A Song for St. Cecelia's Day

A Song for St. Cecelia's Day Themes


"A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” seems to be not so much a poem about St. Cecilia’s Day as an ode to music (or “Music,” with a capital “M,” as it is in the Grand Chorus) itself. The poem celebrates several different properties of music. In Stanza 1, the concept of musical harmony helps us to understand the makings of the universe (“From harmony, from heavenly harmony, / This universal frame began”) and interpret and comply with the wishes of the divine (“Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry, / In order to their stations leap, / And Music's power obey.”). In Stanzas 2 through 6, music allows us to enjoy our emotions to the fullest, and causes us to be energized, passionate, and festive (“What passion cannot Music raise and quell?”). In Stanza 7 and the Grand Chorus, music connects the earthly to the heavenly, allowing for spiritual experiences like that St. Cecilia had through her organ performance.

Meanwhile, the poem also warns of certain hazards of music, and furthermore, the dangers of art itself. Can music “untune the sky” without being heretical or challenging the sovereignty of Heaven? Can the “sharp violins” and “thundering drum” get us too excited, beyond the enthusiasm religion demands?


Though “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” celebrates a Catholic holiday, the poem contains references to more than one belief system. Alongside the Biblical references to Jubal, Heaven, and angels, and the Catholic narrative of St. Cecilia, the speaker incorporates the Greek myth of Orpheus. Greek philosophy also makes multiple appearances: Pythagorean cosmology, Aristotelian atomic theory, and Epicurean atomic theory are all featured in this poem.

How do different faiths and schools of thought coexist in a poem that is about a religious holiday? Some of these theories (such as Pythagoras’s musica universalis) have been appropriated by Christian philosophers; others, like the Orpheus myth, are in conflict with Catholic theology, yet are used by the speaker to highlight the superiority of St. Cecilia’s Christian faith. “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” is thus a poem that prompts us to think about the synthesis of competing belief systems and how one mode of thought can be appropriated, embraced, or challenged by another.


One attribute of this poem that makes it so unique is its scale: Anchored by an extremely specific event (St. Cecilia's Day, 1687), the poem expands to the broader theme of music itself, then even goes on to make claims about the universe and its makings. Cosmology is an important element of “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” because it is what connects the festivities of a specific holiday to broader claims about art, life, and the universe.

The cosmology reflected in “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” places a great emphasis on the notion of harmony. This concept of universal harmony—hearkening back to Pythagoras’s theory that the universe consists of celestial bodies whose movements produce inaudible, yet harmonious, “music”—implies that there is a certain system of order that governs the universe, and makes the world a pleasant place, like a nice chord. The speaker makes the claim that, through music, we can participate in this world order and communicate with the divine (“Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry, / In order to their stations leap, / And Music's power obey”).

According to the poem's cosmology, there is also a Heaven and an Earth, the dichotomy of which can be bridged, again, through the performance and audition of music. Heaven and Earth become relative concepts when the speaker claims that St. Cecilia's organ made an angel mistake Earth for Heaven.

Thus the cosmology of “A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687” attempts to both find order in the universe and complicate it. The gap between the divine and the worldly, between the heavenly and the earthly, and between the mind-blowingly holy (the world of angels) and the commonplace (everyday things like festivities and pipe organ performances) can be overcome, and through music, we can “untune the sky.”