A Song for St. Cecelia's Day

A Song for St. Cecelia's Day Literary Elements

Speaker or Narrator, and Point of View

From a third person omniscient perspective, the pious, laudatory, and unnamed speaker of “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” commemorates St. Cecilia, the patroness of music, and celebrates the power of music.

Form and Meter

Seven stanzas with Grand Chorus; mixed meter e.g., (iambic pentameter, tetrameter, trimeter); mixed rhyme schemes (e.g., AABB, ABAB, ABBA)

Metaphors and Similes

In Stanza 1, the creation of matter is compared to a muster in a military unit, in which the elements (“cold, and hot, and moist, and dry”), like troops, are assembled to their “stations.”
Music, throughout the poem, is compared to speech acts: to military commands in Stanzas 1 and 3, to complaints and elegies in Stanza 4, and to proclamations in Stanza 5.
Musical notes are also compared to winged creatures in Stanza 6: “Notes inspiring holy love, / Notes that wing their heavenly ways / To mend the choirs above.” This metaphor illustrates the sacred, empowering, and elevating qualities of music.

Alliteration and Assonance

“From harmony, from heavenly harmony / This universal frame began”: alliteration of the “h,” consonance of the "r"
“And could not heave her head”: alliteration of the “h”
“That spoke so sweetly, and so well”: sibilance (alliteration of the “s”)
“loud clangour”: consonance of the “l”
“The double double double beat”: alliteration of the “d” through repetition of the same word
“Of the thundering drum”: assonance of the short “u”
“Charge, charge”: alliteration of the “ch” through repetition of the same word
“'tis too late to retreat”: consonance of the “t”
“Fury, frantic indignation”: alliteration of the “f”
"The soft complaining flute […] the warbling lute”: consonance of the “l”


There is an element of situational irony in the fact that music has so much power in this poem. It quite literally shakes the heavens, and even an angel “[m]istak[es] Earth for Heaven.” Music sure can move the hearts of people, yet for it to “untune the sky” in this poem seems to surpass our expectations of what an art form can do.


Lyrical poetry


Spatial setting unspecified; temporal setting: St. Cecilia's Day celebration


Celebratory, laudatory

Protagonist and Antagonist

St. Cecilia (protagonist; not challenged by an antagonist)

Major Conflict

Though the poem does not feature a rivalry between a protagonist and antagonist, it addresses the conflict (or dichotomy) between the human/pagan and the divine/Christian. In Stanza 7, for instance, a contrast drawn between the Greek mythological figure Orpheus and the Christian saint Cecilia. In the same stanza, an angel “[m]istak[es] earth for Heav’n.” The earthly world and heavenly world are compared and contrasted throughout “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687.”


The poem reaches its most intense moment, as well as its resolution, in the Grand Chorus. This concluding stanza is where the music shakes the heavens (“The spheres began to move”) and the scope of the poem extends beyond earthly festivities and into outer space. The stanza also marks an unforeseen radical change in the world order, in which “[t]he dead shall live” and “the living die.” This is the final state to which we arrive when music “untune[s]” the universe.


Stanza 1 establishes a framework with which to interpret the cosmological events to occur throughout the poem. The “universal frame beg[ins]” from “Heav’nly harmony”—this premise sets up an expectation that the poem will describe the workings of the universe both theologically and aurally. In other words, the first stanza prepares us for the references to music and religion throughout “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687.”



“From harmony, from heavenly harmony, This universal frame began […] The spheres began to move”: References to “musica universalis” (also called “music of the spheres”), a theory developed by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras arguing that the universe consists of celestial bodies whose movements produce inaudible, yet harmonious, “music.”

“nature underneath a heap / Of jarring atoms lay”: A reference to the Greek philosopher Epicurus and his theory that the world is made up of indivisible atoms.

“cold, and hot, and moist, and dry”: A reference to the atomic theory of Greek philosopher Aristotle, who argued that there are four sensible qualities to matter (hot, cold, wet, dry).

“When Jubal struck the chorded shell”: A Biblical allusion to Jubal, a character in the book of Genesis. Jubal was a descendant of Cain, the first musician in the Bible, and the “ancestor of all who played the harp and flute.”

“Orpheus could lead the savage race”: An allusion to the Greek mythological figure Orpheus, a poet and musician who was able to use his music to charm people, animals, and inanimate objects.

“But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder higher: / When to her organ vocal breath was given […]”: A reference to St. Cecilia, a Catholic martyr and organ player from the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., commemorated as the patroness of musicians.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

The poem uses synecdochic language when it refers to body parts (“could not heave her head,” “on their faces fell”) or speech acts (“What human voice can reach”) isolated from the characters from which they come.


Stanza 1 compares Nature to a person who has been fast asleep and is awakened by the sound of music. Upon hearing “[t]he tuneful voice […] from high,” Nature (its “cold, and hot, and moist, and dry” elements), rises to consciousness and obeys the power of music.

The musical instruments in this poem are compared to human beings that both express and inspire certain emotions. Jubal’s shell “sp[eaks] so sweetly, and so well”; the trumpet and drum incite anger; the flute “complain[s],” and the lute “whispers,” about melancholy and romantic tragedy; the violins “proclaim” their jealousy and fury; the organ, given the “vocal breath” of St. Cecilia, “praise[s]” the holy and divine.

Finally, a minor instance of personification in this poem is when the trees in the Orpheus myth are described as “[s]equacious of,” or subservient to, the music of the lyre.


The entire poem is a hyperbolic statement about the power of music. The festivities of St. Cecilia’s Day not only inspire passion in the human heart, but also invoke divine and celestial bodies, and even stir up the entire universe. Specific moments of hyperbole include expressions like “What passions cannot music raise and quell” or “music shall untune the sky.”


Although the poem does not feature onomatopoeia proper, it employs words whose sounds imitate those of the instruments. For instance, the alliteration of the “d” sound in the lines “The double double double beat / Of the thundering drum” mimics the actual sound of the drum.