The sensuality, or, let's spade-a-spade it: the sexuality of Christina Rossetti's most famous poem is hard to deny, and a little tricky (for some readers, at least) to square with the form of the work, viz. a children's fairy tale in which grotesque but not too scary goblins menace two sisters, tempting one to a kind of fall only to be bested by the other. But you already know the poem. It's very famous. Sisters Lizzie and Laura hear the cry of the goblin fruit-vendors every morning and evening:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,Lizzie knows not to trust these cat-faced, rat-faced, snail-like and tail-whisking goblins, but Laura, tempted, sneaks out and meets them. Lacking money she pays for their fruit with a lock of her golden hair. The poem describes her subsequent meal with lubricious intensity:
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy!” [GM, 1-19]
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,The pearl is a poetical way of describing her tear, but it's a symbolical way of talking about her virginity. Certainly all that intense sucking has a distinct sexual vibe. I note, as per the title of my post, that the Italian for goblin is folletto (in 1872 Christina Rossetti's cousin, Teodorica Pietrocola-Rossetti, a resident of Florence Italy, translated Goblin Market into Italian under the title Il Mercat de Folletti). This, I'm not inhibited from suggesting, floats the possibility of an interlingual, ribald pun, folletto fellatio shadowing this passage. Or else, with the ‘s’ in ‘sucking’ being replaced by the archaic long-s ‘ʃ’ in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's calligraphic rendering of his sister's name on the 1862 title page (reproduced at the head of this post) we have the ghost of ‘she ʃucked and ʃucked and ʃucked the more/She ʃucked until her lips were sore’. Lips, labia in Latin, has a double-meaning depending on whether we're talking above or below a woman's waist, a point to which I return below. But perhaps you consider this improper speculation on my part. I daresay you're right. Let's move on.
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away
But gathered up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turned home alone. [127-40]
After her initial ecstasy, Laura goes into a decline. No longer helping Lizzie with the housework, she loses her appetite for regular food, pining for the
Who should have been a bride;For joys brides hope to have: that's pretty unambiguous. Laura wants more of the delicious bridal-bed-pleasure-fruit. But she can't have it. She and Lizzie fetch water together:
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died
In her gay prime,
who tasted the goblin fruit.
They went with pitchers to the reedy brook;That leaping flame image is important, I think, and I'll return to it. It's here that Laura discovers that though her sister can still hear the goblins, she herself is now deaf to their traders' cries. The goblins, having ruined her, have cut her loose. She despairs, turns ‘cold as stone’, creeps to bed, ‘and lay/gnashed her teeth for baulked desire, and wept/As if her heart would break.’ ‘her tree of life drooped from the root’ . She tries planting the kernel she kept as a souvenir in a pot hoping it will grow and produce fruit of its own, but it proves barren. She dwindles:
Lizzie most placid in her look,
Laura most like a leaping flame.
Her hair grew thin and grey;Lizzie resolves to save her. She puts a silver penny in her purse (Victorian slang for vagina, don't you know) and goes out to meet the goblins. They are very excited by her approach:
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay.
Laughed every goblinLizzie tosses them her penny and they offer their fruit, but refuse to let her take it away with her, insisting she eats it there and then. When she refuses they assault her, in a scene of really quite startling, rapacious violence:
When they spied her peeping:
Came towards her hobbling,
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing,
Chuckling, clapping, crowing,
Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and mowing,
Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel- and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter skelter, hurry skurry,
Chattering like magpies,
Fluttering like pigeons,
Gliding like fishes,—
Hugged her and kissed her:
Squeezed and caressed her [329-49]
Their looks were evil.But she holds firm. Eventually the goblins give her back her penny, and then they all run away. Lizzie hurries home to her sickening sister:
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat. [397-407]
She cried “Laura,” up the garden,Had to “do” with goblin men. When Ben Jonson wrote, in Petronian mode, ‘Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short’, he was talking about fucking, which gives us a sense of what having to do with men entails (that whole 10-line Jonsonian poem reads as an interesting gloss on Goblin Market, actually; I wonder if Rossetti knew it). Still: although Lizzie did hand over her silver shilling (her virtue more broadly defined, perhaps, rather than her actual virginity-pearl) she managed to get it back again. And so the poem reaches its frankly orgasmic conclusion. Laura:
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.” [464-74]
clung about her sister,For the second time in the poem, ecstastic Laura is compared to a flame, or more specifically the poem describes the burning flame of her goblin-yearning being out-burned by a larger, purifying flame of sisterly intensity:
Kissed and kissed and kissed her:
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.
