Alexander’s Feast Or, The Power of Music Study Guide

Summary of “Alexander’s Feast”

“Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music” was composed in November 1697 for the London Musical Society on the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Similar to the poem Dryden penned ten years earlier on the same day, “Alexander’s Feast” is typically regarded as a Pindaric ode. Pindar was an ancient Greek poet whose odes—ceremonial songs of praise or celebration—were notable for their varied line lengths and metres. While many Restoration writers took liberties with their versification in the Pindaric ode, Dryden, by most accounts, exercises more control here, despite the fact that his lines and stanzas vary considerably. While some reviewers have criticised it, Dryden and his contemporaries thought that it was most likely “the best of all my poetry.”

The poem celebrates music’s power by narrating how Timotheus, a great Greek musician, is able to manage, or possibly manipulate, Alexander the Great’s emotions during a banquet commemorating his triumph over Darius and conquest of Persia. Thus, the poem evokes Greek antiquity through its form—the Pindaric ode—and content—an occurrence from Alexander the Great’s history. The first stanza establishes the scenario, a “royal feast” commemorating the “conquest of Persia” (1) “by Philip’s warlike son [Alexander]” (2). Alexander sits above everyone in “godlike” (4) fashion (awful in line 3 refers to filling everyone with awe, not to the contemporary meaning of horrible), his lieutenants are “crowned” (8) for their victory, and next to him sits “The lovely Thais” (his concubine) (9), “like a blooming Eastern bride” (10). Dryden’s version of the Pindaric form closes the stanza with a sequence of lines that summarise the stanza’s general point—that martial bravery is deserving of love and happiness—words that are then repeated in the chorus.

Timotheus appears in the second stanza, strumming his “lyre” (23), sending his “trembling notes” (13) upward to “inspire” “heavenly joys” (14). His first song is dedicated to Jove, another name for Jupiter or Zeus, the king of the gods who impregnated Alexander’s mother by curling around her slender waist and stamping an image of himself, a sov’reign of the world (“round her slender waist he curled, / And stamped an image of himself, a sov’reign of the world” [32-33]). The crowd joyfully responds to Timotheus’s song, cheering on the “present deity” (i.e., Alexander himself), who assumes the role of a god. Timotheus then begins his performance by appealing to Alexander’s vanity, in which he “Assumes the god” (39). Timotheus continues to play on Alexander’s pride at his tremendous victory in the following stanza. To begin, he sings praises to Bacchus, the deity of wine, whose visage is “Flushed with a purple grace” (50). Bacchus, who is “always fair and young” (54), bestows his blessings on the troops (“Drinking is the soldier’s pleasure” [57]), a sweet reward following the agony of combat.

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Alexander has grown “vain” (66) as he recalls “all his battles o’er again” (67), recalling all the adversaries he has defeated. Timotheus (“the master” [69]) senses Alexander’s developing vanity (“the madness” [69]) through “His bright cheeks, his impassioned eyes” (70), and chooses to restrain Alexander’s “pride” (72), which has “defied” both “heaven and earth (72). He accomplishes this by altering the tone of his song to one of “mourning” (73), in an attempt to “infuse” Alexander with “pity” (74) for the vanquished Darius. Timotheus recalls Darius as “great and good,” and characterises him as not deserving of such a “severe fate” (76), as a result of being “Deserted” (80) by “those his former bounty fed” (81), or those he had looked after in the past. Timotheus’s strength is demonstrated by the abrupt turn to Alexander, who now sits “joyless” (84), contemplating the fickle nature of “chance” (86), as he “sigh[s]” (87) and his “tears began to flow” (88).

Timotheus, referred to in line 93 as “the mighty master,” now recognises his might and laughs at the prospect of moving on to love, a slight step from the melancholy tone he has adopted. He sings of battle as “toil and trouble” (99) and honour as “an empty bubble” (100), implying that the “good the gods provide” is actually love—in the form of Thais (106). Where Timotheus begins by praising Alexander’s martial prowess, he demonstrates his own strength by convincing his audience that the glory acquired in battle is never enough, since it is “Never ending, still beginning” (101), and must be won repeatedly. His crowd excitedly replies, but while they celebrate love, it is actually “music [that] won the cause” (108). With this line—which may encapsulate the poem’s overall theme—Dryden declares music the victor, as it supplants Alexander’s military victory, just as Timotheus has supplanted Alexander as master. Timotheus’s and music’s strength are once again demonstrated as Alexander’s mood switches at his command and turns to Thais; now “oppressed” by love (114), he becomes “The vanquished victor” (115) as he buries his head in “her breast” (115).

Timotheus’s final song, which is the most troublesome, is introduced in the sixth stanza. He blows his lyre again in a “louder strain” (124), urging his audience to seek vengeance on behalf of the slain Greeks: “Grecian ghosts, that in battle were slain/ And remain unburied/ Inglorious on the plain” (138–140). He depicts the spirits as aiming their torches toward “the Persian abodes” and their temples (144–145), pleading with their living compatriots to “Deserve vengeance” (144–145). (141). Alexander and his princes respond with “furious joy” (146), as Thais leads them to demolish the Persian village in the same way that the Greeks destroyed Troy during the Trojan War.

