Edited by Jack P.
“Goblin Market” is Rossetti’s most famous work. Her brother, William, in his notes to his sister’s poems, observes:
I have more than once heard Christina say that she did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale – it is not a moral apologue consistently carried out in detail. Still the incidents are such as to be at any rate suggestive.
Writing an introduction to the poem three quarters of a century later, Germaine Greer says something similar:
Now and then critics hint at what might be the poem’s theme, but more often they are content to let it lie enveloped in mystery, for fear that to unravel it would be to reveal more of the psychology of the unraveler than it would the meaning of the poem.
Like so many of Rossetti’s poems, “Goblin Market” both invites and defies analysis: it is a perfect example of how, as Anna Barton claims, Rossetti's poetry 'does not submit easily to masculine interference' that might seek to restrict or condemn its meaning. Its story of temptation and salvation opens up a range of interpretive possibilities and raise a number of different political, theological and moral questions. As her brother says, however, the poem does not deal with any of these consistently, bringing together many of the themes already explored in this guide and playing them off one another and insisting that neither politics, religion or art can be considered in isolation, which gives it its shifting and often subversive power.
Portrait of Christina Rossetti (1830- 1894)
What story does the poem tell?
“Goblin Market” tells the story of two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, who are tempted to taste the exotic fruit sold by a troop of goblin men. Lizzie warns Laura that they must not “peep at goblin men”; but Laura ignores her warnings. Left alone by Lizzie, Laura is approached by the goblins and, because she has no money, she exchanges a lock of her hair for some fruit. She feasts and then returns home where she is scolded by Lizzie, who reminds her of the fate of Jeanie, another girl, who died after tasting the goblin fruit. Laura is unconcerned at first; but later she is distressed to find that she can no longer hear the cry of the goblins and she begins to pine away.
Remembering Jeanie, Lizzie decides to act and goes in search of the goblins. She attempts to buy fruit to take home to her sister, but the goblins refuse her money and ask her to sit and eat with them instead. Lizzie refuses and the goblins attack her, attempting to force the fruit into her mouth. She resists and returns home bruised and covered in fruit juice, which her sister kisses from her body. This time the fruit is repulsive to Laura and causes her to fall into a fit. She subsequently recovers and the poem concludes with a description of the two sisters, years later, married (though we do not see their husbands) and with children.
‘The Goblin Market’ painting by Hilda Koe
What influenced Rossetti when writing it?
The poem was composed in 1859, while Rossetti was working as an Associate Sister at the Highgate Penitentiary, aiding in its mission to redeem and restore the "Fallen Women" of London, a unique view for the times. In her biography of Rossetti, Jan Marsh discusses how she would tutor some inmates during her time, and though she stopped working there in 1870, it seems to have had an influence on "Goblin Market", which argues a for a similar sort of redemption for these women in its treatment of Laura, whose redemption at the end of the poem Lesa Scholl argues to be 'not so much spiritual as social'.
There are some notable differences between Rossetti's manuscript and the published poem, the most significant being the title. The poem was originally called “A Peep at the Goblins”, a title that acknowledges the influence of A Peep at the Pixies (1854), a collection of fairy tales by her cousin, Anne Eliza Bray, and alludes to more of a sense of curiosity than the title that replaced it lets on.
The published title, suggested by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, replaces this intertextual reference and steers the reader’s attention away from the curiosity that motivates the two sisters and on to questions of buying and selling. She illustrated her original manuscript with sketches that are replaced in the published text by a set of woodcuts, also by her brother, Dante.
Inside the Highgate Penitentiary, where Rossetti worked as an Associate Sister
Themes and Analysis
What makes the poem so distinctive?
