Alexander's Feast

by John Dryden

A song in honour of St. Cecilia's day, 1697.

'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!

    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 prest,     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.

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.

    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.

    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 opprest   The vanquish'd 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!

            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!

Monadnock Valley Press > Dryden