Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Alexander’s Feast: Or, The Power of Music, an Ode in Honor of St. Cecilia’s Day is Dryden’s second ode honoring Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. The poem’s theme, the power of music to move human emotions, is identical with that of “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” written a decade earlier. Both odes are occasional, having been composed at the invitation of the London Musical Society. The second ode, however, is much more elaborate, for Dryden introduces characters and places them within a dramatic setting. The Greeks are celebrating their victory over the Persian King Darius when the musician at the banquet, Timotheus, is called upon to perform.
With exalted strains, Timotheus creates within Alexander the Great a sense that he has become a deity. An alteration of tone changes his mood to a desire for pleasure, and following this a longing for love of his mistress Thaïs, who sits beside him. Somber strains evoke pity for the fallen Darius, but these are followed by strident tones calling for revenge on behalf of Greek soldiers who have perished. Alexander and his mistress and their company rush out, torches in hand, to burn the Persian city Persepolis. The poem concludes with a grand chorus, stressing the power of music to move emotions and contrasting the legend of Saint Cecilia with the power of Timotheus. Dryden recalls the story that after she had invented the organ, she played such beautiful music that an angel, mistaking the sounds for those of heaven, appeared as she played:
Let old Timotheus yield the prize,Or both divide the crown:He rais’d a mortal to the skies;She drew an angel down.
The intricate form resembles the Pindaric ode in its lengthy and complicated irregular stanzas, yet its linear organization follows the tradition of Horace. Dryden achieves a complex, forceful, and energetic movement, and his use of historical events and characters contributes to a lively, dramatic expression of his theme.