“Goblin Market” employs an uneven metre and irregular rhyme scheme. The lines are of varying lengths and linked together with a mixture of rhyming couplets, abab rhymes and unrhymed lines. Dante sent the manuscript of the poem to his friend, the critic, John Ruskin, who replied saying the poem’s “irregular measures” were a “calamity of modern poetry” and advising Rossetti to write more disciplined verse. This dismissal of the peculiar form of “Goblin Market” as bad writing ignores the powerful, unruly energy it generates. In the opening lines, for example, we experience a breakdown of regular form as the voice of the goblins is introduced:
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Pine apples, blackberries;
Apricots strawberries; —
All ripe together
The first four lines are restrained and fairly regular: Two trimeter (three-stress) lines are enclosed within two dimeter (two-stress) lines and the rhyme scheme appears to set up an abab pattern. But the extraordinary list of produce described by the goblins creates an intoxicating rhythmic momentum, so that the feel and sound of the poem participates in the temptation that it describes, allowing the reader to experience the sensual attraction of the goblin fruit, something Rossetti never denies. The alignment of language and fruit as two kinds of sensual experience complicates the moral scheme of the poem. Perhaps the reader should be suspicious of the aesthetic pleasure provided by the verse; or perhaps the pleasure offered by the goblins’ fruit is not straightforwardly bad. The “calamitous” form of the poem encourages this kind of interpretive nuance and destabilises the relationship between the reader and the story.
What is so distinctive about the poem is where Rossetti takes the story: unlike a similar article published in the English Women's Journal by the Warden of Highgate in 1857, which Lesa Scholl notes depicts its fallen women 'racked with guilt' for their transgressions, it arguably re-imagines sexuality and spirituality as, if not only capable of coexisting, even coexisting 'in a mutually beneficial manner', as Marylu Hill argues.
An illustration from the title page of ‘Goblin Market and Other Poems’ (1862), drawn by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti
How subversive is the poem when it comes to religion?
Hill's interpretation of the poem brings out its potentially subversive treatment of religion, which it seems to re-invent and re-shape to place women on an equal footing with men as well as enable a reconciliation of sorts between sexual desire and spirituality. Examining Saint Augustine's influence on Rossetti, Hill argues that 'for both Rossetti and Augustine, a critical famine is caused not by desire, but by the misplacement of desire': in this way, we might read "Goblin Market" as a powerfully subversive manifesto for correcting a potentially false separation between the sexual and the spiritual. It is argued that 'Rossetti is completely within the theological tradition with her startling depiction of sisters embracing…with the seeming intimacy of a marital relationship', with Hill drawing on the quotations and sermons of key Tractarians such as Edward Pusey, whom Rossetti admired greatly, around Theodoret's description of men embracing and kissing the bridegroom: "Goblin Market" is so distinctively subversive because it seeks to redefine often constricting boundaries set by Victorian society, imagining what Mary Wilson Carpenter describes as 'a uniquely feminocentric view of women's sexuality' that blurs the distinction between the spiritual and the sexual and argues for a more complementary relationship between the two.
While the poem can of course be read as a simple fantasy tale, Feminist criticism has sought to bring out the radical stance it arguably takes on gender politics and religion. It is almost impossible to tell what Rossetti truly meant by it, since she herself was so evasive, claiming to William Michael that she did not mean 'anything profound' while also retorting that children were 'not among [her] suggestive subjects' when asked to contribute to a children's book. Indeed, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra makes the point that even at the time, a deeper meaning was suspected, arguing that an 1861 working-men's society in Cambridge 'recognised [its] simple style was actually a vehicle for its mature content', which could suggest that the guise of the fairy-tale setting and style is another one of the defensive strategies that pervade Rossetti's work.
Ultimately, whether simply in its innovative use of metre and rhyme or its potentially radical reworking of religious and social doctrines, using 'biblical examples to reveal that these restrictions are incongruous with the will of God', as Lesa Scholl suggests, "Goblin Market" is a truly distinctive poem, and deserves its widespread critical acclaim despite its often shifting, elusive nets of meanings.
Arthur Rackham’s 1933 illustrations interprets ‘Goblin Market’ as a parable for the loss of sexual innocence
Who, or what, are the goblins?
