A Song for St. Cecilia's Day

by John Dryden

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"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—this is a form of lyric poetry. The ode is written in praise of St. Cecilia for a celebration in her honor. What makes the poem cohesive is the fact that the poem is a 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.

The poetic style and the subject itself both revolve around music. It is structured in eight stanzas of varying length. The first seven stanzas are presumed to be spoken, read, or sung by one individual. The final stanza, however, is intended to be sung by a “grand chorus.” In the first seven stanzas, Dryden’s speaker elaborates on the role of musical harmony in the world. By the end of the poem, one might imagine the music swelling and a whole choir of voices speaking the final lines. These ending lines reference the second coming of Christ—a time in which “[t]he dead shall live, the living die.” In the beginning, Dryden’s poem says that music was an important part of creation. Within the Christian timeline, music will be a significant part of the end times, too.

In the poem, certain "passions" are associated 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.  

Dryden's poem's attempt to connect passion with the highs and lows of musical notes is an interpretation or personal definition of spiritual enlightenment. The passion that St. Cecilia exhibits in her mythology is mirrored by Dryden in his poem, and the narrator 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 in this work to articulate a thesis: the human emotions evoked by music are a divine phenomenon, and the music humans create from emotions is a response to that phenomenon.

Dryden uses alliteration in stanza 1 through the phrase “heave her head.” This adds to the lyrical effect of the ode itself. Through use of rhetorical questions, the poem clearly comes across as one that is meant to engage its audience. Its songlike nature implores the audience to sing along or join in a chorus in recognition of St. Cecilia’s Day. This is quite fitting for a poem of the same name.

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