Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

This poem was written to celebrate St. Cecilia (the patron saint of music), and argues that the heavens (God) lent order and harmony to the jarring, chaotic universe of nature. The universe, in Dryden's understanding, is not random, chaotic, or confused. On the contrary, he states that God's presence puts all the elements in the universe in their proper place so that they all work together harmoniously. Dryden uses the metaphor of music to describe this beautiful harmony, likening the God-controlled universe to music. The grand culmination (or final swelling chord: i.e. "diapason") of this harmony is none other than "man."

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Dryden argues that this music does not simply bring a passionless order and harmony. It raises emotions and subsequently "quells" (or soothes) them. It elicits in us an awe and a desire to worship a God who created such beautiful harmony. It proves to people that nothing other than "a god" could live at the center of such a universe. Dryden uses the metaphor of a conch shell to describe the universe, with God at its center. Therefore, one theme of the poem is that we live in a universe that is ordered, harmonious, and awe-filled because of God's control.

A second theme in the poem is that humankind is the grand culmination of this celestial harmony. If the music that humans create is ordered and harmonious (no matter the instrument), it is therefore an implicit reflection of God's ordered and harmonious nature. This includes the music of poetry, such as the ordered and harmonious poetry that Dryden composes.

Dryden explicitly states that the best reflection of God's harmony is inherent in the music of St. Cecilia; her music was so heavenly that an angel heard it and mistook earth for heaven. Thus, Dryden implies that humankind can (at least in rare moments) reach heavenly or divine heights on earth. Dryden therefore posits a very positive and optimistic view of humankind, an outlook rooted in Enlightenment ideals.

This Enlightenment viewpoint is also firmly entrenched in a Christian worldview. The poem, in the final chorus, ends by invoking the Second Coming and the New Jerusalem, when all the "dead shall live, the living die" and all are united in a universal harmony. Like an uplifting piece of music, the Christian universe is based on a plan with a beautiful ending.

Dryden's message about the cosmos is ultimately comforting: he puts forth the idea that the universe is harmonious and beautiful, God is in control, humankind is a glorious creation, and the end of history will be harmonious and happy.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

“A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” celebrates the power of music by drawing upon classical myths and Christian and Jewish sources and legends. The dominant theme is directly expressed in the line “What passion cannot Music raise and quell!” Its development associates specific passions with specific instruments. This theme is developed, however, within the larger context of the hexameral tradition which associates music with the creation and of the Christian eschatological tradition which associates the trumpet with Judgment Day and the crumbling of creation. The power of music to raise passions is developed in the middle five stanzas about how music from individual instruments raises emotions; only in the eschatological Grand Chorus does Dryden explore how music quells emotions.

The mythic figures mentioned in the poem contribute to the idea of music developing from humble origins after the fall of man. The sublime music of creation of the first stanza that regulates the spheres remains unheard by men after the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Instead, Jubal creates the first musical sounds by blowing upon a sea shell and, as Dryden’s description indicates, fills his hearers with wonder. Orpheus, from Greek mythology, confirms the power of music by his appeal to the plant and animal kingdoms. Thereafter, music increases its power over human emotions, as more complex instruments are fashioned. Dryden’s descriptions of drums and trumpets exciting war’s valor and anger and of flutes, lutes, and violins exciting the pleasures and pains of love (stanzas 3 to 5) suggest the conflict between love and honor that wracks the heroes of his heroic plays. By giving the organ the final place in the development of the instruments he names, Dryden accords it—and its emotion, religious devotion—greatest power and dignity. The intimation that the organ was invented after the violin is incorrect, yet Dryden never questions the legend that St. Cecilia invented the instrument.

Contrasting Orpheus, whose lyre gave trees the ability to separate from their roots and to move to music, with St. Cecilia, who drew an angel to her sounding organ, takes Dryden to the origins of music. In Dryden’s hierarchical arrangement of levels of being, the appeal to an angel’s passion surpasses any appeal to elemental or human emotions.

Dryden’s climactic sequence of instruments leads almost inexorably to the final eschatological vision of the trumpet that ends all creation and quells normal human emotion. The mythical music of the spheres, heard since creation only by the inhabitants of heaven and ever since denied to man, gives way to the sound of the trumpet. The sky itself is untuned by the final cataclysmic event, and afterward only heaven itself retains the harmony that had previously informed and regulated the creation.

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