From harmony, from heavenly harmony, This universal frame began
The opening lines of “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” provide a cosmological framework for the poem. In the beginning, there was a perfect “harmony” from which the “universal frame began.” This premise not only hearkens back to Pythagoras’s musica universalis (which interprets the relationships between celestial bodies based on a system of musical harmony), but also reflects a Biblical understanding of the creation, in which the universe has a clear beginning, a “heavenly” or perfect entity exists, and a “frame,” or system of order, governs the world. In other words, the first two lines of the poem are a rewriting of Genesis, merged with Pythagorean cosmology and music theory.
Also note the uses of alliteration and consonance that amplify the musicality of these opening lines: The repetition of the breathy “h” sound in “From harmony, from heavenly harmony” helps create the grand and sonorous voice of the poem, and the consonance of the “r” sound in “harmony,” “universal,” and “frame” adds to the richness of the introduction.
Orpheus could lead the savage race; [...] But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear'd
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.
This segment highlights the tension between the pagan and the Christian, between the worldly and the heavenly, that persists throughout the poem. The speaker, here, highlights the power of St. Cecilia’s music by alluding to the myth of Orpheus. The superiority of St. Cecilia’s spirituality and musicality is underscored by the fact that her organ, unlike Orpheus’s lyre (which can only lead the “savage race,” or, animals and plants) is capable of not only attracting an angel but causing it to “[m]istak[e] Earth for Heaven.” St. Cecilia’s miracles, “endorsed” by Heaven itself, thus outdo the pagan marvels of Orpheus. This hyperbolic image (of a divine being mistaking Earth for Heaven) also complicates the religious argument of this poem. Could the act of equating Earth to Heaven be a heretical comparison? Is earthly music somewhat challenging the power of the divine?
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky!
The poem closes with another grand, hyperbolic, and radical statement: Both death and life will be reversed, and music will “untune,” or disrupt the order of, the sky. On one hand, this finale seems to recall the Biblical apocalypse in which the world is destroyed and the Christian world order is rebuilt. The final line, however, complicates this reading, because it states that the “sky”—perhaps Heaven itself—will be untuned or undone. In this sense, these closing lines form a sharp contrast with the opening lines (“From harmony, from heavenly harmony, / This universal frame began”) in which music seems to be in accordance with the divine world order.
Throughout “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687,” music stirs the hearts of its listeners, not only inspiring emotions such as passion, excitement, anger, jealousy, and sorrow, but also elevating the spirit and connecting to the divine. The finale of the poem, however, takes these capabilities to another level, in which music can even reverse the very “harmony” of the universe. Is the poem, a celebration of Christian faith and worship, contradicting itself when it champions a force that seems to disturb, if not destroy, the godly world order?
A Song for St. Cecelia’s Day Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Song for St. Cecelia’s Day is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.