Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’- faery lore and art

ArthurRackham_GoblinMarket_100
Arthur Rackham, Goblin Market

Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market, which was published in 1862, is primarily a work of literary genius.  Its rich, intoxicating language and hypnotic rhythm and refrains carry the reader along irresistibly.  It is a long poem, too long to reproduce in full here, but I provide a link to the whole text and cite here the first few lines:

“Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;
All ripe together
In summer weather,
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.”
Goblin harvest amelia bowerley
Amelia Bowerly

The plot of the poem is quite easily summarised.  Two young sisters live together, supporting themselves by farming a smallholding.  Where their parents or relatives are, we never learn; the two girls are self-sufficient and independent.

Every evening the goblin men pass near their cottage, crying out their wares in tempting tones.  Sensible sister Lizzie knows that the goblins must be ignored; her sister Laura is weak and wants to taste the fruit.  She is reminded by Lizzie of the fate of Jeanie, who partook of the fairy food and then faded away and died, but she succumbs to their temptations and meets the goblins with their juicy, perfumed fruit- melons, cherries, pears and grapes.

frank adams
Frank Adams

However, once Laura has tasted the forbidden fruit, she cannot hear or see the goblin men again, and she begins to pine away just like Jeanie.  Lizzie realises there is only one way to save her sister: she goes one evening to meet the goblins, pays for their fruit but refuses to eat it.  In anger they smear her face with the juice, trying to get her to give in and taste it, but she is resolute and, by defying them, manages to drive the goblins off.

Lizzie returns home and her sister is able to lick the juice of her face.  Now, though, she finds it bitter, the goblin spell is broken and she is saved.

Hilda Koe
Laura & Lizzie by Hilda Koe (active 1895-1901)

What I’d like to do now is to pick out a handful of the more authentic fairy themes that run through Rossetti’s verse.  As I’ve said, the author was not concerned with producing a folklore document, so these elements are not prominent, but they are there, not wholly overwhelmed by her message of Christian self-sacrifice and familial love.

Firstly, there’s the central concept of the fairy temptation and its damaging impact upon the victim.  Rossetti handles this in a unique manner, with the faes becoming invisible and inaudible once they have seduced a human soul, but the idea of seeking to capture our spirits and the profound physical and psychological toll that faery contact can take will be familiar to many readers by now.  Once Laura has tasted faery food and faery pleasures, she cannot rest easy in this world: she longs to return to fairyland, but finds herself cruelly excluded.  She is left ‘elf-addled,’ weeping, wasting away, her hair becoming thin and grey.

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Warwick Goble

Lizzie goes to confront the goblins- and because she refuses to sit and eat with them, she is maltreated:

“They trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her,
Claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet…
One may lead a horse to water,
Twenty cannot make him drink.
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;”

This vicious treatment is very typically faery: they like to get their way; they like to have the upper hand over humans and, when they do not, they will often punish us physically, with pinches, slaps and scratches.  As I’ve described in my recent book, FayerieTudor and Elizabethan verse is full of this rough handling of neglectful servants or ungrateful housewives.  It’s also important to stress how much the faes may be enraged by those who insult or offend them.  This isn’t just a matter of being rude, but of failing to comply with their rigid rules on conduct.  By refusing to eat, and so resisting their charms,  Lizzie is violating fundamental (if unspoken) assumptions about human/ faery relations.  Their reaction is predictable.

hilda hechle
Hilda Hechle

One last apparent strand in the poem, which modern critics don’t avoid, is what seems to be a strong undercurrent of lesbian incest between Lizzie and Laura.  For example, Rossetti describes them asleep in their humble home:

“Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtain’d bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipp’d with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gaz’d in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapp’d to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Lock’d together in one nest.”

If nothing else, these lines bring out the sister solidarity of the pair- their self-contained and self sufficient nature living without family or other evident links within their community.   This status outside of the rest of human society is very important to Rossetti’s plot: it leaves Laura and Lizzie acutely vulnerable to the charms of the goblin men.  Recently, I have been reading Simon Young’s collection of some of the fairy stories of North Cornish writer Enys Tregarthen (Enys Tregarthen’s Folklore Tales: A Selection, ed. Young, 2017).  What is especially noticeable about many of these is how they start by telling us that the main character is a spinster or widow, living isolated on the moors or cliffs.  The solitary situation of these women makes them more likely to be contacted by piskies- more open to communication with them.  It’s the same in Rossetti’s work: the sisters have to fend for themselves.

