There is a strange Victorian-era poem by Christina Rosetti called “Goblin’s Market” that you may have encountered in college. In it, Rosetti tells the story of a girl named Laura who, enticed by the wares of fruit-selling goblins, indulges and then falls into an entranced and debauched stupor, recovering only when her sister, Lizzie, intercedes on her behalf by putting herself at risk and purchasing more of the exotic fruit for her sister. The poem is frequently presented in a feminist critical lens, as the goblins are lecherous, violent males; sexually-charged language marks many-a stanza; and at least part of the narrative of the poem centers upon the sanctity of marriage and the danger of living outside of it as a woman. There is a sense that Laura’s indulgence at the market is shorthand for sexual dalliance, though the latter portion of the poem complicates this reading when Lizzie apparently purchases something at the market, but retains her virginity: the craven men “held her hands and squeez’d their fruits / Against her mouth to make her eat” but “White and golden Lizzie stood / Like a lily in a flood.” Other critics have interpreted the “fruit” as a reference to opium, and it is difficult not to appreciate this reading, as Laura appears on an insane high, then in the throes of addiction, and finally battling withdrawal, “her tree of life droop’d from the root.” What then are we to make of Lizzie’s purchase of additional supplies, which appears to somehow, inconsistent with the widely understood cycle of addiction, permanently relieve Laura of her craving? There are other highly legible readings, too, especially along the lines of Marxist criticism, given the centricity of the market trope and the buying/selling of goods.
When I re-read this poem the other day, I found the slipperiness of this central metaphor provocative — radical, even. How coy that Rosetti sets the table for these (and other) interpretations but then shifts the board just enough to unsettle the pawns from their squares.
From a metrical standpoint, the poem is similarly wild and free-wheeling, with a jolting meter that unpredictably shifts in poetic feet from couplet to couplet. (Art critic John Ruskin wrote that the poem “violat[es] the common ear for metre,” which is about right. It’s borderline painful to read.)
And there is also something unwieldy about the explicitness — the bawdiness and opulence — of the bulk of the poem against the singsong didacticism intended for “little ones” at the conclusion of the poem:
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”
How can such bromides live alongside stanzas like:
“Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her,
Coax’d and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,
Kick’d and knock’d her,
Maul’d and mock’d her,
Lizzie utter’d not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in:
But laugh’d in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syrupp’d all her face,
And lodg’d in dimples of her chin,
And streak’d her neck which quaked like curd.”
(!) The scene above is wildly violent (!)
Re-reading this poem in my mid-30s, I think perhaps I missed the shrewd subtext to this poem, which now reads like a knowing wink, or perhaps an unknowable shrug. Rosetti thwarts thematic simplicity, refuses metrical regularity, and defies genre. But there is one element that remains resoundingly consistent and on-tone, regardless of how I read it: the unquestioning devotion of sisterhood.
I’ll take that on board. My life experience has proven the same to be true.
What do you think? How do you read the poem?
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