John Webster’s’ “A Dirge” is a delightfully gloomy poem contrasting the power and the all-encompassing inevitability of death with the beauty and balance of life. It seems to ponder on this deep subject, using images of nature to communicate its message. Webster makes his purpose immediately clear by the title-a “dirge” itself is a dismal funeral song. The verses clearly speak of death and the eternal nothingness that may reside afterwards-never in the poem does Webster mention anything about the eternal soul or afterlife. Clearly he is not concerned with life or metaphysics, but with death and the natural world.
Indeed, animals and nature are a reoccurring theme throughout the concise poem. “Call for the robin-redbreast,” it begins, “since o’er shady groves they hover, and with leaves and flowers do cover, the friendless bodies of unburied men.” His description of trees, birds and animals is undeniably beautiful even as his account of the bodies of forgotten men being covered in leaves is emotionally draining to the reader. Webster addresses wrens and robins, two kinds of small birds which fed on insects-perhaps those same insects currently feeding on the corpse’s flesh? At once, he speaks to loneliness and beauty, death and life in one package.
The next set of verses abruptly change rhyme patterns from the tried-and-true ABAB to a more radical AABBCC arrangement, symbolizing the sudden change from the comfortable realm of life to the new and adventurous realm of death. “Call onto his funeral dole,” it continues, “the ant, the field-mouse, and the mole, to rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm, and (when gay tombs are robb’d) sustain no harm.” Webster pulls a switch on the reader here: suddenly the animals are not feasting on the bodies, but rather helping them avoid grave robbers by burying them or using their bodies as a nest. Where did these “unburied men” come from? Who are they? Are they perhaps the dead from a battle that has taken place, or are they merely so “friendless” that no one even bothered to bury them? The verses-and the animals consuming these men-do not seem to care.
Ending on an ominous note, the poem continues, “But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men, for his nails he’ll dig them up again.” In these last lines, it is made apparent that the wolf in question will dig up the men’s graves. A person desires protection from elements of existence that may rip them apart-literally and figuratively. The poem seems almost bitter and hopeless, but far ahead at the end of the tunnel there is a subtle light in the balance of nature.
The invisible narrator of the poem seems to have a rather flat tone, speaking in a completely detached and removed manner. Clearly we are seeing this scene from the point of view of someone who has no emotional investment in the matter, just like nature itself.
The poem is both unpredictable and short, which can only be taken as a larger, subtle metaphor. Just like life, the poem is beautiful but seems far too short at the end, and its patterns change without warning. John Webster’s famous poem is a complex and layered metaphor for life in death in more ways than one.