Rossetti, Christina 1830–1894
(Full name Christina Georgina Rossetti; also wrote under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn) English poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, and author of juvenile fiction and children's poetry.
The following entry presents an overview of Rossetti's career through 2004.
Although she wrote across several genres, Rossetti is regarded as one of the finest English poets of the nineteenth century. Closely associated with Pre-Raphaelitism—an artistic and literary movement that aspired to recapture the vivid pictorial qualities and sensual aesthetics of Italian religious painting before the year 1500—Rossetti was equally influenced by the religious conservatism and asceticism of the Church of England. Her best known work is the titular poem from her collection Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), a poem ostensibly written for children which is nonetheless replete with seemingly adult thematic imagery. Rossetti's verse often co-opted juvenile literary forms—such as fairy tales or nursery rhymes—to articulate the apparent internal conflicts between her religious devotion and her desire for more open expressions of femininity. While primarily aimed at juvenile audiences, "Goblin Market" has managed an enduring popularity with both children and adults based upon the appeal of its moralistic message and sensual fairy world. Despite the mature themes found throughout her canon, Rossetti's various poems and nursery rhymes remain among the most anthologized Victorian children's verse today.
Rossetti was born in London on December 5, 1830, the youngest daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian poet and expatriate who sought political asylum in England, and Frances Polidori. Her brothers included the renowned artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and noted critic William Michael Rossetti. Her mother, the sis-ter of John William Polidori—the physician to Lord Byron—was herself a well-read and devout woman who taught the four Rossetti children at home. Raised in a devoutly religious household, as a young woman, Rossetti declined two marriage proposals because her suitors failed to conform to the tenets of the Anglican Church. Demonstrating poetic gifts early in life, Rossetti wrote sonnets in competition with her brothers Dante and William, a practice that is thought to have developed her command of metrical forms. At the age of eighteen, Rossetti began studying the works of Dante Alighieri, who became a major and lasting influence on her poetry, as evidenced by her many allusions to his writing. With her brothers' assistance, she was able to see several of her poems published in the journals Athenaeum and The Germ. In 1850 she wrote Maude: A Story for Girls, though it was not released until after her death in 1897. After her father's death in 1854, Rossetti's brother William began to support her financially, and she spent several years volunteering at a religious facility for under-privileged women. Throughout this period, she continued to write, and it was her second published poetry collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, that won Rossetti her first widespread critical and popular acclaim. Illustrated by her brother Dante, Goblin Market was a distinctive cross-pollinization of her continued faith in the Anglican Church and her growing concerns over the role of women in Victorian society. Rossetti published two more books of children's verses which combined traditional juvenile forms with religious and feminine allegories—The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1866) and Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872). Rossetti's poetic production diminished as she grew older and increasingly committed to writing religious prose. A succession of serious illnesses strongly influenced her temperament and outlook on life; because she often believed herself to be close to death, religious devotion and mortality became persistent themes in both her poetry and prose. In 1871 she developed Graves's disease and, though she published A Pageant and Other Poems in 1881, she concentrated primarily on works of religious prose, such as The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse (1893). She was diagnosed with cancer in 1892 and died on December 30, 1894, at her home in London.
In her works for young readers, Rossetti explores several of the same themes that appear throughout her more adult publications, specifically, the conflict between her fervent Christianity and her desire for more open modes of feminine expression. Her best known poem, "Goblin Market," is most indicative of these seemingly contrasting thematic sensibilities. At once a religious allegory and an erotic allusion, "Goblin Market" is a morality fable utilizing an irregular meter and rhyme scheme, telling the story of sisters Laura and Lizzie and their interaction with the dark powers of the fairy world. One day, the two girls hear fantastic creatures peddling their goblin fruit in a mystical marketplace. While Lizzie—the more chaste of the sisters—warns the impetuous Laura away from their enticing goods (reminded, no doubt, of the passing of their friend Jeanie, who died as a result of the fruit's influence), Laura is nonetheless sorely tempted by their power. Trading a lock of her hair for a taste, Laura gorges herself on the sweet goblin fruit and soon becomes delirious and rapturously hungry for more. Laura grows ill from her desperate need to consume, and Lizzie reluctantly returns to the market to gather more of the goblin fruit. Bringing a silver penny for payment, Lizzie finds the goblins who anxiously urge her to eat their succulent fruits. When the goblins learn that Lizzie wants to give the fruit to her sister, they grow insistent and increasingly aggressive, demanding that Lizzie consume the food in front of them. Lizzie, however, recognizes the danger of the fruit and relents. The goblins attempt to force Lizzie to eat, shoving and smearing the fruit against her mouth. Lizzie escapes, having refused to eat, and returns to her sister's side with the juices of the fruit still in her mouth. Thankfully, Lizzie's pure nature and good intentions have subverted the poisonous nature of the magic, instead rendering it curative. Lizzie allows her sister to drink from the pulp covering her face in an affectionate manner, thus curing her sister's unnatural need for the fruit. Since its initial publication, some have questioned whether "Goblin Market" is appropriate for children, citing primarily the seemingly sensuous relationship between the sisters and the mature Biblical allusions made throughout the text. Rossetti's elder brother and posthumous editor of her literary estate, William, rejected such accusations, stating that, "I have more than once heard C[hristina] aver that the poem has not any profound or ulterior meaning—it is just a fairy story: yet one can discern that it implies at any rate this much—that to succumb to a temptation makes one a victim to that same continuous temptation; that the remedy does not always lie with oneself; and that a stronger and more righteous will may prove of avail to restore one's lost estate."
While "Goblin Market" is undoubtedly Rossetti's primary literary legacy, she was also the author of a series of other children's works, among them Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems, and Maude: A Story for Girls, which was published posthumously. Together, they echo "Goblin Market" in their sublimation of traditional children's literary forms, highlighting Rossetti's trademark cohesion of subtext and moral allegory. Maude—which, despite its late publishing date was among Rossetti's first writings—is a short novel initially composed as a series of sequential poems with marked autobiographical allusions to Rossetti's life. The Prince's Progress and Sing-Song are both poetry/rhyme collections that embody more traditional forms than Rossetti's early verse work in Goblin Market and Other Poems. Rossetti's collection of nursery rhymes, Sing-Song, was published in 1872, with 120 illustrations by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Arthur Hughes. Rossetti had submitted the manuscript with her own illustrations, but she modestly added, "they are merely my own scratches and I cannot draw." Po-ems from the collection such as "If a Pig Wore a Wig" and "When Fishes Set Umbrellas Up" reflect Rossetti's interest in nonsense literature, which is appropriate for the era given that Sing-Song was published the same year as Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1872) and Edward Lear's More Nonsense (1872).
From a critical standpoint, the bulk of scholarly commentary on Rossetti's career has concentrated upon "Goblin Market." And yet, the poem's accepted inclusion among Victorian children's literature has been questioned nearly from the point of its release. In her review of Goblin Market and Other Poems, Mrs. Charles Eliot Norton famously wondered about the title poem: "Is it a fable—or a mere fairy story—or an allegory against the pleasures of sinful love—or what is it?" Many critics have attempted to investigate the poem's meaning through biography, drawing parallels between the verse and Rossetti's romantic relationships, family history, or her charitable work with prostitutes and reformed women. Despite the questions surrounding the poem's intended audience, "Goblin Market" remains one of the most anthologized works of Victorian children's poetry to date. Christina Rosenblum has contended that "Goblin Market" is "set off from the rest of [Rossetti's] work by its singular narrative power and richness of texture and by the changes in literary taste that value its relative opacity over the transparency of most of the rest of her work." In terms of the rest of her oeuvre, some reviewers have faulted Rossetti's indifference to social issues in her verse, though others have applauded her simple diction, timeless vision, and stylistic technique. Rossetti's nursery rhyme collection, Sing-Song, is her second best known work of children's literature, drawing frequent comparisons to Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). Rossetti's brother William applauded the collection's "various lyrics which, though not unadapted for children, are truly in a high strain of poetry, and perfectly suited for figuring among her verse for adults, and even for taking an honored place as such." Dante Rossetti similarly opined that Sing-Song alternates "between the merest babyism and a sort of Blakish wisdom and tenderness." Modern scholarship on Rossetti's canon has largely explored the feminist aspects of her works, challenging nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics who focused their examinations of Rossetti on the poet's reticence and fervent belief in the afterlife.
Verses (children's poetry) 1847
Goblin Market and Other Poems [illustrations by Dante Gabriel Rossetti] (children's poetry) 1862
The Prince's Progress and Other Poems [illustrations by Dante Gabriel Rossetti] (children's poetry) 1866
Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book [illustrations by Arthur Hughes] (children's poetry) 1872; revised edition, 1893
Speaking Likenesses [illustrations by Arthur Hughes] (juvenile fiction) 1874
A Pageant and Other Poems (children's poetry) 1881
Maude: A Story for Girls (juvenile fiction) 1897
What Is Pink? [illustrations by Margaret A. Soucheck] (children's poetry) 1963
Doves and Pomegranates: Poems for Young Readers [selected by David Powell; edited by Naomi Lewis; illustrations by Margery Gill] (children's poetry) 1969
Fly Away, Fly Away Over the Sea: And Other Poems for Children [illustrations by Bernadette Watts] (children's poetry) 1991
What Can I Give Him? [illustrations by Debi Gliori] (children's poetry) 1998
Poems (poetry) 1866
Commonplace: A Tale of Today, and Other Stories (fiction) 1870
Annus Domini: A Prayer for Each Day of the Year (nonfiction) 1874
Seek and Find: A Double Series of Short Studies on the Benedicite (nonfiction) 1879
Letter and Spirit: Notes on the Commandments (nonfiction) 1883
Time Flies: A Reading Diary (nonfiction) 1885
The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse (nonfiction) 1893
Verses: Reprinted from "Called to Be Saints," "Time Flies," "The Face of the Deep" (poetry) 1893
New Poems [edited by William Michael Rossetti] (poetry) 1896
Selected Poems of Christina G. Rossetti [edited by Charles B. Burke] (poetry) 1913
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti [edited by Marya Zaturenska] (poetry) 1970
Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti. 3 vols. [edited by R. W. Crump] (poetry) 1979, 1986, 1990
The Letters of Christina Rossetti [edited by Anthony H. Harrison] (correspondence) 1997
Lynda Palazzo (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Palazzo, Lynda. "Early Poetry, Including Goblin Market and Maude." In Christina Rossetti's Feminist Theology, pp. 1-30. Basingstroke, England: Palgrave, 2002.
