This article will equip you with a detailed study of the major forms or types of poetry with special emphasis on their distinguishing features; it is necessary that you be able to know the type of poem that you are dealing with at any
point in time.
An ode is a rhymed or rarely unrhymed lyric poem often in the form of an address, expressive of exalted or enthusiastic emotion (usually of exalted style and enthusiastic tone), especially one of varied or irregular metre. An ode is usually between 50 and 200 lines long and it was originally intended to be sung or at least recited. It has been defined by Gosse as “any strain of enthusiastic and exalted lyrical verse, directed to a fixed purpose, and dealing progressively with one dignified theme” (qtd Holman 363).
In its earliest Greek form established by the poet Pindar, it was choral or sung by a group of people who constituted the personas who moved in a dance rhythm in the dramatic poetry that was the main matrix for the ode/form. More explicitly, Holman tells us that the term ode “connotes certain qualities both of manner and form. In manner, the ode is an elaborate lyric, expressed in language dignified, sincere, and imaginative and intellectual in tone. In form the ode is more complicated than most of the lyric types. Perhaps the essential distinction of form is the division into strophes: the strophe, antistrophe, and epode” (363).
The dance movements of the chorus are as follows:
1. trophe (movement to the left)
2. Antistrophe (movement to the right)
3. Epode (Chorus stands still).
The great period of the ode in English poetry began with Abraham Cowley who in the seventeenth century popularised the Pindaric ode in English. There are three main types of odes in English poetry, namely: the Pindaric (regular) the Horatian and the Irregular. The Pindaric ode is a complex poem of some length on a subject of public interest or on an abstract quality, written in rhyming or irregular pattern. On the other hand, the Horatian type modelled on the odes of the Roman poet Horace, is less complex, calm, meditative and restrained and contain only one strophe (homostrophic). Famous examples are Milton’s “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, “To the Lord General Cromwell, May 1652”; Gray’s “The Progress of Poesy”; the romantic odes including
Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”, Keats’s “Ode to the
Nightingale,” “Ode to Autumn,” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Shelley’s
“Ode to the West Wind”.
(1) “To the Lord General Cromwell, May 1652”
(2) “Ode to Autumn”
(3) “Ode to the West Wind”
An elegy is a sustained and formal poem setting forth the poet’s meditations upon death or another solemn theme (Holman 183). The meditation is often occasioned by the death of a particular person, a painful loss or a general
calamity that touches not just the poet as an individual but a wider spectrum of persons in his community or man generally. Thus the poem may also be a generalised observation or the expression of a solemn mood. Other poetic types that are akin to the elegy and whose labels are often misused in reference to the elegy are (1) the dirge, a short, less formal and usually in the form of a text to be sung, with sub-types such as threnody which is mainly an equivalent to the dirge and monody which is an elegy presented as an utterance by one person.
The following are popular examples of the elegy in English literature: John Milton’s “Lycidas”; Alfred Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”; WH Auden’s “In Memory of WB Yeats” and William Gray’s “Elegy, Written in a Country Churchyard”. You should find a suitable anthology of English poetry and read these poems so as to be able to identify and discuss an elegy, no matter the variant, that you come across one.
An ancient category of the elegy is the pastoral elegy in which the poet or mourner and the dead or the one mourned, who is also a poet, are characterised as shepherds. The name pastoral is derived from the Greek word pastor, which
means shepherd. MH Abrams, using one of the notable examples of the pastoral elegy, has identified seven fundamental conventions that have marked this poetic form from its earliest Greek form through the Renaissance as follows:
1. The invocation of the muses and frequent references to other figures from classical mythology.
2. All of nature is implicated or joins in mourning the shepherd’s death.
3. The mourner charges with negligence the nymphs or other guardians of the dead.
4. There is a procession of mourners.
5. The poet raises questions about the justice of divine providence and goes on to comments on the decadence of his contemporary society in seeming digressions which are often integral to the development of the mourner’s line of thought as in “Lycidas”.
6. In Post-Renaissance elegies, flowers are brought in to deck the hearse in an elaborate passage.
7. There is a closing consolation, especially in Christian elegies, where the tone of the poem changes from that of grief and despair to joy and assurance and an epiphanic realisation that death is a necessary prelude to
a higher life.
Bearing in mind the above general thematic and stylistic characteristics of the elegy as a poetic form, we will now take a look at a local example to illustrate the universal application of these features in the following Igbo (Nigeria) piece:
My brother, death has crushed my heart.
My brother has left me at crossroads
My brother has left me hanging over the fire like a
parcel of meat to dry
But a parcel of meat over the fire will still have
Somebody to touch it.
