Christina Rossetti claimed that Goblin Market was extemporized in a single day. She also called it a children’s poem, and for her it probably was since, like her romantic antecedents, she saw childhood as a time of unparalleled intensity and experience. Indeed if any single romantic poem can be said to be behind Goblin Market, it is William Wordsworth’s Nutting, also a sexualized coming-of-age poem in which intensity of feeling for nature climaxes in an unexpected sexuality which reverses into a sense of guilt and loss.
Clearly, the poem is about the experience of sexuality, and it also seems clear that the sexuality in the poem centers on same-sex eroticism. The poem is about as daring as can be imagined, and it is protoFreudian in its evocation of dread, loss, anxiety, and sin in a context where two sisters (Lizzie and Laura) are sharing an experience of the awakening of desire. As with Freud, the stages of sexual desire go from a generalized friendship to intense and intensely singular sexual self-discovery; to its opening out into samesex, half-individual sexual interplay between the sisters who are not one person but not quite two, either; to a more “mature” sexuality which can lead to the venerated states of marriage and motherhood. Rossetti is interested in all these stages and sees their persistence even as they develop.
The goblin men who offer Lizzie and Laura their wares offer a panoply of fruits from the tree of knowledge. Laura succumbs to their offerings, giving up (as in a ghost story) a curl of her hair for the forbidden fruits they offer. Their friend Jeanie has done this before them, with the result that she “who for joys brides hope to have / Fell sick and died / In her gay prime” (ll. 314–316). The for in the line is ambiguous: She may have received sickness and death instead of the joys brides hope to have (and this is the obvious reading); or it may be that she experienced the sexuality that brides hope to experience as joy as sickness and death instead. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive readings. One may be a metaphor for the other, and we can say that the awakening of sexuality transforms itself from excitement to dread—a dread that makes it the harbinger of age and death (both Jeanie before her and now Laura grow conspicuously gray as a result of eating the fruit).
The two readings of the poem—the metaphorical and the literal—would correspond to two attitudes toward the story it tells: the adult’s and the child’s, respectively. For the child, sexuality threatens death, real death, the utter change marked by sexuality and the adulthood it begins. Of course this is not real death from our point of view, but it is from the child’s. The onset of sexuality is also the onset of the realization of mortality. When we are old enough to be sexually aware, we are old enough to understand that we will die. This is why the tree of knowledge introduces Adam and Eve to both sex and death. In “Goblin Market” the goblin men stand for both.
How much is sex worth? For Laura, as for Adam and Eve, it is worth death, but only when they do not yet know what death is. Metaphorically, from the point of view of the adult who can look back retrospectively, the intimation of mortality is the fact that the overwhelming primacy of sexual excitement is so ephemeral. The experience displaces every other experience, but only for a very brief period, and then the greatest experience of childhood—the first entry into sexuality—comes to an end, and its ending means the death of childhood and the beginning of death.
The end of the poem makes much of this clear: Lizzie and Laura are mothers now “With children of their own; / Their mother-hearts beset with fears” (ll. 545–546), and the time in which the bulk of “Goblin Market” is set is now called “Those pleasant days long gone / Of not-returning time” (ll. 550–551). So those days were pleasant, even in their intensity and terror. The fears of the mothers are different: less intense but far deeper. Notice that the mothers talk to the children about their own experiences—the experiences recorded in the poem. The poem is a children’s poem in the same way that Laura’s tales about the haunted glen and the goblin men are tales for the children. The children are being fortified against the coming loss by the knowledge that their mothers survived that loss by staying true to their own sisterhood—that is, the childhood relationship that endures beyond childhood.
It would be a mistake, however, to think the poem is only about sexuality. It is about every sort of childhood intensity, from sexuality to nature to language. The goblin men are noteworthy for their “iterated jingle” (l. 234)—that is, for the possibilities they offer in the very mode of poetry like “Goblin Market.” (For other poems that metaphorize the prolixity of rhyme in fascinating ways, see the entries on Robert Southey’s “The Cataract of Lodore” and Robert Bridges’s “London Snow”). Poetry arises out of a sense that the world’s repetitions are ever novel and every energizing, but what makes it great—at least for the romantic tradition Rossetti is writing in—is the way it records the loss of novelty and energy in the very language which had promised so much and delivered so little. “Goblin Market” may be a children’s poem, but like everything the children hear, it is sung by the goblin men, the inevitable emblems of age and death. The recompense, if there is one, is joy, love, tenderness, and fear for subsequent generations of children, and the poem’s halfhappy ending is one which makes it possible to reimagine the richness of the world through children who still feel it that way.
Carpenter, Mary Wilson. “‘Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me’: The Consumable Female Body in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.” Victorian Poetry 29 (1991): 415–434.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “The Aesthetics of Renunciation.” In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979, 539–580.
Michie, Helena. Sororophobia: Differences among Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.