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.)
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. 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.
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.
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.