[In the following essay, Palazzo examines Rossetti's religious evolution through an analysis of her early poetry and first forays into children's literature with Goblin Market and Maude.]
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
Did Christina Rossetti, despite her acute, and at times subversive, poetic intelligence remain passive in her acceptance of her religion? Even her latest biographers assume this was the case, taking their direction from her brother William Michael Rossetti's biased account of her Christianity:
The dominating element in her daily life—and perhaps the one which makes it hardest for us in the twentieth century to feel close to her—was religion; religion of an old-fashioned rigidity that turned life into a bitter and constant struggle for spiritual perfection, that elevated Duty and renunciation above all, that circumscribed and directed her daily ways.1
Rossetti, accused on Bell's publication of Christina Rossetti's biography of being 'a main performer in Mr. Bell's book',2 unwittingly perhaps proceeds in his Memoir to be the main instrument obscuring Rossetti's theology. He makes much of what he calls her 'over-scrupulosity', which has 'the full practical bearings of a defect', making her 'shut up her mind to almost all things save the Bible, and the admonitions and ministrations of priests'. Whatever his reasons were for turning away from Christianity and therefore disliking his sister's theological activity, the effect of his words has been to transfer his own attitude of intolerance onto her. If we look more closely at his claim, for example, that 'to ponder for herself whether a thing was true or not ceased to be part of her intellect', because 'the only question was whether or not it conformed to the Bible, as viewed by AngloCatholicism', we see that far from having a closed mind, she was pondering deeply questions of accepted versus biblical truths, Tractarian biblical interpretation as opposed to popular myth. We glimpse, too, that Rossetti tended to dislike priests in their role as guardians of the national morality: 'while she had an intense reverence for the priestly function, she cared next to nothing about hierarchical distinctions: anything which assimilated the clerical order to a "learned profession" forming part of the British constitution left her indifferent, or rather inimical' (ibid.). It is no wonder, given such a lack of comprehension on the part of her favourite brother, and perhaps the rest of her family, that she became extremely reticent in questions of faith, and rarely referred to religion in letters to her family or others.
For the critic in search of guidelines to her theology, one finds in her early years virtually nothing apart from her poetry, and it has been widely assumed that she accepted the teaching of Pusey and the other great Tractarians, writing poetry in the wake of Keble until finally consolidating an imitative Tractarian position in her devotional prose. Recent studies of her later prose volumes, however, have shown that Rossetti was actively concerned with controversial issues in her theology including questions of gender, and was particularly concerned with methods of biblical interpretation which give women meaningful access to the scriptures in a way comparable to the work of Stanton in America.3 These studies suggest that, by the end of her life, Rossetti was engaged in the critique of theological practice, was not the passive religious figure so often presented and was particularly concerned with the problems women encountered in their relationship with Christianity. She appeared to be moving towards a position that is similar to that of modern feminist theology in its attempt to identify the ways in which women are able to relate to a fundamentally male religion.
Prompted, then, by what would seem a startling and somewhat unlikely reversal in the poet's later attitude, if the accepted critical position of her early theological passivity is correct, this chapter begins with a re-examination of Rossetti's formative years at Christ Church and her poetry of that time, bearing in mind those questions of female spiritual empowerment and re-imaging of the biblical text which become central concerns in her later years.
Not only did Rossetti's early religious upbringing take place during the later days of the Oxford Movement when bitter dissensions had arisen and the exodus to Rome was at its peak, but it took place within one of the most active Tractarian parishes in London, Christ Church, Albany Street, under a fervent disciple of Pusey, Rev. Dodsworth.4 She was surrounded by controversy, by challenge and by strongly held views on all sides, and although she would have mod-erated her views in deference to the orthodoxy of her beloved mother and sister, it is unlikely that the young Rossetti was as passive as she is portrayed in most critical accounts of her religion. Jan Marsh, in an otherwise perceptive biography, assumes that Rossetti directed no criticism at Pusey or his stifling doctrines,5 but she undervalues the young poet's grasp of theological issues. Although it is possible that in 1846, the time of writing 'The Martyr', Rossetti was in thrall to the hysteria which was then sweeping through Christ Church, from the evidence of much of her poetry of the later 1840s she in fact became increasingly critical of those very doctrines which are said to have been the mainstay of her religious thought.
One thing is clear, however. She did not have an easy passage into religious maturity, despite the steady faith of the other women in her family. Such was the zeal of Dodsworth6 and the mounting hysteria at Christ Church in the wake of Pusey's pioneering sisters that the young Rossetti suffered a spiritual crisis leading to severe physical collapse. Unpublished remarks suggest the origin of her breakdown in 'a kind of religious mania',7 and this is generally assumed to be her way of participating in the widespread spiritual hysteria which erupted at Christ Church at that time. Whilst this may be true, it could also suggest that she was reacting against an overload of external religious pressure, especially when she found some aspects of the teaching unacceptable, but felt forced by fear of rejection or by peer pressure to accept them. Her confirmation into the Anglican Church finally took place in 1846 after a period of great spiritual difficulty, as she wrote to her brother Dante Gabriel when he was suffering a similar crisis of faith:
I want to assure you that, however harassed by memory or anxiety you may be, I have (more or less) heretofore gone through the same ordeal. I have borne myself till I became unbearable to myself, and then I have found help in confession and absolution and spiritual counsel, and relief inexpressible. Twice in my life I tried to suffice myself with measures short of this, but nothing would do; the first time was of course in my youth before my general confession.8
So Rossetti was finally received into the Church, but her experience of the extremes of Tractarianism was to sow multiple seeds of dissatisfaction and doubt in her mind. As Marsh suggests, she was 'marked for life by exposure to Puseyite thought'9 and her naturally warm and outgoing personality became silent and introspective. It is possible that such a profound change came about because the excesses of Pusey's followers provoked a terrible ambiguity in her response to his Tractarian God. A natural and spontaneous love of Christ, inherited perhaps from her mother Frances's untroubled evangelical piety, became haunted by the spectre of a harsh, cruel Father God, and a Church that demanded woman's total submission in both body and soul. Rossetti was forced at a very early age to rethink her own spirituality and struggle painfully towards the re-imagining and re-imaging of God in terms which spoke from her own life and experience.
Rossetti's first major poem of this time, 'Repining' (1847), gives an idea of her understanding of the subtext of Tractarian fervour and its effect on the young. The poem holds up to the scrutiny of her readers the way in which young girls were caught and held fast in the grip of a religious extremism which not only deprived them of their natural physical vitality, keeping them docile and obedient as they strove for salvation, but trapped them precisely through that which the poem defines as a feminine strength—spirituality. Not yet in command of a language with which to contest theological issues, Rossetti used the language of late Romanticism, and so the undefined longing of the young girl at the beginning of the poem, rendered haunting and sensual by the 'throbbing music' of Keats' nightingale, is met by a cruel religious indoctrination at the hands of a Porphyro figure:
His cheek was white but hardly pale;10
And a dim glory like a veil
Hovered about his head, and shone
Through the whole room till night was gone.
The young soul, following the long-awaited lover and guide, her senses heightened by the thought of the delights to come, is shocked by horror upon horror of Rossetti's own repeated versions of the 'vanity of vanities' theme so beloved of Pusey and his followers: a village is crushed under an avalanche, sailors drown, families are burnt alive and the groans of dying soldiers fill the air as they are picked over by carrion crows. Rossetti's emphasis is on physical corruption:
Ghastly corpses of men and horses
That met death at a thousand sources
Cold limbs and putrefying flesh.
The girl does not understand the suffering she sees and wishes to return to the wholesomeness and joy of her own world:
What is this thing? Thus hurriedly
To pass into eternity:
To leave the earth so full of mirth;
To lose the profit of our mirth;
To die and be no more; to cease,
Having numbness that is not peace.
Let us go hence.
However, the guide 'answers not' to the girl's urgent questions, and the shocked reader is witness to the brutality involved in her final capitulation:
She knelt down in her agony.
'O Lord, it is enough', said she:
'My heart's prayer putteth me to shame;
Let me return to whence I came.
Thou who for love's sake didst reprove,
Forgive me for the sake of love'.
Rossetti here has captured the severity characteristic of Pusey's insistence on renunciation, but it is generally assumed that her poem is an uncritical acceptance of Pusey's version of the doctrine. This interpretation would place Rossetti herself in the position of the abject maiden. Instead, the poet distances herself from this in her exploration of women's spiritual needs by suggesting that the attraction for women of this doctrine is its emphasis on their spiritual strength. Faced with the prospect of a fiery death, the women in the burning city demonstrate their spiritual superiority, as martyrs:
What was man's strength, what puissance then?11
Women were mighty as strong men—
Some knelt in prayer, believing still,
Resigned into a righteous will,
Bowing beneath the chastening rod,
Lost to the world, but found of God.
Young as she is, Rossetti has grasped the fact that the movement to promote sisterhoods is in fact an exploitation of women's spirituality, however unwitting it may have been on Pusey's part. An adolescent girl's longings, half-sexual, half-spiritual, are easily directed towards the passions of martyrdom, either real or imagined; even more so when society denies her a place in the active world where she may find fulfilment. Although the lure of active involvement in sisterhoods led to the increased participation of women in church life, these institutions were little more than an attempt to channel and disarm what might otherwise develop into a challenge to the male hierarchy.
