"A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687,” written on the occasion of a holiday commemorating the Catholic martyr St. Cecilia, is a poem about the power of music and its ability to incite emotion, help us understand the makings of the world, and connect the earthly and the heavenly.
Stanza 1 describes the beginning of the universe, in which Nature, upon the divine command of Music, arose from under a “heap / Of jarring atoms” (the chaotic state of the world before creation). Stanza 2 praises the power of music to inspire passion; the speaker takes the Biblical musician Jubal as an example of how music can energize its listeners and stir them to action.
Stanzas 3 to 6 constitute an inventory of musical instruments and their specific properties. Stanza 3 begins this list with trumpets, which inspire anger with their loud sounds, and drums, which similarly inspire the passion and excitement of combat. Stanza 4 describes the melancholic sounds of the flute, as well as the sentimental and woeful sounds of the lute. Stanza 5 then takes us to violins, whose sharp sounds can inspire feelings of jealousy, fury, and pain. In Stanza 6, the speaker praises the angelic music of the organ (the instrument played by St. Cecilia), describing it as a medium for “holy love” and “heavenly ways.”
In Stanza 7, the speaker begins to explicitly discuss St. Cecilia, her music, and her piety. The speaker compares the enchanting beauty of St. Cecilia’s music to that of the mythological figure Orpheus (who, similarly, made plants and animals move with his music), yet claims that St. Cecilia’s performance was a greater wonder, because it caused an angel to mistake Earth for Heaven.
The Grand Chorus takes us back to the relationship between music and the broader universe. The spheres, singing in harmony, glorify the Creator (the Christian God), and in the “last and dreadful hour” (the Biblical apocalypse), music signals the creation of a new system of order in the universe ("Music shall untune the sky").
A poem about music, “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” features many songlike elements. The structure of the poem itself, with multiple verses (stanzas), refrains (“From harmony, from heavenly harmony, / This universal frame began”; “What passion cannot Music raise and quell?”), rhymes, and even a Grand Chorus at the end. The poem can be easily sung, and indeed has been set to music.
Each stanza features both phonetic elements and metaphors that connect the poem to the theme of music. In Stanza 1, the poem opens with the sonorous alliteration of the “h” sound and the rich consonance of the “r” sound (“From harmony, from heavenly harmony / This universal frame began”). Stanza 1 features a rhyme scheme and an iambic meter which, with some variations (e.g., alterations among AABB, ABAB, and AABA rhyme schemes, and among pentameter, tetrameter, and trimeter), persist throughout the poem. In addition to opening the poem with a rhythmic and resonant refrain, this stanza initiates a discussion about music, religion, and cosmology. This stanza makes references to multiple belief systems (e.g. the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Pythagoras’s theory of musica universalis, Aristotelian and Epicurean atomic theories) with which readers in Dryden’s time would make sense of the universe and its wonders. The bottom line of the opening stanza is that music is involved in all of these mysteries—the creation of Nature (personified as a listener of music), the balance between celestial objects, and the laws the govern the universe.
Stanza 2, then, goes further in discussing the power of music to persuade, energize, and inspire. Using a Biblical allusion to the musician Jubal, the speaker discusses how music can “raise and quell” emotions. Music is compared to a speech act when the speaker states that Jubal’s shell “spoke so sweetly, and so well”—though more abstract than speech, music has the power of a verbal command. Once again, in Stanza 2, we see literary elements such as a refrain (“What passion cannot Music raise and quell”), rhyme (“quell”/”shell” and so on), and personification (“that shell, / That spoke so sweetly”).
Stanzas 3 to 6 are not only rich with their descriptions of musical instruments, but also with their use of figurative language. All of the instruments mentioned are also personified, as they are associated with human emotions, speech acts, and emotions. The trumpet and drum in Stanza 3, inspiring anger and strength, are compared to military generals who cry “Hark!” in battle. The flue and lute in Stanza 4 are associated with heartbroken lovers who “complain” and “whisper” sad words. The violins in Stanza 5 communicate their jealousy, desperation, fury, indignation, pain, and passion to a “disdainful dame,” in the manner of a rejected lover. In Stanza 6, the music of the organ is compared to an angel (or a winged creature) that can ascend to the heavens and spread “holy love” on Earth. Giving this list of descriptions, the speaker again uses language that pleases the ear: alliteration in “the double double double beat / Of the thundering drum” and in “Fury, frantic indignation”; consonance in “'tis too late to retreat” and in “The soft complaining flute [...] the warbling lute.”
Stanza 7 breaks away from the preceding group of stanzas as it specifically discusses the narrative of St. Cecilia, a martyr, organ player, and patroness of musicians. The speaker juxtaposes the description of St. Cecilia’s talent and holiness with a reference to the Greek mythological figure Orpheus, whom the speaker describes as inferior to St. Cecilia in his inability to interact with the divine. The dichotomy between the pagan and the Christian, and the superiority of the latter, is implied in this juxtaposition. Again, literary elements enrich this stanza: Trees are personified (“trees unrooted left their place / Sequacious of the lyre”) and the organ, too, is compared to a singer with a human voice (“to her organ vocal breath was given”).
As grand as its title, the Grand Chorus allows the poem to come full circle by returning to the questions of cosmology, divinity, and the role of music in the building and ordering of the universe. The spheres (personified) sing in praise of the Christian God, the trumpet sounds as a signal of the Apocalypse (which the speaker compares to a “crumbling pageant”), and the laws of the world that we live in are reversed (“The dead shall live, the living die”). The speaker imagines an apocalypse in which music “untune[s] the sky” or reconstructs the world. This final sentiment leaves the reader questioning whether music, here, is a force that is compatible with divine authority, or an art form that challenges or overpowers the Christian world order (i.e. the “sky,” bearing resonances of Heaven, is undone). “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” thus begins as a celebratory poem for a Catholic holiday, but expands into a meditation on the power and dangers of music, and the way music and art fit into our understanding of the universe and its maintenance of order.