The Woodspurge

 Overview

This begins as a really sad poem about someone at the height of their misery or melancholy. Lacking any kind of direction, the poet allows himself to be led by the wind until it abated and then he sits with his head between his knees in complete despair for some time. At the height of his misery he finds hope in a weed: either the brilliance and beauty of nature or perhaps representing faith.

The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind’s will, –
I sat now, for the wind was still. 

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 pass.

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.

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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Name sound familiar? Well, it should do. His sister was Christina Rossetti (A Birthday) that you’ve probably already read about. He’s another interesting one and is known as one of the founders of an art movement called the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Long story short: this group believed in art being full of intense colours, emotions and ideas. Much of his work – poetry and paintings – was concerned with religious imagery and messages about moral reform.

Dante Rossetti’s poetry is quite often linked to his romantic relationships and this one is no exception. It was written in 1856 (he would’ve been 27-8) and relates to his relationship with Elizabeth Siddal who was a model he used for his painting as well as his lover. He was in a state of anguish because she wanted to get hitched, but Rossetti was concerned that limited himself to one woman would limited his artistic inspiration (what a line!).  However, this doesn’t help us massively, but lets us understand what might have caused his depression.

 Themes

I’d say the most non-contentious theme is about the beauty/inspiration of nature, alongside melancholy and absolute misery. However, if you agree with one of my interpretations below then you could also list religion or faith as a key theme.

Content

Loads going on in this poem, despite a very simple narrative.

In the first stanza we are presented with the image of a blustery day, but then immediately the idea, within the first line, this image is contradicted as the ‘wind was still’. This usually suggests that we are dealing with a metaphor or analogy and the wind is going to represent something about his situation. The wind seems to be his melancholy that rages and then abates and pushes him aimlessly and thoughtlessly around.

When the wind stops he sits and bows his head between his knees. Think about when you’d do this – only when you’re truly miserable and can’t even express you pain with tears. He seems to sit here for some time as he hears the ‘day pass’ and we can imagine he is wallowing in his misery.

He then focuses on the growth beneath his seat and finds some companionship with the weeds. In what way are weeds similar to a man? Well, we usually think of weeds as being pretty wretched things that nobody wants, cares for or nurtures, this is usually what we think of ourselves when we are utterly miserable – boo hoo nobody loves me, nobody cares! He also talks about the weeds being ‘out of the sun’ which could suggest a lack of warmth or life and again links to his own suffering. However, within these weeds he finds some hope in the woodspurge and its three cup-like leaves.

There are two (perhaps three) ways I think this can be interpreted. First of all, we have the literal to consider; he is finding beauty and remarkableness is something simple and unloved in the natural world and thus is allowing his appreciation of the woodspurge to feed back into his understanding of his own worth. Look at the image above this post, I’m sure you’ll agree that it is not a very pretty plant, but is fairly remarkable in its own way. If he is linking himself to the woodspurge – i.e. something remarkable, but not always recognised as such – who do you think the weeds around him might be: lovers, friends, family, poetry critics? 

Secondly, this woodspurge may suggest faith. We know the poet’s sister found faith later in her life, but could the same be true for Dante: finding faith at a difficult point in his life? I’m not sure, but the woodspurge’s three cups can be linked to the holy trinity of Christian religion: God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When he is at his lowest ebb he has found religion to give him hope in the world and his life again.

Another alternative – which didn’t seem massively convincing to me based on the way the poem ends – is the woodspurge is being used like flower imagery that was popular in Victorian art. A red rose might indicate romantic love, while a white one stood for innocent love. The woodspurge’s sap stings and can cause temporary blindness if you get it in your eyes – could Rossetti be using the woodspurge to represent love and how it tricks/blinds and fools us. I’m not convinced, but consider it yourself.

The last stanza sees his mood transformed and his melancholy seems to have dissolved in the joy he has found in the woodspurge. He has ‘learnt’ one thing and that is either to recognise his internal beauty through comparison with this unloved weed, or he has found faith to give him hope for his life.

Language and techniques

We’ve dealt with a bit of this above: the woodspurge and two potential metaphoric meanings and the wind being used to represent his emotions and I’ll talk about the simplicity of the language choices in the Structure section.

Let’s talk a bit more about the wind first. I really like the third line which tells us he ‘walked on at the wind’s will’. Here, the wind is being personified as if it is pushing him around, but the interesting question is why? This is not a hurricane forcing everyone off course, but the wind ‘flapped loose’ so is occasionally a bit blustery and yet it is pushing him around. Again the answer is found in his emotional state. He is so emotionally drained that he is physically unable to resist the wind, but also he cannot concentrate on where he is going as his mind is in turmoil.

