Glenis studied for a B.A (Hons) in English Literature after retirement. She was awarded a degree at the age of 67.
Contextual Analysis: Tragedy in the Life of Christina Rossetti’s Brother Dante
Christina Rossetti's brother was the artist Dante Rossetti. A context for this poem might be that on the 11th February 1862 Dante’s wife Elizabeth (nee Siddal) died from an overdose of laudanum shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child.
'A Dirge' by Christina Rossetti
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.
Themes of 'A Dirge'
As is made plain by the simple title, this poem laments a death. It is about an early, untimely, death. The object of the poem was born at the wrong time of year and died, too young, at the wrong time of year, at the wrong stage of life.
It was a short life—born in winter and dead in the spring.
We have no way of knowing if this poem was written about a specific person, male or female, young or old. It might even apply to the death of a beloved pet.
Summary of 'A Dirge'
Let's take a deeper look at each stanza of the poem.
The First Stanza
The first line of the first stanza begins with a rhetorical question that clearly indicates the subject of the verse (a birth) and locates the event in wintertime. Why was the person about whom the speaker is thinking born in the wrong season? S(he) ought to have been born in the springtime, or the summer.
The cuckoos in England, referred to in line 2, start to call in early summer and grapes ripen on the vine as the heat of the sun intensifies during the summer months.
Everything in the natural world is growing during these seasons. Even autumn, when birds are flocking in preparation for migration to warmer climates in avoidance of cold winter weather, would have been a preferable time to be born.
Note the end rhymes 'flying' and 'dying' is the last two lines, emphasising a preoccupation with the avoidance of death.
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The Second Stanza
The second stanza is about death. It has the same form as the first verse, starting with a rhetorical question in the first line. Why did the person addressed die at an unnaturally early age? There is an impression of feelings of overwhelming loss.
The tone of the poem is one of deep sadness. It's possible to detect a quickening of the earlier slow pace, suggesting mounting anger, but the pace is slowed in the last two lines by the two-syllable words at the end of each of them.
The person being addressed died in the springtime of life when s/he ought to have survived because other creatures in nature survive if they are born in springtime—the lambs are grazing in the fields, as an example.
This person should have lived at least until her/his autumn years, equated in this poem with apples falling from trees in the autumn. Winter is the time when plants have withered and birds have flown to warmer climates. It is the time of death and grieving ‘All the winds go sighing/ For sweet things dying’.
We do not know if any real person was the subject of this poem but certainly, in an era of high child mortality, a baby born in a cold northern climate would have less chance of survival. Better to have been born in warmer weather. This leads me to believe that the poem is about the death of a very young child.
The Cycle of Life
Rossetti conflates the cycle of the changing seasons in nature with the human life cycle. The thrust of the poem is that the person written about ought to have enjoyed the natural cycle of life, equated with spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
The simplicity of the language and the imagery make the poem superficially easy to be understood by anyone with a knowledge of the changes brought about in England by nature’s seasons.
Note: The emphasis on the events associated with the cycle of British seasons might be a little puzzling for those unfamiliar with the British climate. Briefly, life starts anew in the springtime, growth and burgeoning in the summer, autumn is the time when fruit trees are cropped, and winter when many birds have migrated to warmer climates and when the earth sleeps.
The Circular Nature of 'A Dirge'
The poem leads us through the circle of seasons in England. It starts with a winter birth when snow was on the ground; and it ends back in the desolation of wintertime when the 'winds are sighing for all things dying'—as we sigh for the those who have passed away, perhaps especially when a life has been cut unnaturally short.
The subject of this poem was born and died in winter, possibly very soon after entering the world.
Some Technical Details
- Diction: The poem is simple. The words in the first line of each stanza are addressed in the form of a question to a specific, though unspecified, person. However, this is a rhetorical poetic device, since the person addressed is no longer alive.
- Register and Tone: The register of the poem is neutral, belied by the tone, which is one of deep sadness and loss; and perhaps of shocked bewilderment, suggested by the questions addressed to the deceased—the repeated ‘why?’
- Form: The poem is comprised of two stanzas, each of six lines
- Rhyming scheme: There is a simple scheme in which two consecutive lines rhyme throughout the poem.
- Alliteration: The repetition of the first letter of a word in one or more words is peppered throughout the poem.
- Imagery: The poem is alive with images drawn from the natural world
- Rhythm: The poem has an irregular rhythm with ten syllables with irregular stresses in the first four lines of each stanza, followed by two six-syllable lines, each comprised of four single-syllable words and a final two-syllable word that emphasises death.
- Punctuation: The punctuation of the poem is important, designed to stress keywords. For example, a caesura has been placed after the first word Or in the fourth line of the first stanza where the poet wishes to emphasise the following words at least, which suggests to me feelings of helplessness at a perceived unfairness of the situation. The first line of each stanza has an end stop in the form of a question mark. This is an indication that the reader should pause. The following five lines of each stanza form a complete sentence that includes enjambment to keep the flow of the poem moving. The long lines of nine syllables seem to gather pace, implying increasing emotion, and the final two lines are shorter (six syllables), coming to an abrupt halt on the word dying.
© 2017 Glen Rix