1697
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander's Feast; or The Power of Musique.

Alexander's Feast; or The Power of Musique. An Ode, in honour of St. Cecilia's Day. By Mr. Dryden.

John Dryden


In this memorable ode Timotheus sways the passions of Alexander by the power of his song. John Dryden's Alexander's Feast, though not indebted to Spenser, was a source for several later poems in the Spenserian tradition, notably William Collins's The Passions and Thomas Gray's Installation Ode. Later in the eighteenth century Dryden's highly grandiloquent and much-admired ode became the source for burlesque poems on a number of subjects, very often political.

John Dryden to his sons: "I am writeing a Song for St. Cecilia's feast, who you know is the Patroness of Musique. This is troublesome, and no way beneficiall: but I could not deny the Stewards of the feast, who came in a body to me, to desire that kindness; one of them being Mr. Bridgman, whose parents are your Mothers friends" 3 September 1697; in Letters, ed. Charles E. Ward (1942) 93.

Cibber-Shiels: "It is impossible for a poet to read this without being filled with that sort of enthusiasm which is peculiar to the inspired tribe, and which Dryden largely felt when he composed it. The turn of the verse is noble, the transitions surprizing, the language and sentiments just, natural, and heightened. We cannot be too lavish in praise of this Ode: had Dryden never wrote any thing besides, his name had been immortal" Lives of the Poets (1753) 3:79.

Oliver Goldsmith: "This ode has been more applauded, perhaps, than it has been felt; however, it is a very fine one, and gives its beauties rather at a third, or fourth, than at a first, perusal" Beauties of English Poesy (1767) 1:119.

Samuel Johnson: "One composition must however be distinguished. The ode for St. Cecilia's Day, perhaps the last effort of his poetry, has been always considered as exhibiting the highest flight of fancy and the exactest nicety of art. This is allowed to stand without a rival" Life of Dryden" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 1:456.

John Nichols: "The twenty-second of November, a day appropriated by the calendar of the church of Rome to Saint Cecilia, was religiously observed in most parts of Europe. This lady was eminently beautiful and pious, particularly skilful in music, and a martyr for the Christian faith. Towards the latter end of the last century an entertainment was instituted in commemoration of her, by many of the first rank in this kingdom; which was continued annually for a considerable time. A splendid entertainment was provided at Stationers Hall, which was constantly preceded by a performance of vocal and instrumental music by the most capital performers. This feast is represented by Mr. Motteux, in 1691, as 'one of the genteelest in the world; there are no formalities nor gatherings like as at others, and the appearance there is splendid.' The words, which were always an encomium on their patroness, were set by Purcell, Blow, and others of the greatest eminence; and it became the fashion for writers of all ranks to celebrate St. Cecilia. Dryden, Pope, Addison, Yalden, employed their talents on this subject. We have also Odes to St. Cecilia by Shadwell, D'Urfey, and some still more indifferent poets. But we may pardon the trash which this subject has given birth to, on account of the excellence of Mr. Dryden's most admirable performance" Select Collection of Poems (1780-82) 4:28-29n.

Joseph Warton: "Mr. St. John, afterwards Lord Bolingbroke, happening to pay a morning visit to Dryden, whom he always respected, found him in an unusual agitation of spirits, even to a trembling. On enquiring the cause, 'I have been up all night, replied the old bard; my musical friends made me promise to write them an ode for their feast of St. Caecilia. I have been so struck with the subject which occurred to me, that I could not leave it till I had completed it; here it is, finished at one sitting.' And immediately he shewed him this ode, which places the British lyric poetry above that of any other nation. This anecdote, as true as it is curious, was imparted by Lord Bolingbroke to POPE, by POPE to Mr. Gilbert West, by him to the ingenious friend who communicated it to me [author's note: Richard Berenger, Esq.] The rapidity, and yet the perspicuity of the thoughts, the glow and expressiveness of the images, those certain marks of the first sketch of a master, conspire to corroborate the truth of the fact" Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1782) 2:20-21.

