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“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,
Think, O think it worth enjoying;
Lovely Thais sits beside thee,
Take the good the gods provide thee” —
The many rend the skies with loud applause;
So Love was crowned, but Music won the cause.
The prince, unable to conceal his pain,
Gazed on the fair,
Who caused his care,
And sighed and looked, sighed and looked,
Sighed and looked, and sighed again;
At length, with love and wine at once oppressed,
The vanquished victor sunk upon her breast.
Now strike the golden lyre again;
A louder yet, and yet a louder strain.
Break his bands of sleep asunder,
And rouse him, like a rattling peal of thunder
Hark, hark! the horrid sound
Has raised up his head;
As awaked from the dead,
And amazed, he stares around.
Revenge, revenge! Timotheus cries,
See the furies arise;
See the snakes, that they rear,
How they 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 battle were slain,
And, unburied, 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 glittering temples of their hostile gods. —
The princes applaud, with a furious joy,
And the king seized a flambeau with zeal to destroy;
Thais led the way,
To light him to his prey,
And, like another Helen, fired another Troy.
–John Dryden, Alexander’s Feast; Or, the Power of Music: An Ode in Honour of St Cecilia’s Day pts v, vi (1697)
John Dryden composed two odes to mark St Cecilia’s Day, and each has a special role among his poems and within the literature of Restoration England. The works are sublime, masterpieces of the poet’s art, and also packed with meanings–some which sit right on the surface and some which require extensive mining operations to open up. I took a crack at the first of the St Cecilia’s Day odes here–it provides strong evidence, I think, of Dryden’s Pythagorean attitudes about mathematics, science and religion. The second, usually called Alexander’s Feast is more challenging–in fact, it’s full of contradictions. It’s easy to appreciate this work, and I’m sure most of his contemporary readers would have appreciated it, as an exhibition of Dryden’s genius as a classicist. He’s working a fairly obscure account from the life of Alexander the Great. The story is a simple one. After his defeat of the Persian king, in 330 BCE, Alexander seizes the capital of Persepolis. A lavish banquet is given for Alexander, his concubine Thais and his generals, at which the soldier-musician Timotheus sings. Alexander is drunk, as most of the generals, and Timotheus’s singing exercises great power over them. At a critical moment, Timotheus calls for revenge against the vanquished Persians on behalf of those Greeks who fell in the battles that led to the capture of Persepolis. Alexander, worked into a lather, orders the destruction of the city. (Most of this can be found in section 17 of Diodorus of Sicily’s Library of World History (ca. 50 BCE), which is plausibly Dryden’s source).
Almost from the moment of its appearance, this ode was recognized as a masterwork. His contemporaries talk about it and it makes appearances in other works (in an essay by Alexander Pope, for instance, and in Richardson’s novel Clarissa). All of them praise Dryden and his poetic abilities. Pope calls Dryden the Timotheus of the age, the man whose sense of drama and control of the emotive in literature can command the sensibilities of society. But there’s something very strange about this, and indeed about the subject matter. This is an ode in honor of St Cecilia, after all, the patron saint of music, whose legendary invention of the organ is referenced in the final lines (“the Vocal Frame”). How does it pay tribute to a saint to tell the story of a group of soldiers who get drunk at an orgy and then burn down a city they have captured as an act of vengeance against a foe they have vanquished and promised protection? There is not an iota of grace or dignity in the story. And even the classical accounts reflect Alexander paying a later visit to Persepolis and lamenting the stupidity of his actions in laying waste to Xerxes’s palace. Moreover, would Dryden really want to be compared with Timotheus, who uses his gifts in such a morally irresponsible way? So we come to the conundrum of Alexander’s Feast. Just what was John Dryden thinking?
I think there are two explanations for this. One is Dryden the classicist. His writing is not designed to glorify, but to demonstrate the foibles of the human condition–and indeed, to show that even the greatest of humans (Alexander) can be vain and foolish. But he is also demonstrating the power of the bacchanal, a rite associated with excessive drink, sex and a certain kind of music, whose hallmark was excess–and crime. Characteristically, we see the entrance of the Furies (“See the furies arise;/See the snakes, that they rear,/How they hiss in their hair,”) which marks the suspension of reason and the rule of violent emotion. I review Dryden’s use of these same images and his understanding of them, especially of the emotive power of certain kinds of music, in a discussion of his reworking of Sophocles’s Oedipus here.
The other explanation is more political and ironic. Dryden is the master of the use of classical images as a double-edged sword. His audience may well understand the images as laudatory of the great and noble in antiquity, and as enhancing the power and authority of the monarchy. But just under the surface is a subtly seditious Dryden, showing us that the king, alas, is just a man, and as capable of being as vain, stupid and misled as any man. And Alexander’s Feast is an exposition of the human frailties of great men, in the end, it shows us a great man at one of his monumentally low points. Imagine a performance filled with Baroque pomp and glamor. And imagine Dryden snickering through the performance, just off stage.
Dryden’s initial composition was given to Jeremiah Clark to compose, but no trace of the besotted Clark’s working of the piece has survived. Forty years later, however, it came to the attention of a very worthy composer, George Frederick Handel, whose treatment of these texts gave them a sort of immortality. Handel misses the ironic element, perhaps, but he is focused on the dramatic possibilities of the lines. I pull out two passages here which are the finest examples of his high Baroque coloration, especially the pivotal aria, “Revenge.”
Listen to Soprano Nancy Argenta sing the aria “War, he sung, is toil and trouble” and then Stephen Varcoe sing the aria “Revenge, revenge, Timotheus cries” from George Frederick Handel’s setting of John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast:
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