Irony in a Good Poem: Christina Rossetti’s “Dirge”

I like this poem. It’s by Christina Rossetti and was published in an 1896 collection of her poems that I found at an outdoor book stall in London two summers back. Someone near to Rossetti’s heart appears to have died in spring (perhaps an infant?), and the poet marks the irony by observing that her loved one’s birth date was also rather untimely, in winter. Rossetti’s poem is titled, “Dirge.” A dirge is a song sung in the grief of a death. According to a Wikipedia entry:

The English word “dirge” is derived from the Latin Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam (“Direct my way in your sight, O Lord my God”), the first words of the first antiphon in the Matins of the Office for the Dead. The original meaning of “dirge” in English referred to this office.

Here’s the poem. Notice how the poet touches all four seasons in the first stanza, then draws our focus, in the second stanza, to the irony of a death in spring, and how it might better have happened, if not in winter, at least in the fall:

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.


Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?

You should have died at the apple’s dropping,

When the grasshopper comes to trouble,

And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,

And all winds go sighing

For sweet things dying.


It’s possible that the poem is written for no particular person’s death, but as a meditation upon the inharmonies of existence: the things that the poet might overhear said when someone is born or dies. In other words, if we searched the details of Rossetti’s life, we might find no particular death corresponding to the writing of this particular poem. Poets, afterall, adopt personas, and imagine occasions for writing, and thus we need not, of necessity, rush to personal tragedy as the source that prompted Rosetti’s poetic imagination. Here’s a portrait of Rossetti, painted by her brother:

File:Christina Rossetti 2.jpg

And here’s a drawing of Rossetti, also by her brother:

Source for both images: Wikipedia Commons

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Irony in a Good Poem: Christina Rossetti’s “Dirge”

  1. Pingback: What’s Wrong with This Picture? | Prometheus Unbound

  2. cara says:

    i had to write this poem for an essay and i like it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    J.K. Rowling’s latest novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was named after a line in this poem.

  4. Kathleen Parnanen says:

    I love this poem. It’s the most beautiful and the saddest poem I have ever read.

  5. Lawrence Hammes says:

    I heard or read the person who died was her mother.

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