Death has reaped me up like cocoyam and peeled
off my tubers
My left hand has turned to my back
Death has turned me into bitterness itself
My mirror is broken
My own is past
(Egudu & Nwoga,)
The sonnet is a poem generally expressive of a single, complete thought, idea, or sentiment. It is made up of 14 lines, usually five-foot iambic pentameters, with lines arranged according to one of certain definite rhyme schemes. Holman defines this poetic form as “a lyric form of fourteen lines, highly arbitrary in form, and following one or another of several rhyme schemes”. You should take note of the section of this definition that I have highlighted; we shall have cause to refer back to it as we study the various structural and prosodic manifestations of the sonnet.
There are three main types of the sonnet; these are the Petrarchan or Italian; the Miltonic; the Shakespearean or Elizabethan. We should note that although the sonnet was originally an Italian poetic form, hence the name of the prototypic form – Petrarchan/Italian, it had a very large following in the English poetic tradition beginning from the sixteenth century. The earliest English or Elizabethan sonneteers are Isaac Wyatt, Phillip Sidney (“Astrophel and Stella” sequence), Edmund Spenser (“Amoretti” sequence) and they set the tone by deploying their poems as vehicles for impassioned amorous, religious, and friendly adulation.
Petrarchan/Italian: This type consists of two parts or systems as they are called – a major part known as the octave made up of the first eight lines; a minor part called the sestet made up of the last six lines. There is usually a pause or turn in idea or thought at the end of the octave. This turn or break in sense is known technically as the ‘volta’. This structure conventionally goes hand in hand with the thematic content of the poem in that a statement of a problem, a situation or an incident in the octave is followed by a resolution in the sestet. The
rhyme scheme of the octave is: abba, abba and this is fixed or invariable. On the other hand, the rhyme scheme of the sestet varies, but it may consist of any arrangement of two or three rhymes as long as the last two lines do not form a couplet that is, they do not rhyme. Thus, the usual arrangement in the sestet is:
cdcdcd or cdecde. An example of this type in English poetry is William Wordsworth’s “The World is too much with us”. [Poem]
Miltonic: This type is similar to the Italian form discussed above, but the only difference is that the Miltonic does not observe the pause or turn at the end of the octave; rather the poet lets the octave to run-on into the sestet. Suitable examples of this type are: John Milton’s “On His Blindness”; “On the late massacre at Piedmont” and Sonnet XXIII “Methought I saw my late espoused saint”. [Poem]
Shakespearean/Elizabethan/English: This type differs markedly from both the Petrarchan and Miltonic forms. It consists of three quatrains and a final rhyming couplet and its rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. At times the division of material found in the Petrarchan sonnet is also present here or there is repetition with variation of the statement in the three quatrains with the final couplet presenting a neat and laconic encapsulation of the central thought in the poem. The volta sometimes occurs between the twelfth and thirteenth lines.
The following are examples of this type: “Shall I compare thee to a summer day?”; “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”; William Shakespeare’s “Since Brass nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea” We said we would refer back to the highlighted part of Holman’s definition in the opening paragraph of section 3.5: we have seen how the sonnet follows “one or another of several rhyme schemes” in our examination of the areas of congruence and divergence in the structures and rhyme patterns of the three main types of sonnet. Although the arbitrariness of form has largely been shown in the differences among the three types explained above, we should still add that this
characteristic alludes to the idiosyncratic manipulations of the basic markers of the sonnet such as the number of lines (14) as well as the number of feet per line (5 iambic feet). These deviations were mainly experimental as demonstrated in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Felix Randall” as well as in several well-known pieces by the American poets such as William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, and John Crowe Ransom.
In its original form, the lyric was a poem sung to the accompaniment of a lyre – a classical stringed musical instrument. In the Greek classical period, it was sung by a single singer and was thus differentiated from the ‘choric’, which was performed by a group of singers. The term is now applied to describe any poem that is light in tone, could be adapted into song and reflects the personal mood or feeling of the singer or poet rather than narrate a story. This quality or characteristic constitutes the main difference between it as a poetic type and the
ballad and the epic which concentrate on extra-personal subjects or themes. The lyric does not follow any rigid metrical law (unlike the sonnet) by which it is identified and it is for this reason that it is often regarded as a mode of writing rather than as a form.
The subjects of the lyric poet are as varied as his moods; thus he is at one time writing about love and at other times he is expressing his feelings towards nature or merely giving vent to his personal observations on life generally.
However, the idea of unity of mood, of thought, of feeling, and of style is essential to the lyric. Since the true quality of the lyric is the personal element, that is, as a vehicle of the poet’s mood, a means of expressing his individual sensibility, the ode, the sonnet as well as the elegy are lyrics. As such all the examples of these latter form cited in the preceding sections of this unit can rightly be studied as lyrics.