The Poem

John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast: Or, The Power of Music is, as its subtitle informs the reader, An Ode in Honor of St. Cecilia’s Day. It is, in fact, Dryden’s second poem in honor of this saint, the patron saint of music and, according to tradition, the inventor of the pipe organ. Therefore, the poem is not merely a tribute to the saint, but also a poem about the power of music. It has been set to music three times, the third and definitive setting that of George Frideric Handel.

The narrative framework is suggested by Plutarch’s “Alexander,” in which the author describes Alexander’s feast for his officers, celebrating the defeat of Persia. At this feast, according to Plutarch, Alexander’s mistress, Thais, persuaded Alexander to burn the Persian capitol in revenge for the Persians’ burning of her home city of Athens. Dryden gives the story a very different emphasis.

The first stanza introduces Alexander and his mistress sitting in state. In the second, Alexander’s musician, Timotheus, with his lyre inspires Alexander to a sense of divine power, singing the story told by Alexander’s mother, Olympia, that Alexander’s actual father was Zeus who, in the form of a great dragon, had impregnated her. In stanza 3 Timotheus shifts to the pleasures of drink. In stanza 4, seeing the mood of mellow intoxication becoming drunken belligerence, he next shifts the mood to one of sorrow, singing of the fall of kings, boldly choosing as his example Darius, king of Persia, whose defeat is being celebrated. In stanza 5, having already aroused the softer emotions, Timotheus moves from sorrow to thoughts of love, and then in stanza 6 to...

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Forms and Devices

Alexander’s Feast is a Pindaric ode. This uniquely English form, actually little related to the poetry of the Greek poet Pindar, is an ode written in irregularly rhymed free verse and was probably chosen by Dryden because the flexibility it allowed in sound patterns could better approximate the effect of music than the more rigid traditional forms. Because they are of unequal length and varying pattern of rhyme, the seven stanzas of the poem could more properly be called verse paragraphs. Each ends in a chorus of four to seven lines, which is a repetition of the last lines of the stanza. The “Grand Chorus” at the end of the poem repeats ten lines, giving the concluding stanza more weight than the others.

The one feature this ode does share with those of Pindar, and which may have been inspired by Pindar, is the fact that Saint Cecilia is glorified less through elaboration of her own life and deeds than through being placed in relationship to a grand mythic or legendary narrative. This is a convention that works to Dryden’s advantage, since the saint’s sketchily reported life offers little to work with.

The poem not only is about music, but also was intended from the first to be set to music. Each stanza employs every poetic resource of sound pattern and rhythm to create speed, force, hardness, softness, smoothness, or abruptness. It is as much, or more, a libretto for music than a poem praising music, and it provides...

(The entire section is 453 words.)