Dirge Over a Nameless Grave by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A title such as Dirge Over a Nameless Grave already says a lot about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s work. A lot of the otherwise peaceful or even happy ideas that are contained within the work are influenced by the title and become connotations for other ideas entirely. Longfellow largely uses Dirge Over a Nameless Grave to tell a story, but the themes and ideals that drive this lament are likely to stick with the reader and resonate for a great many as well.

Dirge Over a Nameless Grave by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Dirge Over a Nameless Grave Analysis

By yon still river, where the wave

Is winding slow at evening’s close,

The beech, upon a nameless grave,

Its sadly-moving shadow throws.

O’er the fair woods the sun looks down

Upon the many-twinkling leaves,

And twilight’s mellow shades are brown,

Where darkly the green turf upheaves.

Dirge Over a Nameless Grave begins in a style appropriate to its title — a dirge, after all, is sad by definition, and a nameless grave even more so — and this knowledge notably shifts the mood of the first few verses, even when they aren’t describing anything explicitly sad. In the first two lines of the work, for instance, Longfellow is describing a quiet riverside as evening falls. This could be the introduction to any number of poems, and should feel like a calm and peaceful kind of introduction. The declaration from the title about this poem being a dirge, however, has an immediate influence on the work’s atmosphere. The second half of the first verse describes a single tree, which is set above the titular nameless grave, and it is personified somewhat, as its branches are moving around sadly. Of course, the tree cannot be sad, but the idea that a nameless grave resonates even with the natural world is a pleasant one, in a sombre kind of way.  Longfellow follows a very similar pattern in the second verse as well; the first two lines depict what would otherwise be a lovely and peaceful forest scene, while the second two lines describes the grassy field as being “dark,” giving it an unnatural quality that fits with the themes expressed in the title.

The river glides in silence there,

And hardly waves the sapling tree:

Sweet flowers are springing, and the air

Is full of balm,– but where is she!

The third verse, and rough halfway point of the poem (it has seven verses in total) ends with an introduction to a woman who is presumably the deceased. This verse is wholly dedicated to putting the finishing touches, as it were, on the beautiful natural scene, save for the final four words only. Again, focusing on the stillness of the scene around the grave gives it a strong sense of peacefulness, except for the once-acknowledged fact that there is a grave site in the middle of this wilderness. When Longfellow describes “sweet flowers springing,” it is as though Dirge Over a Nameless Grave wants the reader to forget, just for a moment, that simple fact, that there is a nameless grave here. Using the words “sweet,” and “springing” right before introducing the deceased character is a highly effective strategy on Longfellow’s part, as the rapid shift in atmosphere emphasises the sense of loss, of what is missing from this scene, really for the first time thus far.

They bade her wed a son of pride,

And leave the hope she cherished long:

She loved but one,– and would not hide

A love which knew no wrong.

And months went sadly on,– and years:–

And she was wasting day by day:

At length she died, — and many tears

Were shed, that she should pass away.

The second half of the poem tells the story of the woman buried in the nameless grave, who’s story is a very sad one. Longfellow breaks from the natural descriptions to focus on the back story of the title concept. His choice to only begin the “actual” dirge over a nameless grave at this point in the poem enables his use of imagery and metaphor from the first three verses to begin feeling the stillness of the scene, the cold calm sense of a lament, and a sense of isolation that really fits the story being told here. Even though the setting of the grave and the story behind it are relatively separate concepts, they work well together thematically, and this is very likely Longfellow’s intention.

In the story discussed in these two verses, the now-deceased woman lives a life in which she is compelled to marry a man who she did not love. She was honest about the fact that there was another man she would want to marry, but her efforts were to no avail. Longfellow uses passive voice to avoid indicating who “bade” her marry a man she did not want to, and also breaks the rhythm of the fourth verse to emphasise the importance of this denied love. Her death was one of natural causes, but her final years were difficult, as her unhappiness infected all aspects of her life until there was nothing left for her to do but to die sad. It is clear that she was well-loved despite her withering state, but the fifth verse heavily implies that she was never free to be with the man she truly loved.

Then came a gray old man, and knelt

With bitter weeping by her tomb:–

And others mourned for him, who felt

That he had sealed a daughter’s doom.

The funeral train has long past on,

And time wiped dry the father’s tear!

Farewell — lost maiden! — there is one

That mourns thee yet — and he is here. 

In the concluding verses of the poem, the woman’s father visits her grave during her funeral, and weeps bitterly, feeling that he is responsible for her death. Presumably, her father forced her into the marriage, and is now realising that her unhappiness and lack of intimacy is likely what led, in some way or another, to her death. In the final verse, an unspecified amount of time passes, but it seems safe to assume that months or years have gone by, as the second line suggests that enough time has passed for her father to be more at peace with his decisions. This verse marks the arrival of the man who wanted to marry the girl in the first place, who still visits her grave all that time later to mourn the life he never led with her. The peaceful imagery from the first three verses makes more sense when seen through the eyes of this new character, as his story, and the sense of devotion and love that is its thematic counterpart, adds a different perspective to the work.

The final three words of the poem — “he is here” — is a powerful summary of the entire story. One lover is alive, and the other is not, and neither one of them are described in any way as happy. The importance of having love in one’s life is a central theme for the poem; depriving the woman of love meant an unhappy marriage for herself and presumably her husband, as well as misery for her lover and bitter regret from her father when her unhappiness ended her life. Love is a powerful thing to believe in, and Dirge Over a Nameless Grave indicates that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow most certainly did believe in it fully.

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Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.
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