Monthly Review: "the first English ode of decided and popularly acknowledged merit, Dryden's Feast of Alexander, happens to be remarkable for transitions of description. In this accident of one admired ode was supposed to consist its very essence; and the quality was carefully copied by Pope in his ode for St. Cecilia's day, by Gray in his brilliant desultory stanzas entitled the Progress of Poesy, and by a multitude of others: but it was most successfully imitated by Collins in The Passions, in which the unity and cohesion of the whole is not in the least sacrificed to the variety of the parts" Review of John Whitehouse, Odes Moral and Descriptive, NS 14 (July 1794) 320-21.

Edmond Malone: "This anecdote was communicated to Dr. Warton by Mr. Berenger, whose informer was Mr. Gilbert West, who derived the account from Mr. Pope, to whom it is said to have been imparted by Lord Bolingbroke; and it cannot be denied that this is a very fair genealogy: but after it has been carefully examined, we shall find, that, like many traditional tales, it is not to be implicitly relied upon; for our author's own words, already quoted, -- 'I am writing a song,' &c. manifestly denote a composition produced by study and meditation, and growing up under the writer's hands; and a letter [by Thomas Birch] which I have not been able to recover, proves incontestably, that this admirable performance, instead of being struck off at once, and completed at one sitting, was the work of almost a fortnight" Critical and Miscellaneous Prose Works of John Dryden (1800) 1:1:286-87.

Henry Kett: "Whoever reads the works of Shakspeare, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, will be sensible that they employ a kind of phraseology which may be said to be sacred to the Muses. It is distinguished from prose, not merely by the harmony of numbers, but by the great variety of its appropriate terms and phrases. A considerable degree of beauty results likewise from the different measures employed in poetry. The Allegro and Penseroso of Milton, Alexander's Feast by Dryden, the Ode to the Passions by Collins, and the Bard of Gray, are as complete examples of versification, judiciously varied, according to the nature of the subjects, as they are specimens of exquisite sentiment and original genius" Elements of General Knowledge (1802, 1805) 1:92.

George Dyer: "Dryden, unquestionably, possessed a genius equal to any design in poetry, had he but finished with elegance what he conceived with energy: but even his ode on St. Cecilia's day, with all its fire, vigour, and sublimity, is defective in taste; and has some meaner parts, that should never have appeared in so dignified a composition. The ode that aspires at public recitation, or musical representation, should possess nothing that can excite particular disgust" in Dyer, Poems (1802) 1:xxv.

Percival Stockdale: "The descent from Milton to Dryden is not an abrupt, and steep one; and we move but from one magnificent region to another. The infinitely diversified richness, and exuberance of the latter, is not a very inadequate substitute for that astonishing sublime of the former, which transports us, while we imbibe it, beyond the inferiour objects of our mortal existence. We descend but from the interiour to the maritime alps; from the grand, and awful heights which Annibal surmounted; contrasted, in many points of view, with beauty, and with terrour; comparatively, to humbler, yet bold and variegated scenery; to a more Elysian soil, and to a milder air" Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 1:231-32.

Thomas Campbell: "The rich and diversified merits of Dryden, form, as our author [Percival Stockdale] justly remarks, not an abrupt descent from the sublimity of Milton. Whether we recollect him as a lyric, a narrative, dramatic, political, or satyrical poet, or as a translator, the name of Dryden summons up recollections of excellence. The union of critical with poetical power; the vigour and the hale manliness of expression which for ever look fresh in his sentences and lines; the majestic force without harshness, and the perfect and downright English of Dryden's style, entitle him to this great succession, and perhaps rank him in merit the fourth after Spencer, Shakespeare and Milton, of English poets" Edinburgh Review 12 (April 1808) 72.

Thomas James Mathias: "Mr. Gray's consummate taste and unerring judgment directed him (as they must direct all who wish to excel) to the great master of the original native strength of the English language, and to the fountain of harmonious expression, Dryden. It was indeed under those mighty masters, Spenser and Dryden, that Mr. Gray was enabled to produce, and to perfect, his own unequalled compositions" Works of Gray, ed. Mathias (1814) 2:83.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Dryden's genius was of the sort which catches fire by its own motion; his chariot wheels get hot by driving fast" 1 November 1833; in Table Talk (1884) 266.

