Did I tell you that I love Christina Rossetti?

Christina Rossetti and “Goblin Market”

Christina Rossetti was a very interesting woman, and the oldest child of a highly creative family, to whom she was close.  Her father was the Italian poet Gabriele Rossetti, who emigrated to London after being exiled from Italy for supporting nationalist revolutionaries. Her mother was sister to Lord Byron’s physician and friend. Her grandfather privately published a book of her poetry when she was seventeen.  Her younger sister Maria was an author, her brother William was a critic and also the family archivist, and her brother Dante was a painter and translator. Christina worked alongside her brother Dante for most of her life, and it is through the copious letters William compiled that we learn about their relationship.

Rossetti never married, though she had at least two serious proposals. Both proposals she refused, on the grounds that the suitor was morally lacking.  Her most notable significant other was Charles Bagot Cayley, a scholar and linguist who translator the Divine Comedy. William Rossetti noted in his book that she loved him.

Modern commentators view her rejection of married life as an act of artistic self-preservation. Marriage and motherhood might detract from the time and energy she had to put forth on creative endeavors.  Earlier spectators thought that her unattached life was a tragedy in her life, and this is not a view that cannot totally be denied. Christina’s brother William recounted one instance in which she saw Cayley walking down the street a few months after their break up, and she passed out and had to be revived. 

Though they were not romantically linked after the event, they continued correspondence.  In one letter, Christina asked her brother William to send Cayley some copies of some sort. In return for their help, he sent Christina an original translation of an Italian poem from 1311, on how an Italian should behave when visiting London. Fitting, as Christina was bilingual through the influence of her Italian father, and also a native of London. Intimate stuff for academic sorts.

A few weeks before Cayley’s proposal in the summer of 1866, Christina’s first and most famous book of poems was published, largely featuring the poem “Goblin Market.” Christina had begun working on the poem years earlier, and had at least a rough draft in 1857. During the revision (and for several years after), she worked at an Anglican “charity home” which serves as a home and reformatory for prostitutes.

The poem shows a lot of her brother Dante’s influence, and references his poem “Jenny” several times. Christina likely borrowed the idea of goblins from the line, “It makes a goblin of the sun” for her poem. His poem shows his preoccupation with prostitution, which was a notorious social malady of the time, and describes a man’s feelings of pity toward a young prostitute whom others condemn. Christina’s “Goblin Market” is also about a young woman who is victimized for using her sexuality as currency. Consider lines 116 through 128, which describe how she pays for the Goblin Men’s “fruit”:

“Good folk, I have no coin;

To take were to purloin:

I have no copper in my purse,

I have no silver either,

And all my gold is on the furze

That shakes in windy weather

Above the rusty heather.”

“You have much gold upon your head,”

They answered altogether:

“Buy from us with a golden curl.”

She clipped a precious golden lock,

She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,

Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:


Unlike Lizzie, Laura does not pay with tangible money.  See lines 363 – 368:

“Good folk,” said Lizzie,

Mindful of Jeanie,

“Give me much and many”; —

Held out her apron,

Tossed them her penny.


Lizzie does not pay the men with her body for the right to access the evocative fruit, nor does she pay out of her “purse,” a probable reference to one of the more awesome distinguishing characteristics of the female body.  In a time when employment was very difficult for women to obtain, Lizzie may represent women wealthy enough to secure a marriage and a respectable lifestyle, contrasting Laura, who must pay with her body, out of her sexuality, and is degraded in the doing. 

Further, Dante illustrated the first publication with woodcuts, and wrote to author and critic John Ruskin to ask for his notes on her poetry and to ask for him to put a good word in for her at the Cornhill Magazine. Sadly, Ruskin thought her meter should be more regular, “like Milton.”

The protagonist’s name is also significant, Dante’s wife Elizabeth or Lizzie Siddal passed away a few months before the publication of the poem. Shy and pretty, she’d been the model for Millais’s painting of Ophelia floating in water.  During the process of painting, she had posed in a tub of water that became cold. She did not complain and the exposure to cold triggered the onset of poor health. Her health was probably the main reason why Christina disapproved of their marriage, speculations on her affliction run from anorexia to addiction to laudanum. Siddal delivered a stillborn daughter in 1861, then overdosed on laudanum in February of 1862, and in her distress committed suicide by overdosing on laudanum.  Christina’s poem also serves as a depiction of addiction. Lizzie, who shares a name with Dante’s wife Elizabeth, places Elizabeth in the place of the protagonist, procuring enough of the intoxicant to placate Laura in the midst of Laura’s search for the first euphoric “high,” but not enough to heighten her addiction.

