A Peep at Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”
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. It is unknown whether her interest in “fallen women” resulted from her engagement there, or if her interest propelled her there, (Packer, 153)
Possibly operating under the premise that “Goblin Market” is merely a cautionary tale to be told to an audience of prostitutes, Christina described the poem as a “fairy story” without ulterior meaning, (Kent, 58); likely to dodge the criticism of both her critics and her overbearing brothers while also attracting attention to the possibility of other meanings, (Tucker, 117). Throughout the text she plays with this confusion, writing oral expressions such as, “Laura would call the little ones / And tell them,” (lines 548-549). A cautionary children’s tale would be in keeping within the poorly-define boundaries of “Women’s Literature,” but Christina uses words like “pellucid,” that a child (or prostitute) is not likely to understand, (Tucker, 119).
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,
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 silently to 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,” and a story of Christ-like redemption, among others; one interpretation is that Laura and Lizzie are practicing lesbians. Dante’s drawings put the two in a delicate embrace, taking advantage of the opportunity to express transgressive intimacy within sisterhood. (Bristow, 265) The poem is overtly erotic. The rhymes insist on the physicality of their love, (Bristow, 265) 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.
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:
Notably, Laura pays for the goblin men’s fruit with her hair, Christina’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also invoked the power of hair within Victorian culture for the benefit of his work. His painting Lady Lilith fetishizes a woman’s hair, pluming it across the canvas as the subject combs it. When his wife, Elizabeth Siddall was buried, Dante placed the only manuscripts of his poetry into her long, coppery hair. Seven years later, Dante had her body exhumed to retrieve the manuscripts, and the story goes that Elizabeth’s hair had grown since her death, and filled her coffin. Elizabeth’s hair, buried and tangled around her husband’s manuscripts, “Leaps like a metaphor for monstrous female sexual energies from the literal and figurative coffins in which her artist-husband enclosed her.” (Gilbert, 22)
The ending of “Goblin Market” 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. Repressing an impulse is similar to the Freudian analogy of the Austrian sewer system. It will come back up somewhere else. As with Lizzie Siddall’s hair growing underground, the buried libido expressed itself in an active sex-trade. 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. 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.
In a sexually charged marketplace, the two women in “Goblin Market” have no material with which to barter, but must pay with their bodies, “to take were to purloin.” Though Laura pays literally with her own body, Lizzie pays with a coin, though drawn out of a suggestive “purse,” she pays with a currency detached from her body, implying the power of money to save women from a fallen life. 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 emerges unscathed with her purchase…because she does not bring her desire… to the market with her,” (Helsinger, 909)
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.
The marketplace figures prominently within the poem, Christina makes a point of making the merchants “queer brothers,” selling their fruits to the “sisters,” who live in a pastoral setting. The transactions between the two parties illustrate the exchanges between the domestic and economic spheres, (Stern 483). The pastoral scene is described with mercantile terms, “ ‘buy,’ ‘offer,’ ‘merchant,’ ‘stock,” infuse the poem with commercial themes, (Holt, 51).
The final title of the piece results from one of Christina’s brother Dante’s revision, and places emphasis on the marketplace. The working title had been “A Peep at the Goblins,” adapted from the title of a poem called “A Peep at the Pixies,” written by Christina’s cousin and fellow writer, Mrs. Bray, (Champan, 150). 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,” (66) Interestingly, Christina’s dedication of the poem to their sister, Christina’s moral savior, was also removed during other revisions, though not necessarily by Dante’s hand.
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, (Packer, 150). 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;
Christina also encountered Milton through the influence of her maternal grandfather Gaetono Polidori, who translated Milton’s works into Italian, and treated Christina as his favorite grandchild, having her poems privately published very early on in her career, (Vejvoda, 558). As a Protestant, Milton’s understanding of Christianity ran counter to Rossetti’s Anglicanism, though Christina’s brother William described her as “An Anglo- Catholic, and, among Anglo-Catholics, a Puritan.” (Battiscombe, 32). The themes of hidden danger, fallen-ness and redemption feature heavily in Milton’s works, including Paradise Lost.
Much of Milton’s work revolved around “The Fall” of men from God’s grace, as does “Goblin Market.” Milton’s Eve is crowned with “wanton” and “disheveled” ringlets, slatternly entroping upon the chaste feminine ideal by evoking images of post-coital messiness, (Gilbert 199). In the context of a rebuttal to Milton’s austere fantasy of women, Christina’s depiction of a woman enduring her own mistakes is warm, and without judgment.