George Saintsbury: "Alexander's Feast was the second ode which Dryden wrote for the 'Festival of St. Cecilia.' He received for it #40., which, as he tells his sons that the writing of it 'would be noways beneficial,' was probably unexpected, if the statement as to the payment is true. There are other legendary contradictions about the time occupied in writing it, one story saying that it was done in a single night, while another asserts that he was a fortnight in composing or correcting it. But, as has been frequently pointed out, the two statements are by no means incompatible. Another piece of gossip about this famous ode is that Dryden at first wrote Lais instead of Thais, which 'small mistake' he bids Tonson in a letter to remember to alter. Little criticism of Alexander's Feast is necessary. Whatever drawbacks its form may have (especially the irritating chorus), it must be admitted to be about the best thing of its kind, and nothing more can be demanded of any poetry than to be excellent in its kind. Dryden himself thought it the best of all his poetry, and he had a remarkable faculty of self-criticism" Dryden [English Men of Letters] (1902) 169-70.



'Twas at the Royal Feast, for Persia won,
By Phillip's Warlike Son:
Aloft in awful State
The God-like Heroe sate
On his Imperial Throne:
His valiant Peers were plac'd around;
Their Brows with Roses and with Myrtles bound.
(So shou'd Desert in Arms be Crown'd:)
The Lovely Thais by his side,
Sate like a blooming Eastern Bride
In Flow'r of Youth and Beauty's Pride.
Happy, happy, happy Pair!
None but the Brave
None but the Brave
None but the Brave deserves the Fair.

CHORUS.
Happy, happy, happy Pair!
None but the Brave
None but the Brave
None but the Brave deserves the Fair.

II.
Timotheus plac'd on high
Amid the tuneful Quire,
With flying Fingers touch'd the Sky,
And Heav'nly Joys inspire.
The Song began from Jove;
Who left his blissful Seats above,
(Such is the Pow'r of mighty Love.)
A Dragon's fiery Form bely'd the God:
Sublime on Radiant Spires He rode,
When He to fair Olympia press'd:
And while He sought her snowy Breast:
Then, round her slender Waste he curl'd,
And stamp'd an Image of himself, a Sov'raign of the World.
The list'ning Crowd admire the lofty Sound,
A present Deity, they shout around:
A present Deity the vaulted Roofs rebound.
With ravish'd Ears
The Monarch hears,
Assumes the God,
Affects to nod,
And seems to shake the Spheres.

CHORUS.
With ravish'd Ears
The Monarch hears,
Assumes the God,
Affects to nod,
And seems to shake the Spheres.

III.
The Praise of Bacchus then, the sweet Musician sung;
Of Bacchus ever Fair, and ever Young:
The jolly God in Triumph comes;
Sound the Trumpets; beat the Drums;
Flush'd with a purple Grace
He shews his honest Face,
Now give the Hautboys breath; He comes, He comes.
Bacchus ever Fair and Young,
Drinking Joys did first ordain:
Bacchus Blessings are a Treasure;
Drinking is the Soldiers Pleasure;
Rich the Treasure,
Sweet the Pleasure;
Sweet is Pleasure after Pain.

CHORUS.
Bacchus Blessings are a Treasure;
Drinking is the Soldiers Pleasure;
Rich the Treasure,
Sweet the Pleasure;
Sweet is Pleasure after Pain.

IV.
Sooth'd with the Sound the King grew vain;
Fought all his Battails o'er again;
And thrice He routed all his Foes; and thrice He slew the slain.
The Master saw the Madness rise;
His glowing Cheeks, his ardent Eyes;
And while He Heav'n and Earth defy'd,
Chang'd his hand, and check'd his Pride.
He chose a Mournful Muse
Soft Pity to infuse:
He sung Darius Great and Good,
By too severe a Fate,
Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen,
Fallen from his high Estate
And weltring in his Blood:
Deserted at his utmost Need,
By those his former Bounty fed:
On the bare Earth expos'd He lyes,
With not a Friend to close his Eyes.

