Week Nine: The Horatian Ode

Horace (65 – 8 BCE)

Quintus Horatius Flaccus–better known to the English-speaking world by the mononym Horace–was a Roman soldier, lyric poet and satirist during the time of Augustus. He was a leading Latin poet of his time and is still celebrated for his odes, satires, and epistles. “Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” (c. 19 BC), his most influential epistle, offers advice on the art of writing poetry and drama.

Horatian Odes

Horace studied Greek ode forms–works by celebrated Greek poets such as Alcaeus, Anacreon, and Pindar–and adapted them for his own purposes, making them suitable for Latin. He not only changed the formal conventions of the Greek odes (stanzaic patterns, meter, rhyme scheme), but also modified the tone and subject matter to best highlight his own unique artistic sensibilities. While Greek odes tended to be heroic–elaborately glorifying a person or event–Horace’s odes were more personal, contemplative, and philosophical. The odes of Horace are also known for their charm, sophistication, and occasional touches of light humor.

Reading Horace

Non-Latin readers are immediately confronted with the challenge of translation. It is widely considered a fool’s errand to attempt to preserve formal conventions such as meter and rhyme when translating poetry, so you’ll need to regard any English translations of Horace’s work as approximating the art and meaning of Horace’s original odes, rather than duplicating their formal conventions.

That being said, there is a great deal to be gained by reading Horace–keeping this limitations in mind–in English and many translations are available online. For the bookshelf, I recommend Oxford World’s Classic’s Horace: The Complete Odes and Epodes featuring translations by David West.

A Horatian Ode in English

Although we can’t look directly to Horace to learn the conventions of his signature odes (without first learning Latin, that is), we can, however, look to Horatian odes written in English by English poets, and there are several good examples. Perhaps the most famous of these is Andrew Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland”.

The forward youth that would appear 
Must now forsake his Muses dear, 
Nor in the shadows sing 
His numbers languishing. 
’Tis time to leave the books in dust, 
And oil th’ unused armour’s rust, 
Removing from the wall 
The corslet of the hall. 
So restless Cromwell could not cease 
In the inglorious arts of peace, 
But thorough advent’rous war 
Urged his active star. 

Scanning the first eight lines of Marvell’s Horatian ode reveals several key requirements of the form. Firstly, you’ll notice each two lines feature an end rhyme in an aabbccdd… pattern. Secondly, you’ll notice that while lines 1 and 2 are written in iambic tetrameter, lines 3 and 4 are written in iambic trimeter. Thirdly, you’ll notice that–and this is an important feature unique to the Horatian ode–the pattern set in the first four lines is repeated without variation in each subsequent quatrain.

Requirements of the Form

Structure

Any number of stanzas that unvaringly follow the pattern set by the first stanza. Stanzas can be of any length, but Horatian odes usually feature repeating stanzas of two to four lines. Enjambment is allowed.

Content

– Tone tends toward philosophical, contemplative, gently playful, tranquil
– Style is sophisticated and formal, but not restrictive

Meter

Meter is chosen at the discretion of the poet. Again, the important factor is consistency from stanza to stanza. Iambic meter is commonly used in English.

Rhyme

Rhyme schemes vary, but (again) subsequent stanzas must repeat the pattern set by the first stanza. Lines are always end-rhymed.

An Original Horatian Ode

A Horatian Ode to the World Goddess

The Goddess of the World, I sing–
Her many forms and faces bring
The light of fertile life,
The fear of judgement’s knife.

Like Draupadi of Indian fame,
Born of the sacrificial flame–
Where she perceives a wall,
Illusion’s palace falls.

Or Anath, golden Canaanite,
Her retribution fierce and right,
She’ll cut you with a word,
Then feed you to the birds.

Online Resources

Ode – Wikipedia
Odes: Praise Poetry! – Writer’s Digest
An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland – Poetry Foundation
Ode – Poetry Foundation
How to Write an Horatian Ode – Forward Poetry
The Horatian Ode – Poetry Magnum Opus

One thought on “Week Nine: The Horatian Ode

  1. Pingback: The Horatian Ode – Adam of the Universe

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