Odes to St. Cecilia

In this blog we will firstly talk about festivals taking place in gardens in the 18th century and secondly we will discuss three poems in honor of St. Cecilia: A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day  and Alexander’s Feast by John Dryden and Ode for Musick. On St. Cecilia’s Day by Alexander Pope.

In the 18th century, gardens were an important asset to daily social life. They were public pleasure grounds which provided the visitors with a wide range of facilities, in exchange for a small entrance fee. The ones who could not afford a shilling to enter the gardens, were refused access. The ones who could, had to stay true to their social standing. You could not publicly misbehave, since you were constantly watched by others and constantly reminded that moral behavior was of great importance.

It started out as just a garden, where people had their Sunday picnics, afternoon walks and musical entertainment. But it was also the perfect way for socializing between the sexes, to practice the rules from the moral behavior books.


Of these gardens, Vauxhall Gardens grew out to become the most popular one. This all thanks to Jonathan Tyers. Under his management and his relations, these gardens gained exclusivity, with visits from the Prince of Wales, Dukes and many others.  Located near the Thames, the audience got the opportunity to entertain themselves with boat rides, romantic walks, listen to the Vauxhall orchestra, play card games, blind man’s bluff, etc… Entertainment for all ages.

One of the most important aspects of Vauxhall Gardens, were the music events. Jonathan Tyers had great admiration for Händel, which is why he honored him with a statue in this garden.  Many famous singers performed in these gardens. But it was also a place to develop for composers, such as Thomas Augustine Arne. Of great importance was the Vauxhall orchestra, soon to overtake all the music events.


In these gardens Saint Cecilia, the patroness of music, was of great importance. To her was dedicated St. Cecilia’s Day, a holiday full of festivities, joy and music. As Händel wrote a musical piece to John Dryden’s  A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast, so did Alexander Pope. He wrote an ode to St. Cecilia’s Day in her honor called Ode for Musick. On St. Cecilia’s Day.  We will now discuss these three poems.

A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day – John Dryden


As we saw in class, eighteenth century poetry was very much linked with the oral aspect of public presentation. It did not yet have the self-expressive and dramatic aspects it would acquire during Romanticism. In this sense, John Dryden can be considered an archetypical example of an eighteenth century poet, because “[f]rom the beginning to the end of his literary career, Dryden’s nondramatic poems are most typically occasional poems, which commemorate particular events of a public character – a coronation, a military victory, a death, or a political crisis.” Moreover, “[s]uch poems are social and often ceremonial, written not for the self but for the nation” (The Norton Anthology Volume C 2083). Therefore, it cannot be considered a coincidence that in 1668 he was to become poet laureate, a position in which he was frequently asked to write poetry for public occasions. Because of this his poetry was naturally musical and very much fit to be performed in front of audiences.

In A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, written by John Dryden, the inextricable link between eighteenth century poetry and the medium of musical performance becomes clear. Not only was this poem written as an ode to the goddess of music, but it was also composed to be musically performed on the 22nd November of 1687 for the annual feast of a society that celebrated the power of music. The Italian composer, G.B. Draghi, was the one to write the first musical arrangement for the poem in 1687. Around forty years later this poem would be set to music by Georg Friedrich Händel, a very important German-born British composer.  This ode was also the basis for a new poem by Nicolas Brady which was set to music by Henry Purcell.

This poem discusses the emotive power of music, which can already be clearly seen when looking at the title: St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and Dryden writes a song for her, which can be regarded as an ode. The major theme of this poem is music’s ability to play on human emotions: humans can be overwhelmed by various kinds of music.

If we take a look at the first stanza, we can see that the poem starts with a description of the process of the creation of the universe. It restages Genesis from a musical point of view: music is represented as an incarnation of divinity.  It is music itself, or as described by Dryden in line 6: ‘the tuneful voice’, that initiates this genesis. We cannot only draw a link with the bible, but also with Pythagorean doctrine, as we can already see in line 1. The poet repeats the word harmony six times in this stanza, and according to Pythagoras, the universe was a manifestation of heavenly harmony that held contrary things together. In the third line of this stanza, Dryden mentions ‘nature’, here it represents the musical scale, which the poet compares to the chain of being. In the last line of the first stanza, mankind is mentioned, here man portrays the note that completes the scale. The fact that mankind is mentioned at the last line of this stanza is not a coincidence, man was made on the last day of creation, and likewise man is now mentioned on the last line of the stanza.

