Alexander's Feast: Critical Summary

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      Dryden wrote Alexander's Feast or the Power of Music in 1697 in celebration of St. Cecilia. It was his second Cecilian ode, the first one being A Song for St. Cecilia's Day (1687). In Alexander's Feast, Dryden takes as his subject the way in which Alexander the Great was influenced by the musician, Timotheus, to set fire to the Persian city of Persepolis where he was enjoying a victory feast.

Scene of the Feast

      The poem opens with the scene of the royal feast in celebration of the winning of Persia. Alexander sits exultant on his imperial throne with the lovely Thais, his mistress, by his side. Around them were seated the courageous warriors with their heads adorned with myrtle and roses, signifying their valiant effort in battle. Thais was in the full bloom of youth and pride of beauty. Alexander and Thais made a happy pair, and the brave Alexander richly deserved the company of beautiful Thais.

Music Inspiring Pride

      The second stanza describes how Timotheus, the court musician, began to play his lyre, producing lovely music. The notes soared upwards and inspired celestial delight in the hearts of the listeners. The theme of the song was how Jove, in the shape of a dragon, came down to earth driven by an irresistible passion for Olympia (Alexander's mother); coiled himself around her waist and satisfied his desire. The union of Jove and Olympia resulted in the birth of Alexander, who thus possessed of god-like qualities. The noble song was highly admired by the listeners and the arched roofs of the building echoed with the sounds of their praise. Alexander was enraptured and began to imagine that he was a god. He nodded as if he had the power to shake the whole universe.


Assumes the God
Affects to nod
And seems to shake the spheres

Music Inspiring War-Memories

      In the third stanza, Timotheus changes the theme of his song to a praise of Bacchus, the "ever fair and ever young" god of wine. The merry Bacchus with his face always flushed by wine, gave to the world the joy of drinking - a blessing to mankind. The song describes the soldiers enjoying their drink. Wine went with soldiers - "Drinking is the solider's pleasure", and sweet after the pains of battle. The sound was soothing to the vanity of Alexander, who relived his battle and imagined himself killing his foes all over again. Timotheus saw the pride in Alexander's flushed cheeks and fiery eyes. While the king seemed to defy heaven and earth, Timotheus changed the theme of his music to check Alexander's pride.

Music Evoking Pity

      Timotheus now played mournful music with the aim of moving the king to pity. In the fourth stanza, we are told of how he sang of the sad death of Darius, the Persian king, who was stabbed by treacherous friends. He sang of how Darius was left to die in a pool of blood, deserted by those very friends who had fed off his generosity, with no one to close his dead eyes. The effect of this music was that Alexander sat meditating on the vicissitudes of earthly life. He was so touched that he sighed and shed copious tears.

Music Evoking Love

      In the fifth stanza, Timotheus changes over to the theme of love, for he felt that pity may easily melt into love. His song was now aimed at turning the king to amorous feelings. The soft, sweet notes of his music told of the insubstantial glories of war and commended the enjoyment of life's pleasures. Reminded by the music of the beautiful Thais sitting by his side, Alexander sighed with passionate love. At last, overwhelmed by passion and the potent effect of wine, he rested his head upon the breast of Thais.

Music Provoking Furious Revenge

      In the next stanza, Timotheus once again changes his music. He struck his lyre harder and harder, producing loud, vigorous and war-like sounds. His song evoked an urge in Alexander's heart to rise out of his languor and avenge the death of the soldiers killed in the war against the Persians. The music filled Alexander and the other listeners with a furious passion for revenge. The king took up a burning torch and, led by Thais, began to set fire to Persepolis, the capital town of Prsia. The town was reduced to ashes just as Troy had been destroyed by the invading Greeks who had come to recover Helen. The stanza describes the power of music to infuriate a human being just as the previous stanzas indicated the ability of music to arouse pride, pity and love.

St. Cecilia’s Divine Musical Prowess

      In the last stanza, we are told that Timotheus had possessed the power of exciting passions of furious revenge or tender love in the human heart with his flute and lyre, long before the organ had been invented, i.e., before St. Cecilia, who made the church organ, had come on the scene. Cecilia came long after Timotheus. She was full of noble, religious fervor, and by virtue of her immense knowledge of divine music, she enlarged the existent range of music. If Timotheus could create an elevated feeling in a man making him imagine himself a god, Cecilia's music could draw an angel down to earth. Thus Timotheus should either surrender the crown of supremacy in music to Cecilia or share it with her.

      Dryden has adapted legend to his own purposes in saying that the angel was drawn by Cecilia's music. Traditional belief has it that the spotless purity of Cecilia drew the angel to protect her.

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