1 February 2023 Susannah

Dante Gabriel Rossetti & The Woodspurge

The Woodspurge

This month’s poem is by the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As with so many of his poems, it is linked to his own romantic relationship. Written in 1856, it’s connected to his relationship with Elizabeth Siddal, artist and model. She wanted marriage and he didn’t – he felt that limiting himself to one woman might inhibit his artistic expression.

The Woodspurge by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

The wind flapp’d loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walk’d 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 flower’d, 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 poem is about grief. We are presented with a blustery day and the wind seems to represent the poet’s melancholy. When the wind stops, he bows his head in sorrow and hears the “day pass”, almost revelling in his misery. But then he focuses on what is growing at his feet and finds a solidarity with the weeds. They are, like him, “out of the sun”, but when he notices the woodspurge with its three cups, he appears to find hope. It suggests beauty to him, perhaps also faith (the number three is linked to the Holy Trinity), or maybe the woodspurge represents love and its blindness (the sap from the plant can cause temporary blindness if you get it in your eyes). By the end of the poem, his melancholy has gone – in the unloved weed, he has found hope and a treasured memory. He has also learned that depression and grief need not result in some major life lesson or the gaining of profound wisdom.

It’s an odd and complex poem and one that is hard to fathom. It is written in forceful and plain language, full of sensory detail.

Listen to the poem read by The Wordman:

Did you enjoy this poem? Let me know by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- Woodspurge – Amandelwolfsmelk (Euphorbia amygdaloides), By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=134648; & Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73407

Comments (4)

  1. Helen Tomlinson

    That second stanza, the lips drawn in, head down, hearing the day pass, hearing again an endless succession of days passs until we find a glimmer of hope…that’s it, grief. I found Auden’s poem, ‘Stop the Clocks’ also brilliant for finding the words that most cannot find to express that immeasurable depth of grief, of shock and loss.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, he captures grief so vividly. And I agree about the Auden poem – so moving.

  2. kate moffatt

    Beautifully read and thankyou for your revealing explanation. I enjoy poetry but not one I have to wrestle with, so again thankyou. The Pre-Raphaelites were a wonderful group of people; such depths of genius, moral deprivation and love. I never tire of learning about them. kate

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It was a ‘new’ poem for me, so I am glad you also enjoyed it. I find the Pre-Raphaelites such a fascinating group, and have included William Morris in my new ‘Trailblazer’ series of zoom talks.

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