The ode has been around since the days of Horace (Quintus Flavius Flaccus, 65-8 BC). For most of that time there has been confusion about what exactly the word meant. In fact it covers a wide variety of forms. Here's one of them:

Ode to the Dinosaurs
I sing of those who failed to make the Ark;
Who would have made that cockleshell capsize.
Despite their comeback in Jurassic Park
Still abject failures in most people’s eyes.
Absurd monstrosities – vast bulk, long necks,
Thick skins, huge jaws, and brains the size of peas –
“No wonder that they didn’t make the grade!
Tyrannosaurus Rex?
Rex, meaning king? It ruled the world? Oh please! Mankind’s achievements put theirs in the shade!” It’s true that they are dead, and we are not, And yet… how long did they bestride the Earth? Their intellects perhaps were not so hot, And yet… how much is brainpower really worth? For isn’t it the source of all our fears, And of our speciocide the likely cause? This culture we’re so proud of has survived A mere few thousand years. Compare that to the pea-brained dinosaurs - A hundred million years or more they thrived. Such stupid creatures didn’t have a hope When Earth collided with an asteroid. And if that happened now, how would we cope?
Not well. In fact, we too would be destroyed,
No matter that we’re thin-skinned and short-necked,
With larger brains. The ignoramus mocks,
But I maintain the dinosaurs should be
Remembered with respect.
They left their imprint in the very rocks;
Descendants of them sing in every tree.

What can we say about the structure of this poem?

Enough! These properties are already sufficient for us to call the thing an ode.

Its precise structure - 10-line stanzas rhyming ababcdecde, with the 8th line iambic trimeter and all the others iambic pentameter - is not essential to its status as an ode. It happens to be the same structure as Keats' Ode to a Nightingale, but many odes (including some written by Keats) have different structures. And there are plenty of poems without the word "ode" in their titles that are in fact fully-qualified for odehood.  

Other forms that are also Odes

There are a fair number of these. The ballad, for example (though not the ballade, which is quite different). Rhyme royal. If you want to be obscure, the Georgian shairi also qualifies, as does the Belarusian form I have called the romantic stanza. The simplest possible kind of ode is a poem of rhyming couplets. The Ronsardian ode is also a kind of ode. More surprisingly, it is the only kind of ode (within the above definition) that calls for a specific structure and has the word "ode" in its name.

Forms that are not Odes

A couple of counter-examples, lest the reader should run away with the idea that practically every verse form is an ode if it only knew it:

As already mentioned, the ballade fails to qualify - actually on several grounds. Not all its stanzas are the same length; it requires rhymes between stanzas; it also requires whole lines to be repeated. An ode form is not allowed to make such demands as these.

The rubaiyat fails to qualify because each stanza has one line that doesn't rhyme with any of the other three. (And an interlocking rubaiyat still fails, because it requires rhyming between each stanza and the next.)

Forms that incorporate Odes

The glose and the rondeau redoublé each consist of an ode plus some extra bits.


The above definition of an ode is in fact that of a Horatian ode (named after the aforementioned Horace). There is also the Pindaric ode (named after Pindar), which is rather different. This has three stanzas, the first two having the same structure (of the poet's choice), and the third different. It's as precise as that, apparently. Pindar got the idea from the movements of the chorus in Greek theatre, who would sing the strophe while dancing to the right, the antistrophe while dancing to the left, and then the epode while standing still. 

Another complication

There are poems with the word "ode" in their titles that are not odes, according to either of the above definitions e.g. Wordsworth's Ode on Intimations of Immortality, in which the poet appears to have been so transported by his Muse that preserving a uniform structure among his stanzas was the last thing on his mind. They are all shapes and sizes. The poem still made it into Palgrave's Golden Treasury, though, which just goes to show that sticking to standard forms isn't everything. This Wordsworth masterpiece is categorised as an irregular ode. Keats' Ode on the Poets is another.

Other Famous Odes

Shelley's Ode to the West Wind

Keats' Ode to Autumn

Thomas Gray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College and Ode on a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes.

Back to Verse Forms home page. 

© Bob Newman 2004. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 16/08/2006