A Reading of an Extract From ‘A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day’ by John Dryden

September 25, 2018 Updated: September 25, 2018

From ‘A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day’

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
‘Arise, ye more than dead!’
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

In the beginning was the Word. Or should that be Music? In John Dryden’s song, it is the power of a “tuneful voice” that plucks life and delight from primal chaos. Yet his song is dedicated to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians who sang in praise of God as she lay dying. The contrast implies that, from cradle to grave, music provides us with intimations of divine harmony.

How could we survive without it? Dryden tells us the story of the universe before the first delicious notes. It was merely a “heap/ Of jarring atoms” and nothing more. Everything was untuned, unstrung, unformed. Atoms lay about higgledy-piggledy, burying nature under an avalanche of mess. But with a merry toot, everything changed. The universe perked up, picked up, danced.

Dryden’s perception of “heavenly harmony” is a truth wrapped up in a myth. (It goes without saying that “heavenly” could refer to either a supernatural origin or something that is simply delightful.) Every day as we go about our ordinary business, we see a sense, a syntax to nature—whether in a pattern of leaves, the geometrical shapes of snowflakes, or the swirls of a river.

 (Liza Voronin)
(Liza Voronin)

Such harmony continues to amaze scientists, as chronicled in John C. Lennox’s book “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?” On the perplexing issue of the apparent “fine-tuning” of matter (a nice musical analogy), he says: “Recent research has shown that many of the fundamental constants of nature, from the energy levels in the carbon atom to the rate at which the universe is expanding, have just the right values for life to exist. Change any of them just a little, and the universe would become hostile to life and incapable of supporting it.” This precision has led scientists either to deduce the existence of some kind of designer or propose the mind-boggling notion of the “multiverse”—where infinite numbers of universes exist side by side.

But we don’t need to go far to be staggered by the sheer beauty of existence. Dryden’s phrase “universal frame” refers to us as much as the cosmos; and it is in us that universal harmony is glimpsed, as much as in a seashell or the outer reaches of space, where the energies of the Big Bang continue to race into unfathomable nothing. Our symmetry is remarkable, for instance, with our pairs of eyes, nostrils, arms, hands, legs, feet and, not forgetting, kidneys. Evolution, as Richard Dawkins points out with awe, favors extraordinary elegance.

Dryden’s playful creation myth is also a metaphor for the way the music of our being creates the world around us from moment to moment: how mere sense impressions, such as “cold, and hot, and moist, and dry” to their “stations leap” into shape. They become a series of objects: perhaps an ice cream, a cup of coffee, a frog, a drift of sand. Somehow our senses and the mind forge an environment with the appearance of sense and stability out of flickering flux.

But sometimes music is just music; and Dryden’s poem, which runs to several stanzas, goes on to describe the effects of hearing different kinds of instruments. A “trumpet’s loud clangour/ Excites us to arms.” The “soft complaining lute” describes “the woes of hopeless lovers.” Sharp violins proclaim the “height of passion.” (I wonder how he would have described the effect of electric guitar and synthesizers.) All of these sounds remind us of the dynamic width and depth and breadth of the human soul, a universe capable of experiencing such a variety of moods.

Today we live in maybe the most music-saturated society ever. We use it to wake up, to keep motivated at work, to wind down, and to sleep. Instrumental classical music impels us toward thought; the frantic three-minute pop song toward abandoning thought in joyous release. And just like those who gathered in caves and beat drums to raise the ancestral spirits, we accord musicians a godlike authority. As shamans, they voice the concerns of a generation.

In the final lines of the stanza, the “diapason” resounds. This means the whole octave is played. All this rich, melodious outpouring collects in “Man”—the glorious crescendo of creation.

John Dryden (1631-1700) was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright.

Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.