Referred to as “goblins”, “goblin men” and “merchant men” and described as fantastic, hybrid creatures, each one is defined by a different animal characteristic, looking or moving like a “cat”, a “snail”, a “wombat”, or a “ratel”. This suggests that the threat represented by the goblins is multiple. Their association with fairy-tales and the supernatural contrasts with Lizzie and Laura, who occupy a recognisably human realm, and connects the goblins to the world of the imagination, encouraging the reader to consider the temptations and dangers of that world, which perhaps suggests that they represent an intrusion into the safety of Lizzie and Laura's reality. If we follow this line, then Dorothy Mermin's suggestion that the poem imagines a 'vision of a Pre-Raphaelite world from a woman's point of view' is fruitful: the forcing of temptation and sexualisation that the goblins bring with them could obliquely mirror Dante Gabriel's increasingly voyeuristic depictions of women, which became all the more prolific as his career went on and led to concerns for his integrity as an artist.
Similarly, Jan Marsh's interpretation of the goblins also takes this line of masculine interference in a feminine reality, suggesting through a Freudian analysis of Rossetti's more nightmarish poems that much of her work reflects an early experience with sexual molestation and assault, which she believes to have caused the breakdown that led to Rossetti's lively disposition being lost to a more saturnine one in her teenage years, her father being identified as the most likely predator. While this argument perhaps relies too significantly on contextual guesswork, many passages from "Goblin Market" do have echoes of sexual assault, with the goblins 'squeez[ing] their fruits against [Laura's] mouth to make her eat', an image charged with sexual undertones, and later '[tearing] at [Lizzie's] gown and soil[ing] her stockings, twist[ing] her hair out by the roots', which gives it more merit.
This is also the perspective explored by Gilbert and Gubar, who write that the goblins represent “the desirous creatures so many women have recorded encountering in the haunted glens of their own minds”, and suggest that the fruit they sell is the “unnatural, but honey-sweet fruit that is analogous to (or identical with) the luscious fruit of self-gratifying pleasure”.
Kinuko Craft’s illustration of The Goblin Market for Playboy magazine in 1973
A Marxist reading
The fact the reading of Laura and Lizzie as the female victims of patriarchal exploitation, violence and control has subsequently been adapted by many Marxist critics. “Merchant men” connects the sisters to the marketplace, inviting consideration of the poem’s attitude towards trade, capitalist economics and consumerism. Similarly, the references to wombats and ratels (a kind of badger, native to Africa and parts of Asia), draws on her encounters with the exotic beasts at London Zoo and positions the poem within the context of contemporary scientific discoveries (Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in the same year as the poem’s composition) and the expansion of the British Empire.
The Empire was certainly on the minds of many when the poem was published in 1862, with British society having been rocked by the Indian Mutiny of 1857, in which sepoys in Bengali regiments of the Indian Army launched violent protests and rebellions across much of the subcontinent after years of insulting and degrading treatment at the hands of the East India Company. We might argue that "Goblin Market" revisits the trauma of the violence and slaughter of many British men, women and children in the subsequent conflict, which was finally ended in June 1858 after a decisive defeat at Gwalior, in its depictions of the goblins, and speaks to a fear of the colonial other; indeed, Rossetti had clearly been preoccupied with the events, since she also published the emotional and sensational poem "The Round Tower at Jhansi" in her 1862 collection alongside "Goblin Market".
Moreover, the poem as a whole arguably uses the goblins to examine the result of the 1858 Government of India Act, which saw the British Government take responsibility for British India, which had previously been administered through the East India Company: the poem's focus on the two sisters could well seek to question where women lay in this dawning age of imperialist capitalism.
Visitors flocked to see Obaysch, London Zoo’s first hippo in 1852. This photo – amazingly – was taken in the same year (10 years before Gobin Market’s publication).
What is the significance of the fruit?
