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, but the power of music, and even the great conqueror becomes a trophy of that power.
If one looks for themes, there is the undying luster of the classical world, its arts, its history, its myths and legends. There is the authority and allusive richness of a musical and poetic tradition that reaches back to antiquity. There is the dangerous power of the emotions and the irrational. These, however, are less themes than assumptions of Dryden’s age, which he embodies and expresses better than anyone else. Ultimately, there is one real theme, and that is stated in the poem’s alternate title.