Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Alexander’s Feast is about the power of music to raise, quell, and shift emotions. It illustrates emotion through the effective use of sound and rhythm as well as through content. What it does not do is express the emotion in a way that truly involves either the author or the reader. When a drunken Alexander mentally refights all his battles and thrice slays the slain, readers are more inclined to smile with the author than to grow bloody-minded with the warrior.
The reader accustomed to the personal intensities of the odes of the Romantic era may well be put off by Dryden’s distance and objectivity. Dryden’s era and the century that immediately follows are often called the Age of Reason. Yet even in this age Dryden stands out as a poet of wit and intellect rather than of emotion. It is impressive that he can illustrate emotions so effectively without involving himself or asking involvement on the reader’s part. Emotion, so valued by the Romantics, can be seen as delusion as well as a dangerous and even negative force in the poem. Alexander is deluded in his assumption of godhead, vain in his reliving of his martial exploits, and wantonly angry in his burning of Persepolis. The Miltonic grandeur of Alexander’s initial appearance, “Aloft in awful state/ The godlike hero sate/ On his imperial throne” is undercut throughout by the ease with which Timotheus manipulates him. The theme of the poem, however, is not Alexander’s greatness,...
(The entire section is 355 words.)
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