... Writhing as one possessed she leaped and sung,
Rent all her robe, and wrung
Her hands in lamentable haste,
And beat her breast.
Her locks streamed like the torch
Borne by a racer at full speed,
Or like the mane of horses in their flight,
Or like an eagle when she stems the light
Straight toward the sun,
Or like a caged thing freed,
Or like a flying flag when armies run. [485-506]
Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart,That's the money shot. You can see why Playboy reprinted in the poem in its September 1972 issue, complete with specially commissioned erotic illustrations.
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame;
Like a foam-topped waterspout
Cast down headlong in the sea,
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past [507-22]
We're on particular and, I concede, debatable ground here. We might retort, indignantly or otherwise, that Christina Rossetti was a devoutly religious woman, almost certainly a virgin when she died, and that the very idea (the very idea) that she had even heard the word fellatio, or knew what it connoted, is as absurd as it is offensive. Me, I prefer to avoid the intentional fallacy when I can, and I certainly prefer literary criticism to biographical criticism. Still: I wonder if it doesn't represent a rather deplorable condescension to assume Christina's blank ignorance of all sexual matters. We Other Victorians, as Foucault says; all that. Put it this way: Goblin Market is either intensely sexual in vibe because Christina was specifically using her fable to explore intense somatic and sensual desire, or else it is either intensely sexual in vibe because Christina was so extraordinarily innocent of sexual matters that she simply didn't realise how sexy her writing was. I suppose either reading is possible.
In what is still, probably, the most famous reading of the poem, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar claim it as a feminist masterpiece, although a masterpiece of a rather complicated kind. ‘There are no human men in the poem; even when the sisters becomes wives and mothers at the poem’s end no husbands are described ... Rossetti does, then, seem to be dreamily positing an effectively matrilineal and matriarchal world, perhaps even, considering the strikingly sexual redemption scene between the sisters, a covertly (if ambivalently) lesbian world.’ [Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (Yale Univ. Press 1979) 567]. That ‘ambivalently’, though, points to the fact that neither Gilbert nor Gubar actually see the poem as a celebration of sex-positivity. On the contrary, this orgasmic conclusion is, they argue, really about renunciation: Lizzie becomes ‘a eucharistic Messiah, a female version of the patriarchal (rather than Satanic) Word made flesh’ insisting that ‘Laura must devour her—must, that is, ingest her bitter repressive wisdom, the wisdom of necessity’s virtue, in order to be redeemed.’  That certainly aligns with Rossetti's own, renounced mode of living, although it doesn't seem to me to quite explain the joyous note of soror-solidarity on which the poem actually ends:
For there is no friend like a sisterSisters: Goblin Market is the proto-Frozen, and considerably *ahem* hotter with it.
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands. [562-7]
“Goblin Market,” first published in 1862 was written (subject of course to subsequent revision) as long ago as April 1859 and in M.S. is inscribed to my dear only sister Maria Francesca Rossetti herself long afterwards the author of “A Shadow of Dante.” In the first instance I named it “A Peep at Goblins” ... but my brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti substituted the greatly improved title as it now stands. And here I have to acknowledge the general indebtedness of my first and second volumes [of poetry] to his suggestive wit and revising hand. [Crump and Flowers (eds) Christina Rossetti: the Complete Poetry (Penguin 2001), 884]Dante eh? That's interesting. And indeed, a few years after the appearance of this poem, Maria's book on Dante was published:
The lines quoted on the title page, there, are probably too small to make out. Here they are, bigger:
It means ‘So may God let thee, reader, gather fruit/From this thy reading.’ Fruit, eh? Interesting. The frontispiece roundel on the facing page is by Dante Gabriel; the Italian means ‘The body within which I cast a shadow’ and is quoted from Purgatorio 3:26.
Eating and fasting are purged on the sixth of Dante's seven mountain-terraces. The seventh terrace purges lust by burning lovers in a refining fire that burns away their lustful inner-fires. After passing through this fire himself, Dante lies down to sleep and has a vivid dream of two loving sisters: a vision of Leah and Rachel, one of whom passes out into the world and the other of whom stays home: female representatives of the active (non-monastic) and contemplative (monastic) Christian lives, both of which are important. Rather like Christina and Maria, respectively, one might think.
Is there any reason to think these cantos of the Purgatorio were on Christina's mind in the run-up to her writing Goblin Market? But maybe it would be better to ask whether there's any reason to think Christina wasn't thinking of Dante, constantly: with her Dante scholar father, her Dante-book-writing sister, her literally-named-after-Dante brother. Dante was the horizon within which all the Rossettis' creative labour took place. Dante Gabriel R, who (according to the 1893 note I quoted above) gave Goblin Market its title, and whose ‘suggestive wit and revising hand’ was all over Christina's poetry, spent his whole life translating and illustrating Dante. A few years before his sister wrote her great poem Dante Gabriel painted his ‘Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah’ (1855)
There they are, the two sisters, by the waters, like stay-at-home Lizzie and out-in-the-world Laura.
