Discuss the poem "The Woodspurge" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.    In particular, explain the "three cups in one."

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Finding a place to grieve—this is the essence of the poem “The Woodspurge” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Nature makes no judgments and does not change to suit man. The natural world becomes the setting for the poem and the perfect grief that the poet experiences.

The narration of the poem is first person point of view with the poet as the narrator.   The setting is a windy spring day in a meadow with flowers and weeds surrounding the speaker. The exact location is unstated.

This is a lyric poem. The poem is written in four quatrains.  Each stanza has the ending words rhyme within it.  The vocabulary and diction is simple and easy to follow.  The grief stricken speaker was a popular style in Victorian age. 

1st stanza

As the speaker moves the wind is so strong that it controls his movements; then, the wind stops as though it had made the dead come out from their graves under trees and hills. After walking a distance plunged forward by the wind, the narrator sits down.

2nd stanza

Obviously, depressed the man places his head between his knees touching his forehead.  His lips were tight, and he said nothing.  He falls over onto the grass where his hair and ears press on the earth. He can actually hear the sounds of nature as he lies there. This is a man who is self-obsessed with some apparent emotional injury.

3rd stanza

With his eyes open wide, he was able to focus on what he saw as he lay on the ground.  There were ten weeds.  In the middle of the weeds, a beautiful woodspurge grows.  It has three blooms on it in the shape of cups.  The narrator focuses his attention on the weeds and flowers rather than the pain that he holds within. He is a picture of manic depression.

 My eyes, wide open, had the run
of some ten weeds to fix upon;
among those few, out of the sun,
the woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

4th stanza

The poet describes his problem as “perfect grief.”  The word perfect in this context implies absolute and overwhelming.  There is no wisdom to be gained here—only a retreat to mourn alone.  As he absorbs and concentrates away from his grief, the only thing that he will take with him when he leaves is the beauty of the woodspurge and its three blooms in the shape of cups. The flower seems to etch itself into the psyche of the speaker. 

The  significance of the flower with its three cups in one and the driving wind and the depression of the speaker all speak to the broken spirit of the man.  It reflects the delusion projected by the speaker who is compelled to try to absorb nature rather than face his grief. He never shares the cause of his grief.

The speaker finds relief in the beauty of the flower.  There is no story here other than a man who tried to remove himself from the emotional anguish that he is experiencing from an unknown.  He has numbed himself through the concentration on the surrounding flora. 

“The Woodspurge” does not tell a story or symbolize a moral lesson; it does not deal with contemporary issues. It is removed from any historical context; however, its  goal is to express a universal human experience:  the enigma of  intense sense acuity  during times of emotional numbness.

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