Critical Analysis of Alexander’s Feast

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      St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and the legendary inventor of the church organ. A public feat was held on November, 22 every year to celebrate the memory of St. Cecilia, and musical concerts were also arranged on this day. The celebration began in England, in 1683. Dryden was twice commissioned to write a song for the occasion - once in 1687 and then in 1697. The first was A Song for st. Cecilia's Day. The second work was Alexander's Feast or the Power of Music. The latter is supposed to be the better literary work, though both are written in honor of St. Cecilia. Critics have called the poem, Dryden's best lyric. Dryden is supposed to have written the ode in a single night.

Theme of the Poem: Glorification of the Power of Music

      The theme of the poem, as its sub-title indicates, is the power of music. It suggests that music can arouse different moods and passions in a listener. We are told of how Timotheus, a court musician stirred Alexander to the different moods of victorious pride, conceit of divinity; pity, love, and finally the fury of revenge. Ceilia's music, however, possessed a unique magic. If Timotheus with his music could raise a mortal to the skies, i.e.f make Alexander feel like a god, Cecilia's sweet organ sounds drew an angel down to earth:

He raised a mortal to the skies;
She drew an angel down.

      Thus, the poet implies, Ceilia is superior to Timotheus. The ode is a glorification of music.

Structure and Style

      Alexander's Feast is an irregular ode with the meter and number of lines varying from stanza to stanza. The closing lines of each strophe are repeated as a chorus. The overall scheme allows the various stanzas to contain, each within itself, a separate episode. A feeling appropriate to the action of each episode is exemplified through each strophe, and particularly in the chorus, as one critic comments.

      Dryden shows his capacity for experimentation in language and rhythm in order to capture the various shades of emotions which the music of Timotheus stirred up. David Daiches calls the ode full of "fine verbal fireworks." The poem is "ornate" in its variety of technical effects. Dryden shows his skill as a versifier capable of flexibility and a wealth of rhythmic variation. There is also an epigrammatic flavor to some of the lines such as,

"Drinking is the solider's pleasure"
"None but the brave deserves the fair"
"Sweet is pleasure after pain."
"War... is toil and trouble"
"Honour but an empty bubble."

      The stylistic versatility of the poet has been extensively represented in Alexander's Feast.

Harmony between the Verse and the Mood

      The poem has been written on the principle of "imitative harmony, ie. the principle of making he 'sound' suggests the sense or meaning, for example in the lines,

He sung Darius great and good,
By too severe a fare
Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen
Fallen from his high estate

      The repetition of "fallen", evokes a sense of pity for the fate of Darius whose might and majesty are reduced to such an ignominious state. No rhetorical device is spared by Dryden in order to achieve the desired effect repetition, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, are all employed to convey the connection between sound and meaning.

Softly sweet, in Lydian measures,
Soon he sooth'd his soul to plesures

The line,

And rouse him, like a rattling peal of thunder

      The tender feeling of love is conveyed through the soft, sibilant notes of, with its repetition of the harsh r, achieves the desired effect of war Such sound effect may not appeal much to modern readers, who may think it all a bit too obvious. But when it first appeared, it certainly had a claim to originality.

Narrative Quality of the Poem

      Dryden combines with the principle of "imitative harmony", a narrative, though it is not much of a story. A dramatic touch is added with the changing moods and gestures of Alexander as he listens to the music of Timotheus. A new situation is created in every stanza, with accompanying imagery of a vivid and concrete kind. We have the incorporation of the legend of Jove's union with Olympia in the shape of a serpent; the striking picture of the mercy god of wine, Bacchus, with a flushed face; the king re-living his past glories on the battlefield; the tragic death of Darius, stabbed treacherously by friends; and the king, at last, sinking his head on the soft bosom of Thais, overcome by passion and wine - a "vanquished victor." Ultimately; he is roused to burn Persepolis. Legend, mythology and history are all incorporated in the story.

Impersonal Quality of the Ode

      Dryden's ode is of the impersonal variety; quite unlike the odes written by the famous Romantic poets, Wordsworth or Shelley. Dryden shows the classical tendency of self-effacement and impersonality. He does not let subjectivity intrude - there is no expression of personal emotion or sentiment for St. Cecilia. The impersonal quality; say critics, appeals to the modern reader who appreciates the capacity of a poet to convey a thought without subjective reference.

As a Lyric, Lacks Emotional Fervour

      Alexander's Feast has been called Dryden's best lyrical effort. Indeed, some of its lines are beautifully musical and expressive of emotion.

Blooming eastern bride,
In flower of youth and beauty's pride.

      The lines describing the lovely Thais, looking like a or the description of Jove’s ravishment of Olympia, coiling his serpent figure round her slender waist, show an emotional and lyrical quality. However, if we approach Dryden's ode with the expectation of finding the intense emotion and feeling which mark the Romantic poets, we will be disappointed. Dryden in true classical tradition practices restraint and emotional discipline. There is more of artistry or poetical craftsmanship than imaginative fervor in the ode. It is, says Cazamian, a "somewhat too clever a masterpiece in imitative harmony."


      Alexander's Feast was Dryden's best lyrical poem. It belongs to the variety of impersonal odes. Pope lavished high praise on it - he called it the noblest lyric in the English Language. Critical opinions differ on the poem. J.C. Collins calls it a "rhetorically imposing masterpiece." Lamborn considers its music "as showing attractiveness as its theme." One cannot, however, deny its variety of versification and poetic craftsmanship, even if we would prefer more intense feeling and depth of emotion in a lyric.

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