The sixth and the seventh terraces of Purgatory link the two (we could say) manifest and latent themes of Christina Rossetti's poem: gluttony and lust. For Dante, the food that the gluttons are being deprived is fruit: apples, ‘pomi a odorar soavi e buoni’ [22:132; ‘apples that smelled so sweet and fine’]. This is because the original sin of Adam involved fruit, something also manifestly at play in Goblin Market. The prayer for the sixth terrace is Labia mea Domine (Psalm 51:15: ‘O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise’), the opening words from the daily Liturgy of the Hours.
Ed ecco piangere e cantar s'udìeLabia again. Interesting.
“Labïa mëa, Domine” per modotal, che diletto e doglia parturìe. [23.10-12]
And, behold: “Labïa mëa, Domine”
was wept and sung and heard in such a manner
that it gave birth to both delight and sorrow.
Just as Laura starves, dwindles and greys in Christina Rossetti's poem, so Dante's sinners are reduced:
Ne li occhi era ciascuna oscura e cava,But Dante's own path takes him past the starvation of his gluttony, but through the refining fire of the next terrace. This latter circumstance, it seems, can't be helped: just as Laura's redemption involves passing through her own flames.
palida ne la faccia, e tanto scema
che da l'ossa la pelle s'informava. [Purgatorio 23.22]
Each shade had dark and hollow eyes; their faces
were pale and so emaciated that
their taut skin took its shape from bones beneath.
Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart,Dante himself observes both heterosexual and homosexual sinners being purged in the terrifying fire of this seventh terrace; and when he steps into the flames himself he says:
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame;
Sì com' fui dentro, in un bogliente vetroBut there's no help; he has to pass through. Maria Francesca Rossetti, in her Shadow of Dante, is puzzled that this refining fire that purges us of lust completely fills the seventh terrace. What, she wonders, about people who have never sinned, sexually in deed or thought?
gittato mi sarei per rinfrescarmi,
tant' era ivi lo 'ncendio sanza metro. [27.49-51]
No sooner was I in that fire than I’d
have thrown myself in molten glass to find
coolness—because those flames were so intense.
Maybe. Or maybe the truth is simpler: we are none of us, as Christina knew, free of this sin, this intensity. It's what makes life and it is in us. But we can, she thinks, burn through it, and if we do it leads to a vision of—what? Of perfect sisterhood, Leah and Rachel, the matriarchs of all twelve of the tribes of Israel, and therefore ancestors of Christ himself.
One of the things that particularly interests me here is that this is where Rossetti's poetry stops, at the peak of Purgatory, dreaming of sisters. What I mean is that it doesn't take the next Dantean step into actual Paradise. Everyone (we might say) in Purgatory is dead, but they're in-between dead, neither (as it were) negative dead like the damned nor positive dead like the blessed. And the remarkable thing is that this in-between morticity is precisely where Rossetti wants to be. Here, she says, between the wickedness of the masculine Devil and the virtue of the masculine God is a space where visionary sister and visionary sister can subsist. In one of her early poems Rossetti addressed a ‘drearest’ (male? female?) in these terms:
When I am dead, my dearest,It's a very famous poem, of course; but its fame perhaps distracts us. The cypress is conventionally associated with death, and mourners may strew roses on a grave; but then again Wordsworth himself (in 1827) spoke of ‘the cypress with which Dante crowned His visionary brow’, and the Rose of God is the final destionation of the Commedia's Dante. This little poem repudiates them both in favour not of a atheistical oblivion, but rather of a placid middle-place: ‘haply I may remember,/And haply may forget’.
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
In other words, I'm proposing that there is something specifically purgatorial in Rossetti's verse, not in the usual sense of the word (which is to say: not in the sense that it purges or seeks to purge its readers) but in this specific, Dantean, symbolic sense. In Purgatorio 23 Dante describes his, and others', strenuous passaged up the mountain as ‘salendo e rigirando la montagna/che drizza voi che ’l mondo fece torti’: ‘ascending and turning round the mountain/which straightens you whom the world twisted awry’. Heaven is not corkscrew after this fashion: Paradiso 16 informs us that once we reach Paradice our appetites are no longer thuswise twisted (‘là dove appetito non si torce’). But Rossetti, it seems, likes the twist, and is disinclined to give it up.