Understanding Poetry 4: Larger Designs

A roundup of prominent types of larger poems, with concentration on the ode.

The Ballad

A Longer View

In the last lesson we saw that small, fixed forms can bear very close inspection. Now we will study larger forms, such as the ballad and the ode, and even touch on the epic. Later in the course, when we concentrate on time and place in poetry, we’ll bring in two more celebrated longer forms: the elegy and the pastoral. By the course’s end, you’ll have been introduced to most of the major forms of poems.

Form is less flexible in small poems. Modern poets may play with the conventions, but conventions are sharply defined. In longer poems, those conventions relax to a certain extent. We will still outline traditional meter and structure, but poets have more room in longer poems to establish their own rules. In larger poems, we’re moving away from metrical forms into what your textbook calls “shaping forms” (MP, p. 165), in which poems are informed by larger themes and more protracted grapplings with the real world.

The People’s Poetry

Ballads are a good transition from small to larger forms because they’re repetitive and structured in a way clearly akin to the musical forms we looked at last lesson. That’s far from accidental, since ballads originated as songs to dance to.

Just as music for dancing should be engaging and not too complicated, ballads feature colloquial speech, stock phrases and themes, and a regular beat.


Meters for traditional ballads are quite sing-song. A common one alternates iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. (It’s a pattern absolutely ingrained in the mind of anyone who’s read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or heard the theme from Gilligan’s Island.) “The Wife of Usher’s Well” (MP, p. 81) follows this meter. Sometimes ballads stick to iambic tetrameter for all four lines — “My Boy Willie” (MP, p. 82) is an example of that. Perfect meter is less of an issue than with more formal song forms — if an extra beat slips in now and then, that’s fine.


The rhyme is tight and regular, usually either abab or abcb. Sometimes a ballad has a refrain at the end of each stanza, in which case the rhyme scheme is abac.


Repetition is key: images, phrases, lines, and even stanzas repeat. This aspect of ballads hails back to its roots in oral performance — repetition is a crutch for the memory, and stock phrases flesh out a story.


Ballads do tell stories — this is an important difference from the more static song forms we’ve looked at before. They spin yarns about love, betrayal, voyages, battles, and, very characteristically, the supernatural. Proper names, often of lords and ladies, historical events, and scraps of dialogue fill the lines. But as a narrative form, the ballad is intriguingly mysterious. We’re often plunged right into things with no context and little detail. The ballad moves abruptly and sometimes mysteriously from event to event.

Let’s look at a famous example, “Sir Patrick Spens” (MP, p. 79). The first thing to notice is that it isn’t written by anyone — it’s been fashioned by consensus over time. The ballad is, traditionally, a communal form — setting common legend into simple language.

The king sits in Dumferling town,
Drinking the blude-reid wine:
“O whar will I get guid sailor,
To sail this ship of mine?”
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king’s richt knee:
“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That sails upon the sea.”

It’s verse that can be exact and mysterious all at once. The Scottish names, the antiquated diction, the positioning of that elder knight: all vivid details. But we’re not told why the king commissions poor Sir Patrick, and we never find out. The poem opens in urgency, and skips to sudden doom.

Feeding the urgency is that almost overwhelming repetition. Not only do the two stanzas put quotes and even the words “sailor” and “sail(s)” in the same position, the second stanza even belabors the point that sailors indeed sail upon the sea. And look at the alliteration: Dumferling, Drinking; wine, whar will; get guid; sailor sail; knicht, knee; etc.

“Sir Patrick Spens” was published in 1765 in a wildly popular collection of ballads called Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. It helped touch off an enthusiastic revival of the ballad form. Readers discovered in these rudely and anonymously crafted tales something irresistible: the imprint of a lively and unselfconscious culture. Poets down to our very day are drawn to the form for its hypnotic, communal power.

Ghetto Ballad

Look through the ballads printed in MP on pages 78-98, and you’ll see that there are many ways to adapt the form’s characteristics. A particularly arresting variation is Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” (p. 94). It describes mysterious happenings with a communal voice; it’s repetitious; it ends with a sudden death. But as a ballad, it’s shrunken. The amputated meter (down to dimeter) and stanzas (halved to couplets) fashion a world of limited resources.

The Ode: Paying Tribute

The ode is yet another offspring of song, but of a higher type. Odes hearken back to very old hymns of praise, songs that offered devotion or veneration or commemoration. To write an ode is to exalt its subject.

You’ve already read an ode, in fact: Hart Crane’s tribute to the Brooklyn Bridge. So it’s clear to you right away that the primary purpose of an ode is hardly narrative — an appreciation isn’t a story. Odes most definitely belong to the tradition of lyric poetry — poems that describe an ardent personal emotion.

Because odes express emotion, they are sometimes irregularly shaped. Shape, and its control of overpowering feeling, is often part of the meaning of an ode. Their verse tends to be patterned, but poets have a lot of latitude when shaping stanzas in an ode.

Look at the first example of an ode in MP, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” (p. 241). It’s broken into five parts, each presenting a smaller fixed form you will surely recognize: the sonnet! (Other odes, presented through page 255, are set in quatrains, and more modern ones divide into stanzas of various lengths.)

