A Song for St. Cecilia's Day Analysis
by John Dryden

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A Song for St. Cecilia's Day Analysis

"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

(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 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...

(The entire section is 1,355 words.)