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Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first book of poetry that Christina Rossetti published, although her grandfather had privately printed a collection of her juvenilia when she was seventeen. Despite its appearance at the beginning of her literary career, Goblin Market and Other Poems contains some of her finest and most enduring writing: the title poem, “Goblin Market,” still her best-known work: “Up-Hill,” “After Death,” “Remember,” “The Three Enemies,” “A Better Resurrection,” “An Apple Gathering,” “Advent,” “The Convent Threshold,” “Dead Before Death,” “A Triad,” “Winter: My Secret,” and “No, Thank You, John,” among others. Though Rossetti would continue writing for another thirty years, no later poems surpassed these.

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“Goblin Market,” her 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. In the following stanzas, Laura and Lizzie listen to the tantalizing cries; Lizzie warns Laura not to succumb to temptation, reminding her of the fate of their friend Jeanie who, after tasting the goblin fruit, wasted away with premature age and died. Laura ignores the warning, and, though she has no money, buys the enchanted fruit with a lock of her golden hair.

The fruit delights Laura, but leaves her wanting more, which she cannot have since she can no longer see or hear the goblins. Her addiction becomes her obsession, and she pines away for the fruit, not eating or sleeping and, like Jeanie, dwindling and turning gray. The only antidote is a second taste of the fruit, which the goblins withhold from their victims. When Lizzie realizes that her sister is dying, she goes to the goblins, whom she can still see and hear, and offers to buy their fruit. When they realize that her intention is not to partake of the fruit herself but to take it to the ailing Laura, the goblins try to force-feed her. Wearing down the goblin men with heroic resistance, Lizzie 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. The final stanza is an epilogue in which the sisters, now married and with children of their own, use the story of the goblin market as an object lesson to their children of the salvific virtue of sisterhood.

Many of the shorter lyrics in Goblin Market and Other Poems demonstrate Christina Rossetti’s characteristic and almost obsessive preoccupation with death as a release. Four Petrarchan sonnets in the collection treat the theme of love and death in four different ways. One, “After Death,” surveys a deathbed scene from the point of view of a recently deceased maiden who triumphs in finally having captured the attention of a young man whom she had loved in vain. In another sonnet, “Remember,” the young woman is alive but anticipates her death, urging her young man to remember her, but only if the memories will not make him sad. “Remember” utilizes the Petrarchan sonnet form to advantage, using the break between the octave (the first eight lines) and the sestet (the final six) to contrast the admonition to remember with the plea not to be sad.

A third sonnet, “Dead Before Death,” laments the contrast between what one expects of life (and death) and what one gets. Unlike the other two sonnets, “Dead Before Death” makes no overt mention of romance, but the image of a fallen blossom which bears no fruit seems to refer to a love that could have been, the possibility of which is forestalled by death, who shuts the door. The octave begins the lament, while the sestet forms a kind of dirge in which the word “lost” is repeated six times. A fourth sonnet, “A Triad,” looks at three women whose failed pursuits of love end in death: the first, a wanton whose indulgence in a sensual love brings her only shame; the second, a wife whose marriage is proper but “soulless”; the third, an unmarried woman who dies yearning for love. The octave describes the three women, while the sestet tells the results of their loves, all negative.

Context

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Gilbert and Gubar have argued that the act of renunciation that forms the core of “Goblin Market” was emblematic not only for Christina Rossetti but for all women writers of the nineteenth century as well. To become a poet, Rossetti’s life and poetry seem to imply, a woman must isolate herself. She must become that peculiarly nineteenth century phenomenon which the novelist George Gissing called the “Odd Woman,” who refuses marriage in order to devote herself to her art, as if the two were at odds.

Whether Rossetti’s refusal of three marriage proposals (two from one suitor, in 1848 and 1850, and one from another in 1866) was related to her writing, the picture of a young woman letting go of a young man who wants her is seen in many of the lyrics of Goblin Market and Other Poems—particularly “No, Thank You, John,” which, as the title suggests, is the voice of a woman declining a marriage proposal. In “After Death,” a dead woman smiles at the pity of the young man she is leaving behind, with perhaps an ironic double meaning in the closing line, “he still is warm tho’ I am cold.” While there are also painful images of unrequited love in this collection, there are just as many of love purposefully renounced.

Rossetti’s tribute to sisterhood in the last six lines of “Goblin Market” can be seen in the context of this renunciation. Sisterhood is defined as a sort of self-giving in a fairy-tale world safe from the taint of men. As Gilbert and Gubar have pointed out, the only male figures in the poem are the hurtful and animal-like goblins. The counterpart to the divine “sister” is the diabolical “brother,” as the goblins are twice described with negative adjectives: “brother with queer brother” and “brother with sly brother.” The poem ends with marriages for Laura and Lizzie, but their husbands are not even mentioned; there are “children,” but we are not told if any of them are sons.