Dante is not alone in his influence of the poem. Christina’s sister Maria was a very devout Anglican who authored the essay, “The Shadow of Dante,” and became a nun. The poem is devoted to her, and lends credibility to the poem as a story of the redemptive power of love.  Throughout their lives, Maria served as a bolstering influence on Christina’s moral self. Their brother William once commented that some “particular and unknown event occasioned the writing of the poem.”  Lines 422-435 show that Lizzie traded with the men and purchased their “wares” at great personal cost:

One may lead a horse to water,

Twenty cannot make him drink.

Though the goblins cuffed and caught her,

Coaxed and fought her,

Bullied and besought her,

Scratched her, pinched her black as ink,

Kicked and knocked her,

Mauled and mocked her,

Lizzie uttered not a word;

Would not open lip from lip

Lest they should cram a mouthful in;


Clearly, Lizzie enters a marketplace of “queer brothers” that actively seeks to defile her, but she perseveres, “White and golden Lizzie stood, / Like a lily in a flood,” in order to obtain the antidote for her sister. The lily flower is another reference to her brother’s poem, but also a stock image of female purity, used by Christina’s enthusiast Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway, “She looked pale, mysterious, like a lily, drowned, under water, he thought.”


Victorian audiences accepted the redemption-story interpretation, and reviews were good upon the book’s release. As well, they saw the story as a cautionary tale. The character Jeanie parallels Christina’s brother Dante’s poem “Jenny.” Christina even rhymes “Jeanie” with “many” in lines 363-367, given earlier:

Good folk,” said Lizzie,

Mindful of Jeanie,

“Give me much and many”; —

Held out her apron,

Tossed them her penny.

Jeanie had also succumbed to the Goblin Men:

Do you not remember Jeanie,

How she met them in the moonlight,

Took their gifts both choice and many,

The distinction between them is that Jeanie had no savior:

She thought of Jeanie in her grave,

Who should have been a bride;

But who for joys brides hope to have

Fell sick and died

In her gay prime,

The ending solidifies the perspective of the Christian-Humanists, with both women marrying and living happily, after the fall and redemption, but in relation to the rest of the text, it feels tacked on:

Days, weeks, months,years

Afterwards, when both were wives

With children of their own;

  The jarringly neutered tone beckons further interpretation, asking us to doubt the premise and look deeper.

It is possible that Christina intended the poem to have two audiences. The character Lizzie speaks to the educated audience, who would be reading it themselves. She sees through the Goblin Men’s ploy and has the money to pay them with socially accepted currency.  The story works in many levels, both as a “symbolic fairy tale,” a story of Christ-like redemption, among others.

One interpretation is that Laura and Lizzie are practicing lesbians, and the tension between them is apparent. Lines 464-474 illustrate:

She cried “Laura,” up the garden,

“Did you miss me ?

Come and kiss me.

Never mind my bruises,

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices

Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,

Goblin pulp and goblin dew.

Eat me, drink me, love me;

Laura, make much of me:

For your sake I have braved the glen

And had to do with goblin merchant men.”

In this interpretation, Lizzie not only rescues Laura, but also takes her away from the men and removes her lust for them, leaving jealousy as a possible motivation for Lizzie. By trading with the men, she acquaints herself with their “wares,”

Their fruits like honey to the throat,

But poison in the blood;

(Men sell not such in any town;)

Notice that men cannot sell the fruit, as it is not theirs.

Some see the poem as a study of female agency in a male-dominated marketplace, and yet another interpretation is of the story as pure sexual fantasy.

 She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She suck’d until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away

This is racy stuff! Improbably, after 500 lines of sensual and evocative language, the women “wake up” in adulthood as mothers and wives, as if it had happened to another pair of women. More, and lastly for the sake of this presentation, is the interpretation of the sisters as partners in feminism. In the face of hardship and assault, they still relate to each other rather to some other entity, banding together and retaining a self-sufficiency that might have eluded them, had they not.  


I have citations for everything. I’ll add them tomorrow. I’m tired. Come to class tomorrow and see me do it live!

This entry was posted in family, literary criticism, literature, morality, sex, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Did I tell you that I love Christina Rossetti?

  1. billymandarin says:

    Literacy reigns!

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