Summary, Interpretation and Analysis of Dryden's Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day
The origin of music has always remained a mystery though it has always attracted man towards itself since the time immemorial. So myths and legends were born to justify the origination of music. Saint Cecilia was such a legendary figure of the second century, who was said to have established music as a divine art on earth. Though her connection with music is quite uncertain, there are legends of her attracting an angel down to earth by singing and she even came to be spoken of the inventor of the organ. Dryden wrote Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day for the performance with orchestra to celebrate the festival of Saint Cecilia’s Day in 1687. It is an interesting fact that the greatest English composer of the day Henry Purcel composed the music for the song. Saint Cecilia was a Christian figure, but while dealing with the theme, Dryden has drawn upon the pagan philosophical doctrine of Pythagoras to explain the power of music. The concluding chorus is, however, Christian in spirit referring to the Apocalypse of the Bible.
The poem begins with the description of the process of the creation of the universe:
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!
This is a Pythagorean doctrine. Pythagoras saw the universe as the manifestation of the heavenly harmony which he believed had held contrary things together. This was not merely a conjecture for him: the essential element for him in harmony was numbers and so harmony was founded upon numerical proportions as it is also today. But while drawing upon the Pythagorean theory Dryden has also used the biblical theory of Creation in which man was the latest and the best product in the process of Genesis:
The diapason closing full in Man.
In the subsequent stanzas Dryden illustrates how human beings are over-powered by various kinds of music. First of all, he refers to Jubal who is the father of music in ancient Jewish literature and who is thought to have invented the lyre made of strings stretched across the shell of a tortoise. Here Jubal is introduced to show that music can force man towards divinity and thus testifies to its divine association,
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell Within the hollow of that shell That spoke so sweetly and so well.
In the third stanza Dryden describes how wild music of trumpet incites the passion of anger in human hearts, and how the wild beats of drum leads them to take up arms against the enemies. In the fourth stanza Dryden shows that music even can reflect the most refined feelings like those of the “hopeless lovers”. In the fifth stanza the power of the musical instrument violin is described. It is to be noted that Dryden has carefully selected different rhythms in describing different instruments. Thus he has conveyed their various kinds of impact.
In the sixth stanza the divine qualities of the musical instrument like the organ have been contrasted with those of the human voice:
What human voice can reach The sacred organ's praise?
Dryden refers to organ and its divine association in order to come to the central figure of the poem, St Cecilia. But before that he refers to the mythical, musical figure of ancient Greece, Orpheus who is attributed with so many miracles he had performed by his power of music with the lyre. But according to Dryden, St Cecilia had performed greater miracle by attracting an angel who mistook earth for heaven by listening to her music.
In the grand Chorus he concludes by uttering a prophecy that as the universe was created from the power generated out the musical harmony, so the universe will cease to exist with the end of that harmony:
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.
This theory is wholly Biblical in spirit referring to the Apocalypse prophesied by St John in the final chapter of the Bible. Dryden’s originally is that he has used it to illustrate the power and position of music in the universe. We are reminded of few lines the great Canadian pop-icon of the 20th century Leonard Cohen has sung to us in The Great Event:
It is going to happen very soon, The great event, Which will end the horror, Which will end the sorrow. Next Tuesday, when the sun goes down, I will play the Moonlight Sonata backwards. This will reverse the effect Of the world's mad plunge into suffering For the last 200 million years.