Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467
“Goblin Market,” Rossetti’s most anthologized and discussed poem, is also, at 567 lines, one of her longest. A narrative poem (a rarity for Rossetti), it tells the story of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, and their close brush with a sinister group of goblin merchants. The first of the twenty-nine irregular stanzas simply records the cries of the goblin men for someone to buy their magical fruits. Lizzie warns Laura not to succumb to their temptation, reminding her of the fate of their friend Jennie who, tasting the goblin fruit, wasted away and died. Laura ignores the warning and buys the enchanted fruit with a lock of her golden hair.
The enchantment of the fruit is one of addiction: Having tasted it, the victim desires nothing but another taste, which the goblins refuse. Like Jennie, Laura pines away for the fruit, dwindling and turning gray. This image of the dangers of temptation is typical of Rossetti’s later religious poetry, though here the spiritual import is embedded in allegory. When Lizzie realizes her sister is dying, she goes to the goblins, wears them down with heroic resistance to their temptation, and returns to Laura, not having tasted the fruit, but having its juice and pulp smeared all over her face by the struggle. When Laura kisses her sister, she tastes the juice, which removes the curse of the goblin fruit and restores Laura’s youth and health. While the poem is not overtly Christian in the way that Rossetti’s later devotional verse is, the Christlike nature of Lizzie’s salvific sacrifice is unmistakable. The final stanza of “Goblin Market” is an epilogue in which the sisters, each having married and had children, use the story of the goblin market as a lesson to their children of the salvific virtue of sisterhood.
The theme of renunciation central to this poem seems a traditional Christian attitude of rejecting the sensual, yet many critics have noted an ambiguity in the way sensuality, represented by the goblin fruit, is depicted in the poem. Laura’s devouring of the fruit, and later her sensuous sucking of the juices off her sister, is described in a lushness of physical imagery. The overt moral on the value of sisterhood, found in the final six lines of “Goblin Market,” is often disparaged as an afterthought, unrelated to the rest of the poem. A close study of Lizzie’s sacrifice, however, reveals that the themes of renunciation and sisterhood are related. Lizzie’s resistance is merely temperance at first, but later, when it saves Laura, it takes on a sacrificial quality. Lizzie’s Christlike self-giving defines sisterhood, and makes her even more Christlike as Laura’s savior, resurrecting her from the death-in-life caused by the evil fruit—an obvious parallel to the story of Eden.