The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 687 words.)