Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti’s hauntingly beautiful ballad, Goblin Market, has the fairy tale quality of John Keats’ equally beautiful poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. And like Keats’ poem, Goblin Market tells a story of seduction.

In Goblin Market, two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, hear the Goblin Men’s song luring innocent girls to taste their delicious fruit. Whereas Lizzie covers her ears and shuts her eyes to avoid giving in to their seductive song, Laura is tempted to taste the forbidden fruit. She seeks out the Goblin Men, exchanging a lock of her hair for the fruit. But having once given in to temptation, Laura behaves like an out of control addict. Her obsession is to sink her teeth into the fruits offered by the Goblin Men. But since she can no longer hear them, she pines away with an insatiable yearning for the forbidden fruit.

Just as Laura is on the brink of death, Lizzie, her tenacious sister, rescues her. Lizzie confronts the Goblin Men, tightly shutting her mouth to prevent them from cramming in any of the forbidden fruit. Meanwhile, they jostle her, taunt her, claw at her, kick her, bruise her, mew and bark at her, and smother her body with their fruit, all in an attempt to get her to taste it. But she is impervious to their seductive wiles, refusing to submit to male violation.

The happy ending has a fairy tale quality. Lizzie runs back to Laura and urges her to suck the juice dripping from her body. Since the Goblin Men’s juices are mixed with Lizzie’s own bodily juices, Laura ingests her sister’s juice. This acts as a powerful antidote to the Goblin Men’s seductive magic. Laura is saved, and the poem concludes with the sisters marrying, having children, and living happily ever after.

Laura’s seduction has distinctly sexual overtones. The sensuous description of the forbidden fruits adds to their seductive appeal. The goblin men are uncanny. Despite the differences in their grotesque appearance, (one is described as having a cat’s face; another as prowling like a wombat; another whisking his tale; and yet another as crawling like a snake), they sing their song of seduction with one voice. Once they succeed in capturing an innocent girl in their snare, they disappear from her view.

Although the poem can be interpreted on many different levels, it is fundamentally feminist in its orientation. It illustrates the importance of sisterhood as a vehicle to overcome adversity. There is no Prince Charming galloping in for the rescue. Other than the evil goblins, men are absent from the poem.

Goblin Market can also be read as a feminist reworking of the temptation of Eve in the Biblical Garden of Eden. Rossetti re-works the story. Instead of Jesus as the personal savior, it is the resourceful sister Lizzie who saves Laura from the tenacious grip of the Goblin Men. And whereas Eve and her progeny’s punishment in the Biblical version is to suffer, there is no corresponding indication in Rossetti’s version of any long term adverse effects on Laura. While it is true Laura transgresses, the consequences of her transgression are temporary, and she is able to return to the idyllic world of sisterhood a wiser and happier being.

This is a beautiful poem, beautifully rendered with fairy-tale qualities. The edition I have contains the paintings of Christina Rossetti’s eldest brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I have always loved his sensuous paintings of women, so their inclusion in this edition was an added bonus.

Highly recommended, especially for lovers of fairy tales with a strong female role model.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review