Literary Allusion in “The Cuckoo’s Calling” – Part 1: Christina Rossetti’s “A Dirge”

by Dr. Beatrice Groves

Robert Galbraith bookends his debut novel with two Victorian poems. The first, from which the title is taken, is printed in the front papers – a little-known poem entitled “A Dirge” by Christina Rossetti. The last, an extended quotation from which form the final words of the novel, is “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson – a well-known poem with a particularly famous final line: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.“¹ Cuckoo’s Calling is a novel that circles around ideas of fame (obliquely commenting on its author’s own fame and choice of anonymity), and it seems pointed that it opens with an all-but-unknown poem while closing with a resoundingly famous one.

Writing about the literary source of The Cuckoo’s Calling’s title, Galbraith/Rowling explained on his/her website, “The title is taken from the mournful poem by Christina Rossetti called, simply, ‘A Dirge,’ which is a lament for one who died too young. The title also contains a subtle reference to another aspect of the plot, but as I can’t explain what it is without ruining the story, I’ll let readers work that one out.” These words are an invitation to consider further what the title – and the rest of the frequent and flamboyant poetic quotations within The Cuckoo’s Calling – might signify. In this post, I’ll look at the Rossetti poem that opens the novel and in the following post, consider the Tennyson poem that closes it.

Rossetti’s “A Dirge” is quoted in full at the start of The Cuckoo’s Calling. The poem’s title means “a mourning song,” and the word derives from the opening words of Matins in the Office for the Dead: “Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectus tuo viam mean” (“Direct, O Lord, my God, my way in thy sight” [Psalm 5:8]).² A “dirge” is a mourning song but also (etymologically) a “morning” song. Rossetti’s poem reflects this out-of-kilter sense of a morning song of mourning, with its birth in wintertime and death in spring. While the poem does not actually say that the person who is mourned died young (just out of step with the seasons), Rowling picks up its sense of a death at odds with the natural rhythm of things for her novel about a young woman whose life is cut unseasonably short.

Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
For their far off flying
From summer dying.

Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples’ dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
And all winds go sighing
For sweet things dying.

J.K. Rowling assigns this poem to “Christina G. Rossetti,” a writer now generally known as Christina Rossetti, but “Christina G. Rossetti” is what the poet called herself (and it is how she signed her name). It is interesting that Rowling – so attuned to initials – should pick up on this detail. J.K. Rowling was famously asked to use initials to hide her gender, and in order to comply, she took a non-existent middle initial (the K is borrowed from her grandmother Kathleen). Rowling also commented on initials when discussing her new name: “When I was a child, I really wanted to be called ‘Ella Galbraith’… I actually considered calling myself LA Galbraith for the Strike series, but for fairly obvious reasons decided that initials were a bad idea.” “LA” would have been a private joke, a double layer of secrecy, for the initials are code for “Ella,” a name no one else knows. Initials invite anonymity, but in the case of “Christina G. Rossetti,” they also declare a very particular name – the name she chose to be known by. It is a distinction that Rowling, at the moment she chooses her own new name, chooses to respect.

The cuckoo is famous for two things: The first is that its call is the first sign of spring; the second is that it lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. The latter has a nice resonance for writing under a pseudonym but is it also a clue to the plot of the novel. When the cuckoo chick hatches, it systematically pushes all the other eggs and baby birds out of the nest. With its imitative call, it then cons the parent birds into feeding it instead (since the adult birds assume that a baby bird in their nest must be theirs). The Cuckoo’s Calling centers on a family of adopted children, and a cuckoo is about as negative an image of adoption as you could hope to find. But as usual with Rowling, there is a twist. The Cuckoo’s Calling encourages the reader to think of Lula (nick-named “Cuckoo”) as the “cuckoo” within her family… and as a mixed-race child in a white adoptive family, she is visually the more obviously adopted child. The reader is led to identify this beautiful, newly adopted girl as the “cuckoo” who starves her brother of parental love and attention. This reading, however, is an instance of Rowling’s trademark narrative misdirection. It is John, not Lula, who acts as the cuckoo, and like a cuckoo chick, he pushes not just one, but both his adoptive siblings to their death.

