A Song for St. Cecelia's Day

A Song for St. Cecelia's Day Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Instruments (motif)

It is unsurprising that “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687,” a poem about the power of music, features a plethora of musical instruments. The speaker refers to, describes, and personifies a variety of instruments (e.g., the trumpet, drum, flute, lute, violin, organ, lyre) which embody emotional and artistic power (e.g. “Sharp violins proclaim / Their jealous pangs and desperation”) as well as spirituality (e.g. “What human voice can reach, / The sacred organ’s praise? / Notes inspiring holy love […]”).

Military language (motif)

The speaker of this poem often uses military language to describe the powers of music. Like a military command, music often stirs one to action, and causes one to be energized like a solider in battle. The military motif in this poem is especially conspicuous in Stanza 3, in which the speaker states that the trumpet, an instrument often used in battle, “[e]xcites us to arms, / With shrill notes of anger, / And mortal alarms,” and that the drum (another instrument used in the battlefield) “[c]ries Hark! the foes to come.” Given that the setting of this poem is not an actual battlefield but a musical celebration, the military elements alluded to in this stanza are metaphors that compare the arousal caused by music to the excitement of combat.

The Orpheus myth (allegory)

The speaker uses the myth of Orpheus as an allegory for the persuasive powers of music. In the myth, the musician Orpheus uses the melody of his lyre to attract people, animals, and even plants. In Stanza 7, after alluding to this narrative (“Orpheus could lead the savage race; / And trees unrooted left their place / Sequacious of the lyre”) and illustrating how music can seduce and allure, the speaker draws a comparison between Orpheus and St. Cecilia—the speaker argues that the latter is superior, because her organ was able to charm not only the earthly but also the divine (“An angel heard, and straight appear’d / Mistaking Earth for Heaven”).

Biblical imagery (motif)

It seems apt that the speaker, in commemorating St. Cecilia, a Catholic martyr, makes references to Biblical figures and narratives such as Jubal, a musician in the Book of Genesis, or Christian concepts such as heaven, angels, and the “great Creator.” The speaker also emphasizes the dichotomy between the Christian and the non-Christian: The contrast between Orpheus and St. Cecilia in Stanza 7 is one example in which the poem juxtaposes a pagan figure with a Catholic figure to illustrate the superiority and sanctity of the latter.