Derived from a word meaning "to sing," odes were originally sung in accompaniment to musical instruments; along with their lyrical features, odes were very dignified in style and tone. Originally performed by a chorus in Greek drama, the odes in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex can serve well as examples.
Such a Greek ode is
- usually written in iambic (ta DUM [unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable]) tetrameter (3 of this ta DUM pattern)
- with a varied rhyme
- containing three "acts" in stanzas of 4-6 lines that are composed of
- the strophe, which is the first side of the "story"
- the antistrophe, which is the other side of the "story"
- the epode, which is the "review"
- having themes about the gods, individuals, experiences, (Pindaric ode), or themes that are highly personal (Horatian ode)
*EXAMPLE: ODE 2 from Oedipus Rex. This ode follows the first act in which Oedipus, the king of Thebes seeks a solution to the plague from which Thebes suffers because it is cursed by the presence of the murderer of King Laius. Oedipus summons the blind seer Teiresias and asks him who is the cause of this plague. When Teiresias tells Oedipus he is the murderer that he seeks, Oepipus becomes enraged; likewise Teiresias suffers from ogre, or extreme anger, because Oedipus accuses him of conspiring with his brother-in-law Creon so that Creon can become king. Oedipus, then, orders the prophet led away and the scene ends. The second Ode follows and is delivered by the Chorus. Here is the second stanza of this ode:
Holy Parnassos [mountain sacred to Apollo] peak of snow
Flashes and blinds that secret man,
That all shall hunt him down;
Though he may roam the forest shade
Like a bull gone wild from pasture
To rage through glooms of stone,
Doom comes down on him; flight will not avail him;
For the world's heart call him desolate,
And the immortal voices follow, for ever follow.
While the first stanza (the strophe) mentions that Apollo remembers the regicide committed, the killer's "hour of flight has come." For him to escape he must be faster than the wind because the goddesses of vengeance, the Furies, will track him down.
This antistrophe, with its theme of the individual/the murderer, explains that the prophecy that has been made against the murderer, who must be faster than the wind to avoid capture, will come true. This murderer will not escape no matter what he does--even if he rages like a bull--because "Doom" will come down upon him, his fate will be sealed, as predicted.
In expressing its message, the antistrophe contains much imagery, a simile ("Like a bull gone wild from pasture"), and mythological allusions. The metaphor of "the world's heart" expresses the universality of desolation that the murderer will experience; that is, there is nowhere for him to escape his fate. Certainly, the tone is one of great doom, and the iambic tetrameter is easily discerned in this line:
1 2 3
To (unaccented) rage (accented)/ through glooms/ of stone (tetra(3)meter)
That wise interpreter of prophecies
stirs up my fears, unsettling dread.
I cannot approve of what he said
and I cannot deny it....
I have never heard of any quarrelling,
past or present, between those two,
the house of Labdacus and Polybus’ son,*
which could give me evidence enough
to undermine the fame of Oedipus,
as he seeks vengeance for the unsolved murder
for the family of Labdacus.
In this strophe, the Chorus expresses fears over what Teiresias has said and confusion because there has never been anything to indicate that Oedipus has committed any crime (Polybus's son). Moreover, if he were the murderer, why would he seek vengeance? There is not enough evidence to destroy the reputation of Oedipus.
Apollo and Zeus are truly wise—
they understand what humans do.
But there is no sure way to ascertain...
But until I see the words confirmed,
I will not approve of any man
who censures Oedipus, for it was clear
when that winged Sphinx went after him
he was a wise man then.....
So in my thinking now
he never will be guilty of a crime.
This antistrophe raises doubts as to the veracity of the claims against Oedipus. The Chorus echoes the doubts of the citizens of Thebes who find it hard to believe that the man who delivered them from the Sphinx would now bring doom upon them.
In these last two stanzas allusions to Teiresias, Oedipus's father (actually his adoptive father), the gods, and the "winged Sphinx" are used, along with alliteration ["past and present" with the/p/], and the meter is again iambic tetrameter.
[There is no epode used in Oedipus Rex]