Poetry Month 2024: Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”

Story


Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches. This week, we cover Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” first published in 1862 in Rossetti’s own Goblin Market and Other Poems. Spoilers ahead!

Summary

“Com buy, come buy: apples and quinces, lemons and oranges, plump unpeck’d cherries, melons and raspberries…”

Lizzie and Laura are sisters on the brink of womanhood, who often frequent the rushy brookside near their home. Often, too, they see goblin men tramping down the glen with baskets and dishes overloaded with every succulent fruit that field and forest can provide. Both sisters know better than to deal with or even look at such folk. One evening, when prudent Lizzie has run home, curious Laura stays behind. The goblins offer her their fruit, and accept one of her golden curls as payment. Laura sucks down the irresistible juices of the “globes fair or red” until her lips are sore, then wanders dazedly home.

Lizzie upbraids Laura for staying behind in the twilight, a dangerous hour for maidens. She recounts the story of Jeanie, who had commerce with the goblins only to waste away and die when she could no longer find them and their wares. Laura rejects her sister’s warnings. She’ll seek the goblins again and bring Lizzie back some of their fruit. The two go to their shared bed and sleep peacefully, “cheek to cheek and breast to breast.”

The next day the sisters go about their usual chores and innocent amusements, but Laura drifts “in an absent dream…sick in part.” By the brook in the evening, Lizzie hears the goblins’ customary cry of “Come buy” while Laura hears nothing. That night she lies awake “in a passionate longing”, filled with “baulked desire.” Nor do her daily and nightly watches bring the goblin men back to her. Her one memento of that delirious evening is a kernel-stone from a goblin peach. She tries planting it, but it never sprouts.

Laura sinks into decline, neglecting her chores, eating little. Lizzie, who still hears the goblins, longs to buy their fruit for Laura but fears the exchange will cost her too dear. At last, however, with Laura dwindling toward death, Lizzie waits by the brook in the twilight. When the goblins come, she offers them a silver penny for an apronful of fruit. The goblins insist she must feast on her purchase alongside them. When Lizzie refuses to stay, they attack her and try to force fruit into her mouth. Heroically virginal, she resists their efforts. At last the goblins angrily depart, leaving Lizzie to run home with her face and neck dripping with crushed fruit, “goblin pulp and goblin dew.” “Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices,” she beseeches Laura—for Laura’s sake, she has “had to do with goblin merchant men.”

Laura’s appalled that Lizzie will now share her fate, but she can’t resist kissing and kissing her “with a hungry mouth.” Once so luscious, the goblin fruit now scorches her lips and tastes like wormwood. In a burning frenzy, she “gorges on bitterness” until she swoons. Will she die or live? Lizzie watches over her sister until morning, when Laura wakes with her vitality restored.

Years later, when both sisters are wives and mothers, Laura tells her children about her encounter with the goblins and how Lizzie won for her “the fiery antidote” to their poisonous fruit. There is no friend like a sister, is the lesson, and so she bids them to “cling together” as she and Lizzie have done.

What’s Cyclopean: There are pellucid grapes with sugar-sweet sap. The goblins themselves have all manner of animal features, but the most fascinating and out-landish may the wombat-goblin, “obtuse and furry”.

Weirdbuilding: Fairy markets are a common trope—places where all manner of fascinating and dangerous goods may be found for fascinating and dangerous prices. A couple such markets show up in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series: In An Absent Dream draws its title from this week’s poem.

Anne’s Commentary

Welcome to April and Poetry Month! My own first encounter with “Goblin Market” was in an undergraduate course on Victorian literature. I don’t think anyone in the class failed to pick up on the poem’s sexual overtones, but only a couple of students ventured to bring it up. Our instructor was quintessentially a PROFESSOR, tweed-clad and gray-haired and given to bow ties, no less. We didn’t want to come off like a bunch of horny sophomores or to offend someone of his staid demeanor. Midway through the session, we learned a lesson with ramifications far beyond nineteenth-century poetry: Don’t judge a person by their sartorial choices and typically dry address.