If we look at the second stanza, we can see the poet’s opinion about the purpose of music, it “raises passion”, music was often seen  a power that evokes emotion. In the second line of the second stanza Dryden refers to Jubal, who was seen as the father of music in ancient Jewish literature and was believed to have created the lyre, which Dryden imagines to have been made of a tortoise shell. Lines 6 and 7 of this stanza indicate that music can force mankind towards divinity: ‘To worship that celestial sound’ and ‘Less than a god they thought there could not dwell’.
From the second to the sixth stanza Dryden describes how music generates awakening religious awe, warlike courage, sorrow for the unrequited love, jealousy and fury and the impulse to worship God.

In the third stanza we get indications that music can also evoke anger and courage, the poet gives us a description of the clangor of a trumpet which encourages the feelings of anger and braveness in the hearts of the human beings.  Dryden describes the sound of the drums that motivates man to fight against his enemies. So this is clearly a description of what kind of power music has on human beings: it stirs them to be courageous and face their enemies.

As we have already stated, Dryden describes how music activates sorrow for the unrequited love, which we can see in stanza 4. The poet here depicts how the ‘complaining flute in dying notes discovers the woes of hopeless lovers’, in other words, music understands and can reflect the most refined feelings of hopeless lovers.

Music not only evokes religious awe, anger, courage and not only understands the woes of hopeless lovers, it can also induce jealousy, which is portrayed in stanza 5 by the use of a violin.

In stanza 6 we have a last comparison between a musical instrument and the power of music, here Dryden makes use of the organ to show us that music can also be used as a form of praise or worship.  The author makes a comparison between the divine qualities of the organ and the human voice, as we can see in line 2 and 3 of this stanza: ‘What human voice can reach, the sacred organ’s praise?’. The organ here is used to represent holy love, it is the instrument that is used in church, thus it is also used to convey Christianity.

Dryden has not only referred to different musical instruments to describe the capacity of music, but he also selected different rhythms in describing these different instruments, this way he has shown us their various kinds of impact.

In the seventh stanza Dryden mentions a mythical figure, he refers to Orpheus who had convinced the god of the underworld to bring back his Eurydice just by playing a song on his lyre. The poet then makes another reference to the organ and its divine association, he does this to introduce the central figure of the poem: St. Cecilia. What Dryden is trying to say here is that according to him, St. Cecilia was much braver and had performed a much greater miracle by attracting an angel who mistook earth for heaven by listening to her music. She is in fact greater and more amazing than Orpheus because she incites us to Christianity.

The last stanza of the poem is referred to as the “Grand chorus”, in which Dryden makes a prophecy. The celestial bodies or spheres have been put into motion by the harmony that ordered the universe, so the universe was created from the power of this musical harmony. Likewise, the universe will cease to exist when the harmony also ceases to exist. The Grand Chorus describes the Apocalypse, with St. Cecilia’s music something completely new comes in, now antiquity doesn’t matter anymore and is lost to Christianity.

In summary, this poem is an ode to music, it celebrates the power of music and how it can play on human’s emotions.

Alexander’s feast – John Dryden


This is Dryden’s second ode that honors Saint Cecilia. Dryden was asked to write both this ode and the previous one by the London Musical Society. Whereas  A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day celebrates both the harmony music brings and the power of music to influence human passions, Alexander’s Feast focuses entirely on the second theme.

