Analysis of John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast

John Dryden wrote his second ode (1697) in celebration of St. Cecilia’s Day, Alexander’s Feast; Or the Power of Music, 10 years after his first tribute, A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day. Set to music by Jeremiah Clarke, it became Dryden’s most popular song.

The ode’s topic was dictated by the fact that the day celebrated music, with the martyred St. Cecilia traditionally recognized as the creator of the organ. While Dryden’s first effort had praised various instruments and the human passions they aroused, the second tribute focused on two classical stories. One featured Timotheus the musician and Alexander the Great, the other Alexander with his beautiful courtesan bride Thais on their wedding day. Timotheus entertains the couple and their guests and moves Alexander, the great warrior, from one passion to another. The drunken Alexander eventually dissolves into weeping, offering the audience a new view of the mighty warrior, all due to the power of music.


Critics praised the energy of the ode, which served to invigorate and renew the stories for an appreciative audience. Earl Miner sees a parallel between the manipulation of Alexander by the musician artist Timotheus and Dryden’s manipulation of his audience through the art of poetry. In the narrative, St. Cecilia eventually enters toward its conclusion but plays a minor part in the presentation. Alexander remains its center and the audience favorite. The seven stanzas vary in length, with each engaging in much repetition and alliteration to the pleasing effect common to musical verse. Each contains a chorus, which serves to comment on the scene, always preserving an uplifting mood despite the consideration of death and war.

The first stanza sets the scene, with Alexander described as “The godlike hero” and Thais as “like a blooming Eastern bride / In flow’r of youth and beauty’s pride.” The four brief lines preceding the chorus fill with a celebratory tone:

Happy, happy, happy pair!
None but the brave,
None but the brave,
None but the brave deserves the fair.

The second stanza introduces the musician Timotheus, “plac’d on high” in the middle of the choir. He plays his lyre with “flying fingers,” his music ascending to the heavens, where it inspires joy. Lush imagery recreates the journey of Jove, moved by love in “A dragon’s fi ery form” and riding “on radiant spires” to Olympia. He then “stamp’d an image of himself, a sov’reign of the world,” and the audience assumes that stamp is Alexander. Jove’s act, according to the chorus, “seems to shake the spheres,” a comparison of the warrior prince’s birth to a portent. The third stanza praises Bacchus, god of celebration and drink. The celebration that Dryden describes had followed Alexander’s attack on the Persian capital city of Persepolis. The original story stresses the greed of the looting soldiers, who lost all control in their thievery and destruction of priceless treasures. Timotheus foreshadows the increased destruction that will follow the drunken debauchery, as he sings,

Drinking is the soldier’s pleasure;
Rich the treasure,
Sweet the pleasure
Sweet the pleasure after pain.

In stanza 4, Timotheus recalls that “the King grew vain, / Fought all his battles o’er again,” and describes Alexander, as three times “he routed all his foes, and thrice he slew / the slain.” He sings of the madness of battle that challenged Alexander, the passion for war eventually softened by pity for Darius, the Persian ruler. At that point, Alexander “the joyless victor sat” as he considered chance, suggesting that he might have been in Darius’s place if not for fate, and he weeps. Stanza fi ve celebrates the softening of the mighty master as “pity melts the mind to love.” Timotheus sings that war “is toil and trouble, / Honour but an empty bubble,” and he urges Alexander to consider that “If the world be worth thy winning, / Think, O think it worth enjoying.” He reminds the ruler of his lovely bride, and then:

The Prince, unable to conceal his pain,
Gaz’d on the fair Who caused his care,
And sighed 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.

Interestingly while remaining undefeated on the fi eld, Alexander falls under the control of a mere woman. As do many mortal women in classical stories, Thais will co-opt the power of the male, tempting men with the passions she arouses to do as she bids them.

In the sixth stanza Timotheus describes the prince awakening as he hears the lyre, amazed to “See the Furies arise! / See the snakes that they rear,” with the ghastly sights explained as ghosts of those slain in battle. Traditionally women who haunted men, the Furies symbolize Thais in her control of Alexander, while the snakes suggest the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden that led to original sin. Dryden’s audience would have been familiar with the story of Thais’s tempting Alexander to burn Persepolis, after his men’s drunken looting of its riches. Thais led a procession of warriors and women to the accompaniment of flutes and pipes, as if in a grand celebration, and convinced Alexander to hurl his torch into the city. Her torch followed, and then hundreds of others, and the once-glorious city was destroyed. In Dryden’s ode Thais “led the way” of the revenging king “to light him to his prey / And like another Helen fir’d another Troy.” The reference to Helen also reflects on the power of women to stir men’s passions, even to war. That Thais used instruments during her “parade” to the city also suggests the power of music to stir passions, helping to overcome the strength of even the great Alexander.

St. Cecilia, patroness of music, does arrive in the final stanza, following all of the action, and

Enlarg’d the former narrow bounds
And added length to solemn sounds
With nature’s mother-wit and arts unknown before.
Or both divide the crown;
He rais’d a mortal to the skies;
She drew an angel down.

The “narrow bounds” she enlarges with her music are those tied to the ability of mere mortals to make music. Where Timotheus praises the mortal, Alexander, raising his name to the heights reserved for celebrated individuals, St. Cecilia’s music is so powerful that it tempts heavenly creatures to descend to earth.

As he did with Dryden’s first effort, G. F. Handel later reset Alexander’s Feast to new music. It made its debut in Covent Garden on February 19, 1736, proving an instant success with its audience of 1,300, and Handel’s version remains a well-known song in Germany. Amadeus Mozart also set it to music in 1790. The ode has been continuously praised over the three centuries since its writing as one of the most beautiful ever written in English.

Miner, Earl, ed. Selected Poetry and Prose of John Dryden. New York: The Modern Library, 1985.

Categories: History of English Literature, Literature

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