The inspiration to revive sisterhoods within the Anglican Church came directly from the more austere figures of the Early Church, and brought with it the misogynist tradition of such figures as St. Jerome, whose work profoundly influenced Pusey.12 As Pusey himself admitted, sisterhoods became a way of controlling woman's religious zeal, 'which might otherwise … go off in some irregular way, or go over to Rome',13 and he cannot hide his satisfaction that in some cases women have preferred sisterhood to marriage.14 Rossetti notes in her poem High Church Anglicanism's insistence that for women with spiritual fulfilment comes the necessity for an often brutal stripping away of specifically female attributes.15 In the most obvious instance we see the novice entering the convent, obliged to leave behind her personal clothes, her ornaments and her earthly affection. The suffering protagonist of 'The Convent Threshold' (1858), Rossetti's great poem on the psychology of sisterhoods, has been trapped into believing that her salvation requires the renunciation of her physical identity and wakens from agonising dreams to find her femininity destroyed:
My face was pinched, my hair was grey,16
And frozen blood was on the sill
Where stifling in my struggle I lay.
Grace Jantzen notes the way the 'sisterhood' of the convent strips women of their womanhood, and isolates them from their sisters:
For a woman to develop in spirituality, she must put off womanliness, work against the grain of her gender rather than with it. And it is important to note that to whatever extent she was able to succeed in this male-defined spiritual enterprise, to that extent she also cut herself off from the community of women, becoming 'manly' and thus other than women rather than continuing in solidarity with them.17
We see the tormented sister, grey-haired and in decline, wander through Rossetti's poetry of this time, finding salvation at last only in the positive female spirituality of Goblin Market.
In his 1835 Tract on baptism Pusey emphasised the gravity of post-baptismal sin, and in his own life constantly battled with feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing. But the cost of such worldly abstention was high. His adherence to a regime of wordly renunciation was so strict that he seriously jeopardised the mental and physical health of his own family. His wife Maria and their children were literally starving, as a result of a poor diet and excessive fasting:
Even when strongly criticised by his elder brother, Philip, for the excessive discipline which he meted out to his offspring (in his will Philip forbade his own children to be entrusted to the care of Pusey), Pusey remained adamant. 'Our system', he told Maria, 'if it is worth anything must be contrary to the world's system'.18
Pusey's calls for the mortification of the flesh, especially in his sisterhoods, had serious consequences for many of the young women under his spiritual guidance. A few women even died, 'worn out … by the cramped mental life, and the bodily austerities'.19 Pusey himself, writing in 1879 admitted, 'Of course blunders were made; some about health, grave'.20
There comes a point when such severity against the human body becomes a symptom of something different. There seems to be a hatred of nature itself and particularly of the power of the female body which shares nature's capacity for reproduction. Excessive mortification of the body such as Pusey practised seems to be a self-inflicted martydom, in which the body is the enemy. During an illness in the autumn of 1846, when Pusey was so sick and weak that he was unable to carry out physical penance, not even 'resume the haircloth', he wrote to Keble begging him to send suggestions for further penance, 'some penitential rules for myself'.21 Keble understandably declined, and his subsequent letters to Pusey convey his suspicion of self-indulgence. Self-enforced withdrawal from the world and punishment of the flesh, an attitude Rossetti sums up in her 'vanity of vanities' poems, is not only incompatible with the idea of a sacramental universe so dear to Tractarian thought, but makes a monster out of our physical relationship with the rest of creation. In Pusey's teaching, through the figure of Eve, the scapegoat, women become accomplices of 'the material world, its pomps and tinsel vanities' because 'all which is in the world ministers to those three cupiscences, through which we fell in Eve, and wherein we conquered in our Head … the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and vainglory'.22 To become holy, women must reject the 'cupiscences' of Eve. Sisterhoods were an ideal way to render Eve barren and harmless. It seemed at the time, perhaps, that the Anglican Church was being 'feminised' and that women were being allowed increasing power in the Church. Rossetti's early battle against many of the doctrines handed down by the Tractarians suggests otherwise.
Rossetti was aware of the controversies surrounding the sisterhoods, and she seemed well aware too of the gender implications of Pusey's version of the doctrine of renunciation. Her poetry of the time shows her understanding of the unspoken moral evaluation of male and female, where the woman's fertility and her role in procreation are identified with the 'lower' life of the body and allied with the sinful 'world'. At the age of 19 she had recognised the fundamentally male conception of God in her religion, which was alien to women's experience despite the establishment of sisterhoods, and the negative imaging of the feminine worried her. A poem written in 1849, 'A Testimony', appears initially to endorse the doctrine of renunciation. The speaker, taking the position of 'the preacher' of Ecclesiastes, emphasises the masculine language used to convey the 'vanity of vanities' theme: 'Man walks in a vain shadow', 'Our fathers went; we pass away' (p. 78). All creation is barren and human endeavour is worthless:
All things are vanity, I said:
Yea vanity of vanities.
Why should we hasten to arise
So early, and so late take rest?
Our labour is not good;
In sudden contrast to this sterility, the word 'she' finally appears in stanza 11 with triumphant power and vitality. The female earth flourishes, despite the disgust apparent in the preacher's words:
The earth is fattened with our dead:
She swallows more and does not cease:
Therefore her wine and oil increase
And her sheaves are not numbered:
Therefore her plants are green, and all
Her pleasant trees lusty and tall.
A common critical mistake is to see Rossetti herself as having adopted the stance of the preacher in the poem. As in 'Repining', however, she is always at a distance, leaving the reader to judge. On the one hand, the (male) preacher has rejected nature. She has been outcast, and the natural processes of generation, birth and death are seen as abominations, as lust, greed and decay. The preacher's people are misled and society suffers. His maidens 'cease to sing' and his young men are 'very sad'. On the other hand, not even the misogynist loathing of the preacher manifest in the words 'fattened' and 'swallowed' can hide the triumph of the earth. To drive home its message against such misogyny, the poem ends with a direct challenge to the doctrine of renunciation, suggesting that the preacher, like the grotesque male figure in the dream 'The Convent Threshold', came to his 'vanity of vanities' conclusion through overindulgence and satiety: 'He had all riches from his birth, / And pleasures till he tired of them'.
Whilst Rossetti is able to articulate in poetry her misgivings about the religion which has been handed down to her, she finds it much harder in prose, a medium which does not lend itself so easily to the tensions and ambiguities of her position. Her short novel Maude, 23 written at much the same time as 'A Testimony', labours to convey her anxiety, hampered as a story perhaps by the theological and metaphorical status of her characters, which never allows them to become fully credible as protagonists. The story was written around a sequence of poems, which form the heart of the debate, and we are told by William Rossetti (it would seem sensible to trust his testimony here) that 'they were all written without any intention of inserting them in any tale—except only the first two of the trio of bouts-rimes sonnets'.24 The advantage of this method of composition is that Rossetti's positioning of her own poems at vital points in the story gives us a guide to her interpretation of them and their relationship to the central event of the text: Maude's anxiety about the conflict between a spontaneous love of nature and its beauty, and the oppressive religious teaching she has received.
Maude Foster, a young poet, seems to be on the brink of a decline, secretive (she hides her poems from her mother), pale, with 'an expression not exactly of pain, but languid and preoccupied to a painful degree' (30). A glimpse at one of her poems explains her religious position. Inspired by images of martyred saints, she has created her own martyrdom in 'hated life', dragging 'the heavy chain whose every link galls to the bone' (30). Although confirmed, she declines good works and refuses to attend her parish church, preferring instead St. Andrews with its rich choral tradition,25 inspired and uplifted by the beauty of its service. But even there she is haunted by guilt, as the call to renounce 'the world' echoes in her mind. She finally confesses her spiritual distress to her cousin Agnes by means of two poems, which show her progression from unquestioning acceptance of renunciation to a critique of it, and finally a condemnation.
The first poem in the volume states the 'vanity of vanities' theme, which as we have seen has become a leitmotif when Rossetti refers to the renunciation of worldly vanities: 'Weaned from the world', as Maude calls it (p. 53). The second poem, however, records the confusion that arises when this strictly enforced renunciation of worldly pleasures clashes with Maude's delight in the sensuous beauty of church vestments and music:
I ask my heart with sad questioning:
'What lov'st thou here?' and my heart answers me:
'Within the shadows of this sanctuary
To watch and pray is a most blessed thing'.
To watch and pray, false heart? It is not so:
Vanity enters with thee, and thy love
Soars not to heaven, but grovelleth below.
The heart's instinctive movement towards the beauty of colour and harmony is brutally checked in a manner reminiscent of 'Repining', and the voice that interrupts seems no longer to be the sad questioning voice of the speaker, nor that of her heart, but an external voice which condemns her of complicity with the world. In his introduction to the first publication of Maude William Rossetti indignantly exclaims: 'I cannot see that the much-reprehended Maude commits a single serious fault from title page to finish'.26 For once he is right, but he has missed the point, as have many of the later critics of Maude. The novel is not criticising Maude at all, but rather, through her suffering, exposing the extremism of a religious position that denies the beauty of the natural world or of human efforts to reproduce it. There is a close affinity between the ideals of the early Pre-Raphaelite Movement and the Oxford Movement's claim in their appreciation of the beauty of nature, understood through typology and symbol, both seeking out 'the deep spiritual significance of common things'.27 Their use of ceremony and church vestments proclaimed the importance of outward manifestation of spiritual truth. So the voice that forbids any delight in the symbolic robes or music at St. Andrews betrays the ideals of the two movements, both of which played a central role in Rossetti's early life. Pusey's insistence on the evil of the world, which 'we must not love, nor the things in it', and his condemnation of those who 'are called in scripture by the name of "the world" which they love',28 is singled out in Maude as inconsistent with Rossetti's understanding and love of the natural world.29 If the things of this world are symbols and sacraments of God's kingdom, why should we shun them? If we turn away from nature, how can we hear God 'speaking to us through all which he made very good'?
