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.
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.
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.
(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.