John Dryden’s “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day" is a long-form poem published in 1687, in celebration of a religious holiday commemorating St. Cecilia, a Catholic martyr and patron saint of music and musicians. Dryden, in this poem, celebrates music and its intimacy with human emotion, religious truth, and the makings of the universe. The speaker describes a variety of different musical instruments as well as narratives (including that of St. Cecilia and her organ) that involve both music and Christian faith.
Dryden wrote this poem in the later years of his career, after his rise to literary fame in the 1660s, and thirteen years prior to his death. While “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” addresses a Catholic holiday, the poet himself was raised as a Puritan, and the tensions between Puritanism and music, festivity, and celebration shape the poem.
Reading this poem, pay close attention to the different ways in which music is characterized by the speaker and positioned in relation to values such as faith and knowledge. In The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700, literary critic John Hollander argues that music itself is the hero of this poem: "Music itself, practical music, the music of opera and public concert, the music of the highly-trained, status-seeking professional, is the hero (or, in its variousness, a hero-heroine) of 'A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day.’” What does music mean to the speaker of this poem? What are its powers and dangers?