Returning to the plot, there is a second and climactic moment in the poem when Lizzie returns, besmeared with juice from the fruit, and cries out to her sister:

“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me…”

Contemporary audiences find it hard to avoid reading something sexual into these highly carnal and luxurious words, although I suspect that upright church-going Rossetti would have been shocked by such imputations.  Nevertheless, the sexual nature of Faery is something I’ve often described, so such a theme is entirely appropriate.  The whole poem is sensuous, not to say sensual, and concentrates upon bodily pleasure and yielding to the senses as a way of submitting to the faery thrall.  To add to this, Laura buys the fruit from the goblins with a lock of her golden hair because she has no money.  That physical, personal contribution reminds us of the bargains often made between fairies and humans- sex- a part of the physical self- exchanged for power and knowledge.

c-rossetti-golden-head
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Summary

Goblin Market is not really about goblins, or the world of the supernatural, but it has some interesting aspects- over and above being an extremely accomplished poem.  You can read more about fairy cruelty, faery rules of conduct and the effect of faery contact upon humankind in my recent book, Faery.  For another exploration of the poem, see Neil Rushton’s blog, Dead but Dreaming.

I have previously examined John Keat’s La Belle Dame sans Merci and discussed the fairy works of other authors such as Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Maurice Hewlett and Algernon Blackwood.

Moths and pixies

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Edward Hopley, Puck and a moth

In this post I want to explore some persistent and intriguing connections between fairies and moths.  They are very scattered, but fascinating nonetheless.

CupidpursuingPsyche

John Gibson (1790-1866), Cupid pursuing Psyche

Fluttering faes

A lot of the material linking fairies with moths is highly romantic and literary.  As we began to conceive of tiny winged fairies from the eighteenth century onwards, the association between fays and pretty insects made more and more sense.

We might date this connection from as early as Midsummer night’s dream and the fairy ‘Moth’ although Dr Beachcombing on the Strange history website has argued that this is really a misreading for ‘mote.’

The pairing subsequently manifested itself in several ways:

  • fairies acquired moth and butterfly wings– as we see in many pictures including the illustration by Warwick Goble included below. Another source for these may come from classical representations of winged nymph Psyche (see above);
  • instead of riding horses, fairies started to be imagined riding moths and flies.  Julius Cawein tells us in ‘Dream road’ that “the moths they say the fairies use as coursers;” Alice Cary in ‘Fairy folk’ described fairies travelling “in coaches/ That are drawn by butterflies”;
  • as the poetic faes drew closer to nature, they started to care for insects and other wildlife.  In Menella Bute Smedley’s poem ‘The butterfly and the fairies’ it’s the fays that make the butterfly’s gorgeous painted wings whilst in Peter John Allan’s ‘The dead butterfly’ Faery seems to be the lepidoptera heaven, where the deceased insect goes to dance with the ‘elfin band.’

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Richard Doyle, The fairy queen takes an airy drive

These conceits were taken to an extreme in the anonymous poem ‘The fairies fancy ball,’ published in 1832, in which the vernacular names of every species of butterfly and moth are played upon in a dream of a dance put on by the fairy queen.

This evolution of the ‘artistic faery,’ as we might call it, directly informs our thinking today.  If, for example, we look at the encounters reported in the recent Fairy Census, small flying fays are very common indeed and insect wings are a feature of quite a number of reports (see below).

J G Naish- eleves & fairies MSND

John George Naish, Midsummer fairies

Pixies and the dead

The rather disparate folklore evidence is very partial, but it’s far more interesting than the cute literary conceptions, I would say.

Our starting point is a brief remark by Robert Hunt in his Popular romances of the West of England (1865, p.82):

“Mr Thoms has noticed that in Cornwall ‘the moths which some regard as departed souls, others as fairies, are called Pisgies.’ This is somewhat too generally expressed; the belief respecting the moth, so far as I know, is confined to one or two varieties only. Mr Couch informs us that the local name, around Polperro, of the weasel is Fairy. So that we have evidence of some sort of metempsychosis amongst the elf family. Moths, ants, and weasels it would seem are the forms taken by those wandering spirits.”

