A Poem by George Meredith (1828-1909)
A Study Guide
Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2009
Type of Work and Year of Publication
.......“Dirge in the Woods” is a fifteen-line lyric poem in which the poem's speaker presents his observations about a quiet woodland beneath windblown pines as the trees unceremoniously drop their cones and needle-shaped leaves onto the mossy ground.. Originally, it was part of a longer poem, “In the Woods,” published in an English journal, Fortnightly Review, in August 1870. Meredith later extracted several stanzas from “In the Woods” and turned them into three separate poems: “Dirge in the Woods,” “Whimper of Sympathy,” and “Woodland Peace.” “Dirge in the Woods” was then published in collections entitled Poems and Ballads of Tragic Life (1887) and A Reading of Earth (1888).
Inevitability of Death
.......In the nineteenth century, England and other countries were racing forward with the Industrial Revolution, bringing rapid economic and social growth and the promise of a better life. The poem says, however, that the might of all the machines and technologies in the world cannot overcome the inevitability of death. Time and nature continue to prune the human race—and do so with cold indifference, as line ? suggests.
.......Although each living thing—a human, an animal, a plant, or a microorganism—eventually dies, the species to which it belongs continues to survive. In the poem, the fall of pine cones from the tree underscores this theme. Here is why: Pine trees produce female cones containing seeds and male cones containing pollen that fertilizes the seeds when wind carries the pollen from the male to the female cone. After a current of air carries a fertilized seed to earth, the seed blossoms into a new tree. Thus, although pine cones eventually fall to earth, their progeny sprout and grow—and life goes on.
Rhyme and Meter
.......The rhyme and meter of the poem are irregular. Following are the sets of lines that rhyme:
1 and 5.......Line lengths vary from two to nine syllables, with an irregular pattern of stresses.
2, 4, 12, and 15
3 and 6
7 and 9
8, 13 and 14
10 and 11
.......Meredith compares humans to objects in the sky and the forest and to creatures in the sea. Like clouds chasing clouds, man chases his dreams. Like the fruit of trees, he grows, flourishes, withers, and dies. Then he disappears into the afterlife and, like the creatures in the ocean depths, is neither heard nor seen.
.......Examples of alliteration in the poem are the following:
And below / Not a breath of wild air (lines 2 and 3
Still as the mosses that glow (line 4)
The pine-tree drops its dead (line 7)
Rushes life in a race (line 10)
As the clouds the clouds chase
Dirge in the Woods
By George Meredith
1....A wind sways the pines,
3....Not a breath of wild air;
4....Still as the mosses that glow1
5....On the flooring and over the lines
6....Of the roots here and there.
7....The pine-tree drops its dead;2
8....They are quiet, as under the sea.
10...Rushes life in a race,
11...As the clouds the clouds chase;
12........And we go,
13...And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
1...Glow: Glints of
sunlight apparently reach the forest floor.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
1. Do you like the poem? Explain why or why not.
2. Dirge has several closely related meanings. Which meaning applies to the title of the poem?
2. Write a short poem in which nature mimics human activity.
3. In what ways was life in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the poem was written, like a race (line 10)? Provide your answer in a short essay.