Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Rossetti’s fairy-tale poem Goblin Market was completed in April 1859 (when she would have been 28), and was first published in 1862, in Goblin Market and Other Poems, her first non-privately-printed collection. The poem’s initial title was “A Peep at the Goblins”, but her brother, the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, convinced her to change it. (He also provided the illustrations for its first appearance.) It was, appropriately enough for a poem about a redemptive bond between sisters, dedicated to Christina’s sister Maria Francesca Rossetti (a Dante scholar who would later become a nun). And at this point it seems best to bring in the rest of the family: Christina’s other brother William was a critic, biographer and Pre-Raphaelite (and a civil servant); her father Gabriele was an Italian Dante scholar now living in London; her mother was the sister of John Polidori, author of The Vampyre (1819), which was based on Lord Byron’s offering on that infamous night in 1816 when Mary Shelley presented the story of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Goblin Market tells the story of golden-haired sisters Laura and Lizzie, whose country-maiden idyll is interrupted at the start and end of each day by the cries of goblins hawking their wares, a mouthwatering list of ever-ripe, ever-juicy fruits. These goblin-grown (or, in at least one case, imported) fruits are dangerous, though, as the sisters know from the tale of Jeanie:

Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Plucked from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?

Having eaten the fruits, Jeanie “Fell sick and died”, and is now to be found in her grave, above which no grass or flowers grow. Laura, though, can’t resist the goblins’ cries. She has no money to buy the fruit, but the goblins are only too happy to give her as much as she can eat for a lock of her hair. The next day, all she can think of is tasting the fruit again, but when the evening comes, she’s devastated to find her sister can hear the goblins’ cries but she no longer can. She pines away, till Lizzie sacrifices herself for her, going to the goblin men and trying to buy their fruits with a penny. When the goblins realise she isn’t going to gobble their fruit up straight away, they assault her with it, pelting her, and smearing it into her face. Lizzie goes home covered in fruit pulp and juice, and offers herself to Laura:

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.

Finding the fruit now tastes of a “bitterness without a name”, Laura is saved, and we get a brief, trite moral about there being “no friend like a sister”, then the poem ends. The moral in no way satisfies, but isn’t that always the way with fairy tale morals? They’re like the “Once upon a time” at the beginning — part of the formula, a way to get things started or get them stopped, a frame for the wonders contained within, and, like most frames, not to be examined too closely.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Goblin Market was well-received at the time (though Ruskin didn’t like its irregular rhyme scheme and line lengths), and has since, like eat-me Alice, only grown in stature, and is now perhaps Christina Rossetti’s second most well-known poem (the first being “In the Bleak Midwinter”).

There’s something startling, even shocking, about the poem, that begs for explanation. Those lines I quoted just above are perhaps the key to this feeling, arriving as they do in the midst of a poem by a woman Victorian writer who never married (though was several times engaged), and who held strong religious views. She herself (according to an 1895 biography by her friend Mackenzie Bell) said the poem had no specific meaning, and was just a fairy-story. Brian Stableford, in The Dedalus Book of British Fantasy, calls it “one of the most vividly erotic pieces of writing to have surfaced in England during the entirety of Victoria’s reign”, and Kinuko Y Craft’s illustrations for the poem, published in Playboy in 1970, make it clear that, to her, the goblins’ fruits were sexual in nature. At the time she wrote it, Christina Rossetti was working at the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary for fallen women in Highgate, an institution “remarkable in the period for its conviction that women who had transgressed sexually could be redeemed” (“An introduction to ‘Goblin Market’” by Dinah Roe), and the tale-within-a-tale of Jeanie:

Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died

…combined with the fact that only “maids” hear the goblins’ cries, and Laura ceases to hear them after she’s tasted their fruit, makes it sound that the poem is about Victorian ideas of sexual purity and young women having to act “as modest maidens should” — that is, until it comes to Laura’s redemption through Lizzie putting herself through the same ordeal, which doesn’t fit.

Nevertheless, the poem is undeniably, well, fruity.

