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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.
- A funeral hymn or lament.
- A slow, mournful musical composition.
- A mournful or elegiac poem or other literary work.
A Dirge is a twelve line poem by one of my favorite poets, Christina Rossetti. The piece is divided into two six line stanzas, with each stanza possessing an AABBCC rhyme scheme. The poem, as the title suggests, addresses someone who has recently died.
The first stanza asks the addressee why he or she was born during hard times, instead of in good times. To express that sentiment, she uses metaphors. The lines seem filled with regret that the addressee did not have an easier life. Alternatively, the Speaker may have just believed the deceased was better suited for a warmer life (though, most people would likely wish ease on those that the love.) Lines 2 through 6 provide examples of abundant life. This is in contrast with the short description of line 1, which states that the deceased was born into a world when the snow was falling (i.e. a world that is cold and – at least temporarily – devoid of life.)
The second stanza addresses the deceased, with the same mood, but from a different perspective. Here she asks, using metaphors once again, why the addressee died during hard times instead of during good times. Again, line seven provides an example of a hard time, followed by five lines describing easier times.
By addressing both birth and death in the same way, the Speaker creates an impression that the deceased’s life was difficult from beginning to end.
The most notable technique used in this poem is apostrophe. From literarydevices.net:
As a literary device, an apostrophe is a poetic phrase or speech made by a character that is addressed to a subject that is not literally present in the literary work. The subject may be dead, absent, an inanimate object, or even an abstract idea. A literary apostrophe is designed to direct a reader or audience member’s attention to the entity being addressed as a means of indicating its importance or significance. In addition, apostrophe is also utilized as a way for a character to express their internal thoughts and feelings to someone or something that is not able to respond.
Many of us eventually live long enough to know someone who seems to have been born to live through nothing but trouble, if we do not happen to find ourselves in those circumstances ourselves. This poem is a simple and sweet lament wishing that things had gone differently.