This professor had a subscription to Playboy. Or at least he had a copy of the 1973 issue that featured “Goblin Market” in its Ribald Classics column. Playboy credits Jonathan Cott, editor of the 1973 anthology Beyond the Looking Glass, for at last recognizing “the lurid sexual fantasies that raged in Miss Rossetti’s unconscious.” Cott described “Goblin Market” as “the most extreme depiction of repressed eroticism in children’s literature.” Apparently thinking its readership needed less high-flown language, Playboy translated Cott’s statement to “[Goblin Market is] the all-time hard-core pornographic classic for tiny tots.” The poem has had many illustrators over the years, including Christina’s brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Arthur Rackham, and Lawrence Housman. None of their illustrations were up to Playboy standards, so the magazine printed several by Kinuko Y. Craft. Our professor kindly let us have a look at Craft’s gorgeous but very much not-safe-for-work interpretations of “Goblin Market.” All kinds of trigger warnings could apply, including attempted rape, consensual but weird sex with semi-anthropomorphic beasties, and sibling incest. Oh, and fruits that look like human genitalia; in addition to their traveling market, the goblins could set up a Grow-Your-Own sex toys business.

Christina Rossetti would write many children’s poems, and it seems that she did publicly claim that “Goblin Market” was one of them. However, she also wrote to her publisher Alexander Macmillan that the poem was not intended for children; this suggests she was aware of the many “adult” interpretations her early masterpiece invited. That paragon of Victorian critics John Ruskin received a (prepublication) copy of “Goblin Market” from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who hoped he’d recommend it to William Makepeace Thackeray for publication in Cornhill magazine. Instead Ruskin wrote back that while his sister’s work had “beauty and power,” it was also too riddled with “quaintnesses and offenses” for the marketplace. Maybe Ruskin was only referring to Christina’s atrocious disregard for classical meter and rhyming schemes, but maybe he also had other “quaintnesses and offenses” in mind.

Ruskin (gasp) was wrong: Macmillan published Rossetti’s first commercial volume, Goblin Market and Other Poems, in 1862, to considerable acclaim from other critics. Not that the other critics were blind to certain “quaint” readings the title piece invited. I think Caroline Norton, who reviewed the book for Macmillan’s Magazine in 1863, nicely sums up the conundrum “Goblin Market” posed then, and may pose still:

“Is it a fable?—or a mere fairy story—or an allegory against the pleasures of sinful love—or what is it? Let us not too rigorously inquire, but accept it in all its quaint and pleasant mystery.”

Norton does add that, in addition to working as a children’s ballad, “Goblin Market” is a piece that “riper minds may ponder over.” Lots of “riper minds” have, pondering up many allegorical interpretations: sexual/earthly love versus spiritual love, the homoerotic versus the heteronormative, a paean to female solidarity, humanity versus Faery as a parallel to upright Victorian society against foreign/otherly corruption. All that’s fine, but as a lover of the weird, I like Norton’s suggestion that we revel in the poem’s “quaint and pleasant mystery.”

Imagine the scope of the food forest these goblins have cultivated somewhere-elsewhere! Is there a lusher catalog of fruit anywhere else in poetry, or in prose for that matter? Or a “quainter” enumeration of the anthropo-zoological guises that goblins can assume? What’s in it for the goblins, this vending of fruit to maidens and maidens alone? Do they have a complicated fetish involving virgins and proxy oral sex via the virgins’ enthusiastic sucking of their ripe…almost bursting…juicy…fruit

Because only virgin fructivores can satisfy the goblins’ quirk, they miss out on repeat customers. This is where their likeness to human dealers of addictive drugs falters. But maybe these roaming vendors are on the more malicious end of the goblin spectrum and derive wicked sustenance from the vitality that drains bit by bit from their victims. That the poison in the fruit is also its antidote is an interesting twist. I expect that since a victim can’t find the goblin market a second time, it’s always another maiden who must brave the little monsters in order to obtain fruit, with the second magical requirement being that this other maiden must truly love the first, perhaps in more than the common sisterly way.

The totally conventional ending strikes me as belonging to another and much less interesting poem. Was it meant to appease those of Rossetti’s readers who might have found the preceding stanzas unsettling ? Was it there because Rossetti herself was unsettled? She also dedicated “Goblin Market” to her sister, Maria Francesca. I guess it could have been embarrassing for Maria if the ultimate depiction of sisterhood wasn’t soothingly Victorian normal.