Christina Rossetti was one of the first female poets about whom critics argued over the sexist term “poetess.” In 1891, Richard Le Gallienne agreed that “Miss Rossetti is the greatest English poet among women,” but that gender distinction “in questions of art” is a false one, “a distinction which has given us the foolish word ‘poetess.’ ” In 1897, Arthur Symons, himself a leading poet who recognized Rossetti’s superiority, used the offensive term, but only by way of saying that she rises above categories: “she takes rank among poets rather than among poetesses.”

Form and Content

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Goblin Market and Other Poems opens with the long narrative of the title piece, includes forty-four much shorter poems of varying subjects, and ends with sixteen devotional poems on aspects of the Christian experience. Composed over a period of fourteen years, the works in the volume are understandably disparate in theme, with only the title poem specifically aimed at young readers. It is “Goblin Market,” a fascinating and elusive fairy tale originally illustrated by her older brother, Dante Rossetti, for which Christina Rossetti is most famous.

Told by an omniscient narrator, the story begins with the goblin cry of “Come buy,” a lure heard by two fair-haired sisters, Laura and Lizzie, as they walk in the twilight. What the goblins are selling is some of the most temptingly described fruit in all of literature. Lizzie recognizes the danger of the call and tries to hurry her sister away, but Laura stays in the glen after dark, dreamingly speculating about the flavor of the exotic fruits. As the goblins approach Laura, the girl laments that she has no gold with which to purchase their wares. “You have much gold upon your head,” they tell her, and Laura exchanges a part of her body, a blonde curl, for the fruit. In a frenzied gluttony, the girl consumes the supernatural fruit and then wanders home with “one kernel-stone” in her hand.

When Laura arrives, Lizzie wisely upbraids her for staying late in goblin haunts and reminds her of Jeanie, a girl who tasted goblin fruits and then pined away and died for want of them. After the initial taste of the fruit, it seems, one is unable to either hear or see the goblins again and must then suffer from an unsatisfied craving. Laura finds herself in this condition, telling Lizzie that her “mouth waters still” as she resolves to buy more fruit the next night. Laura now functions only in “an absent dream,” declining both psychologically and physically. When the two go to the glen that evening, Laura is horrified to find that she can no longer hear the goblin cry, although it rings hauntingly in the ears of her sister.

Laura continues to ache for the fruit and even plants the kernel stone, watering it with her tears. When it fails to grow, she dwindles further and lies near death. At this point, Lizzie decides to visit the goblins herself, and she heads for the glen with a silver penny to buy fruit for Laura. It is not the money, however, that they want—they want Lizzie to eat the fruit too. When she refuses, the goblins suddenly maul her and, in what is nearly a rape scene, squeeze the fruit against her mouth to make her eat. Yet, Lizzie remains pure and resists the goblins until they retreat disgustedly into the woods.

Lizzie runs home full of “inward laughter,” somehow aware that she holds Laura’s cure in the fruit on her body, and she tells her sister to “Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices.” As Laura licks the fruit off Lizzie, it burns her and makes her writhe “as one possessed.” Laura is purified and cured, opening like a spring flower the next morning. As the poem ends, the setting has advanced several years and the girls are now mothers who warn their own daughters of the dangers of goblin men. As Laura has learned, “there is no friend like a sister.”

Bibliography

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Battiscombe, Georgina. Christina Rossetti. London: Longmans, Green, 1965. A handy starting point for studying Rossetti, this brief booklet offers a summary assessment of her literary accomplishment, as well as critical comments on a few selected poems. Battiscombe emphasizes the influence of pre-Raphaelitism and the Oxford Movement on Rossetti’s poetry.

Bellas, Ralph A. Christina Rossetti. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Following the format of the Twayne English Authors series, this volume opens with a brief biography, then discusses critically Rossetti’s works chronologically. The first part of chapter 3 is a pithy discussion of Goblin Market and Other Poems, including a summary of criticism to date.

Bowra, C. M. “Christina Rossetti.” In The Romantic Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949. An illuminating study of Rossetti’s poetry, but dominated and sometimes marred by Bowra’s thesis that Rossetti was torn between being “the woman and the saint” and that her devotional verse is inconsistent with the rest of her writing.

McGann, Jerome J. “Christina Rossetti’s Poetry.” In Cannons, edited by Robert von Hallberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. After a thorough and valuable summary of Rossetti’s poetic technique, McGann demonstrates that technique in Rossetti’s most famous (and, he argues, most typical) poem, “Goblin Market.”

Packer, Lona Mosk. Christina Rossetti. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. An exhaustive biography of Rossetti, this book also offers occasional literary comments where helpful. Its publication caused a little stir by Packer’s assertion that Rossetti’s love poetry was inspired, not by her two suitors, as previously assumed, but by William Bell Scott. Packer implies that Bell’s love for another woman was an immediate influence on Goblin Market and Other Poems.

Woolf, Virginia. “I Am Christina Rossetti.” In Second Common Reader. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932. One of the earliest feminist studies of Rossetti by a leading twentieth century literary figure, this essay summarizes a 1930 biography, but warns the reader that biographies can distort. Tending toward the fanciful rather than the scholarly, Woolf’s essay is a good antidote to the overanalysis of Rossetti’s work found elsewhere.

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