Other critics go for a more religious interpretation, and fruit is laden with religious significance, from the fruit of the Garden of Eden, to “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16):

“…it is easy to see the produce of the goblins as the corruptible, temporal rewards of earthly life that should be passed over, not because they are necessarily bad, but because there is something better to seek, something that will satisfy where the goblin fruit cannot: the eternal, incorruptible rewards of heaven.” (“Fallen or Forbidden: Rosetti’s ‘Goblin Market’” by Lesa Scholl)

Also, there’s the poem’s feminism:

“The goblin merchants are men… who dominate women; they consume their prey like the fruit they sell, tossing the rinds and pits away once they have found temporary satiety…” (“Can I know it? — Nay: An Alternative Interpretation of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’” by Matt Christensen)

Laura’s pining away for another taste of the fruit sounds like addiction (and fits in with Christina’s brother Dante’s wife’s death from a laudanum overdose, though this was in 1862, after the poem was written), but if so, the goblins aren’t exactly your classic drug pushers, as they make themselves scarce as soon as they’ve created a new addict; they’re only interested in corrupting innocent souls, not leeching off them.

One of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s illustrations to his sister’s poem

(The goblins are one of the most interesting parts of the poem, from a fantasy-reader’s perspective. They’re not your traditional goblins, but a ragtag mix of animalistic little men:

One had a cat’s face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.

And I can’t help thinking of Dante Gabriel Rossetti whenever I read this, as he had his own little private menagerie, which gained a wombat in 1869. It was, apparently, allowed to sleep on the dinner table during meals. Hopefully Dante didn’t also gain his own ratel — another name for one of nature’s most aggressive small animals, the frumious honey badger.)

Goblin Market is obviously a tale of fall and redemption, but one in which redemption can be purchased through the same means as the fall. It’s the glamour the goblins spin about their fruit that makes it taste so good, which is why they don’t want to simply sell it to Lizzie so she can take it to the ailing Laura — they know that, without their sales spiel, the fruit will taste like “wormwood”. Likewise, it seems to be what the fruit is purchased with that gives it its evil or its good effect: Laura purchases hers with a lock of her golden hair, which is usually a gift for lovers (or, in Victorian times, the memento of a dead loved one); Lizzie purchases hers not so much with a penny as her willingness to sacrifice herself for her sister.

Perhaps, with Goblin Market, it’s not the details that give the poem its meaning, but the underlying sentiment, that it’s not what you do but why you do it that matters.

You can read the poem online here.

Meddie, and other poetry updates

I’ve added a few poems to the Poems section of my website over the course of this year — The Night Black Suit, Jack Fear, Tumbledown Tom, and Doctor Freud most recently. I thought I’d end the year with a whole batch more, including this (longish) mix of Greek myth, hair care, and the modern workplace, Meddie:

Also newly up are the story of a rather pointless but nevertheless rewarding quest (Spike and Doodles), Lovecraft-meets-Alan Bennett (New Neighbours), the tale of a very brave little girl (Molly Millie May McGrew), and a couple of other shorter ones (The Imposter, The Icky Drip).

I’ve also added a popup menu at the top of the page, so you can sort the poems by various criteria, including the ability to see what’s been added recently.

Enjoy, and have a Happy New Year!

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is one of the most archetypal of fantasy poems. The story it tells — of a lone knight, last of “the Band” who set out on a never-explained quest for the “Dark Tower” years ago, who’s now so ground down by failure and disappointment that he cannot accept he’ll ever achieve his quest, but who also, knowing nothing other than the quest, can’t do anything but pursue it, doggedly, seeing nothing but the promise of mockery and failure in everything around him — resonates with so many other narratives that it finds its echo throughout later fantasy literature (and film), while at the same time feeling very much like a predecessor to Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The poem was written in a single day in 1855. Browning later wrote of it:

“I was conscious of no allegorical intention of writing it… Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. I do not know what I meant beyond that, and I do not know now. But I am very fond of it.” (Quoted in this Guardian article.)

It’s somewhat different to the poetry Browning was writing at the time. He was focusing on dramatic monologues, and although Childe Roland is told in the first person, it doesn’t have the same feeling of being an extract from a play, as so many of Browning’s dramatic monologues do (others, like “My Last Duchess”, imply a interlocutor, for instance). It also lacks the historical and biographical research that usually went into his poems, in part because he was away from his home library at the time. (It was written while he was staying in Paris.)