Shelley’s series of sonnets makes the larger dimensions of the ode clear. An ode isn’t a moment’s monument; it’s the reaction to a phenomenon from many different perspectives. Shelley chases the west wind through all the seasons: winter in the first sonnet, spring and fall in the second, summer in the third, and fall again in the fifth.

Odes reconcile emotion with patterned verse, and this is especially true in “Ode to the West Wind.” Five developing sonnets on a subject is impressive formatting, but strikingly various rhythm and rampant enjambment almost make us forget that what we’re reading obeys fixed patterns. Here’s the first part of the second stanza, with stresses marked:

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. . . .

The rhythm builds to a climax, and by the time we reach that climax, punctuation has been blown away — at least off the ends of lines. To read these lines is to rush over line endings and catch your breath at caesuras. Meter never settles down; it whips trochees against iambs, leans into spondees, puffs out dactyls.

And yet the rhyme is tight and regular, the lines obedient to pentameter. Even the imagery is surprisingly patterned: the clouds are shed like the leaves that dominated the first sonnet, the Maenad builds on its ghosts. The blue, watery surge in the sky predicts the third sonnet’s storm-tossed Mediterranean. And all three sonnets end with the identical plea: “oh, hear!” Despite all the blasts and lulls of its rhythm, this is a carefully linked and proportioned poem.

Blasts and lulls could also describe the speaker’s changing emotions. He’s by turns reverential, giddy, dejected, plaintive, and inspired. It seems particularly appropriate that the ode ends unsettled on a question (the only one in the poem, by the way).

The encounter with great power can easily provoke self-consciousness (what am I in the face of this?), and thus an ode pushes a poet towards introspection as surely as a ballad pushes away from it. More contemporary odes — such as Howard Nemerov’s “The Blue Swallows” (MP, p. 250) and Robert Pinsky’s “Ode to Meaning” (MP, p. 252) — carry with them the additional burden of modern skepticism, as Pinsky writes wryly about Meaning:

. . . My poker friends
Question your presence
In a poem by me, passing the magazine
One to another.

Still, the ode endures as the form to chart vast hopes, big ideas. And, given the impulse or need to wrestle with a large subject, a poet will instinctively head to the ode for the way it lends great emotion shape.

Hosiery Hosanna

Odes have been inspired by great entities — Chicago (AFP, p. 244), Australia (MP, p. 249), the Confederate dead (MP, p. 244) — but socks?! Well, yes, if you’re Pablo Neruda. Read his “Ode to My Socks” in AFP, p. 200. Is he serious? By the poem’s end, there’s no doubt that he is. Never has dimeter been more appropriate: two feet to many of the lines. The warm tone also matches the function of socks.

But the biggest subjects of all demand an even bigger canvas: the epic.

The Epic: The Shape of a Culture

Ratcheting up the scale even more drastically, let’s touch on that great, unwieldy beast, the epic. Of course we don’t have time here to read an entire epic — that would require another whole course! But epics are important to know about, if only to judge how other poems define themselves differently.

The function of an epic is simple enough: to tell the story of a hero. It’s narrative, so once again our poet gets pushed to the background. The growth of a hero, the charting of adventure, and — in the truly great epics — the values of a whole culture are what matters.

Patterns and conventions in epics are especially important, given their size. Some traditional conventions:

  • An opening “argument.” a statement of the epic’s central subject matter or theme. An obvious help in orienting the audience, as well as an assurance of coherency.
  • An opening invocation to the gods. The scope of the story is too large for any one poet to handle and, in fact, higher inspiration is needed.
  • A story that begins in medias res, in the middle of things. This way the poet can catch us up instantly in action and then circle back (once we’re hooked) to explain how it all began.
  • Great catalogues and lists. Such thick description is a good way to demonstrate vast historical importance and vast consequences.
  • Epithets and stock phrases. This is a holdover from times when epics, like ballads, were primarily performed out loud. Epics are thus stocked with a lot of memory crutches and repetitive patterns. For examples, look at the snippet from Homer’s The Iliad on p. 124 of AFP. Achaians are “bronze-armoured”; Trojans are “breakers of horses.”
  • Epic digressions. Associated strongly with Homer, these are elaborate metaphors that seem decorative; they don’t advance the story. Another holdover from oral days, these digressions help the poet introduce variety with descriptions that could be patched from a whole other poem.
  • Grand overall designs. Fulfilled prophecies and completed circles.

In our texts, there are a few pieces of epics: the passage from Homer’s Iliad, a small section from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (MP, p. 141), Milton’s description of Pandemonium from Paradise Lost (MP, p. 107). Even from just those few pieces, you can see that epic verse can take many different shapes.

The Iliad

Originally in dactylic hexameter, translated in many different forms. It has traditionally been divided into 24 books and describes the defeat of the Trojans by the Greeks after ten years of war.

The Faerie Queene

An incomplete epic glorifying England’s Queen Elizabeth, comprised of cantos containing hundreds of Spenserian stanzas; it presents a series of allegorical tableaus.

