'Dirge' by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Knows he who tills this lonely field
To reap its scanty corn,
What mystic fruit his acres yield
At midnight and at morn?

In the long sunny afternoon,
The plain was full of ghosts,
I wandered up, I wandered down,
Beset by pensive hosts.

The winding Concord gleamed below,
Pouring as wide a flood
As when my brothers long ago,
Came with me to the wood.

But they are gone,— the holy ones,
Who trod with me this lonely vale,
The strong, star-bright companions
Are silent, low, and pale.

My good, my noble, in their prime,
Who made this world the feast it was,
Who learned with me the lore of time,
Who loved this dwelling-place.

They took this valley for their toy,
They played with it in every mood,
A cell for prayer, a hall for joy,
They treated nature as they would.

They colored the horizon round,
Stars flamed and faded as they bade,
All echoes hearkened for their sound,
They made the woodlands glad or mad.

I touch this flower of silken leaf
Which once our childhood knew
Its soft leaves wound me with a grief
Whose balsam never grew.

Hearken to yon pine warbler
Singing aloft in the tree;
Hearest thou, O traveller!
What he singeth to me?
Not unless God made sharp thine ear
With sorrow such as mine,
Out of that delicate lay couldst thou
The heavy dirge divine.

Go, lonely man, it saith,
They loved thee from their birth,
Their hands were pure, and pure their faith,
There are no such hearts on earth.

Ye drew one mother's milk,
One chamber held ye all;
A very tender history
Did in your childhood fall.

Ye cannot unlock your heart,
The key is gone with them;
The silent organ loudest chants
The master's requiem.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Dirge by Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Deeper Look at Death and Life

As I read the poem "Dirge" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, I can't help but feel drawn to the somber tone of the piece. The poem is, after all, a dirge, which is a song or poem of mourning or lamentation for the dead. However, there is something more to this poem than just sadness and grief. There is a deeper message here, one that speaks to the nature of death and the meaning of life. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will explore the themes and symbolism of "Dirge," and examine how Emerson uses language and structure to convey his message.

Themes and Symbolism

At its core, "Dirge" is a meditation on death and the afterlife. The poem begins with the lines "The ocean is a desert with its life underground / And a perfect disguise above." Here, Emerson is using the metaphor of the ocean to describe the world of the dead. He is suggesting that just as the ocean appears barren and lifeless on the surface, there is a hidden world beneath the waves that teems with life. Similarly, the afterlife may appear dull and quiet on the surface, but beneath the surface, there is a vibrant and mysterious world that we cannot fully comprehend.

As the poem continues, Emerson makes reference to various religious and mythological figures, including Charon, the ferryman of Hades, and Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and the underworld. These references serve to create a sense of mystery and intrigue, and to suggest that the world of the dead is a place of great power and significance.

However, Emerson is not just interested in death as an abstract concept. He also wants to explore the ways in which death affects the living. He writes, "The mourner will go about the streets / Barefoot and with a long beard." This image of a bereaved person wandering the streets in such a disheveled state is evocative and poignant, and it serves to remind us that death is not just an event that happens to one person. It is something that affects us all, and it can leave us feeling lost and alone.

Language and Structure

One of the most striking things about "Dirge" is the way in which Emerson uses language to create a sense of mystery and wonder. He employs a variety of poetic devices, including metaphors, alliteration, and repetition, to give the poem a sense of musicality and rhythm. For example, he writes, "The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee." Here, the repetition of the "w" sound in "waves" and "out-did" creates a sense of movement and energy that is reminiscent of the ocean itself.

Similarly, Emerson uses structure to convey his message. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each of which has a distinct tone and focus. The first stanza sets the scene and establishes the metaphor of the ocean. The second stanza explores the idea of death as a journey, with references to Charon and other mythological figures. Finally, the third stanza brings the focus back to the living, and explores the ways in which death affects us all.


In conclusion, "Dirge" is a powerful and evocative poem that explores the nature of death and the meaning of life. Through his use of language and structure, Emerson creates a sense of mystery and wonder that serves to remind us of the beauty and complexity of the world around us. The poem is a meditation on the cyclical nature of life and death, and it serves to remind us that even in the face of loss and grief, there is still beauty and meaning to be found.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Dirge by Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Poem of Mourning and Reflection

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most prominent figures of the American Transcendentalist movement, is known for his philosophical essays and lectures. However, he was also a prolific poet, and his poem "Dirge" is a haunting and beautiful meditation on death and the transience of life.

The poem begins with the speaker addressing the "sable-vested Night," a personification of darkness and mourning. The speaker asks Night to "spread thy close curtain, love-performing Night," suggesting that the darkness of night can provide comfort and solace in times of grief. The use of the word "love-performing" is significant, as it suggests that even in the midst of death and sorrow, there is still love and beauty to be found.

The second stanza of the poem introduces the idea of death as a journey. The speaker describes the deceased as "gone before us," and asks Night to "lead us onward" to where they have gone. This idea of death as a journey is a common theme in literature and mythology, and it suggests that death is not an end, but rather a transition to another state of being.

The third stanza of the poem is perhaps the most famous, and it is often quoted in discussions of grief and mourning. The speaker describes the deceased as "not lost, but gone before," and suggests that they are still present in some way, even though they are no longer physically with us. The use of the word "gone" rather than "lost" is significant, as it suggests that the deceased are not truly gone, but rather have moved on to another place or state of being.

The fourth stanza of the poem is a reflection on the transience of life. The speaker describes life as a "fleeting show," and suggests that even the most beautiful and vibrant things in life are ultimately temporary. This idea is a common theme in Emerson's work, and it reflects his belief in the impermanence of all things.

The fifth stanza of the poem is a meditation on the nature of grief. The speaker suggests that grief is a natural and necessary part of the human experience, and that it is something that we must all go through at some point in our lives. The use of the word "sorrow" is significant, as it suggests that grief is not just a feeling of sadness, but rather a deeper and more complex emotion.

The final stanza of the poem is a call to action. The speaker suggests that we should not be consumed by grief, but rather should use it as a motivation to live our lives to the fullest. The use of the word "upward" is significant, as it suggests that we should strive to improve ourselves and our lives, even in the face of adversity.

Overall, "Dirge" is a powerful and moving poem that reflects on the nature of death, grief, and the transience of life. Emerson's use of language and imagery is masterful, and the poem continues to resonate with readers today. Whether you are dealing with the loss of a loved one or simply reflecting on the nature of existence, "Dirge" is a poem that is sure to inspire and comfort.

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