“Goblin Market” established Christina Rossetti’s reputation early in her career and has remained her most famous poem. One of its principal themes deals with two kinds of love—the profane, which kills, and the spiritual, which nourishes. Pervasive in the poem is the Communion, or atonement, theme, as in “Eat me, drink me” (line 471), another hint of the atoning power of sacrificial love.
At the historical level, the poem should be understood as a tribute to Maria, her older sister, who protected her from making some kind of wrong choice at a very vulnerable time in her life, perhaps over wrongly placed affections. The manuscript itself is dedicated “To M. F. R.,” the initials of her sister. According to one version of the poem’s origins, Christina nearly eloped with a William Bell Scott, who turned out to be already married. It is known that she loved James Collinson, a painter and original member of the brotherhood, but broke her engagement when he became Catholic. The facts cannot finally be known, since the supposed elopement plan developed nine years after her turning down of Collinson.
At the literary level, it is probable that this poem is meant as Christian allegory. By this norm, Lizzie becomes a rendition of Jesus, who resisted the Temptation and gave of himself for others; at another theological level, she is an aspect of divine grace with power to effect restoration. Laura, on the other hand, emerges an Adam and Eve entity given to moral infirmity. As Christian allegory, it speaks of atoning love, replete with biblical nuance. “Fruit” suggests the Garden of Eden, with its forbidden fruit. “Maids” hints at virginity, or of an innocence before the fall, perhaps a sexual innocence. The prohibition of lines 4142 replays the biblical Garden of Eden, and the goblins reenact the serpent’s role as catalyst to sinning. In line 260, there is mention of “a tree of life.” To be noted are the consequences of the kind of fruit to which Laura succumbs. Certainly it is not that of the “tree of life” but points instead to the seven deadly sins in terms of gluttony (lines 134166), envy (lines 253255), and sloth (lines 293296). The poem may be a warning as to how one falls victim to temptation—an allegory on sin and its consequences. Laura flirts with evil. Lizzie “cover[s] up her eyes.”
At the psychological level, it may be said that the sisters represent psychic aspects of a single personality. Laura seeks escape from the mundane world through the fruit of self-indulgence. She lives for the wish, or nonreality principle. It is the way of infantile retrogression, yet an impulse in everyone. On the other hand, Lizzie performs a therapeutic role, confronting the dangers of such an approach to life. As such, she represents an objectifying side of the psyche, or the cognitive dimension promoting insight and reintegration.
It may also be said that the poem manifests repressed sexuality with its talk of maids (virgins). Moreover, its depiction of the fruit seems very Freudian in its vehicle of oral imagery. This is not to say that Rossetti was conscious of an inner dissonance regarding sexual issues. Certainly, she was very pious all of her life. The fact remains, however, that she lived in an age that forbade any open sexual expression; Rossetti may have been one of the Victorian era’s several figures unknowingly tormented in their sensibility. (Another poem to examine in connection with “Goblin Market” is Rossetti’s “Life and Death.”) In essence, the Laura-Lizzie polarity may represent a psychical fragmentation between desire and conscience—desire toward this world and conscience toward the next.