A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day: Critical Summary

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Music's Creative Role

      The ode, A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day opens with an explanation of the central idea in the background of poem, that the world was created by harmony. Music is here treated as harmony, and as a creative force. At first, Nature lay weighted down by discordant (jarring) atoms, "worse than dead", inactive and motiveless, unable to raise her head. The warring elements were brought into the desired shape under the influence of divine harmony, or the "tuneful voice" of God. It was in obedience to the organizing influence of God's musical voice that the chaotic elements and discordant atoms were resolved into order. Then the different seasons and elements of cold, heat, wet and dryness assumed their proper status. The heavenly harmony gave further shape to the universe, developing it as it went from one melody to another. The culmination of the creative power of this divine harmony was the shaping of man.

Power of Music to Stir and Subdue Passions

      Music has a remarkable power - it can both arouse and subdue the passions of man. When Jubal played upon the first lyre made out of a shell, the people were amazed at the sweet sounds emanating from the shell and thought that a god must be dwelling in the hollow of the instrument. They fell on the ground to worship the god.

Sounds of Different Musical Instruments

      The different musical instruments have different appeals. The trumpet's loud, clanging sound, expressive of anger and a warning of danger, possesses the power to inspire its listeners to take up arms and fight. The thundering double beats of a drum have a similar influence on listeners - it goads them to advance and attack the enemy.

      Flute music has a soft and complaining sound, and seems to give expression to the sorrow of disappointed lovers. The lute produces notes of lament, sweet and low, like a dirge for the tragic end or unrequited love. The violin with its sharp notes, conveys the pangs of jealousy, a mood of despair, deep resentment and pain, or the intense passion of lovers towards beautiful and haughty ladies who do not reciprocate their love. Dryden moves from one musical instrument to another in a skillful and smooth manner.

      Dryden now moves on to the music of the church organ, thus introducing Cecilia, the patron saint of music and the traditional inventor of the church organ. This divine instrument, says the poet, is above all other musical instruments in beauty, for its notes inspire a love of God in the listeners. The sound of the organ soars up to the skies and heavens and surpasses even the music of angels, in its richness. Even Orpheus with his power to cast a spell on the trees and beasts with the music of his lyre was less marvelous than Cecilia's musical power. The music of Orpheus caused trees to uproot themselves so as to follow it. Cecilia performed a greater wonder than Orpheus. Her organ music brought an angel to earth, under the mistaken impression that the sweet sounds were coming from heaven.

      Power of Music to End the Universe
The ode ends with the idea that, just as the universe began in harmony; it will end to the sound of the ultimate trumpet. Music, then, would play an equally important role in the dissolution of the universe as it did in its creation. The sound of the trumpet blown in Heaven will proclaim the Doomds day. The sound of that trumpet shall "untune the sky." Created under the influence of music or divine harmony; the universe will dissolve into chaos under the influence of music. It is the power of music that Dryden talks of here and not its nature.

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