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Christina Rossetti was a religiously devout woman, so it is perhaps unsurprising that her poetry reflects something of her beliefs. What might be surprising is that one of her most famous poems, ‘Goblin Market’, has been published both as children’s literature and in Playboy. But how was it able to appeal to such diverse audiences?

A poem about sex

One possible reading of ‘Goblin Market’ is to see it as an exploration of sexuality. Having “heard the goblins cry” Lizzie and Laura are enticed by the repeated “come buy, come buy”, men luring women in a gender-reversed siren-call. The fruit, with its colour, texture, smell and taste, combined with the delicious mouthfuls of sounds Rossetti uses in listing them, appeals to all the senses at once, whilst the single complex sentence of the list uses rhyme and half rhyme, plosives, assonance and alliteration to present almost every possible fruit imaginable. Even before Lizzie tells us these are “evil gifts” we recognise there is something unnatural about this abundance “all ripe together” and, as the poem develops, this hurried ripening of fruits can be likened to a rush into sexual maturity. The cherries “unpecked” are an obvious reference to virginal innocence while “summer weather”, when Rossetti could have used the more fertile spring, suggests a certain level of maturity; it’s an opposition embodied in the sisters themselves.

Introducing the sisters marks an abrupt scene change and we are immediately directed to the contrast between them. Laura, making an effort to listen to the goblin men, “bowed her head to hear” whereas Lizzie “veiled her blushes”, modestly hiding what was considered an erotic response in Victorian literature. A curious Laura will look while Lizzie hides her eyes. Yet despite these differences, the two are bound together by their relationship, and also by the closeness of their lines.

Referred to as “goblins” as early as the second line, the goblin men are creatures outside of nature. A monstrous combination of bestial traits emphasises their otherness in a violation of beast and man; “One had a cat’s face, one whisked a tail, one tramped at a rat’s pace, one crawled like a snail”. The parrot-voiced one cries “‘Pretty Goblin’ still for ‘Pretty Polly’”. Their voices are also likened to the cooing of doves, an animal associated with Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love. Considering their animalistic natures and the allusion to non-Christian gods it seems anything the goblin men can offer should be considered primitive.

That the fruits they offer represent something sexual is suggested when Laura enters into trade with them. She offers a wordy apology for her lack of money, building from copper to silver to gold to show that what she does have to give is more valuable, whereas the goblin men are far more economical in their reply; “You have much gold upon your head” they point out, ordering her to “Buy from us with a golden curl”. A woman giving of her body via a lock of hair is a sexual metaphor often utilised in literature and Laura, who obeys the command, clearly understands the worth of what she has given for she drops a tear “more rare than pearl” before enjoying the fruits she has bought.

More sexual imagery follows. “She sucked their fruit globes” has obvious sexual connotations, and the addition of “fair or red” implies a certain promiscuity, a promiscuity already anticipated when she wondered “at each merchant man” in turn. We’re told the fruits represent the “joys brides hope to have” and there are references to “man-rejoicing wine” and “juice” the likes of which “she never tasted…before”. Her new insatiable hunger is represented by the repetitive “she sucked and sucked and sucked the more”, indeed, she “sucked until her lips were sore”. Food and sex combine to present an appetite as monstrous as the goblin men themselves (though perhaps only because such an appetite is female). When she can’t taste the fruit again, rhetorical questions mark her despair – “must she then buy no more such dainty fruit?” – and she trudges home, “her pitcher dripping all the way” to symbolise her lack of containment and, perhaps more crudely, her sexual arousal. She is the rind they have thrown away.

A cautionary tale

Lizzie’s warnings “we must not look at goblin men” and “we must not buy their fruits” tell us this is a cautionary tale of sorts. There’s an element of ‘stranger danger’ of course (which taken with the fantastical use of goblin creatures and the lavish illustrations in particular versions might account for the poem’s appeal as children’s literature) and the goblin men are clearly not to be trusted, Rossetti writing “they sounded kind and full of loves” rather than ‘they were kind’. They offer something of a warning themselves - “come buy” does admit there’s a price to be paid, after all - but they hardly make their intentions clear. Their “leering at each other” and “signalling each other” unifies the goblins in sinister secrecy while “brother with sly brother” highlights the contrast between them and the sisters.

Initially Lizzie’s warning regarding these men seems to be against the threat of venereal disease. Her question, “who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry thirsty roots?” uses phallic imagery to depict a voracious appetite via the modifiers “hungry” and “thirsty”. We’re told of a previous woman who fell victim, Jeanie, and now “no grass will grow” on her grave, continuing the idea of sterility and sexual disease. Yet even Lizzie is not immune to their offers; it may be that she “veils her blushes” but there are blushes to veil. It highlights her strength in resisting the goblin men. “Their offers should not charm us” she says, “should” admitting the appeal despite the certainty that “their evil gifts would harm us”. She offers more warning with the fate of Jeanie which creates tension because we know by now it is too late for Laura. Jeanie “pined and pined away”, all the more hungry because the fruits of the goblin men provide no sustenance and she dies for her appetite. Society, it seems, has no place for a fallen woman.

