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Prosody and Poetic Form – Analysis

When ‘Goblin Market’ was first published, it was generally well-received, but critics were unsure how to classify it: as a children’s poem, or a ballad, or a fairy tale, or something else entirely? Much of this confusion was due not only to its apparently allegorical subject matter, but also its unusual and changing poetic form. Throughout her work, Rossetti demonstrated that she was adept at using a range of poetic forms, from sonnets to ballads to terza rima, and many of her poems are formal, precisely-composed works which show a complete mastery of prosody and form.

‘Goblin Market’ is different. Here, we can see Rossetti’s skill in the way in which she plays with form. The opening lines appear to have a rhythm and regularity to their metre:

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy: (ll. 1-4)

However, it is difficult even from the start to decide exactly what that metre is. There is no dominant metre throughout, though much of it is in iambic tetrameter, but this is so often subverted that it is difficult to follow. The poem opens with a trochee, slips briefly into iambs, before substituting spondees which throw the emphasis on the cry of the goblins to ‘come buy’. This is followed by the dactylic metre of the shopping-list of fruit, where each line contains two dactyls with the second cut short in a catalectic dimeter which enables the poem to run away with the reader. This is a poem which you can read quickly, perhaps explaining why so many early readers were mystified by its content and assumed it was for children only.

The words of the goblins sound like a chant, as if they are calling a mystical incantation to the girls. As with most poems, the metre is most telling when it changes or substitutes, recalling the reader’s attention and demanding that we take notice. The poem moves next to the sisters, Laura and Lizzie, and the contrast between them and the goblins is marked by prosodic changes. The words and metre from line 32 read as softer, less insistent and shrill.  The metre still has a regularity, but it is different now:

With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger tips.
Lie close,’ Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head: (ll. 38-41)

The first two lines of this section more or less conform to iambic tetrameter, though the hesitation caused by the extra syllable in ‘cautioning’ provides a nice touch, as though reminding the reader, also, to beware. The speech is more tricky: Rossetti uses a conversational touch occasionally in this poem, which adds realism whilst disrupting the metre. By line 55, however, we have returned to the rhythmic chant we have come to associate with the goblins. This time, having heard the girls’ fears, the reader can associate the pulse of the words with an approaching menace, as though an army of goblins is approaching: ‘One hauls a basket,/One bears a plate’ (56-7) and ‘One had a cat’s face,/One whisk’d a tail’ (71-2). Such effects are of course heightened by the inclusion of rhymes, which speed up the lines as the reader races to reach the next rhyming word. This intense rhythm, irregular as it often is, increases, building up to the climax from line 329 onwards, where Lizzie visits the goblins, intent on finding a way to save her sister. The menace is now apparent, and the tension is built by the way in which the metre speeds up but also lurches, moving unevenly about as though a terrible monster is behind it. From ll. 390-408 the goblins attack, and the metre changes, arresting our attention and also indicating the multitude of goblin voices which call Lizzie names:

They began to scratch their pates,
No longer wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling.
One call’d her proud,
Cross-grain’d, uncivil;
Their tones wax’d loud,
Their looks were evil. (ll. 390-7)

This rapidly-changing metre, moving in this passage from the predominant iambic tetrameter to substitutions which change the pattern with the use of trochees and spondees, emphasizes the fear the goblins inspire in Lizzie; we sense the goblins shouting at her as the rhythm reflects the content.

By this stage in the poem, the difference between Lizzie and her sister has already been made clear in line 64, ‘“No,” said Lizzie, “No, no, no”’, interrupting her sister’s rhapsody on the goblin fruits; the words cut in sharply to the regular metre, bringing the reader up short at the starkness of the interjection. This firmness of purpose appears again after she has faced the goblins and won; she rushes home and, from line 463 onwards, excitedly tells her sister of what she has done. Her speech is rushed, running on from line to line with enjambments, rhymes, pararhymes and misrhymes speeding up her words, yet with few pauses and a confident explanation which place her clearly as the heroine of the tale.

The poem is also notable for its lyric passages, particularly in describing the sisters at a crucial moment. One example of this is when Lizzie is attacked by the goblins:

White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood,–
Like a rock of blue-vein’d stone
Lash’d by tides obstreperously,– (ll. 408-11)

Here Rossetti uses a trochaic tetrameter, with the last foot cut short. This section contrasts strongly with the tumultuous passage which preceded it, emphasizing the calm of Lizzie’s demeanour while the goblins rushed around her. The last word, ‘obstreperously’, is surprising, causing the reader to trip up on the words and pause, giving time to notice the remarkable, almost epic description of Lizzie at this moment.

Anne Jamison, in her book Poetics En Passant: Redefining the Relationship Between Victorian and Modern Poetry (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), has a chapter entitled ‘Goblin Metrics’, in which she argues that Rossetti revisits and revises form and structure in her poem, radically rewriting the prosody she displays in her other poems.

‘Goblin Market’ certainly engages in such a ‘revisionist reworking’ at multiple levels. Reaching back to Skelton but also ‘down’ to popular, even animal forms, the goblin chant introduces its aggressive and compelling rhythms and diction – the stuff of street cries, fairy tales, and the London Zoo – to the prosodic and thematic territory of Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Coleridge, and Tennyson. Composed of many prosodic systems interspersed, this collage of structures resolves itself into no single style, system, or story, just as the poem gives the tremendous impression of rhythm and sonority but adheres to no set metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. (146).

This shifting pattern in the poem’s technical structure offers an insight into the appeal the poem holds for readers. As Jamison suggests, it is a work which is never dull, holding the reader’s attention with its rapid changes, its echoes of other works and other forms. The prosody of the poem also explains and emphasizes the nature of the characters: the sisters’ softness, Laura’s bravery, and also the goblins’ fierceness and threatening nature. The contrast between the innocent girls and the menacing goblins is at the heart of the poem’s plot, and thus is reflected in the poem’s technical features. It also shows how the poem moves through an arc of increasing threat, working up to a climax, with tension building in both content and form. Like so many poems, this is a work which benefits from being read aloud, as the way in which form and content work together can then be recognized more clearly.