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Epode

Behold! It's time for the third part of the Greek choral ode! If you were with us for parts one and two, you'll know just how busy our chorus has been. They've done a slide to the left for the strophe and a slide to the right for the antistrophe. Now it's time to travel to centre stage for the thrilling conclusion!

The epode has a long and rich history. It forms a part of the traditional Pindaric ode, which honoured the victors of ancient sporting events, entertained the audiences of legendary tragic plays, and influenced many prominent English poets. That's quite the list of accomplishments! Today we'll learn about each one in more detail, but let's begin with the basics. We'll start with a brief epode definition and the origin of the term. Then, we'll look at the functions of epode, why it's important, and explore some epode examples.

Epode definition

Before we look at the 'epode' in more detail, we must define some preliminary concepts surrounding the topic. First, we need to know that the epode is one part of a traditional Greek ode.

The ode is a passionate, emotional form of poetry that traditionally honours a person, thing, or concept.

There are many variations of the ode. However, it is the Pindaric ode that contains the epode we are looking at today.

The Pindaric ode is named after the ancient Greek poet Pindar (c.518-443 BCE) and is characterised by its three distinct parts:

  • the strophe (known as the 'turn')
  • the antistrophe (known as the 'counter-turn'
  • the epode (known as the 'after-song')

Each section of the Pindaric ode usually consists of one poetic stanza, and the three combined parts make up a 'triad'. In ancient Greece, these odes were typically chanted aloud to an audience by a chorus.

The Greek chorus was a cohesive, collective group of performers who chanted and danced together in ancient Greek theatre. While reciting odes, the chorus often moved across the stage in unison. They typically wore masks to be perceived as one entity rather than as individuals.

Now that we've gone through the basic concepts, let's tie them all together by looking at a definition of an epode:

An epode (pronounced eh-poad) is the third section in a classical ancient Greek ode. These odes were chanted by a Greek chorus and would traditionally celebrate impressive achievements and incredible people.

'The term 'epode' can also refer to a unique type of verse in which the first line of each couplet is longer than the second. This form originated in ancient Greek choral poetry, which contained one line of iambic trimeter (three pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables) and one line of iambic dimeter (two pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables). Today the term 'epode' is applied more broadly to mean any couplet containing a long line followed by a short line.' This article will focus primarily on the epode's role as part of the Pindaric ode alongside the strophe and antistrophe.

Let's look in more detail at the origin of the word 'epode' and explore how this ties into the structure of a typical Pindaric ode.

Origin of epode

The word 'epode' derives from the Greek word epōidós which means 'said after' or 'sung after'. This makes sense because the epode is the final part of the Pindaric ode and is sung after the strophe and antistrophe.

The name of each section of the Pindaric ode originates from the movement pattern of the chorus on stage. When the chorus chants the strophe (the turn), they move from right to left across the stage; while they are singing the antistrophe (the counter-turn), they travel back to the original side (left to right). Finally, the chorus stops in the centre of the stage to recite the final epode (after-song). The route taken may have looked something like this:

Epode Pindaric ode chorus route StudySmarterFig. 1 - The chorus begins at the right of the stage, moving to the left (strophe) before travelling back to their original position (antistrophe). Then, they proceeded to centre stage to chant the epode.

Instead of having the chorus move across the stage as they recited the different parts of the ode, some poets would split their chorus into two, with half positioned on the right of the stage and half on the left. The performers on the right would begin by reciting the strophe; the performers on the left would follow with the antistrophe. Both choruses would then sing the epode together in harmony.

The way the poet arranged their chorus likely depended on the number of available performers. Choruses could contain as few as twelve and as many as fifty people! The more actors present, the harder it is to move in perfect unison. Can you imagine the amount of practice required to perform flawlessly in sync?

The strophe and antistrophe are typically identical in structure. The poet is free to choose any rhyme pattern, meter, and rhythm they see fit, as long as they mirror those choices across both stanzas. In contrast, the epode has a unique structure and is typically shorter in length.

It can be helpful to think of the epode (after-song) as the 'afterthought' that wraps up the ode in a short but sweet way.

Let's move on and explore how the epode functions as part of the Pindaric ode.

Functions of epode

Alongside the strophe and antistrophe, the epode's traditional function was to celebrate great victories and extraordinary people. For example, Pindar created many odes revering winners from the Olympian (now Olympic) games. Here's a short excerpt from Pindar's ode revering 'Theron of Acragas' for his victory in the Chariot Race in 476 BCE.