The final stanza brings us up to date, noting that if music had such power “long ago” (155) to “swell the soul to rage, or kindle soft desire” (160), it has much more power now that Cecilia has arrived and invented the organ (“Inventress of the vocal frame” [162]). By doing so, she “enlarges the previously narrow bounds” (164) of music, compelling Timotheus to “give up the prize” (167) or, at the very least, share “the crown” with her (168).

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By most accounts, “Alexander’s Feast” is a dazzling rendition of Restoration-era lyrical effects, while also telling the storey of musical virtuosity and its force. Some commentators have suggested that the power of the music as depicted in the poem is not always a good thing—that Timotheus appears to be able to manipulate Alexander’s emotions to accomplish anything, including moving him from pitying and crying over Darius to leading his troops to burn Darius’s defeated populace’s homes and temples within 100 lines. While the poem openly celebrates aesthetic power through music and implicitly through the poem itself, it also implies that aesthetic power is a double-edged sword.

Analysis of Alexander’s Feast

Alexander’s Feast Or, The Power of Music, an Ode in Honor of St. Cecilia’s Day is Dryden’s second ode to the patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia. The poem’s theme, the ability of music to affect human emotions, is identical to that of a decade earlier’s “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day.” Both odes are incidental, having been penned at the London Musical Society’s invitation. Dryden introduces characters and positions them in a dramatic scene in the second ode. The Greeks are celebrating their triumph against Darius the Persian when Timotheus, the banquet’s musician, is summoned to perform.

Timotheus instils in Alexander the Great a sense of divinity through lofty strains. A change in tone transforms his mood into one of desire for pleasure, followed by a yearning for the love of his mistress Thas, who sits alongside him. Sombre chords induce empathy for the dead Darius but are quickly followed by aggressive tones demanding vengeance on behalf of the fallen Greek soldiers. Alexander and his lady, with torches in hand, hurry out to burn the Persian city Persepolis. The poem finishes with a magnificent chorus emphasising the power of music to affect emotions and drawing a contrast between Saint Cecilia’s legend and Timotheus’s strength. Dryden recalls a storey about how, after inventing the organ, she played so lovely music that an angel appeared as she played, mistaking the sounds for those of heaven: “Let old Timotheus give the prize, Or both divide the crown: He ascended a mortal to the heavens; she brought down an angel.

The elaborate form, with its lengthy and difficult irregular stanzas, resembles the Pindaric ode, yet its linear organisation maintains Horace’s heritage. Dryden creates a complicated, strong, and energising movement, and his use of historical events and individuals contributes to his theme’s vibrant, dramatic presentation.

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Alexander and his mistress are introduced in the first stanza as they are sitting in the state. In the second, Alexander’s musician, Timotheus, encourages Alexander with his lyre, singing the myth recounted by Alexander’s mother, Olympia, that Alexander’s true father was Zeus, who impregnated her in the form of a gigantic dragon. Timotheus now turns his attention to the joys of alcohol in stanza 3. In stanza 4, he transforms the atmosphere from pleasant intoxication to drunken belligerence, singing of the fall of monarchs, boldly picking Darius, king of Persia, whose defeat is being celebrated. Timotheus travels from sorrow to thoughts of love in stanza 5, and then to fury and revenge in stanza 6, leading Alexander to burn Persia’s capital, Persepolis.

Plutarch’s motivations for Alexander, intoxication and a desire to please his mistress, are unrelated to music’s influence. The sixth stanza’s opening lines attribute the desire for retribution to Timotheus’s music, while no cause is offered for the musician to desire such a consequence. The fact that this stanza follows the one about love, as well as the lines “Thais, led the way,/ To light him to his prey,/ And, like another Helen, fir’d another Troy,” all imply that Thais is to blame. That, however, would appear to contradict the remainder of the stanza and be unrelated to the poem’s theme of music’s power. The reader can assume Thais takes advantage of the mood Timotheus produces, however one might question the irresponsibility of instilling rage and ideas of revenge in the mind of someone who is already intoxicated. Such problems, however, go mostly overlooked, as readers are swept up in the legendary resonance of a great city’s burning and the poem’s concluding parallel with Troy.

The last stanza introduces Cecilia, the patron saint of music, by claiming that she “Enlarg’d the former narrow bounds/ And added length to solemn sounds,” and thus either wins the prize or must share it, for “He rais’d a mortal to the skies She drew an angel down.” This concluding phrase parallels Dryden’s previous “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” which expressly indicates that the angel is fooled by the beauty of Cecilia’s music and believes he is in heaven. Although the angel visitor is a part of the saint’s tradition, Dryden has transformed the reason for the visit from Cecilia’s virtue to her music for the purposes of his poem. Samuel Johnson objected to the immorality of a shared prize, despite the fact that Alexander’s exaltation to godhood is only metaphorical and the angelic visitor is real. However, Cecilia’s comparative advantage is so great that Dryden can afford to leave the reader’s decision to the reader. Additionally, a divided award provides a sense of equilibrium. Each of the preceding stanzas reflects an extreme of feeling, with the conclusion provided by the neat balance and antithesis at the end.

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