Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” celebrates the power of music by drawing upon classical myths and Christian and Jewish sources and legends. The dominant theme is directly expressed in the line “What passion cannot Music raise and quell!” Its development associates specific passions with specific instruments. This theme is developed, however, within the larger context of the hexameral tradition which associates music with the creation and of the Christian eschatological tradition which associates the trumpet with Judgment Day and the crumbling of creation. The power of music to raise passions is developed in the middle five stanzas about how music from individual instruments raises emotions; only in the eschatological Grand Chorus does Dryden explore how music quells emotions.

The mythic figures mentioned in the poem contribute to the idea of music developing from humble origins after the fall of man. The sublime music of creation of the first stanza that regulates the spheres remains unheard by men after the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Instead, Jubal creates the first musical sounds by blowing upon a sea shell and, as Dryden’s description indicates, fills his hearers with wonder. Orpheus, from Greek mythology, confirms the power of music by his appeal to the plant and animal kingdoms. Thereafter, music increases its power over human emotions, as more complex instruments are fashioned. Dryden’s descriptions of drums and trumpets exciting...

(The entire section is 458 words.)