A commentary on Rossetti’s classic poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Goblin Market’ is probably the most famous poem Christina Rossetti (1830-94) wrote. It’s a long narrative poem about two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, and how Laura succumbs to temptation and tastes the fruit sold by the goblins of the poem’s title. In this post, we offer a very short analysis of ‘Goblin Market’ in terms of its language, metre, meaning, and themes.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis, by any means – more of an introduction to one of the most critically acclaimed and widely discussed poems in all of Victorian literature. You can read Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ here. (For more information about her life, we recommend our short and interesting biography of Rossetti.)
The poem opens:
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,
Wild free-born cranberries,
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,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy …’
‘Goblin Market’: analysis and interpretations
What is ‘Goblin Market’ about? The fruit in the poem which the goblins sell has been interpreted in various ways: critics have long seen the eroticised description of the exotic fruit as symbolic of (sexual) temptation, with Laura as the fallen woman who succumbs to masculine wiles and is ruined as a result (though she is, of course, happily married at the end of the poem).
But this ‘temptation’ invites further analysis and interpretation. Some critics have drawn parallels between Laura’s addiction to the exotic fruit in the poem and the experience of drug addiction. In Victorian Britain, opium-addiction was a real social problem, opium being, like the fruits of ‘Goblin Market’, both sweet and bitter (i.e. having an up and a down side), and exotic as well (opium hailing from the Orient).
Other commentators note that Laura and Lizzie live alone, with no parents or guardians – a rather unconventional set-up for two young Victorian sisters. Partly for this reason, and partly because the fruit in the poem is described as ‘forbidden’, critics have interpreted ‘Goblin Market’ in terms of female homosexuality.
Although the narrator of the poem tells us that Lizzie thought their dead friend Jeanie ‘should have been a bride’, Laura and Lizzie are unmarried until the end of the poem, which is set years later when they are considerably older.
‘Goblin Market’ and marriage
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 …
Critics offering a biographical analysis of ‘Goblin Market’ have been quick to point out that Christina Rossetti herself, although she was courted by several suitors, never married. Is the ‘market’ of ‘Goblin Market’ the Victorian marriage market, and the goblins the ugly and rapacious suitors who lecherously use their wealth to attract a young wife?
Marriage in the Victorian era, as it had been in the days of Jane Austen, was often a financial arrangement as much as (or even more than) it was a matter of love and romance, and represented the only chance of financial stability and security for many women.
Is the luscious and exotic fruit the goblins offer for sale a representation of all that is wrong with Victorian marriage conventions, or does it represent an altogether more unconventional alternative to marriage? (This latter reading chimes with the idea that Laura, in succumbing to the goblins’ fruits, is a fallen woman.)
Then there are the elements of sexual violence in the poem – which are offered symbolically rather than directly, but which, upon close analysis of key passages, become rather obvious. Look at the way the (male) goblins treat Lizzie:
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her,
Claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.
This symbolic gang-rape – forcing Lizzie, whose ‘stocking’ has been ‘soil’d’, to ‘open lip from lip’ against her will (lips being sexually suggestive, of course, of other female body parts) – reveals a brutal violence in the poem which helps to demonstrate why Christina Rossetti maintained that ‘Goblin Market’ was not for children.
‘Goblin Market’ and metre
Tender Lizzie could not bear
To watch her sister’s cankerous care
Yet not to share.
She night and morning
Caught the goblins’ cry:
‘Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy;’—
Beside the brook, along the glen,
She heard the tramp of goblin men,
The yoke and stir
Poor Laura could not hear;
Long’d to buy fruit to comfort her,
But fear’d to pay too dear.
The art critic John Ruskin (who coined the phrase ‘pathetic fallacy’) said that in ‘Goblin Market’ Rossetti was ‘violating the common ear for metre’. The poem’s metrical form invites comment and analysis: its rhythm is irregular and songlike, as with so many of Christina Rossetti’s poems, though they are usually more regular in their use of metre and rhythm, and their rhyme schemes tend to be slightly more ordered.
The unpredictability of the line lengths, rhymes, and rhythms of ‘Goblin Market’ echoes the unpredictable fairy-tale world of the goblins. Words themselves are unstable, ripe (like the fruit) to enchant us and then unsettle us with their cunning:
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.
The eye is apt to stumble over ‘aguish’, wanting to correct it to ‘anguish’; but, like the word itself, we are caught in a feverish world we can only half-comprehend, much less analyse. And then, a few dozen lines later:
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life?
Who knows? The fruit in the Garden of Eden offered life in the form of pleasure and worldly knowledge (including carnal knowledge, or awareness of one’s own sexuality) but it also led to death, the death of paradise. That feverishly odd ‘aguish’ has indeed hardened into ‘anguish’, the anguish of the not-known.
In this post we have tried to condense the huge critical debate – and various interpretations – of ‘Goblin Market’ into one short article. Ultimately there cannot be ‘an’ analysis of ‘Goblin Market’: the poem is too richly various for that, too elusive, its use of fantastical imagery and symbolism not meant to be reduced to simplistic allegory or social commentary.
And we can begin to see how the poem made Christina Rossetti a famous name: ‘Goblin Market’ will always prompt endless debates and new analysis, without ever allowing us to pin it down in any neat, manageable sense.
About Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830, and lived with her mother virtually all of her life. She never married. Many of her poems engage with the question of religious belief, such as ‘Good Friday’ (a poem about honest religious doubt as much as faith) and ‘Twice’, about the importance of Christian forgiveness and redemption (the poem is spoken by a fallen woman, a theme that can also be seen in ‘Goblin Market’).
Christina Rossetti composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. The title poem is a long narrative poem which is often taken for a children’s poem because of its fairy-tale motifs and imagery; Rossetti, however, always denied that the poem was intended for children. Several of the poems in the volume, such as ‘Remember’ and ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, were composed before she had turned twenty.
Rossetti’s influences were as diverse as the many poetic forms in which she wrote: sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, lyrics, even Christmas carols (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to name but the most famous). She was remarkably prolific: the Penguin edition of her Complete Poems runs to well over 1,000 pages and is a treasure-trove for the poetry-lover.
Rossetti died in 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery where fellow Victorian writer George Eliot had earlier been laid to rest. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
Discover more of Rossetti’s work with our discussion of her poem ‘Twice’, our summary of her poem about being shut out, and our thoughts on her classic sonnet ‘In an Artist’s Studio’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s cover-illustration for Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), via Wikimedia Commons.