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“Alexander’s Feast,” by John Dryden, describes the celebration thrown by the great Greek warrior, Alexander the Great (son of Philip of Macedon) after Alexander had defeated the Persians in battle in 331 B.C.E. The poem opens by referring to this victory and by describing how
The godlike here sate [that is, sat]
On his imperial throne (4-5)
He was surrounded by his captains, who were decorated with “roses and myrtles” (7) as “The lovely Thais,” his Greek mistress, sat “by his side” (9). Repeated lines celebrate the happiness and bravery of the persons thus far depicted (12-19).
A poet and musician named Timotheus, accompanied by a choir and strumming a lyre, sings a song telling the myth of how Jove, the king of the gods, came down to earth and, disguised as a serpent, impregnated Alexander’s mother, so that Alexander was supposedly of partly divine parentage. The people at the feast celebrate Alexander’s divinity, and Alexander nods and thereby (like Jove) seems to produce powerful cosmic effects (20-46).
Timotheus next celebrates Bacchus, the god of wine, as if Bacchus were actually present at the feast:
Bacchus, ever fair and young,
Drinking joys did first ordain:
Bacchus’ blessings are a treasure;
Drinking is the soldier’s pleasure . . . (54-57)
The praise of Bacchus is then repeated, especially since “Sweet is pleasure after pain” (65).
Subsequent sections of the poem describe how Alexander becomes passionate when thinking about his victory (66-72) and how Timotheus manages to soothe Alexander’s proud passions by literally changing his own tune and mournfully describing the death of the Persian king (Darius) whom Alexander had defeated (69-83). Alexander is moved by this lament and contemplates the mutability of earthly existence (84-92).
Timotheus next inspires thoughts of love in Alexander, who has become drowsy from drinking (92-122). Timotheus therefore uses music to awaken the king and now inspires in him thoughts of vengeance on the Persians for having killed so many Greeks (123-54).
The poem ends by extolling the power of Timotheus’s music and of poetry as well (155-60). Eventually Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, invented the organ, thereby excelling the power displayed even by Timotheus (161-80):
He [that is, Timotheus] raised a mortal to the skies;
She drew an angel down. (169-70)
This poem is one of the most famous celebrations of music in the English language.
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