A Song for St.Cecilia’s Day


John Dryden wrote ‘A Song for St.Cecilia’s Day’ for performance with orchestra, to celebrate the festival of St. Cecilia’s Day (Nov. 22) in 1687. St. Cecila was a pious Christian lady who sacrificed her life in Rome in the year 230 AD. She is the patron saint of music. Her music had divine qualities.

It is a formal and ceremonial poem. It is an ode. Originally an ode was a poem or choral song sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument. It is a lyric poem, “dignified, or exalted in subject, feeling and style”. Dryden’s ode is rhetorical rather than lyrical in feeling. The central idea of the poem is that the whole universe is a stage. It was created by the power of music and will be dissolved by the music of the last trumpet. The music thus connects the two ends of creation and destruction.

The poem begins with the description of the role played by the music at the beginning of creation. It opens with a great declamatory statement: “ From Harmony, from Heav’nly Harmony /This universal frame began”:

The repetition of the word ’harmony’ emphasises the power of music. The use of the adjective ‘heavenly’ qualifies and expands the meaning of ‘harmony’. It is the greatest and the most universal kind of harmony. ‘Universal frame’ suggests the total universal pattern. It also suggests the truth that harmony is an essential quality of the universal frame. This kind of word-order is an essential quality of rhetorical poetry.

Then Dryden describes the process of creation. In the beginning, the ‘jarring atoms’ of Nature were lying scattered chaotically. Nature was unable to raise her head. Then the harmonizing power of music brought together all the elements of nature to create the universe. The theory that the universe is composed of four elements (-cold, hot, moist and dry) was first propounded by Epicurus. Dryden says that these elements act spontaneously but are obedient to the organizing power of music.

The lines,

“Through all the compass of the notes it ran,/The diapason closing full in man”

expose the culminating position of man in the creation. Inanimate nature has been evolved into Man, the summit of the creation. It is the man who brings the music to a close. Hence, the cycle which started with nature in line 3 closes with Man at the end of the stanza. The last couplet adds gravity, poise and completion to the stanza as a whole.

The second section consisting of lines 16 to 47 poses a question about the power of music— “What passion cannot Music raise and quell!” This section deals with human passions and the tremendous impact of music on these passions. Music imposes order over disorder. There is a reference to the Biblical Jubal. According to the Bible, Jubal was the first musician who represented the elemental force of primitive music. The poet imagines him with his “corded shell” performing a primaeval ceremony of public worship.

“His listening brethren stood around
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.”

They stood around him in admiration. Soon the admiration turns into complete devotion. They surrender to the music of the shell as the abode of some god.

In the following lines,

“ The trumpet’s loud clanger /Excites us to arms,

the poet draws our attention to the violent passion in man. The rhythm of the poem changes according to the martial notes of trumpet and drum. Tripple use of ‘double’ suggests the urgency often seen in war. Here sound becomes a vehicle of sense

In the following lines,

“The soft complaining flute
The woes of hopeless lovers, ”

the poet talks about the woes of disappointed lovers. The dejection and melancholy of the lovers is expressed in ‘dying notes’. The following lines are in perfect contrast with the ‘duller notes’. Dryden here refers to the more violent love emotions of jealousy, anger and dejection. The central idea here is the adoration of the organ, the instrument of divine worship. It is beyond any art of human voice to praise it. The notes of this organ lead to ‘holy love’ and ‘ heavenly ways’.Thus Dryden illustrates the effect of music on human passions with reference to worship, martial courage, unrequited love, jealousy and religious feeling.

READ ALSO:  Speak the Speech, I Pray Thee

The last section (lines-48 to 63) introduces St.Cecilia. A comparison is made between St.Cecilia and Orpheus. Orpheus was the great classical singer who could control both man and nature through his music. ‘The savage race’ and ‘trees’ represent undisciplined nature. Yet they were tamed by the music of Orpheus. But Cecilia does more than Orpheus. The music that emanated from Cecilia’s organ was so marvellous that an angel mistook the earth for heaven. Thus Dryden establishes the superiority of Christian musical power of St.Cecilia over the pagan musical power of Orpheus.

Dryden concludes the poem with a grand chorus. The power of music made the spheres resound: similarly the end of the universe will be announced by the powerful beat of the trumpet.

“ The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.”

The poem ends with a prophecy that as the universe was created from the power generated out of the musical harmony, so the universe will cease to exist with the end of that harmony.

Critical Analysis

John Dryden wrote this ode entitled “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” to describe the power of music. Poems in praise for music of St. Cecilia had become the fashion in the 17th century. In writing this ode. Dryden was in a way just following a common practice of his time.

This ode was designed for performance on the festival in 1687 by a newly formed musical society in London. The 22nd of November is celebrated as St. Cecilia’s Day in her memory. St. Cecilia was a pious Christian lady who sacrificed her life in Rome in the year 230 A.D. She is adored as a saint and patron of music.

