A dirge is a song or poem composed after someone’s death. These songs are usually shorter and more concise than elegies.

E.g. The mournful dirge played at the funeral brought tears to everyone's eyes.

Dirges share features of lamentations and elegies. They are usually created with the intention of their being sung or read aloud at a funeral. Lyrical dirges are usually direct and fairly easy to read. 

The word “dirge” comes from the Latin “Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam.” This is a short chant performed in Matins for the Office of the Dead. From this statement, the English word “dirge” was derived. 

Dirge Definition and Examples

Dirge Definition

Dirges are short lyrical poems that are written after someone has died. They may be used to express the speaker’s grief, the grief they believe others are experiencing, or their understanding of who the deceased person was.

Authors may also choose to use this form to speak about the afterlife, God, faith, a specific religion, and more. While some of these songs are quite depressing and grief-filled, other examples are more hopeful. 

It’s easy to imagine a variety of examples, some of which are uplifting, while others acknowledge and honor the grief that the deceased person’s loved ones are feeling. Below, readers can explore a few examples of dirges written by poets. 

Examples of Dirges in Poetry

Dirge Over a Nameless Grave by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This dirge was written with a “nameless grave” in mind. It mourns the loss of this person as much as it does the fact that they went unnamed. The poem starts with a description of a riverside as evening begins. As the piece progresses, the speaker moves on to discuss a single tree that’s sitting above an unnamed grave. The sadness of the scene penetrates the speaker’s descriptions of the nature around him. This results in examples of personification. Here are the first few lines: 

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.

The poem concludes with a powerful three-line phrase: “he is here.” This refers back to the story Longfellow crafts within the lines about two lovers, one of whom is buried there. 

Read more Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems

A Dirge by Christina Rossetti 

Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Dirge’ is a well-known example of a poetic dirge. It begins with a question: “Why were you born when the snow was falling?”  This is a striking and memorable way to begin a poem of this nature. It is immediately followed by the poet’s statement that the listener should have “come to the cuckoos calling.” The second stanza begins with a question about death. This time it reads, “Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?” Here are the last lines: 

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.

Using symbolism, the poet crafts a poem about life and death. The poem can apply to any family member or friend mourning a loved one.

Discover more Christina Rossetti poems

Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay 

Dirge Without Music’ is another great example of a poetic dirge. The poet acknowledges in the title that this is a non-traditional dirge. It’s not a song that’s meant to be performed without music. It is a poetic, lyrical version of a dirge. 

Here is the first stanza: 

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

The speaker uses the stanzas of this poem to discuss the nature of death and how, throughout time, loving hearts have been shut away in the “hard ground.” 

Discover more Edna St. Vincent Millay poems

A Dirge by Percy Bysshe Shelley 

‘A Dirge’ was published in 1842 by Shelley’s wife, Mary Shelley, after her husband’s death. It appeared in the collection, Posthumous Poems. Here are a few lines:

Rough wind, that moanest loud

Grief too sad for song;

Wild wind, when sullen cloud

Knells all the night long;

The poem follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCCCB throughout its eight lines. Throughout, Shelley describes a scene of despair. It is dark, with the wind blowing depressingly through the barren trees. This poem is a great example of how a dirge is meant to put into words the feelings of grief. The poem has since been set to music, a common feature for dirges. 

Explore more Percy Bysshe Shelley poems


Why do poets write dirges? 

Poets write dirges in order to honor the grief they feel after the loss of a loved one. Or, they might choose to write this type of poem when someone close to them suffers a loss. Alternatively, they might be interested in experimenting with a certain type of language or collection of images, and the form of a dirge makes sense for this experimentation.

When are dirges performed? 

Dirges are performed at funerals or perhaps at the viewing of a deceased person soon after their death. Often, these poems are written when the author has experienced a similar kind of loss.

What makes a song a dirge? 

A dirge is a song that puts into words and music the feelings of grief. This can be quite a hard task, but when it’s accomplished, it is quite effective. It is common to hear these types of songs and poems song or read at funerals or soon after someone’s death.

  • Elegy: a poem or song that is written in dedication to someone who has died.
  • Graveyard Poets: group of writers in England during the 18th century. Their writing was characterized by meditations on death and the afterlife.
  • Grotesque: an adjective used to describe something that’s at once mysterious, ugly, hard to understand, and distorted.
  • Homily: a speech delivered by a religious person, usually a priest, in front of a group of people.
  • Allusion: an indirect reference to, including but not limited to, an idea, event, or person. It is used within both prose and verse writing.

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