A Song for St. Cecilia's Day

by John Dryden

Start Free Trial

Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Introduction

John Dryden's “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” consists of eight stanzas with a grand chorus making up the final, nine-line stanza. St. Cecilia's Day is celebrated on November 22nd in memory of the patroness of music who lived in third-century Rome. The work may be read like a song, with one singer initiating the piece and the chorus closing it.

Summary

In the opening stanza, the poem's speaker relates, using the past tense, the role of music in the creation of the world. It lay dormant until "the tuneful voice was heard from high" and the world became enlivened. In the final "diapason" of the heavenly harmony, mankind was created. Music is established as sacred and spiritual. Music is the “universal frame” through which the world is understood. 

After establishing the deep, musical ties to creation, the second stanza asserts that nothing exists that music's passion cannot "raise or quell." The speaker references Jubal, a figure in the Hebrew Bible who was said to be the "father of all who play the harp and flute." When he first introduced music, his peers felt that something heavenly, god-like, or "celestial" existed within the sounds that they heard.

In the third stanza, the speaker notes the role of music in battle. True, the poet has described music’s power as romantic and spiritual, yet there is more than that. The "trumpet's loud clangor" moves men to take up arms and "the thund'ring drum" leads the charge when enemies are near. This is different from the heavenly descriptors of the previous stanza. Here, music also serves as a call to action that may even be “shrill.” 

The tone shifts in stanza four as the speaker notes that the sound of a flute expresses the sadness that accompanies the death of a love affair. The lute can be “warbling,” invoking the same sadness its listeners may very well feel.

The fifth stanza offers a comparison of the high-stringed sound of a violin to the voice of "the fair, disdainful dame" in her various, impetuous moods. Here, the violin seems able to convey human emotional experiences such as jealousy, fury, pain, and passion.

In the sixth stanza, Dryden's speaker proclaims the importance of the "sacred organ." It outstrips the power of the human voice in offering praise to heaven, with the power to carry its notes aloft. It inspires a “holy love,” suggesting something beyond human grasp and more in line with a god. It is through playing and listening to this instrument that such a celestial connection can be formed.

In the penultimate stanza, Dryden's speaker evokes a musical figure that pre-dates Jubal: Orpheus, the poet and musician of classical antiquity who married poetry and music with his mastery of the lyre. However, Cecilia's organ playing was said to be so heavenly that it summoned an angel. After all, this song is to celebrate Cecilia’s ability.

The grand chorus that completes the poem predicts that on the last day of Earth, music will mark the time, just as it marked the time of creation.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Next

Themes