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Ode to an Athlete

The word “ode”, like so many words in the English language, comes from the Greek. (oide-song, akin to the Greek aude-voice. Webster’s goes on to say that the ode is a lyric poem usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style…) Lyric is derived from another Greek word- lyrikos- a poem suitable for singing, accompanied by the lyre, a stringed instrument used by the Greeks and which, according to Greek lore, had been invented by the god Hermes. (Although the Egyptians and the Sumerians had used the lyre long before the Greeks)

Three great English romantic poets, all admirers of ancient Greece and its heritage, wrote odes that may be familiar to you. If not, eventually they will be figures you encounter as you study literature.

John Keats wrote “Ode on a Grecian urn”. Even if you have never read the poem you may have heard the following lines:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Percy Shelley wrote “Ode to the West Wind”. Again, if you don’t know the poem perhaps you may have heard this famous line:

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Lord Byron, who died in Greece of a fever while fighting in support of an independent Greek state, wrote “She walks in beauty like the night”. Maybe you have heard the lines:

A mind at peace with all below
A heart whose love is innocent

To the ancient Greeks, Pindar was their most famous lyric poet. (Alexander, the Great so admired him that when he razed Thebes, utterly destroying the city, he spared the house of Pindar, although the poet had died more than a century earlier. Pindar wrote, for a fee, numerous odes celebrating athletic victories at the Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean games. His fame spread well beyond the boundaries of ancient Greece. Many Olympic champions were the beneficiaries of an ode celebrating their achievements.

Assignment: Write an ode to an athlete. In Pindar’s time, his fee would have been paid by the athlete himself or an admirer. Bear in mind that the idea is to praise, to celebrate some athletic feat, to give a standing ovation in the form of a poem. You pay compliments, admire generously, provide for a hero’s welcome. This is a time for flattery, for honeyed words. Suggestions: Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzsky, Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam, Babe Ruth, Babe Zaharias, Nadia Comaneci, Silken Laumann, Nancy Green, Mohammed Ali, Jesse Owens.