Dirge is a song of lament, usually of a lyrical mood. Its name derives from the beginning of the antiphon of the Office of the Dead: Dirige, Domine … Direct, O Lord …’ As a literary genre it comes from the Greek epicedium, which was a mourning song sung over the dead and a threnody sung in memory of the dead. In Roman funeral processions the nenia, a song of praise for the departed, was chanted, and the professional wailing women (praeficae) were hired for the task on some occasions. Later the dirge developed into a lyric poem, as in Sir Philip Sidney’s poem included in Arcadia (1590), which begins, ‘Ring out your bells, let mourning shews be spread, and Henry King’s Exequy on his young wife, ‘Tell me no more how fair she is.’ Both are very fine poems.
Occasionally dirges occur in plays. There are two particularly famous ones by Shakespeare: Ariel’s song for Ferdinand’s dead father in The Tempest (I, ii), and Fidele’s dirge in Cymbeline (IV, ii). Very nearly as famous as these is Cornelia’s song over Marcello in Webster’s The White Devil (V, iv).