A Song for St. Cecilia's Day

by John Dryden
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

"A Song for St. Cecilia's Day" is a poem written by English poet and literary critic John Dryden. The poem, written in 1687, is an ode, which is a form of lyric poetry. The poem is an ode in praise of St. Cecilia. What makes the poem cohesive is the fact that the poem is song for a patron saint of music. St. Cecilia, according to legend, sang in praise of God during her wedding as a group of musicians played. St. Cecilia represented one's devotion and love for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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The poetic style, an ode, and the subject itself both revolve around music. In the poem, Dryden associates certain "passions" with specific instruments. This gives the poem an imaginary but vivid orchestral background, as if the poem was being recited with music. The lyricism of the poem fits with the rhythm of an upbeat song, emphasizing the praise that Dryden gives St. Cecilia, and the praise that St. Cecilia gave to God during her wedding.

The poem's attempt to connect passion with the highs and lows of musical notes is Dryden's interpretation or personal definition of spiritual enlightenment. The passion that St. Cecilia exhibits in her mythology is being mirrored by Dryden in his poem, and Dryden believes that the sonic component of music is the language of the soul when communicating with the divine. In this sense, Dryden's lyric poem is similar to the transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. This is evident in the way Dryden associates music with biblical references, such as the fall of man after being exiled from the Garden of Eden. Dryden uses these religious references and symbolism to articulate his thesis; that the human emotions evoked by music is a divine phenomenon, and that the music humans create from emotions is a response to that phenomenon.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The first of John Dryden’s two Saint Cecilia’s Day odes, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” was written to commemorate November 22 as the day devoted to the patron saint of music. His second, Alexander’s Feast (1697), a longer and more elaborate composition, appeared ten years later, near the end of Dryden’s career. The practice of writing odes to commemorate St. Cecilia began in England in 1683, and Dryden was among the first poets to write at the invitation of a London musical society. Giovanni Battista Draghi’s musical adaptation, the first of several for the poem, accompanied the initial publication. In form, it is an ode, consisting of seven stanzas and a grand concluding chorus, sixty-three lines in all.

The structure resembles the Horatian or Roman ode in its linear and logical development. Two general introductory stanzas are followed by five others, which identify and trace the effects of musical instruments, plus a concluding chorus. Yet the stanzas, unlike those of the Horatian ode, are irregular, employing a variety of meters and ranging in length from four to fifteen lines. Writing at a time when the classical ode was little understood, Dryden may have adapted this stanzaic irregularity from Pindar, whose Greek odes were highly esteemed.

The initial stanza opens the poem with the statement that creation, bringing order and harmony to chaotic matter, was accompanied by music. This vision of creation derives from Lucretius and Ovid, classical Roman poets whose works Dryden knew well. To stress the power of music, Dryden emphasizes the role of musical harmony in imparting order to the universe. The second stanza narrows the theme to the power of music in arousing human emotion, the poem’s major theme. In the biblical account of the origin of music (Genesis 4:21), in which Jubal excited his hearers to wonder by blowing upon a sea shell, Dryden finds confirmation of the power of music over the emotions.

In stanzas 3 through 7, Dryden governs the structure by showing that each instrument arouses a particular human emotion in the hearer. These five stanzas, dealing with seven instruments, offer a basically chronological arrangement of instruments invented by man. Trumpets and drums arouse emotions associated with warfare, such as anger and courage. The flute and lute appeal to the soft emotions associated with romantic love, both its tenderness and its complaints of woe. Violins’ sharp tones suggest the jealousy and pain of discordant love. Finally the organ, traditionally credited to St. Cecilia’s invention, creates the sustained, majestic tones that inspire religious devotion.

Contrasting St. Cecilia with Orpheus, the legendary classical musician whose lyre moved trees to abandon their roots, the poem confers the greater power upon St. Cecilia. For, while she played her organ, an angel appeared, thinking that the sounds came from heaven. She thus produced the closest approximation on earth to the heavenly music that Dryden celebrated in the first stanza.

In the final stanza, a “Grand Chorus,” the poem envisions future heavenly music, when at the sound of the trumpet all shall gather on the final day. As music began the creation and sustained its harmony through the music of the moving spheres, so it will end it, and music will “untune the sky.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

The ode form, permitting verses of varying lengths, enables Dryden to achieve a rich diversity of poetic effects. Varied rhyme schemes and intricate sound effects create the beat and cadence of musical passages. In the ode, he relies less heavily on schemes of repetition that are prominent in his heroic couplets, although, along with figures of speech, they do contribute as well to the poem’s effects.

Just as the stanzas in the ode vary from four to fifteen lines, the lines vary from iambic trimeter to iambic pentameter, with a larger number of iambic tetrameter verses, permitting a complexity of metrical effects. The rhymes are similarly irregular and, therefore, form no pattern of inner consistency from stanza to stanza.

By the time he wrote the ode, Dryden was a master of sound effects beyond onomatopoeia, and the ode reflects his exquisite ear for poetic sounds. Onomatopoeic words such as “whisper’d,” “clangor,” and “thund’ring” have their texture enhanced by accompanying echoes and vigorous, direct meters: “The Trumpet’s loud clangor/ Excites us to arms/ With shrill notes of anger,/ And mortal alarms.” Short lines, forceful syllables—the final line shortened to five syllables—and a heavy reliance on the s sound heighten intensity. In stanza 7, contrasting Orpheus and St. Cecilia, the poem demonstrates how altering metrical form can create emphasis:

Orpheus could lead the savage race;And trees unrooted left their place,  Sequacious of the lyre;But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder high’r:When to her Organ vocal breath was giv’n,An angel heard, and straight appear’d,  Mistaking earth for heav’n.

Orpheus is accorded an iambic tetrameter line, largely regular and direct, but Dryden significantly emphasizes St. Cecilia by introducing her with an iambic pentameter line, made even more emphatic because it rhymes with a preceding trimeter.

The range of poetic sound effects can be studied by contrasting the abrupt staccato depiction of the drum, “The double double double beat/ Of the thund’ring Drum,” to the extended majestic sounds used to describe the organ: “What human voice can reach,/ The sacred Organ’s praise?/ Notes inspiring holy love.”

In the first passage, alliteration, short vowels, onomatopoeia, and assonance create echoes of drumbeats. In the second, sonorants, long vowels, and assonance lengthen the sounds to mimic the elongated tones of the organ.

Although Dryden makes extensive use of simple repetition for rhythmic effects, he relies little on complex schemes of repetition, except for sound effects achieved through assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. A notable exception occurs in the climactic conclusion: “The dead shall live, the living die,/ And Music shall untune the sky.” In this passage, balance and alliteration combine with polyptoton (a type of word repetition) and paradox to produce highly memorable poetry. Figures of speech are also used sparingly in what is essentially a tour de force of sounds. Yet the metaphor “crumbling pageant” for the world in the chorus, and the personifications of instruments, endowing them with human power, enrich the imaginative texture of the ode.

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