Theron must be proclaimed by reason of his victorious chariot with its four houses, Theron who is just in his regard for guests, and who is the bulwark of Acragas, the choicest flower of an auspicious line of sires.1

Pindar reveres Theron, comparing the winner of the chariot race to a bulwark (defensive wall) and the choicest flower. This rich metaphorical language is typical of his odes, as is the celebratory tone he adopts. The Greek chorus sang beautiful verses like this to an audience and would have moved across the stage as they chanted them in unison.

The classic Pindaric ode was also frequently used in the opening song of Greek tragedies.

The Greek tragedy was a genre of theatre performance that reached its peak in ancient Greece during the 5th century BC. Dramatists typically used tragic plots to explore the theme of human nature to connect with the audience and get them involved in the action.

The function of the ode in Greek tragedies varies when compared to Pindar's victory odes. The chorus in Greek tragedies provides background information to the audience, summarises character backstories, and passes judgements on the action in a play. For this reason, the poet may use the strophe and antistrophe to present conflicting arguments. In this format, the epode could serve to resolve this argument with a dramatic conclusive statement.

Regardless of tone, the movements of the chorus on stage remained consistent in both traditional victory odes and tragedy plays. This could suggest that the theatrical element of the Pindaric ode was more important than the content.

In England, during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, many poets began writing a new, loose, irregular style of ode. These odes came to be known as the 'Pindarics' and were named after Pindar's original odes. However, this name is based on a misconception because these poems didn't resemble Pindar's odes at all! The English odes had inconsistent meter and length, contrasting with the classic victory odes which were very strict in their three-part structure.

Two English poets were notable exceptions to this. Thomas Gray (1716-1771) and Ben Jonson (1572-1637) strived to create influential poems which stuck to the strict Pindaric structure. While the content and tone of these poems varied greatly, the form of the poems reflected that of Pindar's, showing how the Pindaric structure can be adapted to serve different functions.

Let's look in more detail at the significance of the epode and why it was an important part of the Pindaric ode.

Importance of epode

The epode differs from the strophe and the antistrophe because it has a different metrical structure and tends to be far shorter. The epode acts as a conclusion to the first two sections and gives the chorus a chance to make a final statement that the audience can reflect on. The ode could end with a rhetorical flourish, a bold statement, or a beautiful metaphor. Within a Greek tragedy, it could also resolve two conflicting arguments presented in the strophe and antistrophe.

Alongside the strophe and antistrophe, the epode was also a valuable way for poets to create a desired theatrical effect. Dividing the ode into three distinct sections allowed the chorus to move around the stage rhythmically while reciting their verses. This performance was likely also accompanied by a mesmerising dance routine. While the strophe and antistrophe allowed for movement, the epode functioned as the gripping finale, in which the chorus would stop switching from side to side and dramatically congregate in centre stage to make their climactic statement.

Epode examples

Let's look at two important epode examples to put all we've learned into perspective.

Pindar's 'Olympic Ode XIII to Xenophon The Corinthian'

Let's take a closer look at the closing epode in C. A. Wheelwright's (1787-1858) 1846 translation of Pindar's 'Olympic Ode XIII to Xenophon The Corinthian' (464 BC).2 In this ode, Pindar reveres Xenophon for his victory in the pentathlon and foot race.

Through Græcia's realm more wreaths to them belongThan could be number'd in the poet's song.Still, mighty Jove, preserve their tranquil state, And may increasing joys the virtuous race await!

Pindar honours Xenophon by exclaiming that he deserves more wreaths than any poet could count. He then closes the epode with a prayer to Jove, the god of sky and thunder, asking him to bless Xenophon with continued success and happiness. The elaborate imagery in this passage is customary of Pindar's odes; he frequently uses mythological and metaphorical language to make victorious athletes seem extraordinary. An epode containing a prayer is also customary in Pindar's odes. By including a prayer, Pindar switches the tone of the ode from a celebration of past achievements to wishing the athlete a successful future.

In ancient Greece, the wreath was given as a prize to athletes who had been victorious in sporting events.

Thomas Gray's 'The Bard: A Pindaric Ode'

One notable English poet to have adapted the Pindaric structure is Thomas Gray. His poem, 'The Bard: A Pindaric Ode' (1757), tells the story of King Edward I and his victorious army returning from battle through the Welsh mountains. There, they encounter a Welsh bard who curses the King, invoking the ghosts of three of Edward's victims upon him.

