John Dryden – A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day

This is an ode to the emotive power of music, and presumably a commemoration of some event on this festival day of music’s patron saint. It re-imagines the Genesis account as an act of melodic conception, perhaps drawing on Milton’s famous invocation to Paradise Lost. The later stanzas can be seen to carry this Biblical metaphor through Christian history until the ‘Grand Chorus’ where music heralds the apocalypse. Intricate rhyme scheme and mirroring lines, together with varied line lengths create a frame and strive for a lyrical effect.

The opening stanza sees music as an aspect or incarnation of divinity in self-begetting genesis. The lyric, flowing rhythm of the first line with two ‘harmonizing’ dactyls at the end sets the tone – this ode has the grandeur of a hymn and the playfulness of a folk song. The ‘universal frame’ likens nature to an instrument that requires assembling – its constituent parts the elements, ‘cold, and hot, and moist, and dry’. Yet it is music itself, ‘the tuneful voice’ that sets in motion this genesis. Consequently music, personified with its own ‘power’ is seen as an expression of a self-begetting God. Nature then comes to represent the musical scale, which Dryden likens to the Chain of Being. Just as man is created on the final day of creation, so Dryden’s Genesis account ends in this stanza with mankind as the note which completes the scale.

Stanza structures throughout the poem are suggestive of the forms and frames of musical instruments. In the opening stanza the longer pentameter and tetrameter lines cut across the shorter to mimic the struts or strings on an organ or lute. The repeated line ‘From harmony, from heavenly harmony’ might represent the same note in a scale struck again. The second stanza certainly aims to mimic the completeness of the ‘compass of the notes’, returning to its opening line to suggest the circle of fifths or other mathematical sequences that were being applied in music at this time. Alternating line lengths also try to convey a lyrical feel, as much as is possible for an Augustan poet whose strength is in grandeur, solidity and rhetoric. The rich rhymes on ‘shell’ are not intrusive as they might be, but produce exactly this grand kind of effect which seems to work against the lyricism.

A major theme in the poem is music’s ability to play on human emotions, something reflected by Dryden’s sounding of various emotions as if they were notes in a scale. The range moves from anger and courage in stanza 3 to jealousy in 5 and worship in 6. Each is associated with an instrument, and Dryden’s word choices mimic the sound of each with varying success. The trumpet is evoked well by ‘clangor’, which has a resounding metallic sound but also warmth. The repetition of ‘double’ for the drum doesn’t quite come off, sounding out of place where two repetitions would have conveyed the message better – perhaps the line works once set to music. Music’s divine beginnings in Stanza 1 work to suggest that music not only inspires humanity but provides a link with heaven. This is suggested in stanza 7 with Cecelia’s summoning of an angel with the organ.

However, music is also seen as a force of destruction in the poem, fanning the flames of jealousy and heralding judgement. The ‘listening brethren’ that worship the music of Jubal need not be committing idolatry – they worship the same divine music that represents and is God in stanza 1. However, the suggestion that music’s power to manipulate can be abused is shown first here, ‘With the hollow of that shell / That spoke so sweetly and so well’. Of course shells do make a sound because they’re hollow, but the word also acts in its pejorative mode to suggest the seductive, misleading rhetoric of a politician. Likewise music inspires wars with the ‘thundering drum’, and the ‘pains’ of unrequited love. The poem gently and unobtrusively reminds us that when music is a human rather than divine tool, it can be misused. Hence finally in the Grand Chorus, the divine trumpet also brings about justice. The enjambment over ‘So, when the last and dreadful hour / This crumbling pageant shall devour’ creates a speed of delivery that echoes the cataclysmic ‘devouring’ of the world. The second line here seems to me to have a satirical bite to it – suggesting that elevated art and abstracts like music will outlive and shed unfavourable light on the ‘crumbling pageant’ of our lives. The final triplet is beautiful – echoing the cadence of Revelation and bringing us full circle to the ‘tuneful voice’ of stanza 1.

This poem is a grand but playful ode to music, celebrating art’s power to affect us but also imposing a moral framework just as it imposes a ‘universal frame’ on its stanzas. Music can be both a route to heaven and a herald of destruction.


3 thoughts on “John Dryden – A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day

  1. Thank you for drawing my attention to this poem. I’ve heard of it but never read it before.
    I’ve just read it and to me it reads like an elaborate and well thought out joke – a good one.
    I agree with you that the ending is beautiful.

    • Fantastic thanks! I agree, it’s certainly lighthearted (and rereading the essay I think I considerably under-stressed that!) and yeah in his hands what could have been just a punchline in the final stanza is really powerful as well. Chuffed that someone read it – thanks!

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