The starkly gendered aspect of Pusey's evil 'world' is not lost on Rossetti. Maude eventually submits to the Eucharist, having been forced to confess the whole in a chance meeting with Mr. Paulson. She does enjoy some measure of relief, but it is only temporary. The poem 'Symbols', which comes at a crucial point in the novel when Maude is on her death-bed, brings back in full force a point of bitter dissatisfaction with the Church and its gender-biased theology. Dolores Rosenblum, in her use of 'Symbols' as a starting point for feminist discussion of Rossetti's poetry, correctly identifies the rose and egg as 'archetypal symbols of female sexuality'.30 Whilst her approach is valuable, the theological implications of the symbols need to be examined also:
I watched a rosebud very long
Brought on by dew and sun and shower,
Waiting to see the perfect flower:
Then, when I thought it should be strong,
It opened at the matin hour
And fell at evensong.
I watched a nest from day to day,
A green nest full of pleasant shade,
Wherein three speckled eggs were laid:
But when they should have hatched in May,
The two old birds had grown afraid
Or tired, and flew away.
Then in my wrath I broke the bough
That I had tended so with care,
Hoping its scent would fill the air;
I crushed the eggs, not heeding how
Their ancient promise had been fair:
I would have vengeance now.
But the dead branch spoke from the sod,
And the eggs answered me again:
Because we failed dost thou complain?
Is thy wrath just? And what if God,
Who waiteth for thy fruits in vain,
Should also take the rod?
The rose points to the rose of Sharon, the beautiful female image from The Song of Songs, in which delight in physical beauty and sensuality becomes a celebration of God. 'I am the Rose of Sharon', Agnes tells Maude, as she explains the meaning of the emblems in her embroidery. More important still, the egg, which is a symbol of the female role in the creation of new life, is also the popular symbol for Christ's rising from the dead at Easter. Rosenblum dismisses the theological content of the poem as 'prim didacticism', a 'miniature sermon in verse', but the full horror of the speaker's position becomes clear only when the poem is considered theologically. The speaker is caught between justifiable anger at the stunting effect of unfulfilled female expectations (the egg and the rose) and a God (in the case of the poet herself, a God whom she loves) who endorses such injustice. Furthermore, the male symbol of God's vengeance, 'the rod', threatens to become an instrument of further punishment if she acts out her frustration. The damaged female symbols, the rose and egg (and here one cannot help thinking of the pinched, grey face of the nun in 'The Convent Threshold' ) can only reiterate the repressive teachings which they have internalised. The destruction of the symbols is doubly tragic: not only are the beauty of the physical world and the female potential for creating new life rejected as sources of our understanding of God, but the potential link between woman and Christ in the symbol of the egg is lost through fear or complacency.
The neglect of female symbols and the absolute power given to the male symbols in Christianity are the result of male 'hegemony over the externalisation process, itself a linguistically mediated phenomenon'.31 Women's internalisation of the very values which lead to their oppression serves to perpetuate the system, as the damaged rose and eggs themselves threaten the speaker with God's anger if she complains. In the novel Maude gives a copy of the poem to her cousin Agnes, a firm upholder of Tractarian values, but Agnes is horrified by Maude's doubts, reminds her of the gravity of an unrepentant death-bed and eventually suppresses most of the evidence of the young poet's testimony. When Maude dies, a lock of her hair is laid by Agnes, almost as a trophy, beside a lock of hair from their friend Magdalen, who has renounced the world and entered a sisterhood.
The other sister, Mary, tends to be overlooked in accounts of the novel, as she seems to confirm the image of the satisfied wife and mother, like that in the poem 'A Triad', for example, who 'droned in sweetness like a fattened bee' (29).32 But Rossetti is attracted by the potential of the domestic metaphor to integrate natural beauty, creative potential and, above all, the figure of Christ the bridegroom. Mary is close to the natural world, with its cats, dogs, rabbits, even a pig, its flowers and gardens, and its newborn babies (32) and will eventually become the ideal wife of Mr. Herbert,33 who, if not exactly Christ-like, suggests the name of a fine religious poet. Although Mary does not write poetry, she embroiders designs of flowers, herbs, 'vine-leaves and grapes; with fig-leaves at the corners' (40) for her church. She inspires Maude to return to embroidery in order to fashion a present for her wedding, 'a sofa-pillow worked in glowing shades of wool and silk' (59), which the dying girl is most anxious should reach Mary safely. Of all the sisters, cousins and friends, it is only Mary who has Maude's 'unique' (61) legacy, her beautiful embroidery. Agnes chooses poems to her own taste only, and destroys the rest. The figure of Mary is the one that contains the germ of Rossetti's future theology, and will point the way towards a feminist vindication of the natural world and of the female body.
Rev. Dodsworth eventually went over to the Roman Church in 1850 after growing disagreements with Pusey, and his place was taken by Rev. Burrows, who became a lifelong friend of Rossetti. Perhaps we owe to this kindly clergyman her continued attendance of the Anglican Church, although anger and a sense of alienation remained with her.
Gender awareness in the social sphere and a recognition of injustice towards women are very much a part of Rossetti's poetry over the next ten years, even before her friendship with the feminist Barbara Bodichon and other members of the Portfolio Society34 began; it is important to remember this when reading poems such as 'The World' (1854), with its loath-some Medusa-like figure. Not only does this poem highlight the hypocrisy of the male attitude towards that most hated figure of Victorian respectability, the prostitute, but it traces the figure to its scriptural source, the Book of Proverbs:
By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she:
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy,
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she woos me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But thro' the night a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth,
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed, that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?
The poem was written in June 1854, and in January of that year an article had appeared in The Times which renewed the debate on fallen women, in the announcement of plans for a penitentiary (which was to become St. Mary Magdelene, Highgate), and in a request for assistance. Rev. Burrows was most probably drawn into the debate35 and Rossetti herself later took up the call. Given its date of composition and Rossetti's continuing interest in the lot of fallen women, the common interpretation, which sees the poem as a manifestation of somataphobic self-loathing in the style of Pusey, is simply inadequate. Jan Marsh, for example, despite her introduction to Rossetti's connection with the Portfolio group, remains reluctant to accord Rossetti any place in their campaign for social reform. Rossetti was not chasing after the 'hidden, leprous enemy within',36 but rather accusing the enemy without, in her ironic treatment of a male mentality that defined woman as 'that great gilded snake—a cherub's face, the rest a reptile'.37 Eve the tempted, to the popular mind, becomes temptress herself. The subject of the prostitute inspired savage attacks on the very nature of womankind, with the complicity (or at the very least the apathy) of the Church. Whilst society frequently turned a blind eye to a man who frequented a prostitute or seduced a young girl, the moment a woman had any kind of sexual experience outside marriage she was transformed into an object of loathing: 'In one hour daughter, sister, wife, hath become the thing from which the fondest shrink; the very name of which they dare not utter. It is too horrid to look upon, or to fashion into speech'.38 The apparent legitimacy of such attacks comes from the traditional model of man's relationship to God, where the dualism of God (superior)/man (inferior) is imposed on the relationship between the sexes: man becomes the superior being and woman the inferior being, 'the symbol of the repressed, subjugated and dreaded "abysmal" side of man'.39 William Wilberforce's legacy of evangelical theology in the eighteenth century had left an exalted view of Christian femininity, centred on the capacity for devotion, self-sacrifice and motherhood, giving, in effect, religious status and spiritual superiority to the very fact of being female. The nineteenth century channelled this potential threat to the religious supremacy of the male into either a passionless, submissive angel of the house, or, as we have seen in Pusey's establishment of sisterhoods, into a virginal nun. The feared sexual potential of woman, the power deriving from her femininity, was transferred to the demonic 'world' figure of the prostitute, to be vilified and marginalised.
The origins of Rossetti's demonic woman in 'The World' lie in the 'strange woman' of Proverbs,40 who lures unwary young men to hell:
For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.
(Prov. 5: 3-5)
Much of the imagery used in conveying loathing of fallen women is scriptural in origin, as Rossetti points out. Ignoring the metaphorical status of the woman figures in Proverbs—the harlot (wordly wisdom) as opposed to the virtuous woman (divine wisdom)—the popular mind, through a literal misreading of the Old Testament, has forced on all women the application of prostitute or virtuous, domestic woman.
In the absence of any direct statements from Rossetti herself it is difficult to form a precise picture of her transition to an understanding of her own spiritual predicament, but at this point it is helpful to consider what may be an unwitting testimony to her spiritual suffering, as it bears out the tensions in Maude and the anger of 'The World'. During the late 1840s or early 1850s Rossetti was reading Maria's copy of Keble's The Christian Year and sketching rough illustrations to the poems.41 Her pictures show a gendered representation of the breaking down of the sacramental universe which was the basis for Keble's volume. Although their execution is primitive (they were not likely to have been thought of as material for publication) these pictures show a marked continuity with her religious poetry of the time. Around the title of Keble's poem for the Fourth Sunday in Advent Rossetti has drawn three female figures which show a contrasting attitude to the speaker of the poem. At the outset, where Keble's speaker regrets his inability to read, paint or hear traces of the divine in the natural world around him, his understanding is deferred to 'The region "very far away"' of the afterlife, when finally we may 'with that inward Music fraught, / For ever rise, and sing, and shine' (p. 22)42 Rossetti's female figures, on the other hand, are absorbed in total communion with nature and are participating untroubled in the reading, painting of and listening to an immanent divine world. Where Keble's speaker strives in vain to hear from nature 'What to her own she deigns to tell', Rossetti's women, 'nature's own', already hear, see and, in the case of the central figure who is painting another woman or child, re-image.
