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This week's featured poem is "On the Death of Mr. Purcell" written by John Dryden.

This week’s featured poem is “On the Death of Mr. Purcell” written by John Dryden.

On the Death of Mr Purcell


Observe the melodies of the lark and linnet as they sing.
With rival notes
making music

They exert effort from their singing voices, creating melodies.
To usher in the arrival of spring.

she still, she sometimes beholds him there.

However, during the end of the night, she occasionally sees him there.

As Philomel starts her celestial melody,
mutual war, mutual harm

They put an end to their mutual hatred, mutual conflict, and mutual harm.
Enchant yourself with her melodies,
Obey, remaining both in attentive silence and silent attentiveness, and observe the cycle of stillness and attentive hearing.


The opposing team stopped when Purcell arrived.

They stopped singing, or only sang his praises.
Even without being able to speak, they were all in awe.

Speechless, they were all in admiration.
The godlike man,
even as Chance.

Unfortunately, I was forced to retire prematurely, just like the whims of fate.

He started too late.

Please, let us not request for Orpheus to bring back Hell.
Had he been there,
“The anxiety of the ruler,”

I had previously returned him.

They were acutely aware of the strength of harmony.

Before this time, he had already adjusted their discordant world.

“And there was no Hell beneath.”


The heavenly choir, who heard his notes from high,

Lower the musical scale from the heavens.
x = 4

They passed him on, x equals 4.
He taught continuously and they sang throughout.

Fellow musicians with skillful fingers and melodious voices,

Bemoan his situation, but take delight in your own.

Rest easy now and enjoy your days.
The Masque in Dioclesian, act ii.,10

The deities are content solely with Purcell’s songs, specifically in the second act of “The Masque of Dioclesian,” lines 10.

They are unaware of how to improve their decision.

This poem, written by John Dryden (1631-1700), honors the passing of the English musician Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and celebrates the brevity of his life. The structure of the poem is unconstrained, with no consistent meter in each verse. Iambic pentameter, trimeters, and dimeters are intertwined and have varying rhymes, creating a melodic sound that is emphasized by the indentation of the lines. Unfortunately, the original line indentations cannot be included in the Poem of the Week format, but they are present in this modern version, which I used as a source.

One aspect I particularly enjoyed in this version is the smooth, skipping rhythm of the last line in the first verse. This rhythm is lost if the line is split into two, as seen in some other versions. As the nightingale Philomel begins her heavenly song, the competing lark and linnet take turns listening and remaining silent, creating a beautiful back-and-forth. Their actions are not simply passive, as the dactylic melody of the line reflects the nightingale’s powerful song and the joy that the lark and linnet feel. Dryden’s depiction of the birds singing at the end of the night also brings to mind the lively concerts of Restoration London, with the attentive audiences mirroring the birds’ behavior.

Dryden’s fictitious scenarios are consistently unpredictable, and in the second stanza, he takes a daringly playful approach as an elegist and reflects on his subject’s presence in the underworld. This particular hell appears to be influenced by Greek mythology rather than Christian beliefs, although the use of “heavenly” in verses 1 and 3 implies that Dryden is aware of his contemporary audience’s traditional expectations of the afterlife.

In the nearby forest, the residents of hell hold the “godlike man” in high regard. However, Dryden reminds us that Purcell is not there. If he were, he would have been sent back by their ruler’s fear. Purcell’s talents have already reached and harmonized the “discordant sphere” – an exaggerated comparison, but still emotionally impactful. Purcell had composed music for some of Dryden’s plays, and Dryden had written the story for Purcell’s opera King Arthur. The poet deeply admired the composer’s brilliance and recognized how it contributed to “tuning” the intricate and sometimes chaotic theatrical process.

Dryden’s final celebration verse assumes a more formal tone, however, there are still notable imagery present. The notion of a “scale of music” is depicted as a staircase, lowered from the sky by a “heavenly choir”. Purcell’s rise is tenderly envisioned, as he is “handed along” while teaching and they “all sung” along the way. Interestingly, the giving and receiving of knowledge is emphasized by using a line of hexameter, and the phrase “hand him along” conveys a graceful dance-like movement. Dryden maintains his composure, avoiding an overly pious tone towards the gods. It is clear that the “heavenly choir” has nothing left to teach “our Orpheus” about music.

The final five lines of the poem, “Ye brethren of the lyre and tuneful voice,” speaks to the living creators and performers who can now take advantage of the abundance of opportunities in Restoration society to enhance their skills and advance their careers. However, the composer is not afforded any solace. Clearly, the poet emphasizes that “The gods are pleased alone with Purcell’s lays.” And in the last line, it is reiterated that the revered masters will not be swayed.

The musical setting of Dryden’s ode was created by his former tutor, the composer and organist Dr. John Blow, who greatly admired him. You can listen to the arrangement here.

Source: theguardian.com