Trying your hand at an ode is not only an enjoyable exercise, but also — if you’re happy with the final work — a great way to surprise someone you love. As long as you don’t put too much pressure on yourself, writing an ode can be surprisingly easy.
Basics of Writing an Ode
An ode is, at its core, a lyric poem celebrating its subject — typically a person, place, idea, or even object. Although odes are typically formal, and ceremonial, modern ode writers do have a lot of artistic freedom.
The term “ode” originated from the Greek language, and it means “choric song”, because odes were typically sung. This poetic form has an impressive history that stretches back to before the common era, and odes were written even in Ancient Greek and Roman times.
Although multiple different types of odes exist, besides their celebratory or exalting nature, a common feature of all odes lies in their rhythmic characteristics. Odes typically consists of three to five stanzas with 10 lines, and modern odes almost always feature an irregular rhyming structure. A poem does not have to rhyme for it to be considered an ode, however.
You might want to write an ode for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it was a homework assignment. Maybe you’re hoping to grow as a writer and a poet — or maybe you want to honor someone or something in your life with this unique lyric celebration.
No matter your reason, it’s important to have fun during the process. Don’t be intimated by the structure, but play with it until your ode sounds just right.
Types of Ode
Before you can truly get stuck in, you will have to settle on a type of ode. Here’s a look at your options.
1. Pindaric Ode
Pindaric odes, also sometimes simply called Greek odes, were, in Ancient Greece, publicly-performed odes that celebrated athletic wins. Once they were set to music, it is easy to imagine how grand these performances must have been!
These odes feature a total of three stanzas, and two of those follow the same structure.
William Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood is a good example of a famous Pindaric ode that is relatively easy to digest. Thomas Gray’s The Bard: A Pindaric Ode is another one.
Note the complicated rhyming structure found in The Bard’s first stanza:
A: “Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!
B: Confusion on thy banners wait,
A: Tho’ fann’d by Conquest’s crimson wing
B: They mock the air with idle state.
C: Helm, nor hauberk’s twisted mail,
C: Nor even thy virtues, tyrant, shall avail
D: To save thy secret soul from nightly fears,
D: From Cambria’s curse, from Cambria’s tears!”
E: Such were the sounds, that o’er the crested pride
F: Of the first Edward scatter’d wild dismay,
E: As down the steep of Snowdon’s shaggy side
F: He wound with toilsome march his long array.
G: Stout Glo’ster stood aghast in speechless trance;
G: To arms! cried Mortimer, and couch’d his quiv’ring lance.
2. Horatian Ode
These odes, named for the Roman poet Horace, are both more intimate and simpler to write. They contain more than a single stanza, but each stanza usually has the same rhyming format and meter. That means that, after you have worked your first stanza out, you will no longer need to agonize over the structure of your ode. Horatian odes are a great choice for people writing an ode to a loved one, or even to be read at a funeral.
On Cromwell’s Return from Ireland, by Andrew Marvel, is an excellent example of this kind of ode.
3. Irregular Ode
Do you want to do the ode justice, but are you looking for a large degree of artistic freedom as you explore the subject of your ode? An irregular ode is the right choice for you. These odes do not follow set patterns, beyond one thing — if the stanzas rhyme, none will follow the same structure.
Rhyming is completely optional, however. You will still want your ode to sound good — and ensure that all the words work together. Beyond that, however, what you do is entirely your choice.
John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is one of the most famous examples.
4. English Romantic Ode
You may think of odes as a grand type of poem — but the English romantic ode proves that certainly doesn’t have to be the case! These most intimate and personal of odes are packed with vivid language that makes the subject come to life, but they can be extremely short as well as approaching the length you’ve grown to expect from odes.
William Blake’s The Tyger is a good example, as are many of his other famous odes.
5. Sapphic Ode
We’ve saved the trickiest for last! These Roman odes aren’t for you if you are already feeling intimidated by the structure of an ode. Sapphic odes must be made up of:
- A quatrain, a group of four lines
- Followed by three 11-syllable lines
- Followed by a five-syllable line to end the ode
Although Sapphic Odes do not typically rhyme, this structure makes them a true challenge to pen! Need to see it in action? Sapphics (yes, really!) by Algernon Charles Swinburne is a good example to dive into.
Step-by-Step Guide on How to Write an Ode
Are you nearly ready to get started with your ode? Your process depends on your reason for trying your hand at an ode. It’s quite likely that a specific situation or person has prompted your interested in writing an ode — and in that case, you won’t have the challenge of coming up with a topic.
Here’s a brief look at the ode-writing process — divided into easy, bite-sized, chunks.
1. Choose a Topic for Your Ode (if You Don’t Have One)
Most people who think about writing an ode will probably want to honor a person. You might want to write an ode to your other half, your parents on their golden wedding anniversary, your sister on her birthday, or your boss for her retirement party. Yes — your dog, cat, or horse also counts as a person.
