Dante Gabriel Rossetti – ‘The Woodspurge’
Compare this poem with ‘A Birthday’, written by Rossetti’s sister Christina: hers is equally simple in style and language, but while she expresses great happiness, ‘The Woodspurge’, written in 1856 when the poet was twenty-eight, shows a man in deep grief and isolation. Like Christina’s poem, this one also uses images of nature, and ends with focus upon a simple wild plant, the woodspurge. But is the speaker really seeing this plant? Why does he say at the end that the only thing he has learned from this experience is that “the woodspurge has a cup of three”? Is this really all that he has learned, do you think?
It is worth looking in some detail at the first stanza, to see how Rossetti is able, in a simple and almost unemotional way, to express his mood, and the way that it has swung from pain (‘the wind flapped loose’, but is now ‘shaken out dead . . ‘) into a sense that he is so full of sadness that nothing matters any more (‘I had walked on at the wind’s will, – I sat now . . ‘), and indeed that what he is feeling is beyond human words (line 2 of stanza 2).
The critic David H Riede has written: “The poem’s refusal to locate significance anywhere movingly expresses the hopelessness of deep grief.” (http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dgr/dgrseti12.html). Look at the extraordinary simplicity of the poem’s language, and its rhythm and rhyme (how many other poems do you know that have an ‘aaaa’ rhyme scheme?). What effect does this have upon the way we react to the speaker’s thoughts?