"Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
Come buy our orchards fruits,
Come buy, come buy…."
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was the youngest of the four remarkable Rossetti siblings: Maria Francesca, Dante Gabriel, and William Michael. An English lyric poet born in London she sat as a model for a number of paintings for her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who were dedicated to the revival of English art through medieval inspiration. Not a member herself, much of Christina's work was religious in nature; the themes of renunciation of earthly love and her concern for death shadow such favorite poems like When I Am Dead, My Dearest and Up Hill. She worked in a home for fallen women and this particular poem may have been inspired by her religious sympathies. A devout Anglican, she lived over a decade as a recluse in her later years suffering from Graves' Disease and ill health until her death in 1894. During this time she composed wonderful verse for children the most important collection of her work is Golbin Market and Other Poems (1862) thought to be her best work it established Rossetti as a significant voice in Victorian poetry.
An allegorical narrative Goblin Market was composed in April of 1859
and subsequently published in 1862. Many different readings have indeed been offered, some less valid than others. Often speculated as biographical in nature it has been offered that it might be about Christina's unrequited love for the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter William Bell Scott. They support their idea with the line, "For there is no friend like a sister" from her Complete Poem saying that it is a reference to Goblin Market alleging that Christina's older sister, Maria, warned Christina that Scott had fallen in love with another woman, one who was not his wife. One scholar makes a more solid arguement that:
First entitled "A Peep at the Goblins--To M. F. R." (Maria Francesca Rossetti, Christina's sister). The year after Christina Rossetti's death, Goblin Market was interpreted by James Ashcroft Noble as "a little spiritual drama of love's vicarious redemption, in which the child redeemer goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, that by her painful conquest she may succor and save the sister who has been vanquished and all but slain." William Michael Rossetti warned against a search for detailed symbolism, while accepting a general ethical significance for the poem: "I have more than once heard Christina aver that the poem has not any profound or ulterior meaning--it is just a fairy story; yet one can discern that it implies at any rate this much--that to succumb to temptation makes one a victim to that same continuous temptation; that the remedy does not always lie with oneself; and that a stronger and more righteous will may prove of avail to restore one's lost estate" (Mackenzie Bell, Christina Rossetti).
Ripe with a wild imagination and technical virtuosity the poem came to be enjoyed not only as a children's verse but it appealed to adult tastes as well. At first glance one could assert that it is as complex and deep as Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
because of the similar themes; the succumbing to temptation followed by redemption all of which occur in a fantasy landscape in combination with everyday images. Distilled to its basic notion Goblin Market
is about the confrontation of the issues of betrayed expectations in love from different perspectives. Paul Turner writes in his English Literature 1832-1890 Excluding the Novel
Analyzing the poem’s symbolism, is nearly impossible. This, however, seems to be one of the main reasons the poem has been so popular. Of all the symbolism in the poem, the only thing that really is made clear is that the overall theme is the frustration of instinct. It is generally considered that the "fruit forbidden" is used to represent sexual instinct. The fact that one sister must overcome the goblins and resist the fruit is what makes critics believe the poem is about Maria (Christina's sister), who later became a nun.
The moral tag at the end of this poem is indeed "there is no friend like a sister." Jeanie, who "should have been a bride," perishes from her craving for the once-sampled Goblin fruits represented as premature surrogates for the delights of the marriage bed. Laura succumbs to the attractions of the Goblin fruit then afterwards languishes "in a passionate yearning." She "gnashed her teeth for baulked desire, and wept / As if her heart would break." Lizzie is the Christ figure who exposes the betrayal and illusions about love. She painfully resists the temptations of Goblin Men and their passions, symbolize by the fruit:
.....trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.
As Laura sickens and nearly dies Lizzie braves the temptations of the fruit to bring back juices which the goblins have squeezed onto her clothes in their efforts to force her to eat. She returns triumphant showing her sister the pitfalls of false expectations of fulfillment through sensual pleasures and in it's place she gives her a new direction one that is spiritual in its place:
"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,"
By means of their suffering in love and their martyrdom to false ideals of love or pleasure, both are saved from the world. Offering herself in this way, she redeems her sister and it is this redemption of Laura by Lizzie's self-sacrifice that fits well with Rossetti's devout Christianity.
The hallmark of classic literature is that it sparks controversy for the ages.The tantalizing description of the fruit bears comparison to the description of the feast in Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes. Most readers find that it's the voluptuous imagery, sensual abundance and charged eroticism, rather than the moral tag that remains permanently fixed in mind and yet there are many other ideas which testify to the meaning behind the eerie and forceful work:
Perhaps it's that classic theme of a woman being tempted, like Eve in the Garden of Eden. The poem can be so many things ... It's a child's daydream, a fairy tale, a religious allegory, a psychodrama, an existential reenactment, a Wasteland drama, and so much more. In Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar write, "'Goblin Market' (1859) depicts multiple heroines, each representing selfhood for women." Later they say, "Obviously the conscious or semiconscious allegorical intention of this narrative poem is sexual/religious. Wicked men offer Laura forbidden fruits, a garden of sensual delights, in exchange for the golden treasure ... "
While other female contemporaries like Elizabeth Barrett Browning
were striving to 'represent their age and not to flinch from modern varnish, not to cry out for togas and the picturesque.' Unlike anything else written in the Victorian era with Goblin Market
Rossetti takes her own unique idea of feminine heroism and crafts it to suite her purpose by cleverly twisting it around to fit her purpose; a very light, but exceedingly bitting mockery of the male dominated culture. I think that most readers over 12 years old will figure out this isn't just about fruit.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894),Goblin Market:
The Victorian Web
Public Domain text of the poem taken from the Poet’s Corner: