Alexander’s Feast by John Dryden

ALEXANDER’S FEAST; OR, THE POWER OF MUSIC.

AN ODE, IN HONOUR OF ST CECILIA’S DAY

by John Dryden

Lyre players are depicted on many ancient Greek vases.

Music lesson by Phintias
Attic red-figure hydria, ca. 510 BC, from Vulci.
Photographed by Wikimedia Commons user “Bibi Saint-Pol” on Feb. 10, 2007.

Staatliche Antikensammlungen
(State Collections of Antiques, Munich)
Inv. 2421 (= J 6)
Beazley, ARV2, 23, 7

1 ‘Twas at the royal feast, for Persia won
By Philip’s warlike son:
Aloft in awful state
The godlike hero sate
On his imperial throne:
His valiant peers were placed around;
Their brows with roses and with myrtles bound
(So should desert in arms be crown’d).
The lovely Thais, by his side,
Sate like a blooming Eastern bride
In flower 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.

2 Timotheus, placed on high
Amid the tuneful quire,
With flying fingers touch’d the lyre:
The trembling notes ascend the sky,
And heavenly joys inspire.
The song began from Jove,
Who left his blissful seats above
(Such is the power of mighty love).
A dragon’s fiery form belied 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 waist he curl’d,
And stamp’d an image of himself, a sovereign of the world.
The listening 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.

3 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 shows 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 soldier’s pleasure:
Rich the treasure,
Sweet the pleasure;
Sweet is pleasure after pain.

CHORUS

Bacchus’ blessings are a treasure,
Drinking is the soldier’s pleasure:
Rich the treasure,
Sweet the pleasure;
Sweet is pleasure after pain.

4 Soothed with the sound the king grew vain;
Fought all his battles 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 heaven and earth defied,
Changed 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 weltering in his blood;
Deserted, at his utmost need,
By those his former bounty fed;
On the bare earth exposed he lies,
With not a friend to close his eyes.
With downcast looks the joyless victor sate,
Revolving 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

Revolving in his alter’d soul
The various turns of chance below;
And now and then a sigh he stole;
And tears began to flow.

5 The mighty master smiled, 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 soothed 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,
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 crown’d, but Music won the cause.
The prince, unable to conceal his pain,
Gazed on the fair
Who caused 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,
Gazed on the fair
Who caused 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.

6 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.

CHORUS

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.

Thus, long ago,
Ere heaving bellows learn’d to blow,
While organs yet were mute;
Timotheus, to his breathing flute,
And sounding lyre,
Could 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,
Enlarged 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 raised 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,
Enlarged 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 raised a mortal to the skies;
She drew an angel down.

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