Christina Rossetti, Poetry
Christina Rossetti was a Victorian poet. That’s all I know about her, so perhaps she didn’t have a dramatic life. Her most famous poem is Goblin’s Market, a fairy tale treatise on the tiresome theme of female sexual purity.
The poem is a longish ballad that commences with a list of fruit, which is good fun. Goblin men call out to maidens, entreating them to taste their many varieties of succulent fruit. If that sounds sexual, you are interpreting it correctly. Lizzie and Laura are two sisters who live in the woods near this band of fruit-bearing goblins. Laura really wants to try that luscious fruit, but Lizzie says “Maids should not look at goblin men.” We are so far in advance of the Sexual Revolution, that unmarried women should not even look at men. Laura listens not. Having no money, she trades a lock of her golden hair for the goblin’s wares. And she loves the wares.
When the sisters get back to their cabin, Laura pines away with desire for . . . fruit. Lizzie had a friend who died of sadness after eating the goblin fruit and she worries so much for Laura that she enters the forest with a piece of silver, determined to buy Laura a peach. But those nasty, bestial goblins with their squirrel-tails and snail-faces laugh at Lizzie and implore her to taste their plump grapes herself. Pure, chaste Lizzie refuses. The goblins kick her and pinch her and smear fruit on her face and neck, which is truly horrifying if you think about what this behavior symbolizes. Lizzie does not let a drop of goblin fruit juice pass her lips. After her ordeal, she exultantly returns to Laura, covered in fruit juice that she knows will satisfy her sister’s longings. Laura kisses Lizzie, but the delicious flavor of the fruit has changed to a fiery antidote that cures the pangs Laura has been suffering. She is redeemed. They both get married and have babies.
The poem is well-written and the descriptions of succulent fruit and misshapen goblins are delightful.
“One had a cat’s face
one whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.”
Even though I have spent the last few years reading literature that primarily concerns itself with female sexual purity, I still feel too far removed from that culture to truly understand this poem.
I see a “why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free” message in the goblin’s rejection of Laura after she taste’s their fruit. Rossetti warns young women that if they give in to a man’s seductive words, they will crave more—sex? attention? affection?—but will be discarded. Perhaps that was prudent advice during a time when female virginity was still a prerequisite for marriage. The double standard here is still repugnant.
What I can’t fathom is how Lizzie is able to rescue her sister. Is this some sort of Jesus-like sacrifice? Does her suffering erase her sister’s sin? I don’t understand how this worked for Jesus or for Lizzie. Why would one person’s suffering transmogrify another person’s wrongdoing? It makes no sense to me. Why would God feel more charitable towards humans after they tortured his son to death? How can anyone restore another person’s virginity?
The theme of female sexual purity reoccurs throughout Rossetti’s poems. Women sneer at other women for their sexual indiscretion. I’m against it.
A friend of mine suggested an interpretation of Goblin’s Market as a metaphor for addiction. I like that interpretation, but I think the sexual undertones are undeniable. Fruit generally alludes to sex in poetry, and prose for that matter. Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, famously painted Proserpine. We all know what that pomegranate in her hand symbolizes. In the myth, when Proserpine/Persephone cannot return to her mother, because she already took a bite of fruit in Hades. We’re not talking about fruit. Hades raped her and now she has to stay married to him. A pomegranate is not always just a pomegranate. Also, culture is horrible and I would like to take a vacation from it, please.
I must mention my favorite poem by Rossetti, No, Thank You, John, a poem repelling some obnoxious friend-zoner named John. Here are a few stanzas to give you an impression of the poem:
You know I never loved you, John;
No fault of mine made me your toast:
Why will you haunt me with a face as wan
As shows an hour-old ghost?
I have no heart?—Perhaps I have not;
But then you’re made to take offense
That I don’t give you what I have not got:
Use your own common sense.
Girl, you tell him! I love this as a rebuttal to Cavalier poems attempting to seduce women. Shove off, John. I don’t owe you a thing, much less my heart or body. Stop mooning around like an idiot and trying to guilt me into courting you. The first line is “I never said I loved you, John.” I don’t know that I prefer any other first line to this one. It’s magnificent. Proof that mi’ladying is an age-old tradition.
You might like Christina Rossetti if:
- your favorite things are fruit and goblins
You might not like Christina Rossetti if:
- you’re not interested in shaming women for their sexuality
Final thoughts: I love No, Thank You, John, but overall, Rossetti is not one of my favorite poets. I like her poems, but they don’t thrill me.
Very interesting. I love this poem from a purely lyrical point of view. We have an excellent poetry program on Sunday evenings on BBC radio called Poetry Please. This poem is one of the most often requested. It was read once by the girl who plays the ghost in the loos I. The first Harry Potter film. She reads it soooo excellently (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01q2c44) not sure if you can get that in the US
I totally agree with all your points. It seems so much like the relationship between Mina and Lucy in Dracula.
Another very interesting and thought provoking post! You have Mr Trout (John) totally engrossed in your posts too.
Thank you Tilly! I feel so happy when you comment on my posts. I will look for that recording. I do love that actress. Mr Trout! Welcome, glad to have you.