Dryden signifies the importance of music for the formation of the universe and the existence of life on universe. When nature lay under a heap of disordered atoms, God’s musical voice commanded them to arise on listening to the command, all the cold, hot, moist and dry atoms arose and occupied their proper positions. They obeyed the power of the divine music. Divine music created the harmony of the spheres.

The cosmos is called “this universal frame” at the beginning of the poem. Gradually the heavenly music passed through the whole range of the universal frame and created all living and non-living objects. Man was created in the end after all the smallest and biggest animals were created.

Music which created this universe, has the power of destroying it too. In the scheme of creation, this universe is merely a passing shadow. Music will one day end this passing shadow, this pageant. This is the reason that at the end of the poem, the poet calls the universe as the crumbling pageant. This would happen on the day of final judgment or the Doom’s day.

It is written in the Bible that Angel Gabriel, will appear with his trumpet on the final day of judgment and blow his trumpet. Gabriel conveys his message through his music that all living beings shall die and that the dead shall come out of their graves and stand before God, who will pronounce his judgment according to the record of good and bad deeds performed by each one of us during our life time.

The orderly position of the atoms of the universe would be scattered by the effect of the music created by The trumpet and as a result the universe will crumble down. Thus the music which made this universal frame shall create confusion and disorder. At the end of the ode the poet describes the end of the universe, so he calls the cosmos as ‘the crumbling pageant.’

Dryden discusses the effect of music produced by different instruments. But the instrument invented by St. Cecilia is best amongst all instruments of music. This instrument is divine. When St. Cecilia produced music on this organ, an angel came down to Earth, mistaking it for heaven.

Dryden means music by harmony. He tells us the process of harmony and its effect. Harmony is the basic thing for formation and then development of the universe. This also hints towards the harmony amongst people and harmony between nature and man.


As a lyric poet, Dryden’s fame rests on his three odes, and ‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ is prominent amongst them. Here the poet illustrates his skill in making the lines march to the major theme of his thought. Harmony emerges to be the basic idea in this ode.

READ ALSO:  From The Pied Piper of Hamelin - Summary, Questions and Answers, Class 5th

When harmony and order is being established, the world is created. The world would be disrupted and crumble down when harmony would be untuned.


It is a lyric poem of elaborate metrical structure solemn in tune and in the form of address. The theme is grave and universal and the presentation is dignified. Dryden attempts to imitate the effects of music in language which reach their height in this ode. It is Pindaric in its structure and thus consists of a number of short stanzas, similar in length and arrangement.

Dryden introduces the chorus to adopt the true Stophic structure. In ancient drama Strophe was the song sung in the chorus while dancing towards one side of the orchestra. The cadence of one line is carried to the next, and the sound of the former glides gently into that which follows without leaping from one extreme to another.


Dryden has maintained strict uniformity. His heroic couplet shows uniformity, precision and regularity. His diction is in tune with his ideas; he disciplines himself to use the precise word rather than the word with a vogue area of association, endeavouring always to express as clearly and firmly as possible what he means to say. But words, he held were only the colouring of the poem-picture; what was important was the idea, though the colouring was what first struck the eye. So whatever words he uses he is still uses language that might be spoken by man to man. It is never mere poetic. That is one of his great triumphs.

Questions and Solutions

Exercise 1

1. ‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ was designed to be performed in :

A. 1631

B. 230 A.D.

C. 1687

2. What according to Dryden would be responsible for making this cosmos a crumbling pageant?
A. music of organ

B. divine music

C. music of trumpet

3. The heavenly music gradually passed through

A. the whole range of the universal frame

B. the crumbling pageant

C. heavenly bodies

4. The world was created when :

A. harmony and order was being established

B. Gabriel sings C. sound of chorus is heard

5. The structure of this ode is :

A. Pindaric

B. Strophic

C. Musical

6. The record of good and bad deeds of a human being is presented on :

A. the dias

B. the Doomsday

C. musical instruments

7. In this ode Dryden discusses the effect produced by :

A. different musical instruments

B. intensity of music

C. heavenly bodies

8. ‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ has a chorus attached to it in order to adapt to :

A. order on universe

B. musical qualities

C. the true strophic structure

9. Dryden’s diction is in tune with

A. his ideas

B. musical instruments

C. structure of the poem

10. Dryden makes use in this ode of

A. precise words

B. words at random

C. classical words

Exercise – 2

Answer the following questions by choosing correct from the three alternatives given below each question:

1. This universe was created by:

(i) heaven

(ii) power of music

(iii) God

2. Under the heap was :

(i) atoms

(ii) nature

(iii) music

3. The command of music was obeyed by :

(i) nature

(ii) atoms

(iii) universe

4. What excites us to Arms?

(i) music of organ

(ii) sound of trumpets

(iii) music of shell

5. The world would come to an end through :

(i) disaster

(ii) music

(iii) God

6. St. Cecilia died in :

(i) 230 A.D.

