In September, 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose artistic goal was a return to simplicity, presenting nature directly, with faithfulness and attention to detail, but with spiritual resonance. They were harking back to a time when the world resonated with spiritual power, before it was split into rational and spiritual dimensions during the Renaissance. Their name was derived from the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael, who personified a departure from this simplicity for the group who desired to return to the bright colours and direct emotional effect visible in pre-Renaissance paintings, though the group wanted to apply the same principle to poetry as well as to painting: poems were to be constructed from a simplicity of imagery, syntax and diction, focusing on sense perception but with an emotional resonance.
Rossetti’s poem, ‘The Woodspurge’, was written in the spring of 1856 when Rossetti was experiencing emotional turmoil regarding relationships with women. But ‘The Woodspurge’ leaves the cause of the poet-narrator’s depression unspecified, thereby broadening its expression of mental and emotional distress.
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.
In sixteen-lines, divided into four-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, the poem outwardly describes an unidentified introverted narrator outdoors. In his depressed state, he experiences a moment of epiphany in glimpsing a woodspurge, a species of weed with a three-part blossom.
The steady iambric tetrameter lays this out matter-of-factly, tying the two moods of the poem together without any apparent seam. But what grips us in this poem, as in many others, is the sense of something missing which the imagery conveys: the countryside is unspecified, ‘shaken out dead from tree and hill’, suggesting the narrator’s state of mind. He is aimless, moving in the direction the wind is blowing, and, once the wind ceases, he stops; his posture in the second stanza indicates depression, though we are not given a cause; he cannot speak of it - ‘My lips…said not Alas!’ - and he is so cast down that his hair is touching the grass. His vulnerability and passivity are further suggested by the line ‘My naked ears heard the day pass’. Even the fact that his ears are ‘naked’ paints the picture of emptiness and loss for us.
But, with eyes ‘wide open’ he seems to be seeking some kind of answer. Out of that group, a flowering woodspurge captures his attention. The woodspurge is hidden ‘Among those few, out of the sun’ mirroring the condition of his own soul - but ‘The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one’.
Dismissing the day’s experience as unable to produce ‘Wisdom or even memory’, he concludes nevertheless that he has gained something: ‘One thing then learnt remains to me/The woodspurge has a cup of three’.
Short, simple, sad and lyrical, the form of the poem was popular during Victorian times and in the preceding Romantic period and was an ideal tool for Rossetti’s aim to produce simplicity in poetry. Tree, hill, grass, weeds, sun are all unadorned with adjectives; no metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech complicate the simple incident presented. The woodspurge is the only thing possessed of any detail; Rossetti’s use of monosyllabic words slows the pace; the aaaa, bbbb, cccc rhyme scheme lacks variety. ‘Wind’ is repeated four times in the first stanza, ‘still’ twice. All of this communicates the poet’s intent, creating a vacuum which pulls in the reader’s attention so that he can deliver the ‘punchline’.
Nature acts as a background for the presentation of spiritual fulfilment: the three-in-one nature of the woodspurge, suggesting the Christian Trinity, symbolises and evokes a higher truth. The narrator has found, in the simplicity of nature, at the time of his greatest need, evidence that God is present. When we read back over the poem with this in mind, we can detect a personification of the wind - ‘the wind’s will - which further suggests the immanence of the divine.