In later illustrations, however, configurations occur which depict in a most literal way the breaking down of continuity between women and the divine. In response to Keble's 'Ash Wednesday', Rossetti focuses on the line 'Then let the grief, the shame, the sin / Before the mercy seat be thrown', but her literal rendition of 'between the porch and altar weep' shows an Old Testament altar and the women kneeling before it emaciated or dying. The flood of hope which lights up the conclusion of Keble's poem in his reference to the loving relationship between Christ and His Father is absent from Rossetti's illustration, suggesting the exclusion of a daughter. More disturbing still is her illustration of Keble's 'Fifth Sunday after Epiphany'. She fixes on a few words of the epigraph from Isaiah 59: 'your iniquities have separated between you and your God', ignoring the comforting message of Keble's poem which promises salvation for those who reject the world, drawing instead a grotesque Medusa figure with a serpent's tail, obscuring the body of Christ on the cross. Three female figures surround the cross in attitudes of supplication, withdrawal and death, and although an unshaded area around the cross indicates that the saviour is still there, the monstrous figure stands as a barrier between the dying women and Christ. The illustration is provoking in its literal depiction of women's spiritual despair, and the young Rossetti has captured the essence of Victorian notions of sin centred on a prostitute's degradation, in her serpent-like female figure. Without a language which links them directly to God, women have had to accept that their relationship with the divine is mediated by the male religious consciousness and its interpretation of femaleness. The women figures are dying because they are denied direct access to the saving light of the cross.
One of Rossetti's poems of January 1856, 'Shut Out', conveys in words the import of the illustration, that women have been denied spiritual tokens which allow them to identify with the divine:
The door was shut. I looked between
Its iron bars; and saw it lie,
My garden, mine, beneath the sky,
Pied with all flowers bedewed and green:
From bough to bough the song-birds crossed,
From flower to flower the moths and bees;
With all its nests and stately trees
It had been mine, and it was lost.
A shadowless spirit kept the gate,
Blank and unchanging like the grave.
I peering thro' said: "Let me have
Some buds to cheer my outcast state'.
He answered not, 'Or give me, then,
But one small twig from shrub or tree;
And bid my home remember me
Until I come to it again'.
The spirit was silent; but he took
Mortar and stone to build a wall;
He left no loophole great or small
Thro' which my straining eyes might look:
So now I sit here quite alone
Blinded with tears; nor grieve for that,
For nought is left worth looking at
Since my delightful land is gone.
A violet bed is budding near,
Wherein a lark has made her nest:
And good they are, but not the best;
And dear they are, but not so dear.
Bewildered by the loss of the garden of Eden and longing for her home, Eve is devastated when her request for a token from it is refused, and as punishment for her request she is denied even the glimpse she had. The original title of the poem, 'What happened to me', suggests the importance of the poem to Rossetti herself, and helps us understand why, in her later poems, she needs to seek out images of womankind which can re-establish the links between Eve and her garden.
The composition of 'Shut Out', perhaps in its unequivocal recognition of her spiritual need, enabled Rossetti to move forward and, by the end of 1856, she had 'discovered' the powerful figure of wisdom from the Book of Proverbs, the counterpart to the despised prostitute metaphor of the 'strange woman'. In her long poem 'The Lowest Room' she reconsiders her options, depicting on the one hand the dwindling femininity of the woman who aspires to a 'male' conception of God, but on the other recognising the potential for female spiritual empowerment represented by the figure of wisdom. With her development of the latter she began to reclaim the feminine in an emerging ideal of woman's spirituality which looks forward to Goblin Market and beyond.
The two sisters in 'The Lowest Room', who are engaged in an argument about the merits of the age of Homer, support two contrasting theological positions. The preacher of Ecclesiastes with his 'vanity of vanities' informs the thinking of the older sister, who longs for a life of passion, of achievement in the male world, where she can show her mental and spiritual strength. She renounces the common things of the world, refusing to participate in the activities of her sister, who during the conversation is engaged in embroidery, and agonises because she cannot relive the heroic 'golden days' of Homer. Thwarted in her desire, she resorts to a martyrdom of her own, embracing renunciation and defending her position by quoting the preacher of Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities he preached
Of all he found, of all he sought:
Vanity of vanities, the gist
Of all the words he taught.
Taking our critical and theological bearings from a poem like 'A Testimony', we see that by introducing the renunciation theme, the elder sister has allied herself with the sterility of a world which has rejected the feminine, her faded femininity the price she has to pay to exercise her mental and spiritual strength in the heroic martyrdom of Pusey's self-denial. In terms of her own womanhood, however, she has lost her place in the spiritual order; she has lost the special way in which femininity reflects the face of God, the way woman in her active ability to create and nurture is able to link nature and the infinity of God. The elder sister is consequently no longer able to see God in His creation and can only look back, or forward to life after death, 'When all deep secrets shall be shown'.
The figure of the elder sister, with her striking, passionate renunciation, has been seen as a model for Rossetti herself, the stance of passive resistance becoming the position of strength from which she subverts the conventions she sees around her. There is no doubt that the position is strongly represented in her poetry, and certainly held a great deal of attraction for Rossetti the poet, but in her theology she recognises the spiritual sterility of the stance, and in 'The Lowest Room' we see her searching the scriptures for a figure who can better satisfy her spiritual need. For fear of enslavement by the 'strange woman' of Proverbs, High Church theology rejected the feminine identity of wisdom; Rossetti brings it back in the figure of the younger sister who is modelled on the virtuous woman of Prov. 31:10-21:
She is the tree of life to them that lay hold upon her;
And happy is every one that retaineth her.
Get wisdom, get understanding
Forget it not, neither decline from the words of my mouth:
Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee;
Love her, and she shall keep thee;
Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister;
And call understanding thy kinswoman:
The sensuously beautiful younger sister thrives as the elder sister declines; she is productive in the domestic sphere (she embroiders as she speaks), she is in harmony with nature, her choice of flowers from the garden 'intuitively wise' (p. 205, ll.212) and as wisdom spans earth and heaven, the natural world and the divine, so does she:
She thrives, God's blessed husbandry;
Most like a vine which full of fruit
Doth cling and lean and climb towards heaven
While earth still binds its root.
(p. 207, ll.249-52)
Most important of all, she is closely linked to Christ. Her function in the poem is to rebuke her elder sister's attitude of martyrdom and her use of 'vanity of vanities' as a motto: 'One is here', the younger sister murmurs, 'Yea Greater than Solomon'. The figure of the younger sister is the key to understanding the later Rossetti, the Rossetti of the Benedicite, the lover of wild flowers and spiders, reader of the amber and onyx stone. Here she is not writing a poem about Victorian domesticity or of domesticity versus participation in the male world of action and commerce; to interpret the domestic situation literally in her poetry would be to echo the Victorian misreading of Proverbs. Rather, she is attempting to reconstruct a feminine God-language, by using metaphors, preferably scriptural ones, with which to debate woman's relationship with God. She has revalued the literal, certainly, as her 'fleshing out' in Victorian terms of the virtuous woman shows, but holds up the literal in a renewed configuration in order to restore the power of the metaphor.
My rejection of the renunciatory female figure as the crucial symbol in the critical appreciation of Rossetti's work is, in effect, going against mainstream Rossetti criticism, which tends to see her in biographical and literary terms as an isolated, withdrawn and ultimately frustrated woman, locked into a stance of passionate destitution from which she is able only to subvert existing conventions. Sandra Gubar's depiction of Rossetti as one of the 'great nineteenth-century women singers of renunciation as necessity's highest and noblest virtue',43 which has to a certain extent inspired this critical tendency, although it has done much to bring Rossetti's work to the attention of feminists and to post-modern sensibility, has worked against it in that such an approach cannot profitably illuminate the Rossetti of the devotional works. Gubar attempts to make sense of Rossetti's theology in her discussion of Goblin Market and quite rightly centres on the role of Lizzie, who 'like a female saviour, negotiates with the Goblins (as Christ did with Satan44) and offers herself to be eaten and drunk in a womanly holy communion', but is unable to get past her disappointment that 'the redeemed Eden into which Lizzie leads Laura turns out to be a heaven of domesticity'. Gubar's legacy of disappointment has been a stumbling block to later critics who draw on her work. Rosenblum, as we have seen, has trouble seeing Rossetti's theology as anything more important than 'didacticism'.45 More recent criticism, of Goblin Market especially, still gets bogged down in the theme of 'hope deferred', and the utopian '"distant place" of the Christian afterlife … to which woman's desire is displaced in much of Rossetti's poetry'.46 Thus Goblin Market itself and its triumphant conclusion can never attain more than the status of 'improved domesticity',47 and the consequent weakening of its feminist authority leaves it open to the sort of male voyeuristic abuse that focuses on the erotic possibilities of the sisters' relationship.48 It is not necessary to reject the figure of feminine renunciation; Rossetti continues to use her, not only for her poetic possibilities, but as recurring symbol of women's suffering and spiritual endurance. She must not, however, be allowed to obscure the empowering figure of feminine wisdom, which gains strength in Rossetti's theology as she begins to participate in work for and amongst women.
Here feminist theology can help in our understanding of Rossetti's work, by its reassertion of the spiritual authority of woman's activity in all spheres through the authority and dignity of wisdom. We learn that the domestic sphere is used in Proverbs as a central metaphor to present the political and economic centre of Israel after the loss of the monarchy.49 So rather than signal submission and inferiority, the domestic scene can be considered a sign of solidarity and hope for the future. Those poems which present us with a wisdom-figure can be interpreted with this reversal in mind. Furthermore, as we will see, Rossetti's development of this figure becomes the foundation of much of her later devotional writing. Modern feminist critique of Christianity also provides a terminology with which to discuss the spiritual difficulties experienced by Victorian women in their encounter with the male bias of Christianity, especially in their relationship with a male redeemer. Recent feminist christological enquiry has also 'rediscovered' the figure of Wisdom/Sophia as a centre of renewal and healing made available to humankind through the incarnation of Christ.50 The Old Testament source of wisdom teaching, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, from which it appears Rossetti derived her sister figure, and more recently reclaimed sources such as early Jewish wisdom theology, have been revalued for their testimony to female sacrality and as pointers to the absence of gender exclusivity in early pre-Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and work. Rossetti's use of a domestic figuration therefore need not disappoint; rather, as we shall see, it indicates a revolutionary rejection of the dominant atonement theology of the Tractarians, in favour of a liberation christology in which the feminine becomes source of redemptive healing.