The Mr Thoms mentioned by Hunt wrote about ‘The folklore of Shakespeare’ in The Athenaeum in 1847 (no.1041, p.1055).  In this article he says little more than Hunt repeats, except to say that the moths as pixies was the belief in the Truro area of mid-Cornwall and adding that it was thought that when the moths were very numerous, there would be great mortality to follow.  It’s also fascinating to learn that in Yorkshire the night flying moth Hepialis humali was called ‘the soul’  and that, in the Lake District too, moths were traditionally regarded as a sign of death.

There seems to be a link with death then, which is probably quite unsurprising if you think of a ghostly white moth seen at night.  Equally, as I’ve described previously, there are strong associations between fairies and death and it’s another Cornish belief that unbaptised infants may become piskies.

There are some other fragments of folk belief to add to these tantalising remnants.  According to J. Henry Harris, Cornish mothers would also tell their children that the little brown pisgie moth will play tricks on them in their sleep (Cornish saints and sinners, 1907, c.20).  In her story of ‘The little cake bird’ North Cornish author Enys Tregarthen says that the belief around St Columb is that the fairies will pass over your nose and arrange your dreams whilst you sleep.  We know that Queen Mab is the midwife of dreams, so all of this seems to be interrelated.

At St Nun’s Well near Looe on the south coast of the Cornish peninsula, there is a tradition of leaving a bent pin as an offering.  If you fail to do this, you will be followed home by a cloud of the pisgey moths.  We looked at fairy wells in a previous posting and this particular local tradition underscores both that connection and the need to show proper respect by making respectful offerings to the fairies.

Lastly, in a story from the Blackdown Hills of Somerset, a woman is brushed across her brow by a large moth and thereby receives the ‘pixy-sight’ which enables her to see an old pixy man who has come to ask for her skill in nursing his sick wife.  We know fairy powers can be transferred by touch, so this again fits in with other lore, although the medium of the moth is unusual.

warwick goble

Some modern evidence

The recent Fairy Census confirms that there is still felt to be some common association between fairies and lepidoptera.  Some beings seen in Ohio flying around flowers were described as being “Small, pale, with long limbs and wings similar to moths.”  A man waiting for a train in Scotland saw a small ball of light hovering around one of the platform lights:

“At first I thought it was a moth being illuminated but then realised that it was too big to be a moth and also it was very, very bright. It hovered for a few moments then shot across the platform and it joined another ball of light opposite.”

He assumed it had to be a fairy because this was the “first thought that came into my head after I realised it wasn’t moths.” (Census numbers 169 & 350).  Several other witnesses made comparisons too to butterflies: consider for instance a Texan sighting of “a beautiful butterfly with a lovely body of a lady” or “bright, white light about five foot long with wings like a butterfly and a short dress” or “like a white butterfly” (numbers 375, 419 & 435).

Conclusions

This posting is just a first outline of this subject.  Doubtless with further reading other examples will be found and we will form a surer picture of the link, but it seems clear even at this preliminary stage that diminutive size, nocturnal habits, ghostly colours and some sort of spiritual aspect are all combined in this group of beliefs.

Further reading

Readers may be interested to note that the Scottish mythical and mystical poet Fiona Macleod makes considerable use of moth imagery.  They are often equated with spirits, perhaps ghosts: “In the grey-gloaming where the white moth flies” or “Not even the white moth that loves death flits through her hair.”  It is a a mysterious and silent symbol.

Charles Kingsley & ‘The water babies’

“and so there may be fairies in the world, and they may be just what makes the world go round…”

WB goble

The water babies can be an uncomfortable read today.  It is racist against the Irish, Turks and Jews, amongst others; it satirises a range of religious, political and scientific beliefs (for example, spiritualism) in a manner we would consider alien to a bedtime story, and it is unceasingly moralistic and dogmatic.  For all that, it is innovative and original in many respects and has some attractive features.  Kingsley calls it a fairy tale and it certainly has fairies as major characters, but in fact they bear very little resemblance to any fairies before or since.  How serious he’s being is also left in doubt: he denies a serious intent but defies those who disbelieve in fairies- “That is a very rash, dangerous word, that ‘cannot’; and if people use it too often, the Queen of all the Fairies … is apt to astonish them suddenly by showing them, that though they say she cannot, yet she can, and what is more, will, whether they approve or not.”