Within a Judeo-Christian tradition, fruit is associated with temptation and sin. In Genesis, Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In doing so, she disobeys God’s instructions and causes humanity’s fall from grace. This “fall” into knowledge is often associated with the loss of sexual innocence, an interpretation that is also encouraged by the descriptions of Laura’s physical appetite for and sensuous enjoyment of the fruit; of course, in Rossetti's poem, this fall is not so simple, with Laura being redeemed at the end of the poem.
At the same time, the temptation that the fruit represents is not straightforwardly carnal. It also represents the attraction of enlightenment and the temptation of disobedience. It is certainly interesting that Laura's straining to see the goblins is depicted as natural and even beautiful, as well as understandable following the lush, tantalising imagery conjured up by the goblins in their relentless quest to tempt to sisters in the opening lines, at the beginning of the poem:
Laura stretched 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.
This list of similes creates a sense of pastoral tranquillity and complicates our attitude to Laura’s impulses and appetites, while the anaphora gives a sense of natural momentum. Indeed, the fruit may seem most tempting because, for Laura at least, it may represent this break with the restraints described in the poem: the fruit's temptation could easily come in the form of intellectual, physical or social freedom from a patriarchal regime.
Fruit – traditionally associated with temptation and sin – takes on a sensual quality in the poem (Illustration by Pauline Baynes)
Victimhood and Oppression
What is then so significant about "Goblin Market" is that this freedom is exposed as an illusion: the goblins offer it to Laura as a way of luring her into their clutches in a scene with the horrific feel of sexual assault. If we do then read the poem as a wider political commentary on gender and society, this may suggest a subtle act of deception in the promise of whatever it is that the fruit is to Laura, with the goblins tempting her into a complicity in their quasi-sexual acts that denies her the chance to fight the stigma and lethal fate that comes with it. If we follow Lesa Scholl's aforementioned argument that Laura's redemption is 'not so much spiritual as social', then perhaps we can read the looming threat of death for Laura as a more metaphorical, social death: she faces being ostracised and degraded for her giving in to the temptation of the freedom, be it intellectual, social or sexual, that the fruit offers.
While what it actually represents is difficult to pin down and arguably may well be something different for each different reader, by presenting the fruit as this object of temptation in the possession of the notably masculine aggressors in the poem's narrative, Rossetti does make one thing clear: the freedom that Laura sees in it can only ever be a harmful illusion. If we take this reading, then the poem becomes increasingly radical in its view of gender politics, arguably suggesting that any sort of freedom offered to women by Victorian society is ultimately dangerous. This is, of course, a problematic view, and can seem starkly conservative, easily advocating for a reluctance for women to grow beyond the confines of a narrow role; however, a more radical reading of it can "rescue" this message, reframing the symbolism of the fruit in terms of complicity with an oppressor.
The “fall” into knowledge is often associated with the loss of sexual innocence, going back to Eve’s temptation in the Book of Genesis
Who is Jeanie?
The story of Jeanie acts as a warning to Lizzie and foreshadows Laura’s actions and their consequences, since her name points towards a specific piece of context: “Jeanie” recalls “Jenny”, the title of a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, composed between 1848 and 1859, which describes an encounter between a male speaker and a prostitute.
This intertextual allusion implies a connection between the trade Laura makes with the goblins and the exchange between prostitute and customer and acts as a subtle counter to the masculine perspective provided by Rossetti’s brother’s poem. While his poem depicts the 'Lazy, laughing languid Jenny/Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea', often infantilised and objectified by the male speaker, "Goblin Market" arguably takes a different perspective on femininity: unlike Dante Gabriel's poem, Laura is shown to be permitted what Rossetti sees as redemption from her plight, which seemingly parallels that of Jenny, the prostitute her brother's poem describes from a masculine perspective.
In Rossetti's decidedly patriarchal Victorian society that championed this masculine perspective women faced crushing double standards and were often plagued by institutionalised misogyny, which even permeated Victorian England's legal system. It is certainly telling that, when legal protection against domestic violence was granted to women and children in 1853, this came 29 years after the British Government introduced the first animal cruelty regulations in Sudan.
