Analysis: The Woodspurge by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This poem is written by Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1892). Leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, he was as famous for his painting as for his poetry. This poem was written in 1856.
Like Christina Rossetti’s A Prayer, this poem also employs images drawn from nature but without the poetic and sensuous intensity of his sister’s poem. The title suggests that the woodspurge will be at the centre of the poem, but there is in fact no detailed description of this wild plant. Having stared at it during a mood of depression, the speaker learns just one thing about it: ‘The woodspurge has a cup of three’. The tone is matter-of-fact. The earlier mentions of ‘grass’ and ‘ten weeds’ are not described in any poetic detail either.

What there is of nature in the poem is used as a backdrop for the speaker’s depressed state of mind. He is carried along somewhat aimlessly by the wind until it stops. He sits down, his hair touching the grass, and among the weeds he notices the woodspurge. He seems to be in this position for some time: ‘My naked ears heard the day pass’. We do not, however, learn what has caused him to be so sad and miserable.

The relative lack of description (compare his sister’s poem) and the simple language perhaps serve to reinforce the speaker’s gloomy state of mind. There is an unusual insistent rhyme scheme (AAAA, BBBB etc.) and many of the lines are monosyllabic.

These features, too, may play a role in conveying the speaker’s unhappy state of mind.

Consider the force of the end rhymes and the use of monosyllables in conveying the mood in the first stanza, explore the description of the wind (the word ‘wind’ appears four times) and the effect it has on the speaker.
What impression do you have of the speaker from the first two stanzas?  Does stanza three depict an authentic picture of depression? Or might it seem contrived?

What effect is created by the use of oxymoron ‘perfect grief’? Do these lines provide the key to the poem’s meaning? Or do other lines provide the key?
Thematic links with set poems
Nature: Pied Beauty, Horses, Hunting Snake, Summer Farm, Where I Come From, Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
Personal reflection: A Different History, Continuum, The Cockroach, Where I Come From
Anti-romantic: Pike

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