Epode The Bard StudySmarterFig 2. - John Martin's (1789-1854) 1817 painting 'The Bard' is based on Thomas Gray's poem of the same name. It depicts the Welsh bard, high up in the mountains of Snowdonia, cursing the King and his entourage.

In the final epode, we see the bard satisfied with his work and confident in his triumph. He tells King Edward I that his fate is sealed, before plunging from the top of the mountain into the water below.

Enough for me: with joy I see
The different doom our Fates assign.
Be thine Despair, and scept'red Care,
To triumph, and to die, are mine."
He spoke, and headlong from the mountain's height
Deep in the roaring tide he plung'd to endless night.

Gray's version of the epode is unusual, as it is longer than the strophe and antistrophe in the poem. However, the bard's final words of triumph and subsequent plunge into the roaring tide below create the thrilling, dramatic conclusion that we expect of the traditional Pindaric epode.

Epode - Key takeaways

  • An epode is the third section in a classical ancient Greek ode.
  • The term 'epode' can also refer to a unique type of verse in which the first line of each couplet is longer than the second.
  • Alongside the strophe and antistrophe, the epode's traditional function was to celebrate great victories and extraordinary people.
  • The epode acts as a conclusion to the strophe and antistrophe and gives the chorus a chance to make a final statement that the audience can reflect on.
  • The name of each section of the Pindaric ode correlates with the movement pattern of the chorus. In the epode (after-song), the chorus congregates in the middle of the stage to deliver a climactic final statement.

References

  1. Pindar. 'Theron of Acragas'. The Odes of Pindar including the Principal Fragments. Translated by Sir John Sandys. Heinemann: New York, The Macmillan co. 1915
  2. Pindar. Olympic Ode XIII. Pindar. Translated by C.A Wheelwright. Harper & Brothers: New York. 1846

Frequently Asked Questions about Epode

The epode must have a different meter than the strophe and antistrophe and should act as a conclusion. It is also typically the shortest stanza in length.

The epode is the third section of the traditional Pindaric ode. It acts as a conclusion to the strophe and antistrophe.

Historical epodes are typically attributed to Pindar (518-443BC). However, many poets and playwrights from Sophocles (496BC-406BC) to Thomas Gray (1716-1771) have used epodes within their work.

The strophe is the first section of the pindaric ode, and the epode is third section. The epode is typically shorter in length, and has a different meter and rhythm to the strophe.

Alongside the strophe and antistrophe, the epode's traditional function was to celebrate great victories and extraordinary people.

Final Epode Quiz

Question

What is an epode?

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Answer

An epode is the third section in a classical ancient Greek (700-480BC) ode.

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Question

What is another definition of epode?

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Answer

The term 'epode' can also refer to a unique type of verse in which the first line of each couplet is longer than the second.

Show question

Question

Describe the origin of the term 'epode'.

Show answer

Answer

The word 'epode' derives from the Greek word epōidós which means 'said after' or 'sung after'.

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Question

Where is the chorus when they are chanting the epode?

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Answer

Left of the stage.

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Question

It can be helpful to think of the epode as the 'afterthought'. Is this true or false?

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Answer

True.

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Question

What is a parodos?

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Answer

A parodos is the first song the chorus sings at the start of a Greek tragedy.

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Question

How is the epode different from the strophe and antistrophe?

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Answer

The epode differs from the strophe and the antistrophe because it has a different metrical structure and tends to be far shorter.

Show question

Question

The epode was also a valuable way for poets to create a desired theatrical effect. Is this true or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

The epode allows for movement across the stage. Is this true or false?

Show answer

Answer

True. 

Show question

Question

What was the traditional function of the epode?

Show answer

Answer

Alongside the strophe and antistrophe, the epode's traditional function was to celebrate great victories and extraordinary people. 

Show question

Question

The epode gives the chorus a chance to make a final statement that the audience can reflect on. Is this true or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Identify two poets who mirrored the conventions of Pindar's traditional work.

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Answer

Thomas Grey and Ben Jonson.

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Question

If the strophe and antistrophe are used to present conflicting arguments, what would the function of the epode be?

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Answer

Here, the epode could serve to resolve this argument with a dramatic conclusive statement. 

Show question

Question

The epode has a unique structure and is longer in length. Is this true or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

The epode is sung before the strophe and antistrophe, thereby acting as an introduction. Is this true or false?

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Answer

True.

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