Thursday, April 23, 2015

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

In a way, it's a shame that Christina Rossetti's most well-known poem is the early work Goblin Market, which is far from representative of her long body of work. Metaphysical and devotional poems like Up-hill, Cried Out With Tears, or In Progress are far more representative of her work. However, Goblin Market remains a perennial favourite, and not without justice. A narrative poem framing temptation, sin, sacrifice, and redemption in a lushly evocative fairy-tale, Goblin Market is a delight to read; its rhythm and extraordinary imagery cling in the mind.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy.
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries..."
Sisters Lizzie and Laura, down at the brook to fetch water, hear the goblins cry in the evening.
"We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"
When Laura succumbs to temptation and gorges herself on sweet goblin fruit, she loses her taste for anything else and begins to fade away, unable anymore to hear the goblins calling. Until Lizzie, desperate to save her sister's life, finally dares to go to the goblins in order to bring back fruit for Laura.

The chief delight of this poem is the language. Rossetti wields a lush and gorgeous vocabulary that comes alive with reading aloud. The irregularities in the rhythm and rhyme structure prevent the short lines from degenerating into sing-song doggrel, and despite its somewhat heavy subject matter, the poem remains, like its youthful authoress, fresh and charming.

Critics have, of course, argued for years about what Goblin Market, with its forbidden fruit and its sensuous vocabulary, really means. If anything, I favour the fallen-woman interpretation. Both Christina's brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as their friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, chose to paint pictures on this topic. In Hunt's The Awakening of Conscience, a young woman with clasped hands turns away from her lover to stare out of a window toward the viewer at a moment perhaps of resistance, perhaps of remorse or repentance. In Dante Gabriel Rossetti's unfinished picture Found!, a young farmer going to market discovers his old sweetheart working the city streets, and seizes her wrists as she collapses dramatically. Christina Rossetti herself began volunteer work with "fallen women" at Highgate Penitentiary on or shortly after the date of the completion of Goblin Market. However, according to William Michael Rossetti, Christina's brother, "I have more than once heard Christina say that she did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale - it is not a moral apologue consistently carried out in detail."

Ironically, it was DGR's own Cockney mistress who posed for this picture.
Certainly, Goblin Market demonstrates a highly moral sensibility. Laura succumbs to temptation, suffers the consequences, nearly dies, but is brought back to life through her sister's love and courage in a moment with a more than superficial parallel with Scripture--"Eat me, drink me, love me." Rossetti is steeped enough in biblical imagery and cadences that she cannot help bleeding it all out onto the page, and because all sin works in the same way (opening lines of Anna Karenina to the contrary), her story, rich as it is in meaning, would work equally well as a parable for any temptation. As it says in James 1:15, "Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death." 

Apart from all this, Goblin Market is a wonderful entry in the English fairy-tale genre, a tradition that stretches back to Middle English lays like Sir Orfeo or Tam Lin, and all the way forward to more modern works like Stardust or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It was first published in 1862 as part of a collection of Rossetti's poems, and Goblin Market and Other Poems remains one of my favourite Rossetti collections. If you like poetry and English fairy tales, be sure to dip into Goblin Market.

Find Goblin Market and Other Poems on Amazon, the Book Depository, Librivox, or Project Gutenberg.


Jamie W. said...

Wow, thank you! I read Goblin Market some time ago (for school, like a lot of people), and I enjoyed it, but this post really made it click in a new way. What Rossetti meant it to be, what it does, is clearer now. (For some reason, the Sir Orfeo comparison made it clear... perhaps just because I love old narrative poetry!)

Suzannah said...

Glad it helped the poem to click! The English fairy story is one with an extremely long history, and Goblin Market definitely fits right in along with the others.

Christina Baehr said...

Really, I think you'll enjoy Rossettis in Wonderland when you get your hands on it. It makes so much sense to biographize all four Rossettis together. Christina's choices stand out as even more admirable by contrast. You've inspired me to read Goblin Market to my girls. Hopefully it will inspire sisterly selflessness!

Suzannah said...

Yes! I do so want to read that Dinah Roe book. Maybe I should order it at our library!


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