Before examining Goblin Market, however, it is worth examining a 'bridging' poem, one that links it to her earlier wisdom figures and possibly the last major poem she wrote before her voluntary work at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary began in 1859.51'From House to Home' shows her still struggling in her attempts to work out an understanding of the way womankind can participate in redemption. In 'The Lowest Room' the close link between the younger sister and Christ rests uneasily between an emerging idea of the sister having a Christ-like function herself (the vine) and the necessary secondary position she has to assume in marriage, despite the suggestion (as in Maude ) that the husband represents the arrival of Christ as the fulfilment of wisdom. In 'From House to Home', Rossetti attempts to solve this problem by conflating the figure of the redemptive sister and Christ and dismissing the male figure altogether, which suggests the poem as a link between Rossetti's early 'wisdom' figures and the entirely female representation of Christ in Goblin Market.
In a dream vision, the swooning female speaker sees the embodiment of feminine suffering as a woman sustained between earth and heaven, who strengthens her with an apocalyptic vision of heavenly rewards for her renunciation and suffering. The vision is strikingly portrayed and is the forerunner of some of Rossetti's most powerful devotional poetry, but as an answer to the need for a living and active spirituality is unsatisfying. In order to reproduce the suffering of Christ in a female figure Rossetti has used the female martyr of her earlier poems, who, although able to wean the lost soul from earth-bound nature to God, is unable to re-establish contact with the goodness of the created world which she has left: the flowers, fruit, frogs and caterpillars which Rossetti loved. The experience of Highgate was instrumental in drawing her away from the self-absorbed martyr figure, and restoring a wholeness to the poet's vision of feminine spirituality as a two-way bridge between the realities of everyday life in the world and God's kingdom.
Rossetti's attention had been drawn to the plight of the prostitute in 1854, and probably, together with the rest of the congregation of Christ Church, she followed with interest the purchasing and naming of the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary on Highgate Hill. Rev. Burrows was one of the clergy on the management council of the Home and there was a constant appeal for money (annual reports show a donation by William Rossetti in 1857, 'perhaps paid on his sister's behalf'52) and woman helpers. The emphasis at Highgate, as at the other London penitentiaries which were established in large numbers at this time, was on spiritual instruction and training in domestic work,53 and although public opinion may have condemned the prostitute in abstract terms, the ideal of sisterhood runs through many appeals for assistance: 'that poor, weary, outwardly-hardened, sindebased creature—a victim to man's brutal requirements—is, in the sight of our most holy God, your sister'.54 Sensitised as she already was to the spiritual problems faced by Christian women and the oppression of their minds and bodies, in need of an activity in which she could directly express her faith, it was inevitable that Rossetti should be drawn to the penitentiary movement. By the summer of 1859 she was closely involved in the work at Highgate, and continued until 1870 when failing health made it inadvisable. (She was diagnosed as suffering from Graves' disease in 1871.)
We do not have an account by Rossetti herself of her penitentiary work, perhaps because discussion of their work by the sisters was actively discouraged, but we do have the testimony of a contemporary, J. Ellice Hopkins, an outspoken activist against moral lethargy in the Church of England in matters of woman's rights. Like Rossetti she found spiritual inspiration and fulfilment working at a penitentiary similar to Highgate. Her severe criticism of the Church and championing of fallen women give us an insight into the motivation of penitentiary sisters and in terms of Rossetti's poetic and spiritual development, provides a helpful context for the reading of Goblin Market as a manifestation of spiritual solidarity towards the inmates of Highgate penitentiary.55
Hopkins stresses the sacrality of the task of redeeming the prostitute. Prostitution is a spiritual evil; furthermore, it is evil perpetrated by men upon women. Churches, she claims, should 'cease to look supinely on [women's] desecration … a deadliest evil' which destroys the true purpose of womanhood, the 'fountain of life, and love, and purity to the world'.56 The defilement of women's bodies by men is seen as a spiritual offence, requiring spiritual salvation, and so Hopkins envisages sisterhood as a 'spiritual collective' in which women rescue-workers, in 'an act of heroic sacrificial love', would enter brothels 'where the regular cycle of night and day was broken', and attempt to rescue prostitutes amidst manic laughter and jeering. On leaving the brothel and entering the penitentiary the prostitute would cross into a female-dominated sphere of spiritual regeneration through participating in a series of ritual domestic duties. By treating the redemption of prostitutes in this way we see Hopkins subverting traditional separate sphere ideology, 'by turning the home into a symbol and space for female sacrality which operates independently of the male sacred space—the church'. Like Daly's 'communal phenomenon of sisterhood', in the woman-dominated penitentiary we see an alternative spiritual sphere to that of the Church. The rescue-worker, operating within an exclusively female space, assumes the priestly function by re-enacting the resurrecting role of Christ.
This climate of reassertion of female spirituality is the context in which Goblin Market should be read if its theology is to be understood. Such a context validates the conclusion of the poem, 'there is no friend like a sister', as a statement of female spiritual strength and empowerment, the spiritual power of female domestic ritual subverting the power of the Church, and the portrayal of a female Christ demolishing the gender exclusivity of the sacred. No longer obscured by the overworked theme of 'hope deferred', the sisters' sacred space of female spirituality in Goblin Market may be seen as a position of strength, not one of capitulation to an inhibiting social reality. Also to be revised is the reading of Goblin Market as an affirmation of the Tractarian doctrine of renunciation, which mars the interpretation of both Marsh and D'Amico, who so ably place the poem in its Highgate context. D'Amico is slow in moving away from Pusey's condemnation of the flesh and consequently she interprets the poem as a warning against worldly pleasures and the 'impossibility of ever finding full satisfaction by attempting to satisfy the body'.57 She does, however, recognise the closeness of the text 'in both form and content' to 'the Wisdom literature of Proverbs and the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus'. Marsh's interpretation is similar: 'By denying gratification, the ascetic soul triumphs over desire, and is no longer in thrall to the senses. Contentment thus comes, paradoxically, from self-denial'.58 Whilst it is true that the shadow of atonement theology, the vengeful Old Testament God and the guilty Eve haunts Rossetti's spiritual development until the end of her life, locating the sisters' idyllic life (from which Laura is lost and to which she is eventually restored) in asceticism or self-denial simply does not answer. Both sisters sleep comfortably in a 'curtained bed', prepare (and presumably also eat) rich, nourishing food, cakes with 'churned butter, whipped up cream', and Lizzie at least sings'for the mere bright day's delight' (16). Nowhere in the poem is blame attached to pleasure of any kind. In fact, for its time, the poem is remarkable for the absence of allusions to any kind of female sin, guilt or atonement. Suggestions of sin and evil lie exclusively in the goblins, and there is no threat whatsoever of punishment to any of the maidens should they look at them or eat their fruit; only a warning that 'their evil gifts would harm us' (12). The domestic life of the sisters is instead a development of Rossetti's emerging wisdom figuration: the heritage of the younger sister in 'The Lowest Room', the location of a female spiritual home, and a source, through Lizzie, of spiritual and physical redemption. As with J. E. Hopkins, the ritual nature of domestic duties in the poem suggests the affirmation of female identity in doing and in being. It is from this that Rossetti takes her spiritual vocabulary. The idyllic nature which surrounds the two girls is an Eden from which even the theological language of Adam has been banished, and the authority of the warning 'We must not look at goblin men' (l.42) stems from the wisdom and vocabulary of collective sisterhood.
Laura's fall, therefore, is a fall from sisterhood. We are told that 'Her tree of life drooped from the root' (18), her feminine beauty and vitality dry up, and she is no longer able to participate in the maidens' activities. What, then, is the fruit? It is described in sensuous Pre-Raphaelite detail, causes a repeat of the fall of Eve as Laura gives in to its attraction (Dante Gabriel's woodcut of the scene turns a goblin's tail into a lurking serpent), is closely associated with illicit sexual experience (we have the example of poor Jeanie) and is located at the point of intersection between an evil male goblin world and the female wholeness of the maidens' activity. Clearly, the fruit has multiple associations and the poem itself is dense with intertextual allusions, but for our purpose of theological enquiry its interest lies in the effect it has on Laura. Once she allows herself to be exposed to the sensuous attraction of the luscious fruit and eats it, she moves into a sphere dominated by the duplicitous morality of the goblins, which are unambiguously male, and is no longer able to participate in the life-giving female activities within the matrix of sisterhood. Through the deception of the goblins, she has been tricked into surrendering control over her womanhood, becoming a re-interpretation of herself in the male mind as she greedily sucks the fruit; as a consequence, she becomes the erotic creature of the later Pre-Raphaelite painting, Dante Gabriel's 'Jenny', the plaything of the male imagination: 'not as she is but as she fills his dream'.59 By yielding a lock of her hair, symbol of her womanhood, Laura also becomes as dead to her physical and spiritual self as Magdalene and Maude, both of whom were able to see themselves only from a male perspective: Maude a thwarted Keats, frustrated spiritually and broken physically, Magdalen a barren, unsexed nun.
In the context of Rossetti's work at Highgate, the fall into prostitution is also to accept Victorian man's valuation of the female self, to accept the moral stereotype imposed by a patriarchal society: angel or devil, 'a cherub's face, the rest a reptile'. Laura is also the dying woman of Rossetti's illustrations in Keble's Christian Year and the grieving Eve in 'Shut Out'. Rossetti has radically rewritten the fall of Eve in terms of the social and spiritual abuse of women which she sees around her, and includes more than a hint that male gender oppression be interpreted as original sin.60
If woman's suffering has its source in gender oppression by men, there is real difficulty in accepting the efficacy of a male saviour who would thus seem to be participating in such oppression. This has led to the rejection of Christianity by many feminists, not least Daly herself in her anti-Christian phase. Rossetti's capacity to envisage a 'female saviour' from within Christian theology, however, allows her to continue living and writing within the tradition of the Church without sacrificing her integrity as an active worker against woman's oppression. Once the traditional ontological guilt of Eve is removed, as in Goblin Market, the gender duality of redemption falls away, and Rossetti can restore Christ's liberating role to the oppressed, in this case women. It no longer matters whether Christ is a man or woman, because gender difference is subordinate to Christ's redeeming function. Rossetti re-images Christ through the actions of Lizzie, in the context of the life-giving wholeness of the wisdom metaphor which she has used in previous poems as an antidote to spiritual sterility and physical decline. Lizzie therefore is Christ inasmuch as she is a manifestation of those aspects of the redeemer which are directly needed in the salvation of Lauraf—those which Rossetti associates with her wisdom figures: activity, vitality, fruitfulness, love ('The Lowest Room' ), compassion, suffering and spiritual authority ('From House to Home' )f—and so Lizzie is able to bring about the reversal of Laura's physical and spiritual subjection and dependency in relation to the goblins, and heal her, body and soul.
