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