The importance of falling within the novel – the central fall of Lula and the distant fall of Charlie down “the sheer drop” (23), a clue to the present tragedy – is mirrored by the emphasis on falling in “A Dirge.” This poem links death with other seasonal “falls” in nature: “snow… falling,” “apples dropping.” Rossetti underlines the centrality of falling within her poem in its form. The poem, very unusually, uses solely feminine rhymes. This is the traditional name for a multi-syllabic rhyme word in which the final syllable is unstressed: Falling/calling, cluster/muster, flying/dying, cropping/dropping, trouble/stubble, and sighing/dying. Stressed rhyme words (such as bell/tell) are much more common and generally “seem more definite and resolute,” while feminine rhymes (sighing/dying) feel “indefinite and irresolute, with the possibility of a ‘dying fall.'” This “dying fall” is the reason for Rossetti’s choice of unstressed endings for her rhyme words. The dying cadence this creates underlines the subject of the poem, as does its progressively shortening lines. Each rhymed pair is shorter than the previous one, a steady reduction in syllables embodying the sense of a life cut short. Rowling may have chosen this poem – with its falling snow, dropping apples, and the “dying fall” of its line-endings³ – because this falling connects not only (obviously) with Lula’s death but also (more subtly) with Charlie’s death.

Rossetti writes deceptively simple poetry. Many of her readers have noted “the sense of something strange and unsettling inherent in the apparently simple structures and surfaces” of her poetry.⁴ This sense rests primarily on her repetitions – her “perpetual variations on sameness“⁵ – which, as with the insistent structural repetitions of “A Dirge,” is a central feature of her style. (And perhaps, for a creatively minded reader, the opaque patterning these repetitions create could be considered as sharing certain parallels with the initially unreadable patterning of a successful whodunit.)

Rossetti’s most famous poem – “In the Bleak Midwinter” – has an extravagantly repetitious version of “A Dirge”’s “snow was falling”: “Snow had fallen, snow on snow,/ Snow on Snow.” As Eric Griffiths writes, “Snow is, then, like the first Christmas, barely heeded as it starts but in the end important throughout the world, over the world, when the world at last reluctantly takes its drift.”⁶ Rossetti was a devout Anglican who wrote many poems inspired by the liturgical year – Advent and Christmas in particular – and who sought to inspire in her readers a religious mode of reading, attuned to symbolic and scriptural nuances. Since she is most strongly linked in the popular imagination with the Christmas carol, it seems possible that Rowling (raised like all British children on “In the Bleak Midwinter”) might be predisposed to read Rossetti’s “A Dirge” – with its mid-winter birth and springtime death – as a reflection on the Christian story. (If so, however, it is with an as-yet-unrevealed significance for the series as a whole!)

When The Cuckoo’s Calling launched, it appeared to have a neat title for a debut novel, the calling card of a new writer. It remains, however, a novel about beginnings, for – as Rowling has said repeatedly in interviews – she took her pseudonym because “I wanted to go back to the beginning.” In a 2014 interview, Rowling noted that she actually had the idea for The Silkworm before that of The Cuckoo’s Calling but swapped them around for the sake of the story arc, perhaps because it makes sense for the hero’s (as well as the author’s) backstory to start the series with the plot that focuses on fame. But choosing to start with The Cuckoo’s Calling is also a promise. Just as the first cuckoo’s call carries the assurance of the yearly cycle begun anew, so Rowling’s title promises not just a new novel from a new persona but also hints at a whole substantial new series to follow.

¹These words were, for example, inscribed in the 2012 London Olympic village. For possible links between the 2012 games and Lethal White, see The Hogwarts Professor.

²Another part of the Psalm suggests why it was chosen for Matins: “My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up” (Ps 5.3).

³The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: PUP, 2012), p.848.

⁴Peter McDonald, Sound Intentions: The Workings of Rhyme in Nineteenth-Century Poetry (Oxford: OUP, 2013), p.218.

⁵Eric Griffiths, ‘The Disappointment of Christina G. Rossetti,’ Essays in Criticism, 47.2 (1997): 107.

⁶Griffiths, ‘The Disappointment of Christina G. Rossetti,’ p.109.

Dr. Beatrice Groves is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet, in which she discusses Harry Potter and Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, and more!


Writing with cutting-edge literary analysis of the series, Bathilda's Notebook explores the literature and ideas that have most inspired Rowling, from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes.
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