Lizzie, moved by compassion for the dying Laura who has withered away under the spell of the evil fruit, sets out to save her by obtaining for her another taste of the goblin fruit for which she longs. Of course, the goblins will not allow her to take the fruit awayf—their only interest is to claim another victimf—and insist she eat it on the spot. When she refuses, they use violence against her in a symbolic rape, suggesting the physical abuse many of the women at Highgate must have experienced:
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed her 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.
Lizzie stands firm, natural images of fruitfulness and virginity proclaiming the strength of her womanhood, and they are powerless against her, disappearing without trace but leaving fruit pulp and juice on her body, which she is able to take back to Laura.
Taken from the hands of the goblins, the fruit brings death. Given by Lizzie, it restores life. Through her body womankind has been offended and through her body she must be healed, hence the sensual and erotic language of Lizzie's celebration of the Eucharistic feast, which is needed to heal her desecrated female sexuality:
She cried 'Laura', up the garden,
'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'.
The effect the fruit has on Laura calls to mind Christ's acts of healing recorded in the Gospels, particularly the casting out of demons. Laura's leaping and writhing is reminiscent of the demon-possessed man of the tombs in Mark 5:1-20, or the boy with the dumb spirit of Mark 9:17-29, who wallowed, grinding his teeth and foaming at the mouth, pining away until Jesus cast out the demon. Like the boy, Laura falls down senseless and awakens the next morning restored to life, health and the fruitfulness associated with the sisterhood of wisdom.
The conclusion of the poem, in celebrating the triumph of Lizzie and her act of sisterly redemption, proclaims Christ as sister and friend of the vulnerable, of children, of daughters and of women. To continue the parallel with Mark's Gospel, the feminine image of Christ surrounded by young children in Mark 10:13-16, when brought to bear on Laura's calling of the little ones, strengthens her emphasis on spiritual and redemptive sisterhood. The validity of Jesus' teaching for women, which the conclusion promotes, lies not in the sense that to be weak is to be Christ-like (although it does not exclude such a parallel) which, as we have seen, traps women in a subordinate position, but because it is specifically directed towards the liberation of the defenceless, the powerless and disenfranchised, it speaks to women; it recognises their experiences. In the incident of Mark's Gospel Jesus was angry when his disciples denied children direct access to him, and taking the children in his arms proclaimed his affinity with them, 'for of such is the kingdom of God' (Mark 10:14). Through identification with the figure of wisdom which validates women's experience, Rossetti claims the gospel as her own, and Christ her guide and friend. With their children gathered around them, Laura and Lizzie pass on the message of sisterhood:
'For there is no friend like a sister
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.'
1. Frances Thomas, Christina Rossetti: A Bibliography (Hanley Swan: Self-Publishing Association, 1994), pp. 9-10.
2. The Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti, with Memoir and Notes by W. M. Rossetti (London: Macmillan, 1904), pp. x, lxviii, lv.
3. See Joel Westerholme, 'I Will Magnify Mine Office: Christina Rossetti's Authoritative Voice in Her Devotional Prose', Victorian Newsletter, No. 84 (Fall 1993); and Lynda Palazzo, 'The Poet and the Bible: Christina Rossetti's Feminist Hermeneutics', Victorian Newsletter No. 92 (Fall 1997).
4. Dodsworth was to go over to Rome in 1850.
5. Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), Chapter 5.
6. 'Dodsworth (1798–1861) is deservedly best known as a follower of Pusey and Newman who, during the 1840s, conducted at Christ Church one of the most distinctively High Church ecclesiastical programs in London, and who in the wake of the Gorham Case controversy at the end of 1850 resigned his curacy, became a Roman Catholic layman and published pamphlets attacking his old friend Pusey.' John O'Waller, 'Christ's Second Coming: Christina Rossetti and the Premillenialist William Dodsworth', Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 73 (1969), p. 466.
7. James A. Kohl, 'A Medical Comment on Christina Rossetti', Notes and Queries (1968) p. 423. Cited in Marsh, Christina Rossetti, p. 52.
9. Marsh, Christina Rossetti, p. 64.
10. The Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti, pp. 9, 11, 12.
11. The Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti, pp. 9, 11, 12.
12. 'The inspiration for the revival of religious orders came from the Early Church, and the mysoginist tradition of the Fathers with its adulation of submissive virginal femininity was incorporated into the ideal of sisterhood life—as was the emphasis upon the authority of an exclusively male priesthood.' Sean Gill, Women and the Church of England from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (London: SPCK, 1994), p. 157. 'Jerome, arguably one of the most misogynist of all the patristic writers was also most preoccupied with woman's sexuality, deploring it even when it was expressed within marriage (which he referred to as "vomit"). According to him, "women with child offer a revolting spectacle"' (Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 54).
13. H. P. Liddon, The Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, 4 vols. (London: Longman Green, 1884), vol. 3, p. 6.
14. Letter to E. T. Richards, 1845. In ibid., p. 31.
15. In Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism Jantzen describes their state as that of 'honorary men', having renounced the supposed weakness and corruption of female flesh and put on the Christ-like state of maleness.
16. R. W. Crump, The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), p. 11. From now on page numbers from Crump will be given in the main text.
17. Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, pp. 53-4.
18. David W. F. Forrester, 'Dr Pusey's Marriage', in Perry Butler (ed.), Pusey Rediscovered (London: SPCK, 1983), p. 136.
19. An account of the death of Jane Ellacombe, an inmate of the Park Village Sisterhood, told by her sister, Mrs. Welland, found in Keith Denison, 'Dr Pusey as Confessor and Spiritual Director', Pusey Rediscovered, ed. Perry Butler (London: SPCK, 1983), p. 223. Apart from ritual fasting and the wearing of sackcloth, the sisters also submitted to the 'discipline', a knotted whip used to strike the shoulders.
20. Denison, 'Dr Pusey', p. 221.
21. Liddon, Vol. 3, p. 99.
22. E. B. Pusey, 'The World, an Ever-living Enemy', Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford between AD 1859 and 1872 (Oxford: Parker, 1872) sermon xvi, p. 396.
23. Maude: Prose and Verse, ed. R. W. Crump (London, 1897; rpt. Hamden: Archon Books, 1976).
24. Preface to 1897 edition of Maude (new edn. p. 79).
25. A hint that Rossetti was trying to express more than the final text actually contains can be seen in the scraps of writing remaining after attempts at erasure on the manuscript, such as 'The language is so against us', Maude, Notes, p. 89.
26. Maude, p. 80.
27. Diana Apostolos-Cappadona, 'Oxford and the Pre-Raphaelites from the Perspective of Nature and Symbol', JPRS 2 (1) (1981), p. 96.
28. E. B. Pusey, 'The World, an Ever-Living Enemy', Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford between AD 1859 and 1872 (Oxford: Parker, 1872), sermon XVI, pp. 396, 399, 398 and 396.
29. The well-read copy of Keble's Christian Year would suggest that she was familiar with the idea of a sacramental universe. Her relationship to Keble's ideas will be discussed in a later chapter.
30. D. Rosenblum, Christina Rossetti: The Poetry of Endurance (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), pp. 23, 21 and 22.
31. Waslin, in 'The Significance of Mary Daly's Thought for Feminist Theology', p. 174 quoting Daly.
32. In 'A Triad' the women are guilty of 'soulless love', but this is not the case in Maude or in 'The Lowest Room'.
33. George Herbert, whose work Rossetti is known to have admired, was one of the Tractarians' favourite poets.
34. A. H. Harrison suggests 1858 or 1859 as the date of her first meeting with Barbara Bodichon, although it is probable that she was a corresponding member of the Portfolio Society even earlier. The Letters of Christina Rossetti, Vol. 1 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), p. 134. Rossetti's association with the Society and members of the Langham Place Circle of feminists would suggest that she supported their cause, in principle at least.
35. H. W. Burrows, 'The Conflict with Impurity', in The Enduring Conflict of Christ with Sin that is in the World (Oxford: John Henry and James Parker, 1865).
36. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, p. 155. A. H. Harrison's reading of the poem as presented by 'a specifically male self-inquisitor trying to resist an archetypal Eve figure who is an agent, if not a specter, of Satan', is more accurate in its perception of Rossetti's ironic social comment. Christina Rossetti in Context (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1988), p. 91.
37. H. Judge, Our Fallen Sisters: The Great Social Evil (London: E. Marshall, 1874), p. 33.
38. John Armstrong, 'The Church and Her Female Penitents', Christian Remembrances (January 1849), in D'Amico, 'Equal before God', Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art, eds. A. Harrison and Beverly Taylor (Northern Illinois University Press, 1992).
39. Rosemary Ruether, New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation (New York: Crossroad, 1975), in Sallie MacFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (London: SCM Press, 1982), p. 148.
40. D'Amico, 'A Possible Source for Christina Rossetti's "World-Woman"', JPRS 1(2) (1891), pp. 126-8. She also notes that 'In Proverbs, we also find a counterpart to Rossetti's world-womanf—the figure of Wisdom' (p. 127).
41. See D'Amico, 'Christina Rossetti's Christian Year: Comfort for "the weary heart"', Victorian Newsletter 72 (Fall 1987), pp. 36-42.