Moreover, even when women like Dante Gabriel's Jenny did receive legal protections, they were often either sparse or more harmful than helpful. Under the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, for example, the British Government aimed to consolidate earlier legislation designed to protect female prostitutes, often known as "Fallen Women" from sexual violence. However, it was the female prostitutes who were arrested and incarcerated in efforts to curb the spread of venereal disease, syphilis and other STIs, and not the men using their services in the Navy and Army garrison towns where infections were rife. After significant backlash from the Ladies' National Association and campaigns against them led by Josephine Butler, the Acts were repealed in 1883.
It is interesting, then, that Rossetti decided to include Jeanie in the poem alongside Laura: beyond her aforementioned purpose in the wider narrative of the poem, Jeanie arguably stands out as a foil to Laura, experiencing a similar fate, only without the redemption Laura receives through Lizzie. The allusion to Dante Gabriel's poem may well shed some light onto Rossetti's intentions here: if we view "Goblin Market" as a reaction in part to the misogynistic stereotypes and social codes in "Jenny", then perhaps Jeanie's story is included to remind us of the brutal reality many Victorian women like her faced, contrasting the more idealistic, utopian vision of Laura's redemption.
Illustration from William Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress (1732), showing Moll arriving in London and being procureed by a pox-ridden madame.
How does Lizzie save her sister?
If Laura is like Eve, then Lizzie’s actions align her with Christ. She saves her sister by sacrificing herself. The description of the goblins’ attack is graphic and febrile, and their physical violence is described in terms that imply sexual aggression, too. The goblins kiss, squeeze and caress her and then attempt to force their fruit into her mouth, to “open lip from lip”, a phrase with clear gynaecological overtones. While she endures the goblins’ attack, Lizzie is described in terms that emphasise her absolute purity:
White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood, –
Like a rock of blue-veined stone
Lashed by tides obstreperously, –
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire, –
This list of similes emphasises Lizzie’s impenetrability and paints her white, golden and blue, colours emblematic of the Virgin Mary. The lines also echo the description of Laura when she first peeps at the goblins, creating one of the poem’s many suggestive parallels and repetitions. What is also interesting about this description is how it later combines this more religious, virtuous imagery with the sexual:
Like a fruit-crowned orange tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee, –
In these images of fruit and honey, there is arguably still a sense of the sexual: it is notable that Rossetti does not erase Lizzie's sexuality, but rather continues to acknowledge and even combine it with a sense of her spiritual devotion in this wider description. As we have discussed before, this arguably lends the text to a more radical interpretation than viewing it as a clear-cut poem of religious devotion or political commentary on the figure of the Fallen Woman: we could easily take a similar line to Lesa Scholl or Marylu Hill and read the poem as an investigation of the boundary between the sexual and the spiritual.
Depictions of the Virgin Mary in the form of a Madonna typically contain lots of golds and blues, to emphasise Mary’s preciousness and serenity
Christian symbolism and sexual imagery
When Lizzie then returns to Laura, she addresses her sister using words that again combine Christian symbolism with sexual imagery:
She cried “Laura” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;”
The phrase “eat me, drink me” recalls the words of the Communion service in which participants eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, which are represented by bread and wine. By inviting her sister to hug and kiss her, Lizzie asks Laura to repeat the actions of the goblins, transforming her body itself into a kind of fruit that might satisfy her sister’s appetite: we might then follow Lesa Scholl's view that the poem is intended to reveal the incongruity of patriarchal restrictions placed on women with the will of God, and argue that "Goblin Market" is ultimately an attempt to "re-write" what Scholl terms the 'decidedly patriarchal reception of women within Victorian culture' and challenge established boundaries.
Margaret Homans puts it nicely when she writes, “having been reduced to mere body… by the goblins’ assault, Lizzie experiences that body as a source of power”. This confluence of homo-eroticism and salvation is one of those aspects of the poem that is not fully or consistently developed, and in fact is challenged by its ending.
