Pre-Raphaelites in The City: ‘A Dirge’, by Christina Rossetti

Dinah Roe

‘A Dirge’, by Christina Rossetti Analysis Part 2

Health Warning: In part 2 of this analysis, we’re going to look at meter. No wait! Come back! I know you may have had painful experiences with scansion in the past, but this blog is not here to belittle or punish you for struggling with this sometimes difficult art. 

We’re simply going to look briefly at two different kinds of metrical feet: the dactyl and the trochee. Then we’re going to discover how they help contribute to the poem’s meaning. Easy peasy. There will be no pop quiz afterwards, and I assure you I have nothing up my sleeve except the wish to spread the joy of scansion. If such a thing can be contained in the sleeve of my moth-eaten cardigan.

Let’s begin.

A Dirge

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 apples’ dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
  And all winds go sighing
  For sweet things dying.

One thing that is unusual about this dirge is that it tells us very little about the person being memorialized. Ordinarily, we might expect the poet to pay tribute to the person who has passed away, just as Walt Whitman praises Abraham Lincoln in ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed’, or PB Shelley lauds John Keats in ‘Adonais’. Rossetti’s speaker resists elegiac convention here by interrogating rather than admiring the person she is mourning.

Why were you born when the snow was falling?

Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?

These questions are doubly rhetorical. Not only is their subject quite incapable of answering, but also, these metaphysical questions are unanswerable. Rossetti uses dactylic and trochaic meter to help convey her speaker’s sense of grievance and frustration.

Dactyls and trochees are known as falling meters because their final syllable is unstressed, and if you read the poem carefully, you can see how these ‘falling meters’ communicate a sense of disappointment and grief. A dactyl is metrical unit of verse where one stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables. Conventionally, stressed syllables are indicated with / and unstressed with u. So, a dactylic foot looks like this: / u u.

The following names are made up of two dactyls:

  /  u   u       /    u     u
Anakin Skywalker
  /  u   u     /    u   u
Pamela Anderson
  /    u   u         /        u     u
Engelbert   Humperdinck

The questions in ‘A Dirge’ (lines 1 & 7) open with TWO dactyls:

(DACTYL)         (DACTYL)

      /        u     u               /        u       u
Why were you     born when the

    /        u           u                 /      u     u
You should have     come to the

But they lines close with TWO trochees. A trochee is when one stressed syllable is followed by one unstressed syllable. A trochaic foot looks like this: / u. Handily, the word ‘trochee’ itself is a trochee


  /      u

The following names are comprised of two trochees:

  /      u           /      u
William     Shakespeare
  /      u         /    u
Richard   Burton
  /    u         /    u
Jimmy     Carter

Side Note: Having a trochaic name is a good predictor for success in the American Presidential race (unless of course you are a woman). If this is your sort of thing you can read more about it HERE

Back to the meter of ‘A Dirge’. Each question ends with two trochees:

  /         u               /    u
snow was       falling
    /          u             /      u
lambs were     cropping

Ok, so we’ve identified the dactyls and trochees in these lines, but before we start congratulating ourselves and uncorking the champagne, we need to ask THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION of poetry analysis: ‘SO WHAT?’ Why might Rossetti have chosen to use dactyls and trochees here?

These are falling meters, as Rossetti not-so-subtly reminds us with the trochaic word, ‘falling’. In this line, the meter falls along with the snow, creating a rhythmic trajectory that reflects the dying fall of the poem itself.

(DACTYL)   (DACTYL)             (TROCHEE)     (TROCHEE)

      /      u       u           /      u         u               /    u           /  u
Why were you born when the snow was   falling

    /      u       u         /      u       u             /      u             /      u
Why did you die when the lambs were   cropping

The two-syllable trochees which resolve lines 1 & 7 blunt the soothing rhythm of the three-syllable dactyls preceding them. In this way, Rossetti’s meter enacts the process of ‘cropping’ it describes, drawing on the sinister double-meaning of the word ‘crop’ in line 7.

Although we don’t know much about the poem’s subject, we could make a case that this dirge is for someone whose life has been cut short. If the person were born in winter and died in spring, could this be a lament for an infant? The poem’s simple language and sing-song rhythm is reminiscent of a nursery rhyme, albeit a dark one.

Or, as this poem draws attention to the disturbance of the natural order (after all, it is suggested that the subject has died earlier than s/he ‘should have’), might it be suggesting that this was an unnatural death? Perhaps a murder?

The deceptively pretty natural imagery echoes the poem’s bleak and fatalistic mood, suggesting death and endings at every turn. Apples drop and wheat-fields turn to stubble, swallows fly away, and grasshoppers ‘come to trouble’. Nor is the cuckoo a particularly cuddly bird. It is most famous for tricking other birds into caring for its young by laying its eggs in their nests.

Shakespeare’s King Lear gives us this grisly couplet about the sometimes disastrous results: ‘The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it had its head bit off by its young.’

Whatever the age of its subject and the means of his or her death, this is a poem about the unfairness, the untimeliness of death whenever it occurs. Grief is made more painful by irony; the subject was born in a dead season (winter), and dies in season of renewal (spring). Yet on closer inspection, it quickly becomes apparent that none of the alternatives the speaker suggests is really preferable (born in spring, dead in autumn; born in autumn, dead in autumn). This kind of thinking recalls the ‘bargaining’ stage of grief, and it proves just as ineffective.  Ultimately, the poem makes it clear that there really is no good time for ‘sweet things’ to die, and that in whatever season it occurs, death is always unwelcome.

Its connotations of unnatural and untimely death seem to have drawn burgeoning crime novelist JK Rowling to this poem. I also wonder whether her title, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was meant to be a clever clue that ‘Robert Galbraith’ would eventually hatch into JK Rowling.



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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.