Today’s poem is by the “Pre-Raphaelite” poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). It is made essentially of two elements, one objective (giving a straight description of something) and the other subjective (giving a personal interpretation of something). The first three stanzas are objective, just telling what happened, without commentary. The single subjective stanza — the personal interpretation or commentary of the poet — is the very last one.
To understand this poem, you must first know that a wood spurge is a wild, green, perennial plant that grows in moist soil in and about the partial shade of woodlands. The spurge found in southern England is Euphorbia amygdaloides. It grows to about 32 inches in height. It is not a striking plant, being largely monotone green, and at its tips it develops a little green “cup” out of which two other, smaller green “cups” sprout — giving us “a cup of three.” Rossetti writes wood spurge as one word — “woodspurge” — but now it is commonly written as two.
This is not, however, a poem about botany, but rather about the stages of grief — the kind of grief one has at the passing of someone very close and dear. The remarkable thing about this work is the manner in which the writer conveys the depth of this grief to the reader. As we shall see, he leads us into this gradually.
Here is The Woodspurge:
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.
There is an underlying simile here. The wind “flapp’d loose” — “shaken out.” This reminds us of a sheet a woman shakes out when hanging laundry, which of course creates gusts of “wind.” But the simile is very weak, so we only feel its effect in the background of the lines, as the poet intended. It does not overwhelm his purpose. So in this stanza we first feel the gusts of blowing wind, then the wind going still, as though “shaken out dead” from the trees and the hill — a movement from violent action to stillness and emptiness. This transition is very important in the poem, but this is revealed only gradually.
The poet tells us that he had walked “at the wind’s will,” that is, walked carried along with the force of the wind, randomly; but now he sits, because the wind has gone still. We shall realize, as we continue the poem, that this too is a kind of simile giving us two stages of grief, the first gusty and forceful, the second absolutely still and empty.
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.
The poet describes his posture, sitting with his head dropped between his knees, so that his long hair touched the grasses growing up from the earth. His lips were drawn tight and firm, and he made no verbal expression of the sorrow we see obvious in his dejected position. His bare ears “heard the day pass,” meaning he sat there, unmoving, for a very long time.
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.
His eyes were open, but his field of vision was not wide — with only about ten growing weeds on which he could gaze, could “fix his vision.” And among those weeds, in the shade, was a wood spurge, with everything on the plant the same monotone light green. It is the woodspurge that draws his long, unmoving stare.
Up to now, the poet has been completely objective. He has given us a bare description of his walk in the gusts of wind, of how the wind went still, of how he then sat with his head down and eyes open, and of how his gaze fixed on the wood spurge. But now he turns to commentary, giving us the point of the poem, his conclusions.
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.
“Perfect grief” is utter, complete grief. That is the stage the poet reached as the wind went still and he sat down. Earlier he was blown about and carried here and there by his violent gusts of thought and emotional sorrow, like the blowing wind in which he walked. But now that wind has gone silent, as have his thoughts and emotions. All that remains is just the stark, bare, empty, utterly stunning sense of loss, unmixed with thoughts or movement — “perfect grief,” the greatest depth of sorrow.
Now the poet, in looking back on that time, has a realization. When he was in that profound, silent state of utter sorrow, with his thoughts, like the wind, gone perfectly still and silent, all that remained active were his bare senses, particularly vision. And in that condition of absolute grief, all that registered in his mind was his view of the woodspurge and the noticed fact that it had a “cup of three.” And that objective reality in the emptiness of that time of sorrow will forever express the depth of his grief more accurately than any thoughts or emotions — his total sense of vacant loss, all emotion and thought and movement, internal and external, exhausted.
It is the one thing that deepest stage of grief left to him — not a lesson of wisdom learned, not a memory of his loss, because thoughts had gone — only
The woodspurge has a cup of three.
This bare sensation, this bare noticing as an expression of deepest grief is what makes Rossetti’s poem remarkable.