The Woodspurge Poem Essay Topics

The short, simple lyric, focusing on sadness of some kind, was a popular genre for Victorian poets, as it had been earlier for the Romantic poets at the beginning of the nineteenth century. For Rossetti, it was a genre that suited his ideal of simplicity in poetry.

Rossetti’s choice of imagery, diction, rhythm, and rhyme demonstrates a simplicity that mirrors—and therefore underscores—the narrator’s state of mind. The images are simple; the tree, hill, grass, weeds, and sun have no descriptors of any kind. There are no metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech; nature is presented in broad brushstrokes without ornamentation. It is only when the narrator accidentally fixes his gaze upon the woodspurge that any specific details come forth, and, even then, it is only the shape of the flower that is of any concern. Rossetti’s use of nature tends to the particular, not the universal; the experience of his narrator, thus, occurs through an interplay with a very narrow, concentrated, and specific part of nature.

Rossetti’s unadorned presentation of nature mutes the setting, forcing it into the background, and causes the narrator’s mental and emotional state to emerge as the central focus. The bare minimum of description functions to signal to the reader that the narrator himself is oblivious to the details of his surroundings because his mind is focused elsewhere. The only record of his awareness of his environment, before his...

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Get a clear, A* detailed analysis of the poem, 'Woodspurge' from the Cambridge IGCSE anthology, 'Songs of Ourselves' by an Oxford graduate English tutor. Get the poem and a simple interpretation below the A* analysis.


A* Essay Analysis (700 words)
Explore how language is used in the Woodspurge to create effects on the reader.

The powerful aaaa rhyme scheme of Woodspurge creates a monotonous effect. The dull echoes of 'still/hill/will/still' use clumsy rhyming of the same word (still). The word 'wind' is also repeated, dully, four times in the first verse - creating an almost hypnotic effect, of echoing round small acoustic spaces. The field of vision is narrowed still in the second stanza when the poet puts his head between his knees, to look down. At the same time, the aaaa rhyme sags. 'Alas/was' do not quite rhyme with each other. In addition - oddly - the poet tells us he does 'not' say 'Alas.' Neither 'alas' nor 'was', rhyme with 'grass/pass' though they look as if they should. This sense of monotonous fracture (wrongness) that we feel in the rhyme and repetition echoes the poet's mood. The effect is of empty echoes that become claustrophobia.

Each stanza is tightly clipped, end-stopped and contained. In the first stanza, the poet is blown about by the wind, and sags when the wind is 'dead' - as if he is no more than a puppet, empty with no 'will' of his own. The only 'will' (control or desire) is in the 'wind'. When he sits, it is in an uncomfortably tight posture: almost foetal, curled in on himself with his head down. He is vulnerable, his long hair dropped and blended 'in the grass', ears 'naked', unprotected. His 'lips' can't even speak. This is tightly contained anguish, exposed. Or perhaps it is a symbol of the poet's vulnerability and humility, being close to nature. In the third stanza, his 'wide' 'run', ironically, is tiny. All he can see is weeds.

Rossetti is pedantically precise that there are 'ten weeds' for him to 'fix upon'. The word 'fix', suggests either control or obsession. The thing that 'flowered' at the heart of the poem is a weed, and its flower does not even look like a flower - more like a modified leaf.  It seems perverse. This is a shadow plant that only grows 'out of the sun' - which may symbolise the depressive state, and has a noxious, sticky sap. The close-focus shows 'three cups in one', in his fixed, detailed gaze. Either, he is merely stating fact - prominently positioned at the end of the stanza - or drawing attention to the idea of three in one.

The fact that the idea of 'three cups' is repeated in the final stanza suggests it may be significant. Three in one may symbolise the Holy Trinity, the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - but the idea is not made explicit. Its interpretation is left ambiguous. Is Rossetti suggesting that the complex mysteries of God can be found in simple places? Does this comfort him? Or is he evoking the idea of a relationship that may be at the root of his depression? It is not clear.
In the final stanza, the coda concludes: 'perfect grief' need have no meaning. The oxymoron of 'perfect' (total) 'grief' suggests desolation. Rossetti's biography does not suggest this 'grief' is bereavement. It is likely more of a mental condition, possibly due to relationship issues. He says it 'need not' bring wisdom and one need not form a memory of it. The word 'need' is emphatic . There may be no silver lining of 'wisdom'. Lack of 'memory' may be a blessing. Again, the meaning is left open.

He says finally, he has 'one thing' - that 'remains' - suggesting he is bereft, at a loss - unless you interpret the one thing as the Trinity. If the one thing that remains is God, then the final mood is uplifting. If it isn't God, then the meaning of the poem is infuriatingly opaque: a bland statement of uninteresting fact - a description of a weed.

At the end of the poem, we are left with a simple image of a weed that 'flowered' yet is hardly a flower. We can read this two ways: he is lost in nothingness, or, he is totally at one with the moment - looking down at the little flower. The close of the poem is unusual. Rossetti does not demand meaning. He seems - in a strange way - at peace.

The Poem

The Woodspurge

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.


The final stanza tells us that grief is pointless, empty, nothingness. It doesn't give us 'wisdom' and we often don't remember it (it gives us no 'memory'). All that Rossetti remembers is the detail of a weed that he saw.

Flower Symbolism:
In late Victorian times, when Rossetti was writing, flower-symbolism was hugely popular. Each flower represented a particular idea, just as today a four-leaved clover represents good luck. A white rose represented innocent love, a red rose, romantic love. Each flower was interpreted, and given meaning.
In this poem, Rossetti chooses an common, plain weed, which has a sticky, noxious sap that stings and can cause temporary blindness.

The Holy Trinity:
Alternatively, 'cup of three' could suggest the Trinity, the divine relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The image of a 'cup', as used in Holy Communion may add to this. This can be interpreted in different ways:

  • The complex divine mystery of God exists in simple, lowly places (the woodspurge)
  • Rossetti's depression is centred on relationships. There is evidence there was another person in his life, apart from his lover, Elizabeth Siddall (pictured as Ophelia above).



The author, Melanie Kendry, is an Oxford graduate, outstanding-rated English Language and Literature teacher of ages 10-18 in the British education system. In 2012, she was nominated for Pearson's Teaching Awards. As a private tutor, she raises grades often from C to A. Her writing is also featured in The Huffington Post.                                                                                  

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