Nothing kinky to see here, folks. Get your nasty minds out of that gutter. And put down that Playboy, I don’t care if it was a professor who brought it to your attention. Oh, the moral perils of modern higher education!

Ruthanna’s Commentary

My longstanding association with “Goblin Fruit” isn’t particularly weird or even ominous. Instead, it’s a quote sent by the first woman I connected with through an online dating site in college. This was the late 90s, so you should be imagining less modern app or even OKcupid, and more the Personals section of the Valley Advocate translated into green-on-black text. And you should imagine my baby-bi self finally admitting that I was less interested in the gender of my dates and more interested in whether they adored mountain thunderstorms, exchanging missives with a marginally-more-experienced potential date, drinking in the promise of “bloom-down-cheek’d peaches, swart-headed mulberries, wild free-born cranberries…”—I definitely got the metaphor, but the pull-quote had no intimations of goblin men, nor of their tendency to disappear after one’s first taste of ruinous fruit.

The date itself was not so exciting as the quote, but I retained the positive—and sapphic—associations. Long-time readers will recall that I was generally inclined to find this kind of appeal where I could get it. For me the goblin market is in downtown Northampton, around the corner from the little store where I exchanged my freshman-year “straight but not narrow” button for “I’m bisexual and I’m not attracted to you,” perhaps in some shadowed corner of Thorne’s Marketplace.

Past the list of luscious produce, however, “Goblin Market” is pretty het in its centralization of female relationships. The core sisterly bond between Lizzie and Laura heralds Frozens to come. Lovers appear only metaphorically in the form of the wickedly tempting goblin men, and chastely off-screen in the form of the husbands presumably necessary for sisters to become “wives with children of their own.” The unnamed husbands are no source of fresh fruit. And a sister might be “kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d” as the best of possible friends, but that familial passion serves to “cheer one on the tedious way.” Husband and children, by implication, being the correct but tediously un-zaftig choice.

One doesn’t come away from this poem without yearning for fig season. Or at least this one doesn’t.

Where is the boundary between fairy story and the weird? I’m not one for sharp sub-genre divisions, but I also feel like the distinction is real. “The Hide” falls on the weird side of the blurry line, and “Goblin Market” …falls on the side of making lines less blurry. These fae exist to mark the dangers of straying from the well-lit path. Victorian anxieties haven’t quite the nuance of Lovecraftian attraction-repulsion; they offer instead attraction whose repulsiveness is only revealed through Lizzie’s carefully taste-less rescue.

Compare “Whisperer in Darkness,” where alien fae draw travelers underhill and into the cosmos. Both glory and horror are a long way from sweet-talking boys who bed and then abandon. The Mi-Go may offer the ultimate in non-physical chastity, but they also offer alternatively unimaginable pleasures. And they’re faithful if cosmopolitan companions!

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the poem, simply because the opening has lived so long in my head without the rest of the story. If only goblin men hawk remarkable fruits, and only human men offer a safe-but-tedious alternative, that reflects something of Rosetti’s realities that I shouldn’t blame her for depicting. Yet even in fairy stories, I want the lands beyond safe firelight to offer something complicated. Laura’s life ought to be richer for tasting the goblins’ hazards and hazarding their tastes. Quoth Tolkien: “In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them.” 

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the past couple of days with my not-at-all-tedious wife and sister, chasing down a wild cosmic experience by way of a certain amount of extremely practical logistics (i.e., eclipse road trip). The best real relationships, I think, include a measure of both elevating the mundane and grounding the transcendent. A sharp line between those two aspects seems false, as does any claim that only one belongs in a good life.

I’d have Laura take more than fables from her ill-advised fruit purchase. I’d have her relationship with Lizzie gain something beyond gratitude for her rescue. I’d have her children inherit something beyond warnings. But all of these require another tale. Perhaps we could tell it over a plate of greengages.


Next week, we wrap up the last two chapters of Max Gladstone’s Last Exit! What lies beyond the Crossroads, and how many alt-riders, not to mention semi-innocent bystanders in the rest of the universe, are going to survive it? icon-paragraph-end

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