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 lipssaid 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.
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...
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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.