Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti.

Goblin Market by Frank Craig (1911).

Goblin Market is a poem by Christina Rossetti composed in 1859 and published in 1862, and it's one of the first poems I ever read (it can be read online here). It is, Rossetti argued, a poem intended for children and as a child I enjoyed it, but when I returned to it in my young adulthood was rather surprising (which I'll get to in a moment). It was written when Rossetti volunteered at St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate, London, a refuge for "fallen women" with a view of saving and rehabilitating prostitutes or unmarried mothers.

First illustration of Goblin Market 
by Arthur Rackham (1933).
The poem begins,
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck'd cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy."
Already the reader is promised a sensual delight of temptation. Rossetti goes on to introduce the two sisters of the poem - the pure Lizzie and her sister Laura. The two hear the cries of the goblins, Lizzie is overcome with maidenly blushes whilst Laura, the tempted, strains to hear and see the goblin men. Lizzie chides her,
"Oh," cried Lizzie, "Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men."
Nevertheless Laura cannot help but look on, fascinated, and so Lizzie runs away calling, "Their evil gifts would harm us" but Laura remains, enchanted, her reason and sense all but lost:
Laura stretch’d her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone. 
Second illustration of Goblin Market 
by Arthur Rackham (1933).
The Goblins spy her, "Come buy, come buy" they call, and Laura creeps closer, but she has not the money to buy, no copper, no sliver, and no gold, she tells them. They reply,
"You have much gold upon your head,"
They answer'd all together:
"Buy from us with a golden curl."
And so she "clipp'd a precious golden lock" and "dropp'd a tear more rare than pearl", and she is finally allowed to enjoy their fruit. She -
suck'd their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flow'd that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
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
But gather'd up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turn’d home alone. 
Third illustration of Goblin Market 
by Arthur Rackham (1933).
She is spellbound, and returns home. She is met by Lizzie who rebukes her and reminds her of the fate of Jeanie who once succumbed to the goblins and subsequently died. Laura however is confident such a fate will not meet her, but despite gorging on the fruits of the goblins she is unsatisfied: "Yet my mouth waters still". She plans to go the next night and bring more fruit back. The two sisters go to bed:
Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtain’d bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipp'd with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gaz'd in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapp'd to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Lock’d together in one nest. 
The next morning they awake and do their chores, but Laura is already pining for the goblins' fruit. The sisters -
Talk’d as modest maidens should:
Lizzie with an open heart,
Laura in an absent dream,
One content, one sick in part;
One warbling for the mere bright day’s delight,
One longing for the night. 
When night arrives the sisters return but though Lizzie hears the cries of the goblins Laura cannot. Unable to sleep that night she,
... sat up in a passionate yearning,
And gnash’d her teeth for baulk’d desire, and wept
As if her heart would break. 
Like Jeanie before her she begins to fade and sinks into a deep depression.

Fourth illustration of Goblin Market
by Arthur Rackham (1933).
And so Lizzie decides to intervene, and she goes to the goblins to buy fruit for her sister. They attack her - these now sinister beings try to force her to eat the fruit, but despite their force she keeps her mouth firmly closed:
One may lead a horse to water,
Twenty cannot make him drink.
Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her,
Coax’d and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,
Kick’d and knock’d her,
Maul’d and mock’d her,
Lizzie utter’d not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in:
But laugh’d in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syrupp’d all her face,
And lodg’d in dimples of her chin,
And streak’d her neck which quaked like curd.
At last the evil people,
Worn out by her resistance,
Flung back her penny, kick’d their fruit
Along whichever road they took,
Not leaving root or stone or shoot;
Some writh’d into the ground,
Some div’d into the brook
With ring and ripple,
Some scudded on the gale without a sound,
Some vanish’d in the distance.
Nevertheless she is still covered with the juices from the fruits and she hurries home so that Laura might at least enjoy that. But by then the spell is broken - Laura greedily kisses the juices off her sister, however "That juice was wormwood to her tongue, / She loath'd the feast". She falls ill, her life hanging by a thread, but awakes the next morning refreshed and back to her old self. At last, "light danced in her eyes". Years pass, and the two remind their children never to succumb to the temptation of the goblin men. Rossetti concludes,
"For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands."
These ideas of temptation and sisterhood are in keeping with Rossetti's ethos which she showed by becoming a volunteer at St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary. Goblin Market is a magical poem set on the edge of a fairy realm where goblins walk and magic happens, but there are to the modern reader some sexual undertones in the poem. My reading of it now is that it is not so much sexual but sensual, and the plethora of interpretations are almost as interesting as the poem itself! It's been described as feminist, lesbian, anti-Semitic, a critique of capitalism and advertising, and a pornographic work (Kinuko Craft illustrated the poem in 1973 for Playboy with very sexually explicit imagery), and one on depression and mental illness. I can't help but feel there is a temptation to read into children's literature very adult themes and in doing so at best miss the point and worst somehow sully it (keep in mind too the belief of some that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is simply about a drug-induced high, a theory that could be applied to Goblin Market). As for me, I firmly rule out the pornographic interpretation but nevertheless the temptation into which Laura fell is ambiguous - is she a fallen woman redeemed, or was it knowledge and a desire to be God-like (assuming the fruits of the goblins represent the Forbidden Fruit in Genesis and Lizzie represents Christ the Redeemer)? I lean towards the former but appreciate the latter, and its message that a fallen woman can be redeemed and does not have to die or be punished for their entire life on earth. Whatever the case it is a poem that is not easily forgotten, and I will continue to mull it over.

To finish, some black and white illustrations of Goblin Market by Florence Harrison from Poems by Christina Rossetti published by Blackie and Son (1910):



That was my seventeenth title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf.

Comments

  1. interesting observations. i've always just thought that CR, as a rather dreamy person, was familiar with fairies, goblins, trolls and the like and had no deep or hidden motives or meanings to instill in her poetry; she just used what she saw around her to create her own poetical world(s). wonderful poem and tx for the illustrations...

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    1. I don't know enough about Christina Rossetti, but I do know there are a few poems on 'fallen women' (Cousin Kate being one of them) so I think it's plausible that this has the same themes. Above all though is this goblin and fairy world making it very much a children's poem as well as a poem for adults I think :)

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  2. Nice post! I really liked this poem. I read it several years back for a book club meeting that I ended up not even attending. I was unaware of Rossetti's background and when/why it was written until today. I always love the illustrations you include as well. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. No problem, glad you liked it :)

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