The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687

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.

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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 anger and revenge, inspiring Alexander to burn Persia’s capital, Persepolis.

The motivations Plutarch gives Alexander, intoxication and a desire to please his mistress, however, are unrelated to the power of music. The opening lines of the sixth stanza make the desire for revenge a result of Timotheus’s music, though no reason is given for the musician to desire such an outcome. The fact that this stanza follows the one about love, as well as the lines, “Thais led the way,/ To light him to his prey,/ And, like another Helen, fir’d another Troy,” suggest that Thais is responsible. That, however, would seem to contradict the rest of the stanza, and to be irrelevant to the poem’s theme, the power of music. The reader might suppose that Thais takes advantage of the mood Timotheus creates, though one may still wonder at the irresponsibility of raising anger and thoughts of revenge in the mind of someone already intoxicated. Such questions, however, go largely unnoticed, for readers are caught up in the mythic resonance of the burning of a great city and the analogy with Troy that concludes the narrative part of the poem.

The final stanza introduces the patron saint of music, stating that Cecilia goes beyond the nearly magical power of Timotheus’s music, because she “Enlarg’d the former narrow bounds/ And added length to solemn sounds,” and so either takes the prize, or at least must share it, for “He rais’d a mortal to the skies;/ She drew an angel down.” This final line echoes Dryden’s earlier “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” which explicitly states that the beauty of Cecilia’s music causes the angel to mistake earth for heaven. The angel visitor is a part of the saint’s legend, but Dryden, for the purposes of his poem, has changed the cause of the visit from Cecilia’s virtue to her music. Samuel Johnson complained of the impropriety of a shared prize when the exultation of Alexander to godhead is only metaphoric, while the angelic visitor is real. However, Cecilia’s advantage in the comparison is great enough that Dryden can afford to leave the judgment to the reader. Further, a divided prize introduces the sense of balance. Each of the earlier stanzas represents an extreme of emotion, so that the neat balance and antithesis at the end gives the conclusion a sense of harmonious coming together.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

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 instructions for any musician who would set it to music. The second stanza mentions the lyre, a stringed instrument. The third, the praise of Bacchus, introduces trumpets, drums, and hautbois. The sixth stanza goes back to the lyre.

Much of the poem’s appeal is the exuberance of the language. Even the softest and most melancholy passages have a quickness and energy that hurry the reader along to the last stanza. In these parts Dryden employs one resource he has been holding back. The choice and arrangement of vowels and consonants give the lines a gravity and resonance appropriate to the pipe organ.

Music and poetry in the ancient world were less distinct from one another than in later times. Dryden takes advantage of the traditional connection to make his effects poetic as well as musical, for at least part of Timotheus’s effect comes from narrative, as in the stories of Alexander’s birth and of Darius’s fall. The ode in praise of Saint Cecilia, the pipe organ, and the power of music is also an ode in praise of the power of poetry and of the rich classical tradition out of which so much of Western poetry arises.

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