In the second stanza he repeats ‘My’ five times when talking about the way his body slumps and basically gives up. All the body parts seem defeated – he is cowering between his knees (think of the foetal position, scrunched up in a ball), his head is lowered, his lips are tightly drawn as if he has no more to say, his hair is a mess and his ears are vulnerable as he describes them as being ‘naked’. He could’ve just said this in one simple sentence, but the repetition emphasises the totality of his emotional defeat and despair and adds to the monotonous and emotionless feel of the poem.

I’ve given you a couple of different interpretations of the woodspurge, but I also want you to think about the significance of the word ‘flowered’ in the context of him considering the woodspurge amongst the weeds. This seems to represent something worthwhile about the woodspurge that means it cannot be dismissed as a weed, it has a unappreciated beauty in its flowering. Also, what about the repetition of the ‘cup of three’ at the end of the third and fourth stanzas? The emphasis on the three makes me think that Rossetti might be stressing the importance of finding this trinity and thus link this clearly to finding faith.

Structure

I remind you that if you don’t understand or know how to talk about structure that you can always avoid it – don’t feel that you have to talk about rhyme scheme and stanza length if you’ve can’t explain its significance to the meaning of the poem.

I mention this because I’m now going to talk about something I find difficult to explain. This poem is written in something called iambic tetrameter. I’ll break the words down so it hopefully makes more sense. An iamb is a pair of syllables where the first is unstressed and the second is stressed: e.g. The (unstressed, listen to how you say it) wind (stressed, you should put more emphasis on this word). Meter just means the way it is written (in poetry we talk about the measure) and tetra means eight in Latin. So, iambic tetrameter means poetry composed of lines with eight syllables where each works with another in order – unstressed and then stressed. Don’t worry, you don’t need to explain this in your exam. However, you can talk about the significance of Rossetti’s use of iambic tetrameter; the unstressed and then stressed syllables are comparable to his emotions, he feels in one second completely deflated by the world and wallows in his melancholy, but he also feels gusts of anger about his situation. Anger and misery come together fairly often, in my experience.

Let’s also consider the rhyme scheme here. Nice and easy to identify as AAAA, but look at the words that are used: still, hill, will, still; was, alas, grass, pass. If you were composing a rhyming poem in primary school you’d probably use these words and yet here you are having to study a famous poet with such a limited vocabulary. His vocabulary is fine, trust me, so why has he chosen such simplistic rhyming words and pattern. In my opinion this is again a reflection of his mood. He is so listless or unable to motivate himself at the beginning of the poem (he’s already talked about the wind being able to push him around) that you can almost imagine the dull and monotonous way he would speak to you and the simplicity of his vocabulary reflects this emotionless wreck of a man who cannot summon even the slightest bit of creativity. In the second quatrain you’ll notice that although the words words all end the same way, the rhymes themselves are very awkward and imperfect, which is again perhaps a reflection of his state of mind.

I’d also add to this idea of Rossetti creating a monotonous mood by highlighting his use of repetition ‘wind’ in the first stanza and ‘my’ in the second.

One final structural element you might want to talk about is the pace of the poem. Look at the punctuation used in the first two stanzas; in stanza one we have three short pauses at the commas and three longer pauses with the hyphen, colon and the full stop. This is done deliberately as this is meant to be read slowly to imitate the listlessness and melancholy, we are wallowing in it with the poet as he forces us to linger on his words. Notice that this changes slightly in the third and fourth stanzas and both have an example of enjambment meaning the pace is quicker (not much, but significantly). Why? Well, his mood has changed a little and he is now beginning to trace an idea of hope for his life so he is a little perkier.

Tone

The tone here is complete depression and misery. It begins so slowly and the idea that the wind can push him around should give you an impression of someone who has no strength left such is his emotional distress.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

6 thoughts on “The Woodspurge”

  1. I’m not quite sure that the poem was about misery. Dante didn’t sound sad to me. Instead he pounded as if he was observing nature and had made a new observation.

    1. We’ll agree to disagree then. As long as you can explain your interpretation and justify it with the text, then having a different perspective is fine.

  2. the three cups could also show his family one for his wife and other that he is longing for a child. he is depressed maybe because his wife is not there with him now and had no reason to live. but looking at the woodspurge gives him faith to live again

    1. I’m not convinced by this, but if it makes sense to you and you can explain it clearly, then go for it.

  3. this evaluation is the best i have come across. It was a pleasure to read and helped me a great deal with my own assignment. Thank you for publishing this!

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