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"Goblin Market" (composed in April 1859 and published in 1862) is a narrative poem by Christina Rossetti. In a letter to her publisher, Rossetti claimed that the poem, which is interpreted frequently as having features of remarkably sexual imagery, was not meant for children. However, in public Rossetti often stated that the poem was intended for children, and went on to write many children's poems. When the poem appeared in her first volume of poetry, Goblin Market and Other Poems, it was illustrated by her brother, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
"Goblin Market" is about two close sisters, Laura and Lizzie, as well as the goblins to whom the title refers.
Although the sisters seem to be quite young, they live by themselves in a house, and are accustomed to draw water every evening from a stream. As the poem begins, twilight is falling, and as usual, the sisters hear the calls from the goblin merchants, who sell fruits in fantastic abundance, variety and savour. On this evening, Laura lingers at the stream after her sister has left for home, intrigued by the goblins' strange manner and appearance. Wanting fruit but having no money, the impulsive Laura offers a lock of her hair and "a tear more rare than pearl."
Laura gorges on the delicious fruit in a sort of bacchic frenzy, then once she is finished, after picking up one of the seeds, returns home in an ecstatic trance. Lizzie, waiting at home, and "full of wise upbraidings," reminds Laura about the cautionary tale of Jeanie, another girl who, having likewise partaken of the goblin being's fruits, died just at the beginning of winter, after a long and horrible decline, and strangely no grass grows over her grave. Laura dismisses her sister's worries, and says she shall return to the goblins the next night and return with more fruits for herself and Lizzie.
Night has by then fallen, and the sisters go to sleep in their shared bed.
The next day, as Laura and Lizzie go about their work in the house, Laura dreamily longs for the coming evening's meeting with the goblins. But at the stream that evening, as she strains to hear the usual goblin chants and cries, Laura discovers to her horror that, although Lizzie still hears the goblins' voices, she no longer can.
Unable to buy more of the forbidden fruit, and sickening for the lack of it, Laura falls into a slow physical deterioration and depression. As winter approaches, she withers away, aging at an unnatural rate and no longer does her household work. One day she remembers the saved seed and plants it, but nothing grows.
Weeks and months pass, and finally Lizzie realizes that Laura is on the verge of death. Lizzie resolves to visit the goblins to buy some of their fruit, hoping thereby to soothe Laura's pain. Carrying a silver penny, Lizzie goes down to the brook and is greeted in a friendly way by the goblins, who invite her to sit and eat with them. But their attitudes turn malicious when they realize Lizzie wants to pay with mere money and that she intends to carry the fruits home with her for another, not eat them herself. Enraged, the goblins turn vicious and pummel and assault Lizzie, trying to force-feed her the fruits. In the process, they drench the brave girl in fruit juice and pulp.
At last, the goblins give up and Lizzie runs home, hoping that Laura will eat and drink the juice from her body. The dying sister does so but the taste of the fruit repulses her rather than satisfies her hunger; she then undergoes a violent transformation of such intensity that her life seems to hang in the balance.
The next morning, though, Laura has returned to her old self, both physically and mentally. As the last stanza attests, both Laura and Lizzie live to tell their children of the evils of the goblins' fruits—and the incredible powers of sisterly love.
Since the 1970s, critics have tended to view "Goblin Market" as an expression of Rossetti's feminist (or proto-feminist) and homosexual politics. Some critics suggest the poem is about feminine sexuality and its relation to Victorian social mores. In addition to its clear allusions to Adam and Eve, forbidden fruit, and temptation, there is much in the poem that seems overtly sexual, such as when Lizzie, going to buy fruit from the goblins, considers her dead friend Jeanie, "Who should have been a bride; / But who for joys brides hope to have / Fell sick and died", and lines like, "She sucked their fruit globes fair or red"; and "Lizzie uttered not a word;/ Would not open lip from lip/ Lest they should cram a mouthful in;/ But laughed in heart to feel the drip/ Of juice that syruped all her face,/ And lodged in dimples of her chin,/ And streaked her neck which quaked like curd."
The poem's attitude toward this temptation seems ambiguous, since the happy ending offers the possibility of redemption for Laura, while typical Victorian portrayals of the "fallen woman" ended in the fallen woman's death. It is worth noting that although the historical record is lacking, Rossetti apparently began working at Highgate Penitentiary for fallen women shortly after composing "Goblin Market" in the spring of 1859.
According to Antony Harrison of North Carolina State University, Jerome McGann reads the poem as a criticism of Victorian marriage markets and conveys "the need for an alternative social order". For Sandra Gilbert, the fruit represents Victorian women's exclusion from the world of art. Other scholars – most notably Herbert Tucker – view the poem as a critique on the rise of advertising in pre-capitalist England, with the goblins utilising clever marketing tactics to seduce Laura. J. Hartman, among others, has pointed out the parallels between Laura's experience and the experience of drug addiction. Another interpretation has observed an image of Jesus Christ in Lizzie when she says: "Eat me, drink me, love me." This is imagery used to identify Christ's sacrifice in communion services.
The poem uses an irregular rhyme scheme, often using couplets or ABAB rhymes, but also repeating some rhymes many times in succession, or allowing long gaps between a word and its partner. The metre is also irregular, typically (though not always) keeping four or five stresses, in varying feet, per line. The lines below show the varied stress patterns, as well as an interior rhyme (grey/decay) picked up by the end-rhyme with "away". The initial line quoted here, "bright", rhymes with "night" a full seven lines earlier.
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