An ode doesn’t have to be about a person, though. You can also celebrate:
- Seriously; write an ode to your finalized divorce, your new job, the end of the Covid pandemic, or whatever you feel like.
- Your new house, your grandmother’s beloved old necklace, the car that was finally retired, or even your favorite cookies, can all inspire emotional or funny odes.
- Love, the fear you feel before you go skydiving, or the bittersweet emotions that flood your heart when your son finally flies the nest.
2. Choose a Structure for Your Ode
Sure; you can write whatever you want and call it an “irregular ode”. That’s fine. If you’d like to have fun with existing structures, however, you’ll need to know what you are working with. Broadly decide if your ode is going to rhyme, how many stanzas it might have, and how long your lines will be.
After that, go forth and read some great examples of existing odes that follow a similar structure. Hint: You don’t have to stick with the famous (and usually old) odes penned by universally-known poets. The internet offers an abundance of odes written by modern and entirely anonymous poets, which will show you just how much freedom you can have.
3. Brainstorming for Your Ode
You may already have conjured some lines you definitely want to include on your epic ode. Write them down, even if you haven’t found a “home” for them in your wider structure yet, just so that you don’t forget. The subject of your ode may strongly make you think of certain words. Write those down, too. You may want to convey a particular image, and in this case, a vision board can serve as inspiration.
4. Outlining Your Ode
If your ode is going to rhyme, you will want to outline a lining structure in advance. Assign the same letter to lines that will rhyme with other another. If you are planning for your lines to have a certain length, write that down, too.
5. Writing Your Ode
No, you don’t have to do it all in one session; you can bet that the famous odes you’ll read in preparation took a long time to write. Whenever you have inspiration, write as much as you can. Don’t stop until you are really quite satisfied with the result, but don’t necessarily force yourself to strive for perfection. Read your ode aloud to feel its vibrations and see if the words you think rhyme really do when read in your accent.
6. Proofreading Your Ode
There will be mistakes. Leave your ode to rest for a few days, and come back to it to proofread it.
7. Share Your Ode with Others
Or don’t, if you don’t want to. If you’re happy with the result, though, your ode is now ready to go into the world.
Examples of Famous Odes
The ode has consistently remained among the most popular kinds of poetry, for centuries. You’ll have no shortage of inspiration. Try reading some of these amazing odes:
- Ode to a Nightingale — John Keats
- Ode to Silence — Edna St Vincent Millay
- Ode on Solitude — Alexander Pope
- Ode to Duty — William Wordsworth
- Dejection: An Ode — Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Ode to Joy — Anonymous
- Ode to Beauty — Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Verses on the Death of Doctor Swift — Jonathan Swift
- To Some Birds Flown Away — Victor Hugo
- Ode to the West Wind — Percy Bysshe Shelley
Six Tips to Help You Write an Ode
Even once you have read a fair number of odes, writing your own will remain difficult. Are there any tools to help you through the process? You bet. Help yourself to any of these tips:
- Try online ode templates or generators. Most are designed to be used in the classroom, typically with elementary school students, but you can find a few gems. They won’t write your ode for you, but can serve as inspiration.
- Engage in word or image mapping. What feelings do you want to convey? What other words go well with the ones you’ve already vowed to include? If you’ve ever watched how detectives map pieces of the criminal puzzle in cop shows, you know how it’s done.
- Starting your ode can be the hardest part. You can simply state your deepest feelings on the topic, or address the object or person directly, or begin with a teaser that initially leads readers to believe you’re talking about something else entirely. Your “first love”, for instance, could be the red bicycle you were gifted for your fifth birthday.
- You’re wondering how to write an ode about a person? It’s usually easier if it’s someone you have little chance of encountering in person, or if the ode is filled with humor. Otherwise, you’re as vulnerable as the author as the subject will be hearing the ode. Writing an ode to a loved one requires bravery. Do you have it? Then go forth and be creative.
- Wondering how an absolute beginner can write an ode? The same way some people teach kids to swim. Throw yourself in at the deep end. It’s all good practice. If your first ode is dreadful, don’t fret; you’ll do better next time. Nobody has to see it.
- How to write an ode to a friend? Again, it’s easier if you infuse it with humor.
How long is an ode?
Traditional odes are epic not only in their subject matter and wording, but also their length. Modern odes can be a lot shorter. They do not have to consist of at least 10 lines, though they usually will. Essentially, it’s up to you.
How does an ode differ from an elegy?
An ode is a celebration, a poem that glorifies the subject. An elegy is also a poetic format of Greek origin, but it offers solemn reflection, and is often reserved for funerals.
How do you write an ode to yourself?
The same way you would write an ode for a friend. If you’re planning on sharing it with others, heavily infuse the ode with humor and self-deprecation if you want it to go over well. If you’re writing yourself an “I can do it” motivational type of ode, that’s OK. Stick it on your bathroom wall and don’t show anyone else.