199. A Dirge: Christina Rossetti

Did I mention that I wrote a mystery where the protagonist is a teacher?

Shameless Self Promotion


When I was young and enjoyed the idea of terse verse and clever writing, I held a fear that old age meant reading genre fiction.  There is a lot of bias in that statement that you can parse out word-by-word, and I’ll let you do it on your own time.  Suffice to say, I have now thrown my lot into the genre, leaving younger me taunting older me as officially “old”.

To younger me I reply that my interest in good Literature (capital “L”) is still intact, and it applies to genre as much as the young upstarts I used to idolize.  Simply because genre writers have a less erratic use of punctuation does not diminish their value.  Their writing simply uses cleverness to a different, and often more useful purpose.

J.K. Rowling is a woman whose literary ability was first dismissed because she dared be successful in the children’s genre, not only in ability but in popularity and cash.  How vulgar!  Now that the “Potter” haters have no new text to dismiss, they clucked about her nerve in writing a grown-up text that included grown-up language.  “The Casual Vacancy” is actually quite good.  It is clearly written by Rowling, with the same dense prose, full of keen observations, propelling the reader forward towards an inevitable-yet-surprising conclusion, but as it contains no wizards it was discarded.  Had she used the pen name “Martin Amis” or “Ian Mcewen” it would have been shortlisted for the Booker, a statement that does not go towards quality but bias.  The book was good, though.

Since the tumult of abuse she got for that effort, Rowling has cranked out a nice little mystery called “The Cuckoo Calling”.  This time, she used a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith.  The nerve!  There is a lot of vitriol on her sidestepping the critical gatekeepers by tricking them into reviewing the book she wrote and not the author.  In fact, the book got good reviews.  Now that the secret is out, those same reviewers  cannot take back their objective analysis now that Rowling’s name is attached.   Instead, they snipe about her motives for revealing the truth NOW (“The Casual Vacancy” is coming out in paperback that same month–what a coincidental timing!).

As a New Critic, I applaud Rowling’s deception.  Why shouldn’t she jerk critics around?  The work is what matters.

Did I mention I wrote a book? A mystery?

Anyway, in the novel it starts with this Rossetti poem and the second line made it’s way to the title.  Poetry: It’s everywhere!

Mention Rossetti to my wife and she rolls her eyes.  “Interesting life,” she said.  But the poems are a bit to rhymy for her taste.  Me, too, but I like this one.

First, what is a dirge?

Talk to your students about symbolism.  Why are  birth and snow opposites?  Summer and death?  Hmmm.  There’s something going  on here.

With your smarty-kids, ask  about tone.  Is Rossetti being objective, or being more of a sarcastic smartalec.  I see it leaning towards a Dorothy Parker  response to death.

And then there is the rhyme.  What mood is THAT supposed to work on the reader?  Lull?  Again, I lean towards sarcasm, with the importance of something like a friend’s death being lulled away with a sing-song rhyme and plain, symbolic images.

Sing-song.  Sing-song.  Dead.

A Dirge
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.


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