The plot

There are three major fairy characters in the book (although we learn at the end that they are all the same supernatural being).  One is the “great fairy” Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and another is “the loveliest fairy in the world” Mrs. Doasyou wouldbedoneby.  Their names are sufficient to indicate their roles.  The third is the Queen of the Fairies.  caring for the poor and sick.  Her subordinate fairies likewise help and protect the weak and vulnerable, specifically chimney sweep Tom, as will be seen.

Tom is treated badly by his master Grimes.  He runs away and drowns accidentally whilst bathing in a stream.  The drowning is a transformation, although it does not appear such to those left behind in the mortal world:  “they found a black thing in the water, and said it was Tom’s body, and that he had been drowned.  They were utterly mistaken.  Tom was quite alive; and cleaner, and merrier, than he ever had been.  The fairies had washed him, you see, in the swift river, so thoroughly, that not only his dirt, but his whole husk and shell had been washed quite off him…”  Tom becomes a ‘water baby.’  Thereafter, (as pictured below) the fairies guard him against injury and accident although all this is done without “his seeing their fair faces or feeling their gentle hands.”

warwick goble

Abused children

One major responsibility of the fairies is to save abused children from their cruel situations.  They are all transformed into happy water babies like Tom: “All the little children whom the good fairies take to, because their cruel mothers and fathers will not; all who are untaught and brought up heathens, and all who come to grief by ill-usage or ignorance or neglect; all the little children who are overlaid, or given gin when they are young, or are let to drink out of hot kettles, or to fall into the fire; all the little children in alleys and courts, and tumble-down cottages, who die by fever, and cholera, and measles, and scarlatina, and nasty complaints which no one has any business to have, and which no one will have some day, when folks have common sense; and all the little children who have been killed by cruel masters and wicked soldiers; they were all there…”

Fairies are, therefore, a form of social conscience for Victorian Britain; they are also an instrument of moral pedagogy.  Throughout the book Tom is guided by criticism, warning, guidance, punishment and reward, so that he is able to grow into a responsible and well-behaved adult.  This he does by finally forgiving and redeeming Grimes.  Then Tom is fit to be united in adult life with his sweetheart Ellie.

These fairies as moral instructors bear scant resemblance to the native fairy.  Traditional elves operated a strict moral code, but it was largely in their own interest.  They aimed at changing humans for their own benefit and gain, not for the personal improvement of the human.  In contrast, in The water babies the fairies act as ministers of divine justice; they are more like angels than elves.

Fairy tradition

There are, nonetheless, a couple of respects in which Kingsley’s fairies behave like the fairies of folklore.  Firstly, there is the use of glamour.  The fairy queen is first met disguised as an old Irishwoman- an omnipresent one, it must be conceded, who sees and judges all wrongdoing.

Secondly, there is Kingsley’s equation between death and fairy abduction.  Tom falls into the water and into a delightful sleep.  This is explained very simply: “It was merely that the fairies took him.” Something similar happens to Ellie when she falls and bumps her head on a rock.  “And, after a week, one moonlight night, the fairies came flying in at the window and brought her such a pretty pair of wings that she could not help putting them on…”  (see illustration below)

ellies wings

The salvation of children from cruelty, and their transformation into water babies, is a comparable process, but clearly with heavy Christian overtones.  Kingsley was, in fact, an Anglican minister and his fairy tale is in reality a parable.  He has dressed up divine characters as fairies, perhaps to make them more accessible and appealing to his junior audience, but he is preaching at them all the same.  With this story we have travelled a long way from the traditional British fairy lore that I have described in other postings: we are safely within the nursery and far from the sexuality and cruelty of much fairy behaviour.  We are, too, concerned with improving and educating children to make them fit to take their place as adults within the British Empire; we have abandoned the fairies’ selfish preoccupations with their own interests and pleasures.

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Above, ‘A land baby’ by John Collier, 1899; the other illustrations in this posting are from the 1929 MacMillan edition of The water babies, illustrated by Warwick Goble.

Further reading

I’ve also discussed other Victorian and Edwardian classics of children’s fairy literature- see my postings on the works of Mrs Ewing  and on J. M. Barrie.