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.


William Collins – Ode to Evening

This poem personifies evening in rich, complex description. Likened to the Bible’s ‘Eve’ in line 2, already we are given an ambivalent perspective on the subject – both an object of beauty and something fallen and flawed. The poet dwells on evening’s ability to both reveal and obscure, and sets up a contrast between characterization as a pure, religious figure, and a sensual, sexualized being. The final exultant address extends this characterization of eveining to a reflection on women.

Evening is referred to as ‘chaste Eve’, bringing an immediate comparison with the Biblical character. The ‘chasteness’ of Eve as a character is ambiguous, as Milton and others have seen the Fall as a form of seduction, playing on Eve’s pride, something countered in the poem by ‘modest’. We are therefore meant to see evening as ambivalent, whether the poet is trying to cast off these prejudices or ironically enforce them. This allusion then informs our interpretation of the personified sun, depicted here as male in the convention of describing Apollo the sun-god. We could read this as Adam, Eve’s partner, who in the act of setting is being put aside, separated off allowing us to place our focus solely on the evening or ‘Eve’.

Evening is also depicted as a Classical muse, inspiring song in the poet which he hopes will ‘suit’ her – both in the sense of reflecting evening’s peace and in the sense of being pleasing to it. There is a pun in the epithet, ‘maid composed’, in that evening’s calm is described as ‘composure’, but also this figure has been is involved in ‘composing’ music as a muse. Perhaps also this figure is itself ‘made’ or ‘composed’, manufactured by the poet to stand in for something else – the poem will go on to reveal that it is really reflecting on the nature of womankind not just evening. Using ‘compose’ in its musical sense, the poet’s exhortation to the muse suggests along with the poem’s title a desire to praise or elevate the subject.

There is however a darker element to this image; the idea of ‘measures, stealing through thy darkening vale’ suggests the creeping of a predator. We see the image of a beetle with a ‘sullen horn’ as well: the ominous side of falling night. This image is partially obscured from us, introducing troubling glimpses like the ‘heedless’ ‘pilgrim’, suggesting vulnerability and lack of awareness. Here the poet demonstrates evening’s ability to both reveal, as it casts things in a new light and conjures ‘elves’ and ‘nymph’s, and obscure, by darkening detail and hiding faces. The lines in which evening’s ‘elves’ emerge are mimetic of the lethargy and gradual change of twilight itself, with long drawn out syntax extending the sentence from line 21 to 27.

The poem is full of religious imagery, used to emphasize the reserved purity of evening’s actions. Evening is apostrophised as a ‘calm vot’ress’, suggesting the word ‘devotion’ and the idea of votive candles – we have an image of a praying woman strengthened by the reference to a ‘dusky veil’, standing for both the physical darkness obscuring faces and a symbol of nun-like purity. Contrasted with this clam reserved-ness we see the sensuous vitality instilled in evening by the seasons. The description is sexualised in ‘breathing tresses’ and ‘lap of leaves’, suddenly giving ‘evening’ characteristics of flesh. The ‘sport’ of Summer and Winter’s ‘rend[ing] of robes’ also seem to have sexual connotations. The contrasted views of evening available in the poem match with the ambivalent allusion to Eve as a Biblical character: femininity as both pure and unreachable, and as earthly and bodily.

The final lines ascribe ‘Fancy, Friendship, Science and rose-lipped health’ to evening, and here we have a clue that the poem also has a discourse on womankind and femininity itself. These things would seem strange to ascribe to ‘evening’, but might better be a reflection of womankind, with the idea of ‘gentlest influence’ especially sounding like a description of women typical of this time. One could see the shapely elegance of the poem’s form – two pentameter lines alternating with two trimester lines – as another incarnation of femininity in the poem.

This poem uses femininity as a way of characterizing and beautifully representing evening. But perhaps more significantly it uses the idea of evening as a means of expressing the poet’s views or women as paradoxical, unknowable and life giving.