In "The Woodspurge" Dante Gabriel Rossetti uses plain and forceful language to recreate a moment of contemplation and grief. He narrates a basic scene from the perspective of an unknown person in which the individual wanders in a natural setting, sits down, and, in an emotional state, observes the details of a particular woodspurge — a European herb with greenish yellow flowers.

The first stanza focuses on the wind and the narrator's movement, which mimics the wind patterns. As Rossetti writes, "I had walked on at the wind's will/ — I sat now, for the wind was still." The remainder of the poem echoes this stillness, focusing on the narrator's stationary features and inner emotions. In the second and third stanzas, Rossetti highlights his subject's physical characteristics, including his or her lips, hair, ears, and eyes:

My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass[.]

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;

His inclusion of such sensory detail helps place the reader in the scene. Not until the final stanza, however, does the reader recognize the narrator's true inner sadness, when Rossetti writes, "From perfect grief there need not be/ Wisdom or even memory/ One thing then learnt remains to me/ — The woodspurge has a cup of three." Lending such great importance to the woodspurge in the poem's final line, Rossetti emphasizes the mundane details that people remember in times of acute emotional pain.

Questions

1. Aside from its role as the narrator's primary visual focus, the woodspurge does not possess an overt symbolic meaning. In fact, the remainder of the poem appears to lack symbolic representations, as well. Why might Rossetti have rejected the notion of symbolism — prevalent in many other poems and paintings of the period — in this poem?

2. Some of Rossetti's other sonnets possess elaborate, decriptive language. What effect do you think the simple wording of "The Woodspurge" has on interpretations of this poem? Does it intensify the poem's ultimate message?

3. Rossetti's poem, "My Sister's Sleep," describing the death of the narrator's sister on Christmas Eve, entertained similar notions of grief as in "The Woodspurge". In both poems, the narrators seem to be experiencing some sense of loss or sadness; however, "My Sister's Sleep" is much longer. Why did Rossetti make "The Woodspurge" so short? Does its abbreviated length make the narrator's emotions any more acute?

4. Did Rossetti set "The Woodspurge" outside for a particular reason? What statement might he be making about the relation between humans and the environment?

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Last modified 14 October 2003