Paradise Lost

Divided into 12 books, written in blank verse: flowing and non-rhyming iambic pentameter. It recounts Satan’s fall from heaven, his temptation of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Its mission is nothing less than to “justify the ways of God to men.”

These quite different epics adhere to the conventions listed above, and they all have at heart an exploration of the moral fiber of their community. They are vastly conceived, and their encyclopedic scope seems larger than any single human capacity. (In fact, the identity of “Homer” is hotly debated, since more than one person may have been involved in the creation of the Homeric poems.)

The modern epic has proven maddeningly difficult to achieve. The pressure of many divergent belief systems, along with rising emphasis on the individual psyche, has presented huge challenges to a poet out to encapsulate a whole culture with one tremendous narrative. But the aspiration to do so inflects every form of longer poetry.

As we finish the lesson by turning to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” let’s pay special attention to the desire — and the inability — to share the communal belief system that fashions ballads and, occasionally, produces an epic.

Epic Translations

Great epics have long captured the imagination of poets; translating one is a way to satisfy those epic urges without going mad. Some fine contemporary translations include Seamus Heaney’s rendition of the Old English epic Beowulf, Robert Fitzgerald’s version of Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s The Inferno.

Case Reading: Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Once again at the end of a lesson, it’s time for us to dig into a challenging and wonderful poem. This time, we’ll look at John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (MP, p. 214). Not only will it help you to deepen your understanding of what an ode does, this poem has the additional virtue of peering into a world that could generate very different poetry, including ballads and epics.

This is a strange ode, and you can start to see why just by looking at the title: Ode on a Grecian Urn. Keats’ tribute is not exactly to this urn. Already there’s some tension: this is an ode that is not directly celebrating its subject. Why would that be?

I’ll start off your reading with a look at the poem’s first stanza:

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

A clue might lie in what isn’t within the first line: a comma. The urn is not a “still, unravished bride” — it’s still unravished. Could there be a hint of menace there? Or at least worry?

It’s a little ironic: the urn is unravished and still, but these scenes it depicts are anything but. It displays an ancient world, believing in and maybe populated by gods, which is nothing short of frantic: maidens dashing away from mad pursuit, struggling to escape if they’re caught, wild ecstasies. It’s all quite different from silence and slow time.

If our poet is feeling a little competitive with the urn — he credits it, after all, with expressing a “flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” — maybe it’s for this reason: the urn can display such frantic activity, and still remain so perfectly motionless, so perfectly formed.

In “Ode to the West Wind,” the wind inspired gusts of irregular meter and various emotion. Here the meter isn’t quite so disrupted, but emotion still bursts into the stanza. The last four lines are chopped up by a succession of questions. Six repeated soundings of “What”: the urn is provocative and, in its silence, mysterious.

The poem will go on to develop the contrast between the static world preserved on the urn and the “breathing” world in which our poet is doomed to exist. The lovers on the urn are “for ever young,” while the poet is fated to “waste” with the rest of his generation. This is a contrast that bothers our poet — he even calls the urn a “Cold Pastoral.”

And yet, let’s think a little more about what Keats has done. As was the case with “Ode to the West Wind,” emotion has not overcome form. Though he might be envious of the urn’s eternal form, he adheres to one of his own. All five stanzas are 10 lines long, in iambic pentameter, obeying a rhyme scheme of ababcdedce. Four out of five even indent lines identically. The poet can have conflicting attitudes and approaches to the urn, but they don’t seem to divert his lines from the demands and beauty of perfect form.

But the poet can’t match the urn’s achievement, because it connects to a world he cannot know: a world of communal rituals and beliefs. This is a world in which a whole town can empty on a pious morn. Its melodies are as communally enjoyed as ballads, and its sacrificial ritual would be right at home in an epic.

What we’re left with, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is a perfectly formed record of individual desire. And that’s quite a different thing from the busy boughs of antiquity — those will remain as much of a mystery as the famous riddle that concludes the poem. Keats has brought out the ode’s most fascinating trait: it is reflexive. No matter what is being praised, the poet’s own worth will be measured.

Going Negative

Keats’ letters have long been treasured, not least for their striking ideas about the function of a poet, including that of “negative capability.” This doesn’t mean the ability to have a negative attitude. In Keats’ words, negative capability is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” How does his definition of negative capability sit with you?

Moving Forward

We’ve only had time to scratch the surface of our case study poem together. But you’re ready to go on and assess the rest of the ode on your own; the assignment will ask you to concentrate on a specific stanza. Be sure to share the ideas you’re having with your fellow students on the Message Board!

You’ve doubtless noticed that our tracking of expanding form has pushed us toward thinking ever more generally about what poets do — who they’re speaking to, what their agenda might be. The second half of the course will take up that inquiry by looking at the most important relationships for a poet. We’ll start with a poet’s connection to the surrounding landscape.

Assignment: Ode

Concentrate on one stanza of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Answer the following questions:

  1. What scene is described on the urn?
  2. How does the poet convey his reaction to this scene through rhyme, meter, and line structure?
  3. Do the poet’s emotions isolate him or connect him to the urn in your stanza?
  4. Finally, would you say that the poet is paying tribute to the urn in your stanza? How?

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