Agony and a Painter’s Eye: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge”

Today’s post is about one of the most frequently taught poems of the early Victorian era, one which has perplexed many an undergraduate (including me, at the time) and even more seasoned readers, I think primarily because they are waiting for it to tell a story, or give an explanation, of however attenuated a kind.  And it does both of these things in its own way, except that its own way is not that of the usual lyric poem; rather, it is an encapsulation of a lyric moment caught by the “eye” of a painter who was also a poet.  This multi-talented individual was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and writers.

The poem is “The Woodspurge,” a modest title in line with the mostly restrained and simple words used.  The overall effect, however, is anything but simple.  Here is the poem in its entirety, all four four-line stanzas, which have been quoted elsewhere on the Internet previously as well:

“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 learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three.”

Now to embark upon an interpretation, which is of course only one among many possible, but which I believe has some points to recommend it, such as its close reliance upon the items found in the poem, without adding possibly spurious additional material.

The first stanza begins by stressing that even when the speaker is in motion, as when walking, he is passively affected in the main:  when the wind pushes him along, he walks; when the wind ceases, he sits.  The wind is said to be “shaken out dead,” and indeed he is deathlike and still, or at least motionless, when the wind dies down.

Though many people think that the arcania of rhetorical figuration is mainly limited to such figures as similes, metaphors, apostrophes, and other such figures more common to poetry, it is a fact that in this poem Rossetti uses both paralipsis and litotes (in the second and third stanzas respectively), which perhaps occur less often in poetic circumstances.  Here in the second stanza, the speaker “paints a picture” of himself with head hanging low, and says that his lips did not say “alas.”  Well, why should they?  We don’t know, but by saying that he did not say something he is in fact saying, the poet is using the figure of paralipsis, which is denying that one is making a statement while in fact making it.  He speaks of his naked ears, and here the word “naked” is like the word “dead” in the first stanza, in that it is a powerful and evocative word that stands out as unusual; there is a sense that he is unprotected; there is a sense of vulnerability.

In the third stanza, this same sense of vulnerability occurs when we are told that his eyes are “wide open,” and therefore exposed.  At first we think that they are not exposed to much, it is true, as his head is hanging between his knees, but this seems to be a case of much from little.  Using the figure of litotes, or understatement, he says that he can see “ten weeds,” which is surely not all he can see even given his restricted field of vision.  Weeds and grass grow thickly, after all.  This figure of understatement produces a sense of lowness (as does his crouch), and depression.  Among these weeds, he focuses on the woodspurge because is it different and isolated, as he the speaker too is isolated, even among natural things and nature, though in poetry these are very often seen as potentially sympathetic, even sometimes to the extreme of using the “pathetic fallacy,” in which a speaker’s or character’s emotions are said to be experienced by a natural force or being.  The woodspurge is “out of the sun” literally because it is overshadowed by the speaker’s limbs and head hanging; the speaker himself is “out” of a sort of shining grace, of happiness.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker brings up “perfect grief,” and suggests that there is no wisdom which comes from it or memory which can resolve it.  Though the reader may experience a sense of shock at this sudden introduction of intense emotion as a subject, yet there is something about it which shows fittingness as well.  Even though it “ups the ante” in a sudden way, it’s appropriate because we know that all this so far has been adding up to something, some climax.  The last two lines contain a living crystallization of a moment of pain and suffering, the sense of “perfect grief” as embodied in the totally a-historical symbol of the woodspurge.  That is, before Rossetti wrote his poem, there was no necessary connection between the tiny weed/flower and sorrow; since his poem, I doubt that anyone aware of the poem, either seeing the poem and/or seeing the woodspurge knowingly, could help but think of the emotional connection.

This poem “The Woodspurge” is an excellent introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite notion that a poem (or a painting) can be about a moment of intense emotion without a history in words of the cause (though of course many of the paintings were of characters from literature or myth).  As well, to anyone themselves subject to the feelings recorded in the poem, “The Woodspurge” itself is a woodspurge-in-words which can capture their own emotions, again without an actual historical rehearsing of the cause of the emotions.  Thus the vagueness of the “backstory,” as it’s called now, makes the poem itself more universal and accessible to more people.  The statement that “One thing then learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three” betrays the lastingness of the grief and the simultaneous poverty and wealth of sorrow:  sorrow is full and overflowing, so full that the speaker cannot say more than he does, yet it leaves him empty of all but the final awareness of the association between his emotion and what he sees at the extreme moment of its intensity.

At the risk myself of having made much of a little thing, I have written this analysis of one of Rossetti’s most famous poems, maybe the most well-known, because it is so perfect of its kind.  I hope that you too will find it answers to your notion of a fine work of art, and will remember its beauty at any time when you feel that the world’s beauty has deserted you:  the woodspurge may be a simple flower, but it is a deceptively simple poem, and one which has much to offer to those who would notice.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

3 responses to “Agony and a Painter’s Eye: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge”

  1. Once again your wide reading skillz put me in the shade as this is another one i haven’t gotten around to reading. I have stared very hard at many Pre-Raphaelite paintings though and I do enjoy them very much. As I always say to the ‘youth’ of the day a painting is yesteryear’s much more stimulating equivalent of TV.


    • Thanks for the compliment, it’s much appreciated. I also find that though I am often entertained and enlightened by the “right” programs on tv, when I’m away from it, I don’t miss it that much, and my thoughts often seem more complex. It takes an old movie or a classic show really to make me think in a complex fashion.


      • TV does seemed to be increasing designed for escapism as opposed to a way to enlighten in exciting ways which is a shame. Don’t get me wrong, I love some light programmes as well but they usually have some form of artistic or interesting merit. Or maybe I just read too much into stuff.


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