Themes and Meanings

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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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