Nevertheless, a welter of influences and ideas went into it. The title comes from King Lear:

EDGAR: Child Rowland to the dark tower came;
His word was still,—Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man. [Act III, Scene IV, 171-3]

In a 1924 essay, “Browning’s Childe Roland”, Harold Golder outlines the mishmash of folktalery that stands behind the poem’s central figure. There was a ballad called Child Rowland and Burd Ellen, whose Rowland was on a quest for the stronghold of the King of Elfland. (This was a tale Alan Garner also used in Elidor.) Golder also links the poem to the story of Jack the Giant-Killer, whose hero, like Browning’s at the start of the poem, is given directions in his quest (for a giant’s castle) by an old man, and when he arrives at the castle finds a golden trumpet he has to blow to defeat the giant.

Detail from Thomas Moran’s 1859 painting of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. (See Wikimedia for the full picture.)

Even more interesting is a 1925 essay by William C De Vane, Jr., “The Landscape of Browning’s Childe Roland”, which traces many of the details of the nightmarish landscape Roland passes through to a single chapter in a book Browning read many times as a child. In The Art of Painting in All its Branches by Gerard de Lairesse (Browning’s father owned a 1778 translation from the original Dutch), there’s a chapter called “Of Things Deformed and Broken, Falsely called Painter-like”, which guides the reader through an imaginary landscape filled with all the kind of details Lairesse thought bad painters put into paintings in an attempt to give them a touch of eerie grandeur — what would later, by the Romantics, be perhaps termed “the Sublime”. Although Browning didn’t have this book with him when he wrote Childe Roland, it seems he’d been on a mental journey through its landscape enough times that it came naturally, perhaps unconsciously, to him.

Reading the poem, I’m constantly reminded of other fantasy works. Roland’s fear, when crossing the stream, that he might “set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek” makes me think of the ghostly faces in the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings; the arena-like circle of mountains that surround the Dark Tower make me think of the narrator of Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland’s vision of the titular house on a plain surrounded by mountains among which stand a host of ancient gods; and most of all, the section of the poem where Roland pauses to remind himself of his former comrades but can only recall how they met with their deaths, makes me think of a section from the quest segment of Boorman’s Excalibur, where we see various grail-quest knights’ ignominious ends. (This association is so strong, it was only while reading about the poem to write this entry that I realised it wasn’t about the grail quest.)

A knight finds one of his (failed) brother questers in Boorman’s Excalibur

The most powerful part of the poem, for me, has always been the moment Roland sees a half-starved horse in the wasteland he’s travelling through:

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,
And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

That line, “He must be wicked to deserve such pain”, is chilling, in part because it seems such a desperate clinging to the idea (having been on such a seemingly pointless quest for so long) that everything in life must happen for a reason — therefore, if something is suffering, it must deserve it, even if it’s just a poor horse — but mostly because it seems to me that, in that moment, Roland is really seeing himself. It’s not the horse’s suffering he feels must be deserved, but his own, this endless, futile quest through a landscape which the worn-down, despairing Roland sees as full of active, inimical forces mocking and threatening him at every step. Everything he sees offends him. The old man who points him on his way must, of course, be deceiving him, and laughing behind his back; the river he has to cross must have some nasty trick to it, like being full of dead people; a wheel he sees by the wayside must of course be not a wheel but part of some Piranesian “engine”, a “harrow fit to reel/Men’s bodies out like silk”.

The waste land from Excalibur

And then, suddenly, he realises that despite all this cynicism and defeat he’s there — he’s at the Dark Tower. He sees his dead colleagues “ranged along the hillsides” all around him (which could, I suppose, mean he’s actually died), then blows his slug-horn. (Golder gives an origin for the term “slug-horn”, which I thought I’d read somewhere that Browning had invented. But apparently it was used earlier by the poet Chatterton, and ultimately derives from a Scottish word, “slugorne”, meaning “war cry”, itself derived from the word “slogan”.)

And then the poem ends. Roland’s quest, obviously, is not over, because he’s presumably arrived at the Dark Tower to do something, but what it is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that all that defeat and cynicism was a lie. The old man wasn’t deceiving him; the river wasn’t full of dead people; the wheel was probably just a wheel. (The horse, presumably, really was suffering, though.)

Childe Roland is the “Belly of the Whale” moment, the darkest hour, and Roland is through it. His story isn’t over. Really, it’s just about to begin — a “childe”, after all, is not a knight, but a knight-in-training, so Roland’s story is, perhaps, the story of his initiation into true knighthood, and this may be the point where the true test begins.

Perhaps it’s this feeling that the poem is an intense fragment of a larger story that gives it so much power, and makes it resonate with so many other fantasy stories. But certainly, for me, it’s one of the great fantasy poems. (See my entry on Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater for another.)