English - Prize poetry

Forget medals and trophies - the ancients had victory odes

Catherine Paver

If you won a race in the ancient Greek Olympics you would be rewarded with a wreath of leaves and given a statue of yourself, to symbolise your triumph. But if you were rich, you could also pay the poet Pindar to write you an ode.

The word "ode" means "song" in ancient Greek. And your ode would be a huge public event, featuring a chorus of singers who would perform it with a dance. (One performer allegedly "drove the audience ecstatic by his gyrations" - an ancient Greek Elvis.) Audience members would sing your praises for years to come at private parties and, of course, the next Olympics.

Your ode would celebrate you, your home town and your victory, but it would be woven together with other tales about the gods. Victory odes also spoke of heroic effort and the nature of poetry. They are as fresh as fire: "O heart, my leaping heart, if you burn to sing the ranks of games then scan the vast, vanquished sky no more for a star," Pindar wrote in Olympian 1 For Hieron of Syracuse, Winner in the Horse Race.

Victory odes are a great introduction to poetry for competitive children. Get pupils to research, write and perform as a group a victory ode for a sporting celebrity. By taking the ode back to its classical roots as public performance, they will feel and remember how powerful poetic techniques can be.

Many English poets were inspired by the victory odes of Pindar. John Dryden's A Song for St Cecilia's Day is all about music. Most young people adore music, so they will relate to Dryden's wish to honour its patron saint. This poem is good for reading aloud, with its booming, onomatopoeic drums and "soft, complaining flutes". As well as Pindar, English poets have also loved the more personal Latin odes of Horace.

Have fun and get quirky by asking pupils to write an "Ode to an iPod" or an "Ode to a Mobile Phone". They might even consider cheering up an unsuccessful athlete with a philosophical "Ode on Losing".

Then give them John Keats' Ode to a Nightingale. I am always amazed at how much even bottom sets get from this magical poem, with just enough context to guide them in. Its melancholy beauty is a long way from the victory ode. Yet it still has that essential quality of the ode: praise. Keats has given immortality not to an athlete but to birdsong.

Catherine Paver has taught French in England and English in Italy and South Africa

What else?

Catherine Paver's resources on Olympic victory odes are available on TES Resources.

Pupils are never too young to write odes - try lbrowne's lesson to inspire your early years class.

Explore Keats' poetry in more depth with johncallaghan's PowerPoint.

In the forums

English teachers share their experiences of thematic planning for key stage 3 and talk about how they implement the approach in their school.

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources040

1896 Olympics, Athens

One French sprinter was so awestruck by onlooking royalty that he wore gloves during the race*.

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Catherine Paver

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