A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day by John Dryden: Analysis & Background

Stanza 1
From harmony, from Heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
Arise ye more than dead !
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And music's power obey.
From harmony, from Heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.

Stanza 2
What passion cannot music raise and quell !
When Jubal struck the corded shell,
His listening brethren stood around
And wond'ring, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound:
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot music raise and quell!

Stanza 3
The trumpet's loud clangor
Excites us to arms
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thund'ring drum
Cries, Hark ! the foes come;
Charge, charge, it is too late to retreat !

Stanza 4
The soft complaining flute,
In dying notes, discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute.

Stanza 5
Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs, and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion,
For the fair, disdainful dame.

Stanza 6
But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach,
The sacred organ's praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their Heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Stanza 7
Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place;
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher;
When to her organ, vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear'd
Mistaking earth for Heaven.

As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator's praise
To all the blessed above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky !

St Cecilia was a Christian martyr who became the patron saint of music. Dryden’s poem, written in 1687 to commemorate her saint’s day, celebrates and glorifies the power of music, and was set to music for the formal day of celebration on 22 November.

The poem begins by describing the creation of the universe and the role of music in creating harmony. What references to music can you find in this first stanza, and what is the impact of the repetition Dryden uses?

In the second stanza, ‘Jubal’ refers to the biblical character regarded as the father of music. His invention of the lyre encouraged listeners to make connections between music and the Divine.

What aspects of music does Dryden present in the remaining stanzas? Look out for references to war and conflict, love and singing. He mentions trumpets and flutes, violins and the human voice. Notice how he wonders whether the human voice can match ‘The sacred organ’s praise’.

This is an ode to the emotive power of music, and presumably a commemoration of some event on this festival day of music's patron saint. It re-imagines the Genesis account as an act of melodic conception, perhaps drawing on Milton’s famous invocation to Paradise Lost. The later stanzas can be seen to carry this Biblical metaphor through Christian history until the Grand Chorus where music heralds the apocalypse. Intricate rhyme scheme and mirroring lines, together with varied line lengths create a frame and strive for a lyrical effect.

The opening stanza sees music as an aspect or incarnation of divinity in self-begetting genesis. The lyric, flowing rhythm of the first line with two harmonizing dactyls at the end sets the tone  this ode has the grandeur of a hymn and the playfulness of a folk song. The universal frame likens nature to an instrument that requires assembling its constituent parts: the elements cold and hot, moist and dry. Yet it is music itself, the tuneful voice that sets in motion this genesis. Consequently music, personified with its own power is seen as an expression of a self-begetting God. Nature then comes to represent the musical scale, which Dryden likens to the Chain of Being. Just as man is created on the final day of creation, so Dryden’s Genesis account ends in this stanza with mankind as the note which completes the scale.

Stanza structures throughout the poem are suggestive of the forms and frames of musical instruments. In the opening stanza the longer pentameter and tetrameter lines cut across the shorter to mimic the struts or strings on an organ or lute. The repeated line "From harmony, from heavenly harmony" might represent the same note in a scale struck again. The second stanza certainly aims to mimic the completeness of the compass of the notes, returning to its opening line to suggest the circle of fifth's or other mathematical sequences that were being applied in music at this time. Alternating line lengths also try to convey a lyrical feel, as much as is possible for an Augustan poet whose strength is in grandeur, solidity and rhetoric. The rich rhymes on shell are not intrusive as they might be, but produce exactly this grand kind of effect which seems to work against the lyricism.

A major theme in the poem is music's ability to play on human emotions, something reflected by Dryden’s sounding of various emotions as if they were notes in a scale. The range moves from anger and courage in stanza 3 to jealousy in 5 and worship in 6. Each is associated with an instrument, and Dryden’s word choices mimic the sound of each with varying success. The trumpet is evoked well by clangor, which has a resounding metallic sound but also warmth. The repetition of double for the drum doesn’t quite come off, sounding out of place where two repetitions would have conveyed the message better  perhaps the line works once set to music. Musics divine beginnings in Stanza 1 work to suggest that music not only inspires humanity but provides a link with heaven. This is suggested in stanza 7 with Cecilia’s summoning of an angel with the organ.

However, music is also seen as a force of destruction in the poem, fanning the flames of jealousy and heralding judgement. The listening brethren that worship the music of Jubal need not be committing idolatry they worship the same divine music that represents and is God in stanza 1. However, the suggestion that music's power to manipulate can be abused is shown first here, With the hollow of that shell / That spoke so sweetly and so well. Of course shells do make a sound because they are hollow, but the word also acts in its pejorative mode to suggest the seductive, misleading rhetoric of a politician. Likewise music inspires wars with the thundering drum, and the pains of unrequited love. The poem gently and unobtrusively reminds us that when music is a human rather than divine tool, it can be misused. Hence finally in the Grand Chorus, the divine trumpet also brings about justice. The enjambment over "So, when the last and dreadful hour"/"This crumbling pageant shall devour" creates a speed of delivery that echoes the cataclysmic devouring of the world. The second line here seems to me to have a satirical bite to it suggesting that elevated art and abstracts like music will outlive and shed unfavorable light on the crumbling pageant of our lives. The final triplet is beautiful  echoing the cadence of Revelation and bringing us full circle to the tuneful voice of stanza 1.

This poem is a grand but playful ode to music, celebrating arts power to affect us but also imposing a moral framework just as it imposes a universal frame on its stanzas. Music can be both a route to heaven and a herald of destruction.