With down-cast Looks the joyless Victor sate,
Revolveing in his alter'd Soul
The various Turns of Chance below;
And, now and then, a Sigh he stole;
And Tears began to flow.

CHORUS.
Revolveing in his alter'd Soul
The various Turns of Chance below;
And, now and then, a Sigh he stole;
And Tears began to flow.

V.
The Mighty Master smil'd to see
That Love was in the next Degree:
'Twas but a Kindred-Sound to move;
For Pity melts the Mind to Love.
Softly sweet, in Lydian Measures,
Soon He sooth'd his Soul to Pleasures.
War, he sung, is Toil and Trouble;
Honour but an empty Bubble.
Never ending, still beginning,
Fighting still, and still destroying.
If the World be worth thy Winning,
Lovely Thais sits beside thee,
Take the Good the Gods provide thee.

The Many rend the Skies, with loud Applause;
So Love was Crown'd, but Musique won the Cause.
The Prince, unable to conceal his Pain,
Gaz'd on the Fair
Who caus'd his Care,
And sigh'd and look'd, sigh'd and look'd,
Sigh'd and look'd, and sigh'd again:
At length, with Love and Wine at once oppress'd,
The vanquish'd Victor sunk upon her Breast.

CHORUS.
The Prince, unable to conceal his Pain,
Gaz'd on the Fair
Who caus'd his Care,
And sigh'd and look'd, sigh'd and look'd,
Sigh'd and look'd, and sigh'd again:
At length, with Love and Wine at once oppress'd,
The vanquish'd Victor sunk upon her Breast.

VI.
Now strike the Golden Lyre again:
A lowder yet, and yet a lowder Strain.
Break his Bands of Sleep asunder,
And rouze him, like a rattling Peal of Thunder.
Hark, hark, the horrid Sound
Has rais'd up his Head,
As awak'd the Dead,
And amaz'd, he stares around.
Revenge, Revenge, Timotheus cries,
See the Furies arise!
See the Snakes hiss in their Hair,
And the Sparkles that flash from their Eyes!
Behold a ghastly Band,
Each a Torch in his Hand!
Those are Grecian Ghosts, that in Battail were slayn,
And unbury'd remain
Inglorious on the Plain.
Give the Vengeance due
To the Valiant Crew.
Behold how they toss their Torches on high,
How they point to the Persian Abodes,
And glitt'ring Temples of their Hostile Gods!
The Princes applaud, with a furious Joy;
And the King seyz'd a Flambeau, with Zeal to destroy;
This led the Way,
To light him to his Prey,
And, like another Hellen, fir'd another Troy.

CHORUS.
And the King seyz'd a Flambeau, with Zeal to destroy;
This led the Way,
To light him to his Prey,
And, like another Hellen, fir'd another Troy.

VII.
Thus, long ago
'Ere heaving Bellows learn'd to blow,
While Organs yet were mute;
Timotheus, to his breathing Flute,
And sounding Lyre,
Cou'd swell the Soul to rage, or kindle soft Desire.
At last Divine Cecilia came,
Inventress of the Vocal Frame;
The sweet Enthusiast, from her Sacred Store,
Enlarg'd the former narrow Bounds,
And added Length to solemn Sounds,
With Nature's Mother-Wit, and Arts unknown before.
Let old Timotheus yield the Prize,
Or both divide the Crown;
He rais'd a Mortal to the Skies;
She drew an Angel down.

GRAND CHORUS.
At last Divine Cecilia came,
Inventress of the Vocal Frame;
The sweet Enthusiast, from her Sacred Store,
Enlarg'd the former narrow Bounds,
And added Length to solemn Sounds,
With Nature's Mother-Wit, and Arts unknown before.
Let old Timotheus yield the Prize,
Or both divide the Crown;
He rais'd a Mortal to the Skies;
She drew an Angel down.

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