In "The Woodspurge" Rossetti gives us the image of a man sitting in grim contemplation, his head between his knees, his eyes staring at the ground. So stricken in perfect grief is the narrator of the poem that his senses are deprived of anything to fix upon except ‘ten weeds’ and the Woodspurge flowers among them. The poem is so removed is from the symbolizing conceit of the Romantics or the Pre-Raphaelites that even this discovery of a flower is treated with the most diffident indifference as the poet notes, in the last stanza, that:
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.
A peculiar departure from the often sensuous style and content of his other poems, such as "For a Venetian Pastoral," and "Silent Noon," which are richer in narrative and metaphor, "The Woodspurge" has been described as ‘a poetry of nonstatement’ (David H. Riede). Indeed the poem is a short four stanza affair containing few objects and actions or even comparisons. The minimalistic bent of the piece makes it easy to catalogue its nouns which only consist in a few objects of nature, the weeds and the woodspurge itself. Yet the narrator also draws attention to his knees and forehead, his lips, his hair, his ears and his eyes. By itemizing in such a catalogue-like fashion:
Between my knees my forehead was, —
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day.
Rossetti anatomizes the individual to the bare-bones of his experience with nature. This localizes and focuses our experience of the poem to the image of the narrator among the weeds and charmingly conveys the tone of his isolation and melancholia. In fact alongside the speaker of the poem there are only two concretely defined objects — the ten weeds and the woodspurge with its three cups.
The poem seems to unwittingly unite the narrator and nature albeit in an unromantic fashion. We should note for example the last two lines of the first stanza:
I had walked on at the wind's will, —
I sat now, for the wind was still.
Although there is nothing visionary to note in the narrator’s experience in itself, the poetic disclosure of this experience creates an ironic distance between him and the poem. For although the critics may note, as David H. Riede has, that ‘…the natural symbol has no special significance’, the reader, unlike the speaker, is supplied with a unified image of man and nature. The last instance of the poem is of an archetypal contemplative man grasping on to the ‘one thing learnt’ that ‘the woodspurge has a cup of three’. Thus the dual-implications of the poem as undermining Romantic use of symbolism yet seemingly uniting man and nature these are unified in an ironic manner by the poem itself.
1. There are six objects of nature in the poem and six objects of the narrator’s own anatomy mentioned in the poem. Does such a one-to-one correspondence have any effect on the reader? Was it intentional?
2. In Tennyson’s poem "Break, break, break"the narrator also seems compelled by sadness. How would we contrast the action of that poem with the inaction of "The Woodspruge" as both attempts to convey an unutterable sense of loss?
3. Is this piece just a peculiarity or is there something ideological behind it? Was Rossetti perhaps being ironic?
4. It is interesting to note how Rossetti very consciously contrasts the sensory deprivation of this poem with his other works. Examine the use of lips here as compared to "The Kiss" and "For a Venetian Pastoral," for example. (http://www.sonnets.org/rossettd.htm)
Last modified 4 October 2006
Last modified 26 June 2007