John Webster’s “A Dirge”

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.