The poem we have chosen for the analyses on The Virtual Theorist is ‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). We chose it because it is a poem which is very open-ended and can be read in many ways, so lends itself to a wide variety of interpretative theories. It is one of Rossetti’s most popular and well-known poems, and is widely-read and taught today.
‘Goblin Market’ was written in 1859, and published in Rossetti’s first book, Goblin Market and Other Poems, in 1862. The poem was well-received by critics, who mostly considered it to be a strange sort of fairy tale. A contemporary review of the poem asked, ‘Is it a fable – or a mere fairy story – or an allegory against the pleasures of sinful love – or what is it? Let us not too rigorously enquire, but accept it in all its quaint and pleasant mystery, and quick and musical rhythm – a ballad which children will con with delight, and riper minds may ponder over’ (Norton, 401-2). It is an unusual poem with an irregular form which seems to be aimed at children but also has a moral, and it is in a style which suggests to readers that it may be an allegory.
The poem tells the story of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who live together. In the evenings they hear goblin men calling to them, offering them fruits to buy. Eventually Laura succumbs and buys fruit from the goblins, which is the most delicious she has ever tasted. Afterwards, she longs for more, but the goblins will not let her have more. She becomes ill, wasting away in longing for the magical fruit. Eventually, to save Laura, Lizzie visits the goblins, and tries to buy fruit for her sister, but they will only let her have it if she eats it. They smear the fruit over her, trying to force it into her mouth, but she doesn’t eat any and goes home to her sister, who eats the fruit that is covering Lizzie. Laura recovers, and the sisters grow up, marry and have children, and remember the ‘goblin market’ episode as a warning. The poem ends with a moral, that ‘there is no friend like a sister’.
Rossetti’s brother William, in his 1904 Memoir of his sister, pointed out that she said that she ‘did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale – it is not a moral apologue’ (William Michael Rossetti, 459). This has not stopped readers from considering a range of new ways to interpret the poem, however: these include looking at Rossetti’s personal life and reading the poem biographically, as a manifestation of Rossetti’s Christian faith in redemption, for example. It has also been suggested that Rossetti was tempted to run away with a married man and was prevented from doing so by her sister, and that this poem is her thanks to her sister for saving her from doing something foolish, though this reading is very speculative and not based on any evidence. ‘Goblin Market’ has also been read in a socio-historical context, looking at the poem’s moral status as a warning against succumbing to temptation for the women of the Highgate Penitentiary for Fallen Women, where Rossetti volunteered.
In more theoretical and abstract terms, critics have also read the poem as an evaluation of a marketplace economy, a critique of patriarchal Victorian society, and an allegory for the Anglican Eucharist. It has also been considered as a discourse of anorexia, lesbianism, rape, vampirism and incest, among other readings. The poem is often considered to be a product of a repressed female sexuality, though Isobel Armstrong cautions readers not to try to interpret the poem too literally, and focus instead on the ‘ambiguities at work in the poetics of expression’ (Armstrong, p. 351). The poem has attracted interest from many feminist scholars, from Germaine Greer to Alison Chapman, because it is seen as an unusual example of women’s writing which seems to contain a plethora of meanings relevant to the situation of women in the nineteenth century. The poem is also notable for its visual descriptions, and there have been many illustrations of the poem since its first publication.
The many readings of ‘Goblin Market’ on The Virtual Theorist will demonstrate how a poem may be interpreted in various ways. All of the interpretations are convincing in different ways, and demonstrate how literary theory may shed new light on a text and offer readers a different way of looking at literature.