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Rosetti’s “The Woodspurge” and Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” Essay

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Updated: Aug 25th, 2021

In Freud’s essay, “Mourning and Melancholia”, the writer believes the act of mourning, which if carried out mistakenly can consequence in melancholia, a pathological infirmity. Freud states, “In mourning, it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia, it is the ego itself.” A person suffering with melancholia frequently cannot pin point what they have lost, as it is regularly not an individual but a non-figurative notion. Their obsession on this object is passionate often due to the egotistical basis of the attachment, consequently when they lose this entity; they lose a little more radical – themselves and their will to live.

Indicators of melancholia are comparable to those of mourning; on the other hand melancholia is distinguished by “a strange diminution in self-regard” and the deficiency of shame. Freud believes that a convinced period of mourning is essential when confronting loss; in fact if this procedure were not to occur, or if this procedure were to be interrupted, it could be of great detriment. Mourning should be used to recognize the loss of a particular object and to eventually come to terms with the separation, the experience ultimately making one stronger and urging one forward.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem the Woodspurge is dedicated to stimulating English art through medieval motivation. Rossetti was significantly highly praised for the spectacular and paranormal elements in his effort. Rossetti’s later years were blemished by grief and hopelessness. In 1860 he had wedded a milliner, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal. Inside two years Elizabeth died, and Rossetti was sorrow stricken by the disaster. Additionally, he was concerned by a sour assault that had been made on the ethics of his poems.

This grief and desperation is evident in the poem The Woodspurge. After going through this traumatic experience, many critics believe that Rossetti speaks through the speaker of the poem. It starts of with the line: “The wind flapped loose, the wind was still”, here the wind might symbolize how the conditions of life are frequently changing, that he is living in a very unstable environment. Later in the first stanza he goes on to say that, “I had walked on at the winds will; I sat now, for the wind was still“. It is clear from this that the poet has very little control over his life and he does whatever that was expected from him by society.

In the second stanza, for the first time in the poem we understand that Rossetti is in distress, “Between my knees my forehead was, my lips drawn in; my hair was over in the grass“, this suggests that Rossetti was completely distraught. In the third stanza there is reference to his troubles mentioned above, “some ten weeds to fix upon”, followed by the first source of salvation “Among those few out of the sun, the Woodspurge flowered, three cups in one”.

There are two interpretations for the symbolism of the Woodspurge. The first is that the Woodspurge is some kind of poison in which he sees light in so as to end his life and escape from all the misery. The second interpretation is that the Woodspurge refers to his work, including this poem, perhaps he is trying to say that when he is working on his paintings and poems he forgets about his troubles. In the last verse of the poem, Rossetti sees obviously for the first time in the poem, in spite of being inconsolable his lose, he sees that he has to go on and once again he refers to the Woodspurge as somewhat that can revive him of pain: “On thing then learnt remains to me, the Woodspurge has a cup of three“.

While “Mourning and Melancholia” crowned his meta-psychological theorizing, the paper was also important on a clinical level. For Jones, in 1955, it was “still the best account available of the psychology of manic-depressive insanity” (p. 251). But whether the melancholia in question is of clinical or of theoretical interest, just what melancholia is comes to be particularly difficult to assess since, as Freud notes at the very beginning of his paper, there does not seem to be any unifying principle behind the symptoms of this particular neurosis.

He warns readers against overestimating the value of his conclusions on melancholia because its definition “fluctuates even in descriptive psychiatry [and it] takes on various clinical forms the grouping together of which into a single unity does not seem to be established with certainty; and some of these forces suggest somatic rather than psychogenic affections” (p. 243 ). Such an opening legitimates Freud’s recourse here to a “speculative” approach. And by stressing the necessity of speaking of different forms of melancholia and pathological depression, the text rejoins the longstanding tradition of treating melancholia as a typology to be classified rather than as a condition to be specified.

The paragon of the genre, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, for instance, uses “melancholia” to describe any number of psychological conditions that range from lycanthropy to religious mysticism to lovesickness. Nonetheless, although Freud says that melancholia cannot be reduced to any fixed concept or symptom, in his attempt to understand what mental processes are taking place, he proceeds to make some rather clear-cut distinctions. As the title of the essay already suggests, melancholia is defined as distinct from mourning, which, we are soon told, would be the “normal affect” of grief caused by the loss of a loved object, while melancholia is described as a “pathology” that on the surface resembles the painful state of mourning.

The Woodspurge is a very traditional poem, with for paragraphs, each with four lines, and each sentence contains eight syllables. This structure could represent the mundane life that this poet is living. The poem has a very slow rhythm, almost as slow as a funeral march and this makes the poem rather depressing to read, but at the same time the reader has time to think more deeply about the author’s circumstances between each line. In some ways, the description of the first and second stanza is similar to that of a flower, perhaps through this, the poet is emphasize that he is rooted/stuck with his problems.

Emphasis on the extent of his problems is also illustrated by the repeated use of the word “My”, at the beginning of each line in the second stanza. Another interesting aspect of the poem is that the first letter of every word in the third stanza spells out the word, “MOAT”, which is a wide water-filled ditch around a castle or fort, dug to give protection from invaders, i.e. the poet is trying to defend himself against his enemies and problems, his “weeds to fix upon“.

For Freud, the act of mourning is not only the affective reaction of grief to a concrete loss such as the death of a loved one; it is also the very process of recuperating the ego’s investment of libido in the lost object through a ritual of commemoration and farewell. What Freud calls the “work” of mourning consists in bringing to consciousness memories of the lost object “bit by bit, at great expense of time energy”: “Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it…. When the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again” (p. 245).

Thus, through a process of “reality tests“, the sufferer realizes that the object of love no longer exists; the ego then decides not to share in the “fate” of the lost beloved but to break its emotional attachment to it, to “cut its losses” as it were. And, unlike in some forms of melancholia, as Freud discusses them later in the essay, after the work of mourning is completed there is no reversal from the state of woe to a manic phase. This difference leads Freud to say that even if the economic conditions for mourning are still unclear, he can nevertheless advance a “conjecture” based on what takes place when memories of the lost object are checked against the reality of its having disappeared.

It is clear that Rossetti was powerfully worried when he wrote this poem, and at the comparable occasion his worries gave him inspiration to write this poem. The Woodspurge is also fairly comparable in subject to the Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia.

Works Cited

David H. Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983, pp. 57-58.

Freud, Sigmund, (1917) Mourning and Melancholia. SE 14, 239-258.

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