The Woodspurge – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Summary

Using simple but forceful language consisting almost entirely of monosyllables, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is able to recreate a moment of intense personal grief and contemplation. Nowhere in the poem is it mentioned why the narrator is grief stricken. He wanders aimlessly, going where the wind leads him. Finally he flops down, it is not clear where, puts his head down of his knees in a gesture of despondency and then observes in a moment increased visual awareness, the shape of the woodspurge.

Main Subject

Though the title of the poem is The Woodspurge, the poem is not about it. Nature itself is mentioned in the poem but it does not play a direct role. Nature is relegated to the background and the main, rather the only theme of the poem, is the narrator’s grief.

Purpose

The purpose of the poem is to focus on the intense grief and turmoil of the narrator that drove him out into the open where he wanders aimlessly for a time till he flops down, head on his knees. Though the grief in intense, there is no mention of its cause nor of any moral lessons learnt at the end. In a moment of heightened consciousness, the narrator notices the three cupped form of the woodspurge that remains imprinted in his tortured mind.

“One thing learnt remains to me,—
The woodspurge has a cup of three.”

Emotions 

The poem is all about an overflow of a particular emotion – here, grief. The narrator if so moved that he is walking not in any particular direction but where the wind takes him. In the last stanza he says that at the end of even an intense period of grief, it is not necessary that a person receives any wisdom. In fact the cause of the grief itself may be erased from memory.

“From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:”

All that remains from this moment is the memory of the woodspurge blossoms.

Technique / Craftsmanship

The poet pushes the sorrow of the narrator into the foreground by leaving nature and everything else unadorned in the background. The central focus is sharply fixed on his mental state. The poet also consistently uses monosyllabic words to make the movement of the narrator slow as though he is plodding along.

“I had walk’d on at the wind’s will,—
I sat now, for the wind was still.”

Structure

Many of the Victorian poets used the lyric to advantage when they had to focus on grief or a personal loss. The narrator’s condition of mind is reflected in the choice of words, imagery and diction. Nature is kept vague and universal and it fades becoming just a backdrop to the narrator’s grief. The only clear details that emerge are of the flower.

Language

The bare descriptions help to show that the narrator is so pre-occupied with his grief, he does not notice where he is going. The location is kept vague so that the focus remains on the narrator’s mental state. The consistent use of monosyllabic words slows the movement to a crawl and gives the poem a dirge like tone.

Imagery

The images in the poem are stark; shorn of adornment or descriptors, the focus remains on the narrator and his turmoil. Nature is painted with broad brushstrokes without making it specific. Even the description of the flower is limited to its physical appearance.

“The woodspurge flower’d, three cups in one”

Movement / Rhythm

The consistent use of monosyllabic words slows down the tempo of the poem ans we can sense the plodding walk of the narrator along the hill and amidst the trees. The rhyme scheme is a simple aaaa, bbbb,cccc  introduces a dullness and inactivity that reflects the poets apathy. No word escapes his lips, not even “Alas”,

My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!

The poem is divided into four line stanzas that use iambic tetrameter as their structure.

Figures of Speech

This poem is shorn of ornamentations that mark Rossetti’s later poetry. The Woodspurge is all about the narrator’s grief and mental turmoil that forces him to move about not in any particular direction. When the wind stops, he flops down unaware of where he is, but in a moment of visual sharpness notices the flower accurately and that memory remains with him.

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