I this ode Dryden presents the characters of Alexander the Great, his mistress Thaïs, and his musician Timotheus and chooses the fire of Persepolis as the scene of the poem. This makes the ode more elaborated than A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day. The ode is based on a famous episode in the life of Alexander the Great. After the vanquishing of the Persian king Darius and the fall of the Persian Capital Persepolis Alexander held a great feast for his officers. Thaïs, his mistress, persuaded him to set the city of Persepolis on fire. In reality, Alexander was moved by love and wine, but Dryden attributes the burning of the city to Alexander’s musician Timotheus, because of the influence his lyre-playing had on the king. He makes Alexander think has become a god, which makes him vain and arrogant. Alexander thinks he can be this amazing hero, but it is actually the music that steers him to these varying moods and makes him act upon them.

With this poem Dryden wants to show  the considerable influence poets can have on actual political events. It actually is a treasonous argument that a non-political person can have such a power. Dryden himself did not have this privilege any longer, being no longer the poet-laureate because of his Catholic faith. One might assume that in 1697 he was making a bald statement about Nahum Tate, who was the poet laureate at that exact moment in time. This, however, seems rather improbable since Dryden and Tate had already collaborated more than once, for example on an epic poem, called Absalom and Achitopel in 1682.

We can draw several comparisons between to A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast. Both of the poems emphasize the power of music to move emotions and portray Saint Cecilia as a greater legendary figure in comparison to Timotheus and Orpheus.

Like Dryden’s first ode to Saint Cecilia, this poem was also accompanied by music. The original music was written by Jeremiah Clarke but his score has been lost in the course of time. However, Händel composed a choral work with the same title, which he based on Dryden’s ode. ‘Alexander’s feast went in premiere in the Covent Garden Theatre in London on February 19th 1736. Händel reworked the music for performances in 1739, 1742 and 1751. His adaptations do not only remain vivid for admirers of classical music but also find their way into the popular media of the 21st century; a part of Alexander’s Feast – the soprano ariaWar, he sung, is toil and trouble – was utilized in a very recent Hollywood film by Alfonso Cuaron, featuring Clive Owen, called ‘Children of Men’.

Have at a look at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-isGMSRWoo

Ode for Musick. On St. Cecilia’s Day – Alexander Pope


It is interesting to note that Alexander Pope, who was a great admirer of Dryden, also wrote an ode to St. Cecilia.
In contrast to the previous two poems where music invokes great passion, this poem suggests that music brings a person towards a moderate temperament. This can be seen in lines 22 – 23 where Pope states: “By Musick, Minds, an equal Temper know, / Nor swell too high, nor sink too low”. Music can calm you down, can charm fiercest grief and can soften your pain.
However, similarly to both odes written by Dryden, music can inspire warriors to fight for their country. Thus, it evokes patriotic feelings: they want to seek glory on behalf of their native country.
If we take a look at the last stanza St. Cecilia is mentioned, in line 131 Pope describes how “Angels lean from Heav’n to hear”. This can be compared to Dryden’s A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast, where Dryden says that St. Cecilia is much greater than Orpheus because she “drew an angel down” (as mentioned in the last line of Alexander’s Feast).

To conclude, we can say that St. Cecilia was portrayed in poetry as being greater than any other legendary figure since she attracted an angel who mistook earth for heaven by listening to her music. Therefore poets wrote odes in honor to her and each year she is celebrated on November 22 in Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic church.

*n.p. Carlo Saraceni – Saint Cecilia and the Angel. n.d, web. 25 october 2012. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Carlo_Saraceni_-_Saint_Cecilia_and_the_Angel_-_WGA20829.jpg.
*Barbara. Early American Gardens. n.d. web. 25 october 2012. http://americangardenhistory.blogspot.be/2009/07/blog-post_30.html
*David Coke. Vauxhall Gardens. 2005. web. 25 october 2012. http://www.vauxhallgardens.com/
*n.p.Vauxhall Gardens. n.d. web. 25 october 2012.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vauxhall_Gardens
*n.p. John Dryden- A song for St. Cecilia’s Day. November 24th 2011. web.October 25th 2012.http://impracticalcriticism.wordpress.com/2011/11/24/john-dryden-a-song-for-st-cecilias-day/
*n.p. Text, Summary, Interpretation and Analysis of Dryden’s Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day. October 29th 2008. web. October 25th 2012. http://freehelpstoenglishliterature.blogspot.be/2008/10/text-summary-interpretation-and.html