The occasion of ‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ is crystal clear from the title. John Dryden, then the poet laureate of the UK, wrote this poem for the ceremony of St. Cecilia’s Day observed every year on 22nd November. Her feast day became an occasion for musical concerts and festivals. The famous British poet, Alexander Pope also wrote ‘Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day’ in 1708, celebrating this day.
If readers come straight to Dryden’s poem, they will find there is much about the divine qualities of music. He had a purpose for diverting from the topic. The intention was to glorify music first, then the audience can understand why Cecilia is remembered for ages.
Explore A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687
Dryden separated this poem into eight sections. In each stanza, he talks about different aspects of music and classical musicians. The first stanza introduces to the audience how divine harmony lies in everything. Music, being a divine art form, infuses life into nature. From the following stanzas, the poetic persona talks about different instruments such as “corded shell,” trumpet, drum, flute, violin, and last but not least, Cecilia’s organ. In the last stanza, there is a reference to the revolutionary aspect of music that can even destabilize heaven!
‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ is separated into eight stanzas. The first seven verses are sung by a single voice. While the last stanza is meant for the “Grand Chorus.” As it is a song occasioned for St. Cecilia’s Day on 22nd November 1687, it has such a structure.
The first stanza is the longest one and it contains 15 lines. If a reader looks at the poem closely, it will be clear that the line-count decreases till the fourth stanza. Thereafter, the line-count increases gradually.
This poem does not have a specific rhyming pattern. The poet chooses the alternative and closed rhyme scheme. In some instances, there are some rhyming couplets. The iambic meter is mostly used in this piece. But, there is not any metrical pattern.
Figures of Speech
Readers can find several literary devices in this poem that makes this song more engaging to the readers. To begin with, there is a metaphor in the “heap of jarring atoms.” There is an alliteration in the phrase, “heave her head.” It contains a repetition of the “h” sound.
Right after that comes a polysyndeton in the line, “Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry.” If readers closely look at the line, there is an antithesis. Dryden uses a palilogy by repeating the word “harmony”.
In the first line of the second stanza, he uses a rhetorical exclamation for emphasizing music’s power. Besides, this stanza contains an allusion to the classical musician Jubal. In the following stanzas, there are some more allusions too.
The word “clangor” is an example of onomatopoeia. In the third stanza, the repetition of the hard consonant sounds presents consonance.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
From harmony, from Heav’nly 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 pow’r obey.
From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.
‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ begins with a reference to the “Heavenly harmony.” According to Dryden, this harmony, supervised by God, lies in the whole universe. The universal frame began with this harmony when “Nature” was nothing but a “heap of jarring atoms.” God bound them in order and formed this earth. By the reference to “Heavenly harmony,” it seems Dryden is alluding to the Newtonian model of the universe.
He personifies nature and says nature could not heave her head higher after its creation. Then suddenly, she heard a “tuneful voice” from heaven. The sound raised her from her immobile state like a dead person.
According to the speaker, this music eventuated the seasonal cycle on earth. Through all the compass of the musical notes, the earth revolved and the “diapason” closed “full in man.” Diapason means a grand swelling burst of harmony. In other words, it means the entire range of something. Here, the reference is made to the complete compass of the heavenly music.
What passion cannot music raise and quell!
When Jubal struck the corded shell,
His list’ning 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!
In the second stanza, the poetic persona refers to the power of music. He says music can raise and quell extreme passion. When Jubal struck the corded shell, his brethren stood around him wondering about his composition. On their faces, there was an awe-inspiring look. It seems to the speaker that they were worshiping that “celestial sound” coming from Jubal’s shell.
In the Bible, Jubal is described as the “ancestor of all who played the harp and flute.” He played the “kinnor”, also known as the harp, and the “uggab,” Hebrew alternative for the flute.
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, ’tis too late to retreat.
In the case of the trumpet’s sound, its “loud clangor” excites the listeners to arms. By the line, “Excites us to arms,” Dryden presents the imagery of soldiers getting ready for a battle.
The clangor of the trumpet also imitates the mood of anger. It is often used to give “mortal alarms.” While the beating of a “thundering drum” cries and harks the arrival of enemy forces. Hearing the sound, the soldiers cry out, “Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat.” In this way, the third stanza revolves around the musical instruments. Their sounds heighten the mood of the poem.
The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper’d by the warbling lute.
