A Song for St. Cecilia's Day Analysis

John Dryden

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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:

(The entire section is 505 words.)