A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day: Analysis

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Introduction: Occasion of Dryden's Ode

      Dryden wrote A Song for St. Cecilia's Day to be sung on November 22, 1687, the feast of St. Cecilia, who is regarded as the patron saint of music. The ode naturally celebrates the power of music.

      St. Cecilia was a Christian martyr who died along with her husband in 230 A.D. in Rome. Tradition had it that, forced to break her vows of celibacy and marry, she converted her husband to Christianity; Both became martyrs to the cause of Christianity. A skillful musician, St. Cecilia was supposed to have invented the organ, the musical instrument used in churches. When the Academy of Music was established in 1584 in Rome, Cecilia was Chosen as patron saint of music.

      The feast of st. Cecilia was celebrated in London in 1683 with a concert on November 22. Dryden was twice asked to write for the occasion - in 1687 and 1697. Dryden possessed a remarkable sensitivity to public occasions, and his efforts on both occasions were competent if not perfect. Dryden's ode and its performance proved an immense popular success.

Three Main Sections

      The ode falls clearly into three main sections. The first section (i.e., L. 1-15) deals with an explanation of the idea that the universe was created in harmony. It was music which created order out of chaos, and rescued Nature from a mass of discordant atoms. Music thus is a creative force. A narrative excitement marks the opening lines, appropriate for conveying the creative force of music. The shaping of Man was the perfect culmination of the act of creation.

      The second section (i.e. L. 16-47) asks a rhetorical question: "What passion cannot music raise and quell?" In other words, music had the power to arouse and subdue all kinds of passion. The poet describes the effect of Jubal's music on the "corded shell" (believed to be the original version of the lyre). The listeners were amazed at the sweet sounds and imagined that they were produced by some god dwelling in the hollow of the shell. They fell to the ground to worship, roused to religious feelings by the music.

      Different musical instruments and their sounds are then celebrated. The loud clamor of the trumpet incites the listeners to take up arms. The beat of drums makes one want to advance and attack the enemy. The flute's soft and complaining notes convey the grief of disappointed lovers. The music provides a funeral song for the tragic end of love. Sharp notes of the violin convey the feelings of jealousy, anger, resentment, agony and heights of passion. Music from the organ inspires the listeners with a love of God. The transition from one instrument to another, and the corresponding emotions and feelings which they evoke, are made skilfully and smoothly. It gives us "the impression that the poet has at his command the total resources of the art of music.

      The last section is formed of lines 48-63. The second section ends with the mention of organ music. It prepares us for the introduction in the third section of ST. Cecilia, the patron saint of music who is supposed to have invented the organ. St. Cecilia, with her organ music, could perform a greater miracle than Orpheus. If Orpheus charmed the trees and beasts with music, Cecilia's music brought an angel to the earth. Dryden has cleverly fused two aspects of the Cecilia legend to suit his purposes. Tradition has it that an angel came to protect Cecilia because of her spotless purity and her prayers. Dryden makes the angel come to the call of the sweet sounds of Cecilia's organ music. He seems to suggest that music was the effective beauty of Cecilia's prayers.

      The Grand Chorus brings the ode to a complete cycle which commenced with the first lines. Music is now represented by the ultimate trumpet call, proclaiming Doomsday, the end of that moment of eternity which contained the whole of human history. Music thus has an important role in destruction as well as in creation.

Theme: The Remarkable Power of Music

      The words "untuning the sky" in conjunction with music made Dr. Johnson object to the apparent antithesis. But the line should be referred back to the opening lines, as John Hollander remarks. The music that untunes the sky, is the "dissolvent counter-part of the original ordering." The same critic continues: "I think that the music untuning the sky is more than merely a figure representing the transcendence of music, even across the dissolution of the universe."

      It seems obvious that the reference to destruction was to be regarded as metaphor expressing the scope of music's power rather than its nature. Music is not just a maker; it is not just a destroyer. It is power in which the beginnings and endings of all being and actions find their source. Dryden provides us with "specimens of what can be done by music." The poem could very well have been given the subtitle The Power of Music, which Dryden gave to his second Cecilian Ode, Alexander's Feast. In both poems, music is shown to have a tremendous range of influence - from creating and forming the world, controlling its creatures, to destroying them as well. God and musician are identified, and the power of God is the power of music. It could create as well as destroy or untune the sky of the music of the spheres which lends the universe its harmony.

Style: Admirable Musical Effects in Versification

      Dryden has made beautiful use of sound effects in this ode. Sound is made to literally echo the sense in the poem. It is a fine example of "Onomatopoeic" poetry. The musical instruments and their sounds are conveyed in a vivid manner. He successfully experiments with language and rhythm in an attempt to catch the different shades of emotions expressed by various musical instruments. It is appropriate that a poet writing an ode to music should strive for musical effects in words and versification. As he moves from one instrument to another, Dryden makes a corresponding change in versification. The repeated d’s in the line on drums, the soft s and liquid I of the flute stanza, add to the sound effects of the poem. The essence of music has been captured in Dryden's ode.

Structure: Pindaric Ode with Modifications

      Dryden has not followed the structure of the true Pindaric ode faithfully. But his A Song for St. Cecilias Day is about the right length. It originates and repeats metrical patterns which convey a sense of order, as one critic says. Dryden, of course, is not concerned with athletic victories, as Pindar was. But his odes are commissioned and praise a triumph in heroic terms. They are tempered by sacred references and they employ both Christian and classical myths.


      There is no doubt that A Song for St. Cecilia's Day occupies a high place among Dryden's lyrical poems. Joseph Warton, one of Dryden’s earliest critics, said of this ode: "If Dryden had never written anything but this ode, his name would have been immortal  It is difficult to find new terms to express our admiration of the variety; richness, and melody of its numbers; the force, beauty, and distinctness of its image; the succession of so many different passions and feelings; and the matchless perspicuity of its diction." But, though Warton extolls the opening scene - "awful and august in manner" - he is highly critical of the "epigrammatic turn of the four concluding lines." Dr. Johnson, too, felt that the last lines detracted from an otherwise good poem. Many critics, however, do not agree with this pronouncement. They find the poem quite splendid in its own way. It remains great by itself, though Alexander's Feast surpasses its merits to some extent.

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