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Formalism – Analysis

‘Goblin Market’ provides a model example of how meaning can be derived from prioritizing the language, technique or internal structures of a text over content. ‘Goblin Market’ even encourages a formalist approach because of its duplicitous or ambiguous nature, and also because the poem is highly symbolic, or suggestive in that it cannot quite be taken literally; this impels readers to look for clues inside the text rather than look externally, or exegetically, to aid interpretation. The highly crafted descriptions in ‘Goblin Market’ are designed to overwhelm or provoke the readerly imagination while the form, rhyme, and structure of the piece often jar with the content. The rhyme seems to offer a critique of the surface text, or aesthetic descriptions of fruit and flower, goblin and sister.

The narrative poem, which moves chronologically through time, emphasizes the passing of ‘Morning and evening’. In fact, the goblin parade, Laura’s surrender to the lush and gorgeous goblin fruit, and Lizzie’s victory over the goblin brood are all events that take place in the evening. The poem is patterned with this juxtapositioning of day and night, maid and goblin, or sister and brother, vice and virtue. There are two settings. The poem begins with the goblin scene with narrative lines, or lines that tell the story, varying between five, six and seven syllables. The goblin chants ‘Come buy, come buy’ consist of shorter tetrameter lines. The goblin song is melodic, even hypnotizing with its rising metre, and compact perfect rhymes comprised of ‘cherries’, ‘raspberries’, ‘mulberries’, ‘cranberries’, ‘dewberries’, and ‘strawberries’. Time is neatly arranged in tetrameter lines as in ‘Morns that pass by/Fair eves that fly’. The plush and graphic descriptions of fruit are mingled with sensory imagery appealing to the senses of taste and touch, sight and scent in verses such as ‘Figs to fill your mouth,/ Citrons from the South,/ Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;’. Such lines accumulate into the masculine monosyllabic command of the goblins’ cry, ‘Come buy, come buy’.

This first scene appears light-hearted, beautiful even, but the rising metre and short commands impress an anxiety or foreboding upon the reader which is realized in the second stanza or setting of the poem. In the second scene the rising metre, and mesmeric chants personifying peaches as well as anthropomorphizing mulberries, confirm the readerly anxiety in the form of two sisters who understand that the rhythmic hawking and charming fruits are actually ‘evil gifts’ that ‘harm’. The notion of ‘evil’ is rendered in the provocative rhyming couplet describing the sisters ‘With clasping arms and cautioning lips,/ With tingling cheeks and finger tips’. The lush, untasted, fresh and ripe fruit in the first scene is juxtaposed with the bodies, or specific female body parts of the two sisters which are implicated in the rhymes ‘lips’ and ‘tips’. The sisters are locked in a defensive embrace against the goblin brothers who coo and purr to coax the maidens into eating their fruit. Again, this cooing and purring is juxtaposed with the physical features of the goblins some of whom have a ‘cat’s face’, others who resemble wombats, ‘obtuse and furry’. The lines ‘Turned and trooped the goblin men,/ With their shrill and repeated cry’, clearly denotes that an attack is impending but the content is at odds with the happy rhyme and jingling metre.

As the events develop, the imagery becomes more phallic, with numerous references to grape vines and melons. The language also becomes increasingly onomatopoeic, or mimetic rather than descriptive as in the line ‘She thrust a dimpled finger’. What is more, it becomes apparent that ‘meaning’ rests on the connotations, sounds of words, and syntax order, rather than the literal words themselves. For example, the word ‘merchant’ not only denotes a person of business, but in colloquial terms also refers to a person who enjoys sadism or offending others. Laura’s ravenous desire for fruit and the scene of her fall is even more sexually charged as she clips her hair, drops a tear, and ‘sucked and sucked and sucked the more’. At this point in the tale, the fruit is no longer, soft and lush, but ‘sweeter than honey from the rock’. The earlier images of temptation and fruit, and beautiful resisting maidens, together with this scene of goblin men pressing Laura to eat their ‘globes’ of fruit, and the lingering descriptions over ‘juice’ fluids, make it difficult to avoid a sexual interpretation of the line ‘How should it cloy with length of use?’.

Significantly, after submitting to the temptations of the goblin brothers, Laura returns home sullen and the stanza ends with emphasis on ‘alone’. Lizzie warns Laura of the dangers for maidens who stay out till after twilight with a reminder of the fallen Jeanie who, too, yielded to the goblins and repetitiously ‘pined and pined away’. The tale forebodes Laura’s end who too, like Jeanie, craves and thirsts after more goblin fruit only to find that it is only her maiden sister Lizzie, who rebuked the goblin men by shutting her senses and running, who can hear the alluring chants. With Laura dying with desire, the rhyme scheme does not lose its versatility but grows serious and ends with monosyllabic words like ‘Death’s door’, ‘no more’, ‘heath with clumps’ which is contrasted with the lively tactual first stanzas describing the forbidden fruits. Laura decides to confront the goblins and bears a beating to procure an anodyne for her sister’s pain.

The last half of the poem mirrors the first. At ‘twilight’ Lizzie ventures into the glen at which point the perfect rhyme scheme and lines of heptameter ending in feminine rhymes return. The goblins are ‘peeping’, ‘hobbling’, ‘leaping’, ‘blowing’, ‘crowing’ and ‘mowing’. The rhyme structure mimics the build-up before Laura’s fall which consists of eight syllables per line of unstressed and stressed syllables. In this repetition of events, Lizzie remains resolute and firm in seven syllable lines again ending in monosyllables. The descriptions are onomatopoeic as we witness ‘Lashing’ and clawing, ‘Grunting and snarling’. Assonance and repetition work in tangent with the melodic rhyme scheme in ‘Bullied and besought her’/ ‘Scratched her, pinched her black as ink’/’Kicked and knocked her,’/ ‘Mauled and mocked her’. However, the effect of this rhyme pattern works oppositely to the earlier use of this rhyme structure in the alluring depiction of fruit. In this second half of the poem, the metre falls instead of rises as in the endings ‘ink’, ‘her’, ‘her’, ‘lip’ and ‘in’. The unstressed last syllable is a silent contrast to the stressed, elongated verbs denoting abuse and violence. This structure mimics the silence of the images suggested by a ‘lily in a flood’, or ‘a beacon left alone’/ ‘In a hoary roaring sea’, or a ‘fruit-crowned orange tree’/ ‘White with blossoms honey sweet’. Lizzie’s inaction presented in these images is juxtaposed with the violent activity of the goblins which is expressed through the falling metre and the long adjective ‘obstreperously’ which connotes the passage of a long, arduous struggle. It is this silent struggle of word and image against the relentless melody of rhyme that earlier seduced Laura, which in this scene vanquishes the goblins and makes Lizzie’s ‘resistance’ even more laudable. Enjambment or the special placing of ‘haste’ in a single line connotes the speedy run made by Lizzie to get home after her victory. The poem ends retrospectively ‘when both were wives’ with Laura narrating the tale to her own children. The earlier homoerotic references to the two sisters lying together, and Lizzie’s declaration to Laura ‘Eat me, drink me, love me’, are explicitly turned around and placed in the context of sisterhood in the line ‘“For there is no friend like a sister”’. The final five line stresses interchange between seven and eight syllables and end in a rhyming couple, but for the last line which ends with a solid ‘stand’ unifying sisterly solidarity which is in opposition to the goblin brotherhood conveyed in the earlier verses.