a resource for studying literary theory

Ecocriticism – Analysis

The female sex in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ is a corporate entity, a polymorphous being growing and collectively learning from its privations and successes as its shoots strain towards the light of a culturally uncontaminated world. This evolution towards a feminist utopia is reflected in both the form and the content of the poem. The sisters Lizzie and Laura are associated from the outset with the rural nature in which they dwell and which is their living. They are connected physically and emotionally, so that when one experiences pain or pleasure, so does her sister. Their collective experience is pooled, adding to their store of knowledge, misfortune and sensual pleasure. The tragic pining away of Jeanie and Laura’s erotically charged feasting on the goblin’s fruits, which seems likely to lead her to the same end, give to Lizzie the wisdom and sexual knowledge necessary to win redemption for her sister and simultaneously satisfy her own desires. One woman dies, another is poisoned and weakened almost unto death, whilst a third strives and overcomes adversity to rescue her sister, allowing both the sisters and their future children to prosper in the final stanza which is almost completely devoid of the natural imagery that is so prominent throughout the rest of the poem. The verse has moved through and outgrown depictions of nature that lead inevitably back to male subjectivity and representation.

The second stanza, in which Lizzie and Laura overhear the goblins from ‘Among the brookside rushes’ (l. 33) places the sisters in a riparian idyll – in nature – but it is also, inescapably, a dwelling place mediated by the echoes of male poets and artists. The suicides of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Millais’ Ophelia (1852), Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ haunt the rushes and reeds in which the sisters lay listening, anticipating Waterhouse’s 1888 painting of the same name. What if we read the goblin men as manifestations of the pressure, and temptation to give in to, an androcentric culture in which women and nature must live up to their latent sexual and tragic content?

Subsequent stanzas support this reading, with their progression through natural similes and on into the man-made in which they terminate: ‘Like a vessel at launch / when its last restraint is gone.’ (ll. 85-6) Likened to a swan, a lily and a moonlit branch, it is the constructed and overtly cultural that jettisons Laura into danger. A ship is made from felled trees, shaped out of the raw material of nature by man, and this is the fate of that which grows in a nature that is defined and mediated by an instrumental view of value.

The repetition of similes which grow through the natural and into the constructed and cultural, are tributaries to the river of metaphor that runs through the poem. Take the image of the sisters huddled together in sleep, in which they are likened to two pigeons, blossoms and snowflakes, but finally to ‘two wands of ivory / Tipped with gold for awful kings.’ (ll. 190-191) The living and (locally) naturally occurring become the dead tusks of exotic beasts, elephants or rhinoceroses, crafted for powerful men. In this stanza, however, the movement comes almost full circle with a return to the natural signalled by the night-time animals – bats and owls. But it is only a partial return, because these creatures, and the moon and wind too, are anthropomorphized, and the final image is the ambiguity of a bird’s nest: something both natural and constructed.

The final stanza of the poem seems to attempt to create a space in which women can become their own symbols, not bound to the land and therefore available for exploration and exploitation by man, a space therefore in which woman escapes objectification. What has been read as the bland moralization of a dark and complex poem might instead be the emergence of woman and nature from the murk of male fantasy and mystification. Here there are no references to the place in which this community of women and children dwells, only to one another as they link hands for support ‘In calm or stormy weather’. (l. 563) In a sense, they are now one and the same with the land ‘That shakes in windy weather’ (l. 121); the distinction is outgrown and so is any symbolic reading of woman as landscape or landscape as feminine.

Mary Arseneau (Victorian Poetry, Spring 1993) has argued that ‘Goblin Market’ is ‘a paradigm of the kind of symbolic interpretation in which Rossetti wanted her readers to engage.’ (79) Whilst it is important to recognize the theological underpinnings of Rossetti’s thought and poetry, the irregular rhythms of simile and metaphor that I have traced in this brief reading suggest that the poem contains a strong undercurrent that seeks to escape the symbolic altogether. Where Heidi Scott (The Explicator, Summer 2007) has seen in the encounters between the goblins and women a clash of ‘distinct biological kingdoms’ with ‘a clear victor in each case’ (219), I have attempted to portray a more organic struggle in which women outgrow androcentric imposition through shared experience. Rossetti does not fear the natural world so much as the invasion of other ecosystems, other natures. The goblin men and their fruits, like an invading army, have been removed from their origins: ‘who knows upon what soil they fed?’ (l. 44), and are thus not tethered to the land as Laura is: ‘all my gold is on the furze’ (l. 120). They have entered into the symbolic order, so that they are able to create their own reality. This is the source both of their power and their weakness; they produce powerful and dangerous desire in the sisters, but can only survive in the illusory, ethereal market. Whereas the women of the poem are not given distinguishing features or descriptions, the goblin men are various and individual in shape, size, animal-likeness and movement. The sublime variety of their animal guises and fruits offers no route to transcendence or dissolution for Lizzie and Laura, instead jolting the sisters out of their sympathy with the natural world. Reading against the grain in this way reveals an attempt to represent nature and woman in as unconstructed a way as possible, but it is nonetheless still a cultural construction. Rossetti’s polymorphous being that is woman is a compelling means of inhabiting the paradox of ecocriticism.