Study Guide

Dejection: An Ode Form and Meter

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Form and Meter

Pindaric Ode

If you were taking a quiz about this poem's form, you'd get an A. That's because the title is a total tip off. "Dejection: an Ode" is written in the form of—wait for it—an ode. A's for everyone, right?

Not so fast—there's actually quite a bit that goes into making an ode, and we're here to break it on down for you. First up, some background is in order:

The guy who invented the ode is a Greek poet named Pindar. He wrote in the fifth century BCE, putting together odes to celebrate athletic competitions and other formal events. The first odes were big productions, featuring singers and dancers and holograms. Okay, so maybe that last one is a stretch, but the legacy of the ode as a vehicle of formal celebration and-or praise has remained.

Today, we have three main flavors of odes: Pindaric, Horatian, and Irregular, but our guy Coleridge went old school and opted for the Pindaric version. And, according to Pindar's model, the ode contained three distinct elements: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Remember that Pindar's odes were essentially big musical productions, so these terms really referred to different actions by the chorus, which was singing along to the musical accompaniment. It also meant slight variations in the rhythm of the language, as well.

For our purposes, we're going to focus on those variations. The thing to note about "Dejection: an Ode" is not how much it's like an ancient Greek musical, but how it—in Pindaric ode fashion—asserts a strong meter, and then hits us with several versions of that same pattern.

The base meter of the poem is iambic. That means that the majority of the lines are put together in a pattern of iambs, or two-syllable pairs in which first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed: daDUM. Just take a listen to the first five lines of the poem, and you'll hear a strong iambic pattern:

WELL! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made
The grand old ballad ofSir Patrick Spence,
This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence
Unroused by winds, that ply a busier trade
Than those which mould yon cloud in lazy flakes,
(1-5)

If you read that out loud, you should hear a pretty familiar beat emerge: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. That, folks, is the sound of iambic pentameter, and it's pretty much the go-to standard metrical choice for most of your poetic heavy hitters, like Shakespeare and our man Coleridge.

Iambic pentameter just means that each line has five iambs (penta- means five), but this is not the only iamb combo in this stanza. Remember that a Pindaric ode asserts a strong metrical pattern, but then also offers up variations on that theme. So we soon get lines like:

Which better far were mute.
For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o'erspread
(8-11)

Line 8 only has three iambs now, as opposed to the expected five. Three iambs to a line is knows as "iambic trimeter." Then lines 9-11 add just one more iamb back into the mix, to create iambic tetrameter (tetra- means four). Line 12, though, returns us to iambic pentameter:

But rimmed and circled by a silver thread (12) 

After this, the iambic pentameter holds up, if you're willing to overlook a slight exception:

I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling (13)

Did you notice that extra, unstressed syllable (the "-ing") at the end of the line? That's called a feminine ending, and it's not technically counted against the prevailing pattern of the meter. We get another feminine ending in line 15, in fact: 

And oh! that even now the gust were swelling, 

Besides these fudged endings, we also get an extra, unstressed syllable to start line 16:

And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!

Then it's back to solid iambic pentameter for a line (17), iambic trimeter for a line (18), back to iambic pentameter (19), and a final line of iambic hexameter (six iambs to a line):

Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live! (20)

Iambs, then, are central to this poem (just check out any other stanza to find countless examples of iambic tri-, tetra-, even hexameter), but the lines aren't carbon copies of themselves. We get plenty of variation.

The same can be said for the poem's rhyme scheme, which features rhymed couplets that echo each other's end rhymes. Check out lines 5 and 6, 7 and 8, 9 and 10, or 11 and 12 for examples.

Couplets aren't the only rhyming game in town, though. Lines 1-4 are put together with a rhyme scheme of ABBA, while lines 13-16 feature an ABAB scheme, before the poem settles back into rhymed couplets. Again, this is just one of the poem's eight stanzas. We cordially invite you to find many, many more examples of the variations in rhyme and meter that we point out here.

So what's driving all these variations? For starters, it's clear that Coleridge is doing this to follow in some classical ode footsteps. Back when odes were musical productions, variation was an important part of the melody. Think about it: when's the last time you heard a song that just repeated the same few notes over and over again? They're not really burning up the Billboard chart.

So Coleridge is following a classic model here, but that's because he wants to lend a gravity and formality to his poem. We say more about this choice of form over in "What's Up With the Title?", but it's worth just repeating here that our guy was out to give his depressed mood an elevated going-over. After all, serious dejection calls for a serious poem.

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