However, this erotic power that Lizzie uses to save her sister is not straightforwardly physical: in the final image of the purification of Laura's heart by the juices of the fruit, the sexual is intertwined with the spiritual. This reading places "Goblin Market" as a much more radical text than what its comparatively less subversive ending might suggest. What is so significant about this description is that it acknowledges a "lesser flame" in Laura's heart, arguably a symbol of the sexuality either awakened or created by the goblin fruits she ate: Rossetti, we might argue, does not deny the existence of female sexual desire, but rather, as Marylu Hill argues, seeks to blur the boundaries between it and spirituality, constructing the two not as mutually exclusive binaries, but rather mutually beneficial entities in their own right.
The Communion service involves participants eating and drinking the body (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ
A troublesome ending
Nevertheless, the moment of intense physical encounter between the sisters remains to trouble the hetero-normative conclusion of the tale, in which the sisters are revealed to have gotten married (though the husbands do not appear) and had children: it becomes difficult for us to accept the neat ending Rossetti offers, which sees the sisters reflect on the 'quaint fruit-merchant men', establishing a much less threatening final image of the goblins than what otherwise dominates our view of them, seemingly airbrushing the earlier scenes of sexual assault from the sisters' memories.
Ultimately, it is difficult to tell whether Rossetti intends this ending as a symbolically utopian conclusion and gesture of newfound unity and security, as marriages so often are in folk and fairy tales, or whether it subtly suggests a persistent, inescapable masculine interference that was not defeated with the goblins.
However, whether or not the poem’s sexual sub-text is acknowledged, the poem’s last lines, which instruct the reader that “there is no friend like a sister”, as well as the dedication to Rossetti's own sister, Maria, offer what Jerome McGann describes as “an alternative, uncorrupted mode of social relation – the love of sisters” – that might replace, or at least counteract, the commercial, patriarchal relationships that underpin Victorian society.
Indeed, regardless of how we read "Goblin Market", and despite its somewhat problematic resolution, which can often feel tacked-on for the sake of decency, we cannot deny that it is a generally subversive and often radical text, albeit one disguised as a simple fairy tale with little in the way of moral or philosophical substance. This strange reluctance to commit to a wider, more intellectual discussion in the poem may seem odd to us today, especially considering how easily we can read the poem as subversive; however, for 1859, perhaps it is understandable, given the prejudices women faced across society. As with so much of Rossetti's work, the argument can certainly be made that it has to be guarded, and hasto be ambiguous as a kind of defensive strategy: without this potentially deliberately constructed "plausible deniability" of deeper meaning and thought, her poetry could easily have come under attack from the masculine literary establishment for its radicalism, hence why this is often so disguised.
Ultimately, though, we will never know Rossetti's true intention behind the poem; however, this does not mean we should shy away from not only readings of it that bring out more radical elements, but also interpretations that argue it has very little meaning after all. In an exam scenario, the former approach would likely be more profitable, but don't be afraid to discuss the more conservative, problematic elements of Rossetti's writing as you see fit.
A radically subversive text, or a simple fairy tale?
Key narrative points
Why does Laura become ill?
How are the goblins often described? What are they selling?
Who is Jeanie? What happened to her?
What does Lizzie do to save her sister? How is Laura saved in the end?
What has happened in the final verse, when the sisters look back on the narrative that takes up the majority of the poem? How do they remember the goblins?
How might Rossetti’s own personal life have influenced the writing of “Goblin Market”?
What sort of perspective might the poem take on the subject of the British Empire? What could have influenced this portrayal?
How did Dante Gabriel Rossetti potentially influence the poem?
Where does the image of the fruit sit within the Anglican Christian religious tradition that Rossetti followed?
Themes and interpretations
How radically does this poem approach the theme of gender?
What sort of relationship does the poem depict between religion and female sexual desire? Does this change across the course of the narrative at all?
Is the world of the poem freed from the masculine interference that causes Laura’s plight at the beginning of the poem by the ending? If so, why, and if not, why not?
Does Rossetti intend for us to favour one of the two sisters? If so, who, and why?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828- 1882)