, students will read at least one novel and some examples of lyric poetry, often drawn from the Romantic period, which raised the lyric to unprecedented prominence. Although there are many different species of lyric, most of them apply and/or renovate some set of conventions, whether derived from classical models or from the lyric types generated in earlier periods of European and English poetry. Selected for examination here is the ode, because British Romantic poets perfected a special form of it--"the personal ode of description and passionate meditation," as M. H. Abrams described it--sometimes called the "Romantic meditative ode."

Origin and Development of the Ode

      Traditionally, the ode is lengthy (as lyrics go), serious in subject matter, elevated in its diction and style, and often elaborate in its stanzaic structure. There were two classical prototypes, one Greek, the other Roman. The first was established by Pindar, a Greek poet, who modeled his odes on the choral songs of Greek drama. They were encomiums, i.e., written to give public praise, usually to athletes who had been successful in the Olympic games. Pindar patterned his complex stanzas in a triad: the strophe and antistrophe had the same metrical form; the epode had another. What is called in English the regular or Pindaric ode imitates this pattern; the most famous example is Thomas Gray's "The Progress of Poesy."

      As the ode developed in England, poets modified the Pindaric form to suit their own purposes and also turned to Roman models. In 1656, Abraham Cowley introduced the "irregular ode," which imitated the Pindaric style and retained the serious subject matter, but opted for greater freedom. It abandoned the recurrent strophic triad and instead permitted each stanza to be individually shaped, resulting in stanzas of varying line lengths, number of lines, and rhyme scheme. This "irregular" stanzaic structure, which created different patterns to accord with changes of mood or subject, became a common English tradition. Poets also turned to an ode form modeled after the Roman poet, Horace. The Horatian ode employed uniform stanzas, each with the same metrical pattern, and tended generally to be more personal, more meditative, and more restrained. Keats' "Ode to Autumn" and Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty" are Horatian odes.

      The Romantic meditative ode was developed from these varying traditions. It tended to combine the stanzaic complexity of the irregular ode with the personal meditation of the Horatian ode, usually dropping the emotional restraint of the Horatian tradition. However, the typical structure of the new form can best be described, not by traditional stanzaic patterns, but by its development of subject matter. There are usually three elements:

  • the description of a particularized outer natural scene;
  • an extended meditation, which the scene stimulates, and which may be focused on a private problem or a universal situation or both;
  • the occurrence of an insight or vision, a resolution or decision, which signals a return to the scene originally described, but with a new perspective created by the intervening meditation.
Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," and Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," are examples, and Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale," while Horatian in its uniform stanzaic form, reproduces the architectural format of the meditative soliloquy, or, it may be, intimate colloquy with a silent auditor.

Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©Brooklyn College.

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