As the title suggests, this poem is a dirge. This means that it was written in honor of someone’s passing. Traditionally, dirges were set to music. But, this is a wonderful example of a poetic, but still lyrical, take on the form. Because Rossetti does not imbue this piece with details of a specific person’s passing, it’s possible for many different readers to encounter these lines and interpret them in their own way.
A Dirge Christina RossettiWhy were you born when the snow was falling?You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling,Or when grapes are green in the cluster,Or, at least, when lithe swallows musterFor their far off flyingFrom summer dying.Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?You should have died at the apples’ dropping,When the grasshopper comes to trouble,And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,And all winds go sighingFor sweet things dying.
Explore A Dirge
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker addresses a recently deceased person and asks them why they were born when they were born. They should’ve come into the world in the midst of life and warmth. Perhaps, in the middle of spring or summer when birds and plants were at their height.
In the second stanza, they take a new approach to what they are saying and ask this person why they died when they did. They should’ve died in winter when the world was dark and gloomy. This would match up with the emotions that the speaker is experiencing.
Structure and Form
‘A Dirge’ by Christina Rossetti is a two-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These stanzas follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABBCC, changing end sounds in the second stanza, but, only in the second pair of couplets. The words “trouble” and “stubble” change the pattern.
Throughout this piece, Rossetti makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines five and six of the first stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses. For example, “And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble.”
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues some thing nonhuman with human characteristics. For example, “And all winds go sighing.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “cuckoo’s calling” and “grapes are green.”
Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
For their far off flying
From summer dying.
In the first stanza of the poem, the poet begins by asking a rhetorical question. She does not expect to receive an answer. She asks someone, a recently deceased loved one, why they were born when the snow was falling. They were more suited to being born when the cuckoo was calling. This is a reference to a specific type of bird known for its unusual call. In the same way, the poet says that this person should’ve been born when “grapes or green in the cluster” or when the “live swallows muster.”
This suggests that the person the speaker is thinking about should’ve been born in spring or summer rather than in winter. Their personality and acts during life were more suited to warmer, happier seasons.
The title of the poem reveals that this piece is a dirge. This means that it was written after someone’s death with the intention of honoring that person. So, it’s safe to assume that Rossetti is using an apostrophe throughout the stanzas. This means that she is talking to someone who cannot hear nor can respond to her. In this case, a deceased person.
The fourth line of the stanza runs into the fifth and the sixth. It creates a beautiful image that is evocative of life and death. The speaker says that the deceased intended listener should’ve been born when the swallows were mustering for their “flying / From summer dying.” This suggests that the person the speaker is thinking about lived such a full life that they should always be associated with the liveliest months of the year.
Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples’ dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
And all winds go sighing
For sweet things dying.
The second stanza uses many of the same techniques seen in the first stanza. But, it speaks on the timing of the intended listener’s death. This time, the speaker is asking the deceased person why they died when they did. They should not have died “when the lambs were cropping.” Meaning they should not have died in spring when the world was filled with life. It would’ve suited their life more to pass away in winter when things were darkest and the emotions of the loss made sense.
Often, dirges were set to music. It is perhaps for this reason that Rossetti uses so many examples of perfect rhymes, some of which are repeated in both stanzas and alliteration. Sibilance is another literary device seen in these last lines. Take a look at how many examples of words that include the “s” sound appears in the last three lines.
The tone is questioning and mournful. The speaker believes what they’re saying entirely. They think that their intended listener, someone who has passed away, should’ve been born and then died during a different time of year. They want to honor this person through their words.
The purpose is to honor someone’s life and the warmth and beauty they brought to the world after they have passed away. This speaker has experienced a great deal of sorrow since this person died, and they use this poem to describe that.
The speaker is unknown. It could be Rossetti herself, or it could be any other number of people who have experienced the loss of someone close to them. It is likely that most readers are going to hear these lines and feel that they connect to loss in their own lives.
This poem is about the time of year that someone was born and died. The speaker suggests that this person should’ve been born during the height of warmth and life and that they should’ve died in the depths of winter when sorrow and loss are more common.
Readers who enjoyed ‘A Dirge’ should also consider reading some other Christina Rossetti poems. For example:
- ‘Remember’ – addresses a couple’s future and the speaker’s desire to be remembered, but not if it causes her lover sadness.
- ‘A Birthday’ – talks about the delight of the narrator who is shown to be very excited and jubilant for the birthday of her life.
- ‘Holy Innocence’ – a devotional poem about the purity and innocence of a child’s soul.