Though not a likely explanation for her motives for writing a poem in rebuttal to Milton, Christina’s connection to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood must have pulled her away from Milton, whose work was seen as “cold classicalism with Puritanism,” (Nelson 89). Christina’s brother 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 publication. Ironically, Ruskin thought her meter should be more regular, “like Milton,” (Battiscombe, 99)
“Goblin Market” shows a lot of her brother Dante’s influence, and references his poem “Jenny” several times. Christina likely borrowed the idea of goblins from his line, “It makes a goblin of the sun” for her poem. “Jenny” is told through the eyes of the man, while the woman in question is asleep, (Victorian Poetry, 264), reinforcing the argument that Christina meant to illustrate the experience of prostitution from a female’s perspective; an awake female’s perspective. His poem shows his preoccupation with prostitution (Bristow 94), which was a notorious social malady of the time, and describes a man’s oscillating feelings of both hostility toward and pity for a young prostitute whom others condemn. In congruence with Christina’s nod to Milton’s Eve, Christina also gives complexity to the existing portrayal of “fallen” women.
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. The fruit Laura consumes does appear to have addictive qualities. Laura succumbs to the drug and seeks again the rush of her first encounter, but cannot get her “fix.” The fruit is “Like wormwood,” the substance used to give absinthe its reputed hallucinogenic properties. To aid her sister’s withdrawal pains, Lizzie obtains a homeopathic “dose” of fruit, 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, (Tucker 118-9),
Christina’s brother Dante was an alcoholic, and his wife Elizabeth’s death after an addiction to laudanum strengthens the argument for fruit-as-addictive substance. Especially since Christina chose to use Elizabeth’s moniker within the Pre-Rapaelite Brotherhood, Lizzie, as the name for one of her characters. In relation to the outcome of Elizabeth Siddal’s life, Christina’s casting is generous and optimistic. Lizzie 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.
She wrote during a time in which the parameters of feminine writing were blurry and contested, and some female artists chose to “snatch back” male attributes to the female realm. They specifically praised female novelist’s “masculine straightforwardness,” to further that end. (Macleod , 337). Looking to her trusted church’s tradition, Christina wasn’t specifically feminist, “The Fact of the Priesthood being exclusively man’s, leaves me with no doubt that the highest functions are not in this world open to both sexes,” (Bell, 112). Keep in mind, though, she first had her poetry published in The English Woman’s Journal, edited by the advocate for women’s professional employment, Bessie Rayner Parkes, (Bristow 258), and felt female suffrage was a necessary means for women to protect their causes within the domestic sphere, (Bristow 260).
In conclusion, “Goblin Market” is a poem that weaves a great many, if not all, facets of womanhood into a challenging and lyrical product that was likely to fly beneath the patriarchy’s radar. Though the poem’s tone is childish at first, it becomes both religious and also erotic, while addressing motherhood, sexual currency, repression, lesbianism, sisterhood and addiction; all enduring aspects of life as a woman. I hope I have given the poem some context, and illuminated some of the meaning.
Packer, Lona Mosk. Christina Rossetti. Berkley, 1963.
Kent, David. The Achievement of Christina Rossetti. Cornell, 1987.
Tucker, Herbert. “Rossetti’s Goblin Market: Sweet to Tongue and Sound to Eye.” Representations 82. Spring (2003): 117-133
Bristow, Joseph. “’No Friend Like a Sister’?”: Christina Rossetti’s Female Kin”. Victorian Poetry. 33:2. (Summer, 1995): 257-281
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination. Yale, 1979.
Helsinger, Elizabeth. “Consumer Power and the Utopia of Desire: Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’”. ELH v. 58 (Winter 1991) 903-933
Stern, Rebecca. “’Adulterations Detected’: Food and Fraud in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market”. Nineteenth-Century Literature 57:4. (March 2003) 477-511
Holt, Terrence. “Men Sell Not Such In Any Town’: Exchange in Goblin Market”. Victorian Poetry 28.1 (1990) 51-67
Chapman, Alison. “Defining the Feminine Subject: D.G. Rossetti’s Manuscript Revisions to Christina Rossetti’s Poetry”. Victorian Poetry. 33.2 (Summer 1997) 139-156
Vejvoda, Kathleen. “The fruit of Charity: ‘Comus’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’”. Victorian Poetry. 38.4 (Winter 2000) 555-578
Battiscombe, Georgina. Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life. Constable and Robinson. 1981
Nelson, James. The Sublime Puritan: Milton and the Victorians. Wisconsin. 1963
Macleod, Dianne Sachko. “Intertextuality in ‘Word and Image’”. Victorian Poetry. 33.3/4 (Autumn-Winter 1995) 333-339
Bell, Mackenzie, et al. Christina Rossetti: a biographical and critical study. Burleigh 1898
Also…. I did my best with the citations, but it’s not the best, so check before you use any of them.