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The Woodspurge Essay

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge” is a sixteen-line poem divided into four-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter that describe an unidentified grief-stricken narrator in an outdoor setting, who experiences a vivid heightening of sense perception during a time of intense psychic stress. In his depressed state, the narrator undergoes an unforeseen and unbidden, but clear and intense, visual experience of the woodspurge, a species of weed that has a three-part blossom. The poem’s first stanza presents a countryside that is geographically unspecified—an area of trees and hills—and begins to suggest the narrator’s state of mind.

The narrator is not walking toward a specific destination; he moves in the direction the wind is blowing, and, once the wind ceases, he stops and sits in the grass. The fact that his walking and stopping are guided merely by the wind indicates aimlessness, passivity, and apathy. The narrator’s posture in the second stanza indicates that he feels exceedingly depressed, although there is no explanation given for his emotional state. Sitting on the grass he is hunched over with his head between his knees.

His depression is so severe that he cannot even groan aloud or speak a work of grief (“My lips…said not Alas!”). His head is cast down, as is his soul—so much so that his hair is touching the grass. His physical state reflects his psychic paralysis as he remains motionless in this position for an unspecified length of time, but long enough so that he “hear[s] the day pass.” Although he is not trying to look around and seems oblivious to the country setting as a whole, the narrator remarks in the third stanza that his eyes are “wide open,” and this important fact becomes the inadvertent cause for his ensuing visual experience. From his seated position, he says there are “ten weeds” that his eyes can “fix upon.” Out of that group, a flowering woodspurge captures his complete attention, and he is dramatically impressed by the detail that it flowers as “three cups in one.”

The narrator attributes his depressed state to “perfect grief” in the final stanza, but there is still no elaboration as to its cause. He then comments, first, that grief may not function to bring wisdom or insight and may not even be remembered, and, second, implies that he himself learned nothing from his grief that day and can no longer remember its cause. However, “One thing then learnt remains”: He had been visually overwhelmed by the shape of the woodspurge, and, consequently, its image and the fact that “The woodspurge has a cup of three” have been vividly burned into his memory forever.

Forms and Devices

The short, simple lyric, focusing on sadness of some kind, was a popular genre for Victorian poets, as it had been earlier for the Romantic poets at the beginning of the nineteenth century. For Rossetti, it was a genre that suited his ideal of simplicity in poetry. Rossetti’s choice of imagery, diction, rhythm, and rhyme demonstrates a simplicity that mirrors—and therefore underscores—the narrator’s state of mind. The images are simple; the tree, hill, grass, weeds, and sun have no descriptors of any kind. There are no metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech; nature is presented in broad brushstrokes without ornamentation. It is only when the narrator accidentally fixes his gaze upon the woodspurge that any specific details come forth, and, even then, it is only the shape of the flower that is of any concern. Rossetti’s use of nature tends to the particular, not the universal; the experience of his narrator, thus, occurs through an interplay with a very narrow, concentrated, and specific part of nature.

Rossetti’s unadorned presentation of nature mutes the setting, forcing it into the background, and causes the narrator’s mental and emotional state to emerge as the central focus. The bare minimum of description functions to signal to the reader that the narrator himself is oblivious to the details of his surroundings because his mind is focused elsewhere. The only record of his awareness of his environment, before his dramatic visual experience of the woodspurge, is that he walked when the wind was blowing and that he sat when that external impetus ceased. His reference in the first stanza to the wind having been “Shaken out dead from tree and hill” introduces the thought of death, establishing a negative tone that suggests that the narrator’s internal state is negative.

Another poetic device that maintains simplicity in the poem—and yet functions to express sadness or sorrow—includes Rossetti’s use of monosyllabic words. All but one word in the first stanza are monosyllables, causing the movement to be slowed to a plodding pace to initially signal a rhythmic parallel for the narrator’s inner state. With each of the next three stanzas consisting primarily of monosyllabic words, the poem’s tempo continues to be retarded. This consistently slowed rhythm throughout the poem creates a dirge-like effect that mirrors the narrator’s mood.

There is one common end rhyme in each stanza (aaaa, bbbb, cccc), suggesting a dullness, a lack of variety, or a paralysis in the rhyme that reflects the paralysis in the narrator resulting from his psychic state. The word “wind” is repeated four times in the first stanza, and the end rhyme for the first and fourth lines of this stanza repeats the same word, “still.” This deliberate repetition of words and of simple rhymes also functions to maintain the simplicity of the poem and is consistent with its simple imagery and vocabulary.

Themes and Meanings

In September, 1848, Rossetti, along with other fellow painters such as John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, founded the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, whose goal was a return to simplicity, to a direct presentation of nature, and to faithfulness and accuracy in detail. The name was derived from the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael, who was a symbol for them of a departure from the simplicity of presentation and the use of bright colors, which produced a direct emotional effect in pre-Renaissance paintings. The ideals of this group were applied to poetry as well as to painting: simplicity of syntax, imagery, and diction, with themes that concentrated on the experience of sense perception and created emotional resonance. Although “The Woodspurge” has a plant’s name as its title, the poem does not have nature, or even the woodspurge itself, as its subject. Nature does play an indirect role in the poem, but it is not the focus here or in other works by Rossetti.

Both in his painting and in his poetry, the function of nature is to act as a background for the presentation of human action and emotion. The depiction of details from nature, although precise and accurate, is not meant to draw attention to nature itself but to mirror a psychic state or inner experience. “The Woodspurge” does not tell a story or embody an ethical or moral lesson; it does not deal with contemporary issues or events. It is removed from any cultural or historical context and—more concerned with emotion than ideology—aims to express a universal human experience, the paradox of intense sense perception during times of emotional numbness. The possibility that the three-in-one nature of the woodspurge—which could recall the Christian concept of the Trinity or the concept of unity in diversity—might symbolize a higher truth and thus be a consolation for the speaker’s grief is not given any space in the poem.

The woodspurge’s shape is a botanical fact, of interest particularly to a painter’s eye, but it points to no significance beyond its sheer existence in the material realm. It functions as an example of a detail or image that can remain vivid after emotional stress has been left behind and forgotten. Rossetti’s tendency to focus on intense sensual experience rather than to illustrate truth or meaning is evident here. Although the cause of the narrator’s sorrow is never specified, the poem was written in the spring of 1856 when Rossetti was in an anguished state.

He was experiencing intense strife with Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Siddal, the chief model he had used for many of his paintings since 1850, over the issue of her desire for marriage. (He eventually married her in 1860.) Rossetti was also tormented at that time about relationships with other women and with what he perceived as lost artistic opportunities. However, nothing in the poem points to these specific issues.

By leaving the cause of the narrator’s depression unspecified, Rossetti gives universal expression to the psychological phenomenon of acute mental awareness and heightened sensation simultaneous with mental and emotional distress. Although Rossetti’s later poetry is more ornate, complex, and difficult both in style and in content, “The Woodspurge” concentrates on sense perception, accuracy of detail (including botanical accuracy), and the use of nature as a framework for the expression of the mental and emotional state of the narrator. Its simplicity in theme and poetic devices makes it a superb demonstration of the tenets of Pre-Raphaelite poetry.


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