The fourth stanza of ‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ zooms in to the sound of the flute. Dryden uses auditory imagery throughout this piece for depicting the sounds of the instrument mentioned by him.
The soft sound of the flute appears to be imitating a complaining voice. In the dying notes of it, the listeners can imagine the woes of hopeless lovers. According to the speaker, their dirge is whispered by the “warbling lute.” In this phrase, the poet uses a personal metaphor.
Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs, and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains and height of passion,
For the fair, disdainful dame.
Hearing the sound of the flute, the “sharp violins” proclaim their jealous pangs. It seems to the speaker the violin is desperate to express the player’s fury and frantic indignation. The instrument cannot be offended, the user or the musician is offended. Therefore, Dryden uses metonymy here.
When the speaker hears its sound, the sound reflects the musician’s depth of pain and height of passion for the fair, disdainful dame. So, the violin-player seems to be a victim of unrequited love. Music is the medium using which he expresses his love as well as his pain.
But oh! what art can teach
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their Heav’nly ways
To mend the choirs above.
In the previous stanzas, the speaker has talked about the qualities of different instruments. In this stanza, the focus is on St. Cecilia’s musical instrument, the organ.
According to him, the human voice cannot reach the height of the sacred organ’s praise. None can teach this art to a human being unless the user has some divine inspiration or a heavenly spirit. The reference is to Saint Cecilia who was inspired by heaven.
Her notes inspired holy love in humans. Not only that, her composition rose higher to heaven and mended the choirs above. In this way, Dryden refers to the healing and constructive qualities of music, especially of Cecilia’s music.
Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place;
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder high’r;
When to her organ, vocal breath was giv’n,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d
Mistaking earth for Heav’n.
Orpheus, a musician, poet, and prophet in Greek mythology, was another figure alluded to in this poem. He could play the lute in such a manner that made the savage race of Greece obey and respect him. His music could inspire not only humans, but nature also responds to it. The trees got uprooted from their place. According to Dryden, he was the “Sequacious of the lyre.” It means that he perfected the lyre.
Cecilia raised the wonder higher than Orpheus. When she gave her vocal breath to her organ, it reached heaven. An angel heard her music and he straightly appeared, mistaking earth for heaven. Such was the magnificence of Cecilia’s composition.
As from the pow’r of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the bless’d 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.
The last section titled the “Grand Chorus” was meant for sung by all the singers. Dryden says from the power of Cecilia’s sacred lays the spheres began to move. Her music had the power to infuse life into all the inanimate objects. Hearing her organ, they came into life and sang the great creator’s praise. They sang for all the blessed angels residing in heaven.
When the last and dreadful hour (a metaphorical reference to death) came, the crumbling pageant shall devour the creation. The trumpet shall be heard in heaven. Those who have died will come to life and the living die. Along with that, her music will untune the sky. In this way, the poet refers to the mightiness of Cecilia’s divine music, comparable to the power of God.
‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ was occasioned for the ceremony of the patron saint of music, Cecilia’s feat. Dryden wrote this poem for the musical celebration of St. Cecilia’s Day, observed on 22nd November 1687, a year before his term as the poet laureate of the UK ended.
Saint Cecilia (Sancta Caecilia in Latin) is a Roman martyr. She became the patron of music and musicians. It is often mentioned, when the musicians played at her wedding, Cecilia “sang in her heart to the Lord.” Poets and musicians dedicate their musical compositions to her and her feast on 22 November. She is a virgin martyr commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass in the Latin Church.
Her feast day became a ceremony for musical concerts and festivals that occasioned this poem by Dryden.
Here is a list of some poems that similarly revolve around the divine qualities of music like Dryden talks about in his poem, ‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’.
- Stanzas for Music by Lord Byron – It’s one of Byron’s best poetry. This poem contains the words of a speaker believing his beloved has spiritual divinity and power. Explore more Lord Byron poems.
- A Toccata of Galuppi’s by Robert Browning – This poem is an awe-inspiring tribute to the Venetian composer, Baldassare Galuppi. Read more Robert Browning poetry.
- A Musical Instrument by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – It’s one of the best-known poems of E.B.B. This poem describes the decimation of a riverbed and the crafting of Pan’s famous flute. Explore more poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
- The Eve of St. Agnes by John Keats – This poem is occasioned for St. Agnes’ Eve and it describes the idealized love between two characters. Explore the best-love poems of Keats and more John Keats’ poems.
You can also read about the best-known poems on music.