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"A Song for St. Cecilia's Day"

  • Study Questions on Dryden's "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day" (1687)


1.  What kind of poem is this?

2.  What is the theme of the poem? How does the poet present his theme?

3.  What is the occasion for the song?

4.  What does the poet think about the components of this universe?

5.  What musical instruments are used in the poem?  What actually is the harmony? What effect can each instrument bring when played?  (ex. Lines 29-32. How do these lines sound to you when you read them?)

6.  In stanza 7 in order to reinforce how touching the music can be, what mythological figure does the poet use? What is the story about?

7.  What's the relation between "sacred lays" and the movement of "the sphere"?

8.  What will happen when the trumpet is sounded?  Explain "Music shall untune the sky."

‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ is the type of poem that sweeps you off your feet. Its musical theme makes it timeless, like all great classics, and John Dryden’s magnificent use of contrast throughout the poem gives it tremendous impact. Contrast is perhaps the most important key to this poem’s greatness. There is specific contrast in the form of antithesis within several of the stanzas, and there is more general contrast between the stanzas themselves. These two types of contrast help the poem fulfill its purpose

John Dryden wrote ‘A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day’ to honor St. Cecilia by celebrating and glorifying music. Each of the poem’s seven stanzas furthers this purpose. Stanza 1 claims that ‘from harmony, from Heav’nly harmony this universal frame began.’ This stanza tells the reader two things: first, that music is powerful, and second, that music is primeval. This knowledge informs the reader that, in general, music is very important, and, in specific, music was instrumental during the creation of the world.

Stanza 2 accomplishes a similar purpose. Dryden repeats the line ‘What passion cannot music raise and quell!’ two times. This line is designed to reinforce the earlier statement about music’s power. However, Stanza 2 goes farther than Stanza 1, declaring that music not only was powerful at the beginning of time, but that it is currently powerful, that it is immanent and that it influences human emotions and actions in the present.

Stanzas 3-6 expand on the messages of the first two stanzas by describing the effects produced by specific instruments: trumpets, drums, flutes, lutes, violins, and organs. The seventh and last stanza praises St. Cecilia herself: ‘When to her [St. Cecilia’s] organ, vocal breath was given/An angel heard and straight appeared/Mistaking earth for Heav’n.’ So, the poem concludes by saying that the beauty of earthly music competes with the beauty of Heaven. Christians do not quite agree with this, but still, Dryden’s poem is amazing, primarily because he was so good at employing different levels of contrast.

The most direct contrast in the poem is called antithesis. Antithesis appears several times, most notably in Stanzas 1, 2, and 5. In Stanza 1, Dryden personifies music by having it call to the still earth, ‘Arise ye more than dead!’ Then, in response, ‘Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry/In order to their stations leap/And music’s pow’r obey.’ Antithesis occurs in the words ‘cold, and hot, and moist, and dry.’ Dryden illustrates music’s power by showing how elements of all different, even opposite kinds, obey music’s command.

Another example of antithesis is in Stanza 5, where Dryden discusses violins: ‘Sharp violins proclaim…/Depth of pains and height of passion.’ By using the contrasting words ‘depth’ and ‘height’ as well as ‘pains’ and ‘passion’ Dryden shows the broad reach of emotions that music can express and evoke. It is yet another statement of music’s influence and power.

Equally as effective as direct antithesis is the more general contrast that exists between the different stanzas. Stanzas 3-6 talk about the specific power of several different instruments, and the contrast between the sound of trumpets and flutes shows how the great range of human experience that music can express. Stanza3 is about drums and trumpets and how these instruments serve as calls to war and expressions of human anger, violence, and justice. In Stanza 4, the focus is on human sorrow as Dryden writes of the ‘soft complaining flute.’ The more tempestuous human emotions are discussed in Stanza 5, as Dryden describes the sounds of violins. Finally, in Stanza 6, Dryden describes the organ, and how it plays holy, religious music. The contrasts in these poems show the reader that music influences human wars, human sorrow, human emotion, and human religion.

In ‘St. Cecilia’s Day,’ Dryden offers a comprehensive analysis of music’s power in the past and in the present. In another poem, ‘Grand Chorus,’ he ‘finishes the thought,’ so to speak: he predicts that music will also play an instrumental (pun intended) role at the end of the world:



‘So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky