‘A Dirge’ by Christina Rossetti (Analysis Part 1) JK Rowling goes cuckoo for Rossetti poem
Some might imagine that JK Rowling publishing a crime novel under a pseudonym (Robert Galbraith) is the most important part of the story of the genesis of A Cuckoo’s Calling. But I say Galbraith, Schmalbraith. The real story here is that JK Rowling has borrowed her onomatopoetic, alliterative title from the Christina Rossetti poem, ‘A Dirge’ (1865).
She has also reproduced the complete poem as the novel’s epigraph. Taken together with the neo-gothic overtones of the Harry Potter series and the George Eliot-esque realism of The Casual Vacancy, Ms. Rowling’s acknowledgement of Rossetti bespeaks an acquaintance with nineteenth-century literature that makes this Victorian scholar’s heart beat faster under her sensible cardigan.
Without further ado, I would like to offer a close-reading of ‘A Dirge’ for those interested in following where JK Rowling is gently leading her more curious readers. And I do mean ‘curious’ in multiple senses of the word.
If you are a devoted follower of the Poetry Workshop (as I suspect you are), you’ll know that I frequently go on at length about the importance of titles. I am now looking at you severely over the tops of my horn-rimmed my glasses as I demonstrate yet another case in point: ‘A Dirge’. From this title, we can gather important clues about tone and form before reading one word of the poem proper.
A dirge is a type of elegy, or poem written in lament for someone or something dead and gone. So already we know that the subject will be death, and that the tone will be mournful and melancholy.
But what makes a dirge a special kind of elegy? It’s worth remembering that Rossetti is best-known as a lyric poet, which means that her speakers primarily express emotion or record a meditation, rather than narrating a story. Lyric poems place a great deal of emphasis on the musical qualities of poetry (sound, rhyme, meter) to convey meaning. In ancient times, a dirge was a funeral song, and so we can be prepared for this Victorian lyric poet to draw explicitly on this musical tradition.
Don’t believe me? Ask a composer. Click HERE to hear ‘A Dirge’ put to music by Paul Paccione.
Having considered the title, we are now ready to read the poem. As always, read slowly and carefully, keeping in mind that this is a lyric poem, so you are listening for the sound of the words as much as their sense.
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.
Speaker & Tone
As we already know that this poem is a dirge, it is clear that the speaker is a mourner, and that it the poem is addressed to someone who has died. As might be expected, the tone is melancholy and despairing. Rhetorical questions accumulate, adding to the speaker’s impotence and despair in the face of death. The dying fall of the feminine rhymes (‘falling’ / ‘calling’; ‘cropping’ / ‘dropping’; ‘sighing’ / ‘dying’) literally bring us down.
Yet the speaker’s plaintive tone is also somewhat accusatory: ‘Why were you born …’; ‘Why did you die…’; ‘You should have come’ / You should have died’ (italics mine). This anger might seem surprising at first, but this is part of the authenticity that separates the great poets from the merely good. Rather than offering us platitudes about the dead, Rossetti here is revealing grief in all its complexity. Mourning is a process that brings up all sorts of emotions, not all of them pretty. Anger is a part of grieving, and the fact that the subject can no longer answer these desperate questions only adds to the speaker’s frustration, and her sense that she has been unjustly robbed of the dead person’s presence. More on this later.
Please visit again for part 2 of this analysis, which will be posted soon. Until then, think about why JK Rowling might have chosen the words from this poem’s second line as the title for her crime novel. Hint: I think it has something to do with the nature of the beast, (erm) bird.
Bonus audio: To illustrate my point about ‘cuckoo’ being onomatopoetic (a word that imitates the sound of the thing described), I give you the British Library sound archive recording of the cuckoo’s song. CLICK HERE