(ii) Greek

(iii) Monestry

7. God created man :

(i) in the end

(ii) first of all

(iii) with animals

8. St. Cecilia invented the :

(i) Flute

(ii) Lyre

(iii) Organ

9. Orpheus was :

(i) a great musician

(ii) Greek God of music

(iii) a singer

10. The universe is described as having begun from :

(i) music

(ii) harmony

(iii) song


Choose the correct answer from the three alternatives given below each question:

1. In the Elizabethan Age, literature flourished :

(a) without sustaining influence of other arts

(b) with a combination of other arts

(c) in association with finer arts

2. When in England literature was at the centre of national life, the literature:

(a) was aloof from people

(b) failed to command the attention of people

(c) attracted the attention of people

3. The balance and amplitude of the Latin sentences was used by :

(a) John Dryden

(b) Samuel Johnson

(c) Ben Jonson

4. John Dryden’s contemporary writers developed a style which was simpler than Dryden and had more :

READ ALSO:  The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse - Summary and Questions

(a) power

(b) elegance

(c) clarity

5. Wars against Holland took place from :

(a) 1660-1664

(b) 1664-1674

(c) 1660-1668

6. Neo-classical School was established

(a) after restoration

(b) after reformation

(c) after renaissance

7. The neo-classical poetry is particularly rich in :

(a) wit

(b) imagery

(c) plain statement

8. John Dryden remained Poet-Laureate for

(a) sixteen years

(b) ten years

(c) twenty years

9. Dryden wrote plays for :

(a) twenty years

(b) before restoration

(c) eight years

10. Dryden is considered as the father of :

(a) English Criticism

(b) translations

Textual Questions and Answers

Q. 1. How did the universe come into being?
Answer: Nature lay under the heap of atoms. God’s music commanded them to arise. On hearing the command. All the cold, moist, hot and dry atoms arose and occupied their proper positions. Thus the universe was created.

Q. 2. Who was St. Cecilia?
Answer: St. Cecilia was a pious Christian lady who was martyred at Rome in 230 A.D. Afterwards she was canonized as the patron saint of music. She is said to have invented the Organ and to have drawn an angel from heaven through her music.

Q. 3. How did life begin on this universe?

Answer: When the universe was formed through the power of music, the heavenly music passed through the whole range of the universe and created first the little and then the big creatures. In the end, man was created.

Q. 4. What did Jubal do?
Answer: When Jubal, the father of music, sounded strings of his instrument, very sweet music was at once produced. His brothers and sisters stood around him wondering at the sweet music.

Q. 5. Discuss the impact of the trumpet’s sound.

Answer: The sound of the trumpet would disrupt the orderly positions of atoms and thus crumble down the universe.

Q. 6. What does the repeated beating of drums do?
Answer: The repeated beating of drum raises the feeling of anger and fear.

Q. 7. Discuss the human feelings aroused by music.
Answer:All types of feelings like happiness, love, anger, pain, fear and hope are aroused through music.

Q. 8. What do you know about Orpheus?
Answer: In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a very great singer. The trees and rocks followed his lyre.

Q. 9. Why did the Angel come to Earth?
Answer: On listening to the sound of music produced by St. Cecilia an angel came down to earth mistaking it for heaven.

Q. 10. What does Dryden mean by harmony?

Answer: Dryden means orderly arrangement through music by the word harmony.

Extra Questions

Q. 1. What did Dryden do during the plague in England?

Answer.: Dryden went to live at his father-in-law’s house at Charlton with his wife. Here he wrote his first great poem. ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (1667).

Q. 2. Why did Dryden change his religion?

Answer: Jn 1686 Dryden became a Roman Catholic, whether from inner conviction or time-serving motives. Some say that he did so because King Charles II was a Roman Catholic.

Q. 3. What did Dryden do as a practising poet?

Answer: Dryden wrote essays on literary techniques, structure, characterisation, diction and literary taste as a practising poet.

Q. 4. What did Dryden do with the restoration?

Answer: Dryden changed sides with the restoration. He immediately put himself on the winner’s side and wrote ‘Astrae Redux’, a poem of welcome to King Charles II.

Q. 5. Whom did Dryden follow as a poet?

Answer: As a young poet Dryden followed Cowley.

Q. 6. Discuss Neo-classical school.

Answer.: With the accession of Charles II, there was return of the old way of life in England. In the field of literature neo-classical school developed. This school brought back respect for classical rules, stress on reason and good sense.

Q. 7 Where did Charles II go after his father’s death?

Answer: Charles II went to France, where he was granted asylum, after his father’s death.

Q. 8. Which husband-wife team ruled over England?

Answer: Mary II and her husband William III ascended to the throne of England in 1687.

Q. 9. Comment on the literature during the Elizabethan period?

Answer: In Elizabethan age, the art of words in England flourished without the sustaining influence of the other arts.

Q. 10. Discuss the events of Restoration period.

Answer: The notable events that influenced the writers of the age include the wars against Holland from 1664 to 1674, the Great Plague of London, The Great Fire of London and the rise of the two political parties, Whigs (Libera’s) and Tories (Conservatives) on England’s political scene.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Have something to say

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.