Dirge is a song of grief, a lament that commemorates the dead.
From A Poet’s Glossary
The following definition of the term dirge is reprinted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch.
The dirge is close to the elegy, but less consoling, less meditative. The genre comes from the Greek epicedium, a song sung over the dead, and the Greek threnody, a song sung in memory of the dead. In fifth-century Greece, lyric dirges were sung, not just at funerals and other ceremonies commemorating the dead, but also at festivals. Catullus (84–54 BC) commemorates Simonides’s Greek dirges with the phrase “Sadder than the tears of Simonides.”
The dirge was also an ancient Near Eastern literary form that was used to memorialize disasters. The term dirge derives from the first words of the Latin antiphon in the Office of the Dead, which is adapted from the Psalms (5:9): Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectus tuo via meam (“Direct my way in your sight, O Lord my God”). The Latin meter was the hexameter (elegiac distich). In English, one hears the mournful tones of the dirge in Henry King’s Exequy (1624) on his young wife, in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Autumn: A Dirge” (post-humously published in 1824) [see “The Dirge” (1824)], in Thomas Lovell Beddoes’s “Dirge” (1825–1844), and in George Meredith’s “Dirge in Woods” (1870), which reads
A wind sways the pines,
Not a breath of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine-tree drops its dead;
They are quiet, as under the sea.
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
In American poetry, there is a leitmotif of ritual grief that runs from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Dirge” (1838), Herman Melville’s “A Dirge for McPherson” (1864), and Walt Whitman’s “Dirge for Two Veterans” (1867) to Kenneth Fearing’s “Dirge” (1935), Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music” (1928) [also, see “Dirge” (1921)], and Thomas Merton’s “Dirge for the World Joyce Died In” (1940–1942), to Heather McHugh’s “Etymological Dirge” (1999) and David Wojahn’s “Dirge and Descent” (1995). The African dirge is also what G. M. T. Emezue calls “one of the elevated forms of poetry.”