Since I am currently at the marvellous Gladstone’s Library writing a chapter on Christina Rossetti’s most famous poem, ‘Goblin Market’, I thought perhaps I should write about it here. First published in 1862, it’s her most anthologised and taught poem, not to mention her most popular (the other favourites are ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘ and ‘Remember’ – this last most often read at funerals). So for readers and critics alike, ‘Goblin Market’ has come to be seen as emblematic of Rossetti’s oeuvre. This is misleading, in my opinion – her other poems take very different approaches, use different poetic styles, and, most importantly, focus much more on Christianity, full of biblical references. However, there are two very good reasons why ‘Goblin Market’ has become so central to Rossetti’s work.
1. It’s good. Really good; it has an irregular style which doesn’t appeal to everyone (Ruskin didn’t like it), but there are passages which follow a regular rhythm which can almost be chanted, followed by passages of irregular rhythms, cross-rhymes and para-rhymes, which give the poem an interesting texture and make it appealing to read. The poem also has a plot, unusually: it tells a story, of two girls, Laura and Lizzie, who are tempted by enchanted fruit offered to them by goblins. Laura succumbs, and wastes away, seeming likely to die; Lizzie offers herself to the goblins, and eventually both girls are saved. The threat, the fear, the fall, and the happy, moral ending, have had a strong appeal for over a century. It also lends itself to illustrations: there have been lots, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Arthur Rackham, to Kinuko Craft in Playboy in 1973 (yes, I know). It’s also been set to music several times, and dramatised.
2. It’s open to interpretation. This is the main reason it’s so popular with critics and lecturers: you can read it in so many different ways, and use it to illustrate a huge range of points about Victorian life and literature. Although Rossetti herself said that she ‘did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale – it is not a moral apologue’, that hasn’t stopped people reading a remarkable range of theories into it, some more far-fetched than others. Some of these (frequently overlapping) theories are:
- It’s a metaphor for anorexia
- It depicts covert lesbianism (and incest, for that matter)
- It’s about the economy and the marketplace in Victorian Britain
- It represents the Anglican Eucharist
- It’s a critique of gender relations and demonstrates the importance of sisterhood
- It’s a proto-feminist text
- It’s based on events which occurred after Rossetti (hypothetically) nearly ran away with a married man
- It absolves fallen women
- It condemns fallen women
- It warns girls not to become fallen women
- It critiques patriarchal ideology
- It supports patriarchal ideology
- It’s an analogy for the Garden of Eden
- It was inspired by John Polidori‘s The Vampyre (he was her uncle)
- It’s just a children’s fairytale and means nothing
You can read the poem here if you want to make up your own mind about it!
Thanks for this. It has been a few years since I’ve had an opportunity to teach Christina Rossetti. She’s absolutely stunning and students are always blown away by Goblin Market.
Thank you. Yes, there’s so much interesting stuff to teach about Rossetti.
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Thank you for a most interesting post. This is one of my favourite poems and I adore the way that so many interpretations can be put upon it.
Thank you! Yes, I think it has to be great literature indeed that can be both so specific and also so open to interpretation. Rossetti is often under-rated!
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