A religious allegory

Most of Rossetti’s life spanned most of Queen Victoria’s reign, making her very much a Victorian woman, and so little wonder the sexual content of her poem is veiled, but Rossetti also denied that ‘Goblin Market’ was any kind of religious allegory. Yet comparisons to The Fall abound and the poem contains a great amount of biblical symbolism. Most obvious is the “fruit forbidden”, the list beginning significantly with an apple, and we are told directly that Jeanie “fell”. After Laura’s transgression, the sisters “fetched in honey” and “milked the cows”, foods reminiscent of the paradise in Exodus 3:8. Laura, though, is “longing for the night”, her waiting for goblin men literally fruitless, bringing to mind Revelation 18:14 ‘The fruit for which thy soul longed has gone from thee’. Indeed, other references such as to Matthew 7:15-16, ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous will know them by their fruits’ indicate a deliberate intertextuality, for Rossetti would have undoubtedly been aware of such passages.

Lizzie cannot stand to see her sister suffer the same fate as Jeanie, and she offers herself to the goblins to save Laura in a sacrificial act of Christ-like symbolism. The goblins tempt her with their fruits (again, apples first), giving her commands like “pluck them and suck them” when offering her the sexually explicit “plums on their twigs”. Lizzie, however, keeps her distance; she throws an impersonal payment of coin and holds out her apron for the goods. They become aggressive, “grunting and snarling” their looks “evil’. They lash out, tread upon her, claw her, tear her hair, stamp on her, the language violently rape-like when we’re told they “tore her gown and soiled her stockings…held her hands and squeezed their fruits against her mouth”. Yet Lizzie remains strong.

Continuing the imagery of sexual attack, she’s compared to a “virgin town” against a fleet “mad to tug her standard down”, the double meaning of standard very clear, and she is given a list of heroic similes in standing against them, a rock “lashed by tides”, a beacon “in a hoary sea”, a tree “beset by wasp and bee”, each showing a strength in resistance, albeit of a passive kind. She is a regendered Christ figure in suffering to redeem her sister, standing against the goblins kicking and mauling, refusing to “open lip from lip”, keeping her innocence intact. The goblins can only cover her with juices as they are “worn out by her resistance”.

The cautionary aspect of the poem is reiterated with Laura’s concerns for her sister’s “ruin” when she returns for her but Lizzie remains pure, bidding “eat me, drink me, love me” in allusion to the Holy Communion. The juice is “wormwood” to Laura’s tongue, a metaphor drawing on Revelations 8:11-12, yet she is reborn for it, “Life out of death” offering the Christian paradox that saves her. Thus regardless of Rossetti’s own view of the poem, from a reader’s perspective the religious meaning is clear: Rossetti has used ‘Goblin Market’ to retell the story of the Fall, depicting Laura as a redeemable Eve whilst goblin men embody the serpent. The temptation offered remains knowledge, only it’s of a carnal sort.

A feminist text

Lines like “the moon bends her arc” and “each glow-worm winks her spark” present the natural world as feminine and makes a feminist reading of the poem all the more tempting, especially if the role of sisters is read metaphorically. But in Christina Rossetti: Poems and Prose, Jan Marsh recognises an “ambivalence” towards the position of women in Rossetti’s work and notes that whilst Rossetti was opposed to the sexual exploitation of girls, she was also against women’s suffrage. Rossetti’s work is at once elaborately erotic and yet seemingly a renunciation of such pleasure and ‘Goblin Market’ significantly ends with both sisters married, safely domestic and separate from the world of commerce and men, passing their cautionary tale on to their own children.

The goblin men are the only men detailed in the poem (Rossetti offers little information regarding Lizzie’s and Laura’s husbands) and as such it’s tempting to see them as representing all men, but Rossetti does take care to differentiate; “Such fruits as these no man can carry”, she says, and “men sell not such in any town”, excusing ‘normal’ men somewhat from any part in the downfall of the sisters. She even repeats the line for emphasis, bracketing it both times as some sort of apologetic aside that anticipates the all too familiar cry of ‘not all men’. It seems Rossetti wants us to focus on the women and their own behaviour.

‘Goblin Market’ may be a warning against premarital sex but the lasting message seems to be an appeal for women to support other women who have succumbed to such desires. “There is no friend like a sister” she tells us at the end of her poem, and it is her duty “to lift one if one totters down”, which is to say fallen, be it from grace or in the eyes of a judgemental society. Rossetti herself volunteered at Highgate Penitentiary for Fallen Women for several years. In Lizzie’s rescue of her sister, ‘Goblin Market’ shows a certain feminine strength, and yet at the same time it illustrates that a woman seeking to establish her own sexual identity before marriage is doomed. The sisters are “like two wands of ivory tipped with gold for awful kings” showing that although men may be absent from the poem, the patriarchal system to which the women belong is not.

A year after its publication, the writer Caroline Norton claimed ‘Goblin Market’ defied criticism, asking, “Is it a fable – or a mere fairy story – or an allegory against the pleasures of sinful love – or what is it?” She may well ask, for the poem offers even more than this. A psychoanalytical reading could have Lizzie and Laura personifying aspects of a divided self, for example. A ‘queer’ reading is also very possible, as is one focussing on economics, highlighting the evils of trade via the “customary cry” of the goblins with its “iterated jingle” like spent coins, Laura a consumer who is ultimately consumed. Whatever your take on it, though, ‘Goblin Market’ remains a poem that offers many interpretations. Many fruits, if you like, all ripe together.

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