I wrote this review in 1998; it was published in Mary Anne’s erotica magazine, Clean Sheets. You can see the review’s original context on archive.org, but this page is a better-formatted version of it that I posted in 2022. Content warning to a reference to child abuse.
Christina Rossetti: classical poet, sister of a famous painter, religious celibate—and pornographer?
“Goblin Market” is one of the more curious pieces of 19th-century English literature. Other pre-twentieth-century religious poets created sensual, passionate, even sexual work, John Donne being the usual example. But “Goblin Market” is at the same time more explicit and more sublimated than most such works. On the surface, it purports to be a tale of sisterly love and devotion; but lurking below the surface—barely below the surface—is a tangled web of sensual imagery, sexual metaphor, and religious chastity. Donne wrote intentionally erotic poetry but later traded it in for religion; Rossetti started with religion and stuck to it, but somehow retained eroticism.
Rossetti was born in 1830, youngest child in an artistically inclined family that included her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a painter, poet, and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She was a study in contradictions. She wouldn’t have considered herself a feminist; she wasn’t a suffragette, refused to take political stands, and as far as I can tell believed that a woman’s role should be largely passive. And yet she wrote this poem, in which women take active roles, stand up for each other, and clearly have no need for men. She never married—another of her poems firmly rejects one of her suitors, offering friendship but not love (the most eloquent “Let’s Just Be Friends” speech I’ve seen)—but despite her religious fervor she never became a nun. She disliked nudity painted by women, and yet she wrote “Goblin Market”... The poem mirrors her own struggle to find some sort of tenable path between sensuality and self-denial.
The poem’s story is about a pair of sisters, Laura and Lizzie. Every day they hear goblin men passing by, offering their wares: “Come buy, come buy.” The wares are fruit—the most luscious imaginable:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South....
But the sisters are chaste, living together in platonic sisterly affection; not for them are the fruits offered by leering animal-men.
Until one day, Laura (despite her own admonitions to Lizzie) succumbs to the temptation. She buys the goblin fruit, paying with a lock of her golden hair, and “suck[s] their fruit globes...”:
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore...
I’m not making this up—the imagery is blatantly sexual. Later, Laura goes back, desperate for more of the goblins’ juices, but the goblins have vanished like a one-night stand. Laura begins to waste away, until Lizzie finds an ingenious way to brave the goblins’ advances and redeem her sister while retaining her own chastity.
Rossetti was a devout Anglican; she broke an early engagement when her fiancé turned to Catholicism, and turned down a later suitor because he wasn’t religious enough. The most common reading of “Goblin Market” is as a religious parable: Laura falls from grace by eating the forbidden fruit, and then is saved through her sister’s Christ-like sacrifice. And yet Lizzie survives the purported “sacrifice”; she undergoes no rebirth, but rather stands steadfast against temptation. But presumably the religious reading—or else a literal interpretation, centering around the final lines’ affirmation of the strength of the sisterly bond—is what’s kept this poem on the children’s shelves of bookstores and libraries, where it can most often be found.
But there are plenty of other possible readings. The poem can be seen, for instance, as a remarkably explicit depiction of sexuality between two women. In this view, Laura and Lizzie are independent women who live together and touch each other in ways one might not expect of sisters; their sole explicit interaction with men is their contact with the goblin-men. Even at the end of the poem, the flash-forward to the pair’s telling their children of their adventures leaves out any mention of the husbands who presumably participated in bringing the children about.
But no one reading alone seems to make clear sense of the poem. Even the straightforward sexual interpretation leaves something to be desired; not everything in the poem maps obviously to (hetero)sexual contact as a loss of purity. The sensual imagery continues throughout, from veiled blushes and tingling fingertips at the beginning, to the abovementioned sucking in the middle, to the comparison of Lizzie with a “royal virgin town” and the lines “Never mind my bruises, / Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices” near the end. But the story over all is more like a tale of drug addiction, withdrawal, and eventual cure; one might expect a story about men taking advantage of women to have the men returning for more rather than disappearing after the first time. (It’s even been suggested that the poem was written in response to sexual abuse suffered by Rossetti as a child.)
So no one reading seems adequate. But one thing is clear: the rich symbolism and richer language of the poem provide fertile ground for interpretation. Fortunately, readers need not set aside this honeyed poem after one reading, but can return to it and suck some more until they’re sated.
The poem is widely available in several editions. The newest edition is illustrated with lush paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and contains an afterword by Joyce Carol Oates; a nicely designed and good-looking book. If you prefer to focus on the substance of the poem itself, consider the Dover Thrift Edition (which includes additional poems by Rossetti, but no illustrations), for only a dollar or so. And if you don’t care about seeing the poem on paper, you can read it for free on the Web, as part of the Victorian Project site. The Rossetti overview at that site was the source of much of my information about Rossetti’s life and character.
©1998 by J. Hartman