42. J. Keble, The Christian Year (London: Macmillan, 1864).
44. An odd assertion to make about Christ's attitude towards evil, which suggests a severe limitation in Gubar's understanding of Christian theology.
45. Gubar ultimately dismisses the whole concept of a female Christ as 'didacticism' (The Madwoman in the Attic, p. 566).
46. Elizabeth Helsinger, 'Consumer Power and the Utopia of Desire: Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market', ELH 58 (1991) p. 926.
47. Janet Galligani Casey, 'The Potential of Sisterhood: Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market', VP, vol. 29, no. 1 (1991), p. 74.
48. A recent example of this critical abuse (besides the abuse of the poem in Playboy, see Marsh, Christina Rossetti, p. 232) can be seen in Joseph Bristow's '"No Friend Like a Sister"?: Christina Rossetti's Female Kin', VP, vol. 33 (1995), pp. 257-81.
49. 'The change from a monarchic, centrally administrated society to a society oriented towards the needs and interests of families and extended households was positively expressed in the image of the ideal Israelite woman in Proverbs 31 and in praise of Woman Wisdom who builds her cosmic house (Prov. 9).' Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesusf—Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet, p. 134.
50. A full discussion of the latest developments in the study of Wisdom/Sophia would be out of place here, but an accessible account may be found in Schüssler Fiorenza's Jesusf—Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet.
51. I take the date of Rossetti's voluntary work from Marsh, p. 218. 'From House to Home' was composed on 19 November 1858.
52. Marsh, Christina Rossetti, p. 220.
53. In her article on the work of Hopkins (FT, no.13, September 1996, p. 91) Melissa Raphael notes that domestic work was possibly just as enslaving as prostitution.
54. The Magdalen's Friend vol. i, 1860, pp. 13-14, in Marsh, Christina Rossetti, p. 228.
55. Diane D'Amico gives a detailed account of the activities which Rossetti would have been engaged in at Highgate, and establishes the link with Goblin Market in '"Equal before God": Christina Rossetti and the Fallen Women of Highgate Penitentiary', Gender and Discourse in Victorian Poetry and Art, eds. Antony Harrison and Beverly Taylor (Northern Illinois University Press, 1992), pp. 67-83. Jan Marsh further develops the connection in 'Christina Rossetti's Vocation: The Importance of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market', Victorian Poetry, Vol. 32 (1994), pp. 233-48.
56. Melissa Raphael, 'J. Ellice Hopkins: The Construction of a Recent Spiritual Feminist Foremother', Feminist Theology, No. 13 (September 1996), pp. 83, 84, 87, 89.
57. Diane D'Amico, Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender, and Time (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999), pp. 69 and 82.
58. Marsh, Christina Rossetti, p. 233.
59. 'In an Artist's Studio', The Poetical Works, ed. W. M. Rossetti (London: Macmillan, 1904), p. 330.
60. Janet Galligani Casey in her article 'The Potential of Sisterhood', through her comparison with Nightingale's Cassandra, has reached a similar conclusion: 'In the poem she subverts Christian allegory in order to allow women to participate equally in the positive roles of Christian mythology: they are not limited to being Eve figures, can achieve new dignity as Mary/Martha figures, and may even go so far as to become Christ figures' (p. 75). However, Casey is unable to envisage anything more than a literal interpretation of the domestic metaphor at the end of the poem: 'a domestic reality, to be sure, but an "improved" domesticity in which the woman's role as nurturer achieves dignity and respect' (p. 75).
GOBLIN MARKET AND OTHER POEMS (1862)
Thomas Burnett Swann (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: Swann, Thomas Burnett. "'Goblin Market': Fantastic Masterpiece." In Wonder and Whimsy: The Fantastic World of Christina Rossetti, pp. 92-106. Francestown, N.H.: Marshall Jones Company, 1960.
[In the following essay, Swann contrasts Rossetti's "Goblin Market" with Matthew Arnold's "The Forsaken Merman," emphasizing the completely alien aspects of the literary world that Rossetti creates through her verse.]
"Then at last came Christina Rossetti," said Edmund Gosse, "with her brilliant, fantastic, and profoundly original volume of Goblin Market in 1862, and achieved the earliest popular success for Pre-Raphaelite poetry. Swinburne never failed to recognize the priority of Christina; he used to call her the Jael who led their host to victory."1
"Goblin Market"" seems almost to have been written by a cunning and sensitive child with uncommon eloquence. It is childlike in its clichés: "One may lead a horse to water, / Twenty cannot make him drink."2 It is scarcely more artful in its metre. George Saintsbury, the English critic, has said: "The more the metre is studied the more audacious may its composition seem. The almost surprised contempt of the Quarterly on Keats, the interesting indignation of the Blackwood reviewer of Tennyson, would have been turned into something like speechless horror by this Bedlam of discord as they would have thought it."3"Goblin Market" is nonetheless a masterpiece, because, like a child's daydream, it is both terrifying and unspeakably beautiful. In its fantastic woodland, goblins and maidens mingle as freely as moccasins and rabbits in a Florida cypress swamp:
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy…."
The cry is addressed to unsuspecting young girls, but it is also a summons to the reader, that he may succumb to the magic of an elfland which, like the goblin fruit, contains both evil and antidote. Few readers can resist for long. "Goblin Market" gathers up most of the elements from Christina Rossetti's whole range of fantastic poems into an effortless union. Here are the fairy-tale princesses and landscapes, the personified animals and plants, the little people. The fantastic elements are enriched by delectable catalogues of fruit and flowers, and the entire poem is informed with the poet's high-minded adoration of family relationships.
Elisabeth Cary says of "Goblin Market" : "It has been compared to The Pied Piper of Hamelin and to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and to Grimm's Fairy Tales, and it is not in the least like any of them except that it journeys through the land of unreality."4 There is another poem, however, which in some ways it truly resembles, Matthew Arnold's "The Forsaken Merman." "The Forsaken Merman," with its singing pathos, stands apart from most of Arnold's work, and indeed has more affinities with "Goblin Market" than with his own more typical pieces like "Resignation" and "The Buried Life." Of all poems in the language, "The Forsaken Merman" perhaps most nearly approaches "Goblin Market," but even here the affinities are superficial while the differences are fundamental. A comparison between the two poems can only emphasize the uniqueness of Christina's achievement.
The similarities are quickly numbered. Both poets employ a metre which was unusual for English verse of their day. The length of each line is made to suit the subject matter, to speed up or slow down the story as needed. Christina writes:
She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetched honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook
And would not eat.
And Arnold writes:
Down, down, down,5
Down to the depths of the sea!
She sits at her wheel in the humming town,
Singing most joyfully.
Hark what she sings: "O joy, O joy,
For the humming street, and the child with its toy!"
The themes also have a kinship. "The Forsaken Merman" pits the forces of civilization, centered in the church, against the old nature gods. "Goblin Market" matches the civilized innocence of Lizzie and Laura against the primordial evil of the goblins. Each theme, then, describes a conflict between civilization and nature, though in Arnold's case our sympathies are with nature, in Christina's, with civilization.
There is possibly a third likeness. Each poem has been interpreted as an allegorical rendering of an incident in the poet's life. In The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry E. D. H. Johnson tells of a nostalgia which "informs To Marguerite—Continued, and enters still more explicitly into The Forsaken Merman." He continues:
It is impossible not to perceive in the latter poem a metaphorical presentation of the poet's hapless passion for the shadowy Marguerite. The incongruous mating of the merman and the earthbound woman symbolizes a deeper spiritual incompatability to which the bereft lover is reluctant to reconcile himself.6
Violet Hunt has given a similar interpretation to "Goblin Market." In The Wife of Rossetti she asserts that Christina Rossetti's rejected fiancé, James Collinson, came back into her life after he had married another woman and begged Christina to run away with him, but Maria Rossetti held her back. Ever after, according to Miss Hunt, Christina tried to atone for her momentary weakness by an excess of self-reproach, and "Goblin Market" can be read as an allegorical account of a weak woman saved from sin by her sister.7
"The Forsaken Merman" was published in 1848, fourteen years before "Goblin Market." Must the 1862 poem then be thought less remarkable because there was an earlier poem with a similar metre, theme, and, perhaps, allegory? A close reading will show that "Goblin Market," for all of its similarities to "The Forsaken Merman," has far more differences; and that these differences lie especially in treatment of wonder.
In recent years the artists of Haiti have won world attention. Their primitive, forceful sculptures of voodoo gods and sacrificial animals have delighted art critics and patrons alike. Critics find in these sculptures a raw power and naturalness which our civilized sculptors cannot reproduce in their modern "primitive" school. The trained sculptors mould pieces of artful roughness and rough grace which are often beautiful and sometimes great; but such pieces must always have a studied excellence. Thomas Carlyle might have called the Haitians intuitive artists and the trained sculptors, conscious artists. It can also be said that "The Forsaken Merman" is a work of conscious wonder and "Goblin Market," of intuitive wonder.
The difference between the conscious and the intuitive in the two poems is apparent first in the manner of telling the stories. Arnold simply retells with artistic gloss an old Danish folk tale about a merman in love with a mortal woman. Christina, however, invents her story. It is true that she had old folk tales in mind; that, in the words of Fredegond Shove: "The dappled magic of an old country tale or warning to maidens not to play with the fruits of evil or witch-craft has dyed it through and through."8 But once Christina began to write, her intuitive genius took control. Her goblins do not carry maidens away by animal force, nor transform themselves into hand-some young men and lure their prey into the dark mountains, after the usual fashion of goblins. Instead, they deck their evil in tempting, many-colored fruits: apples, oranges, peaches, mulberries, crabapples, dewberries, pineapples. Once a maiden has surrendered to their blandishments and tasted the insidious poison, she does not die quickly, but with an urgent, mounting desire for the very fruit which has poisoned her. When she looks for more fruit, the goblins are invisible! Could there be a more subtly devilish way to kill a young girl? True, there is an antidote. If the maiden can secure more of the fruit she is cured. But the antidote itself is a means to entice other maidens into the power of the goblins, who presume that whoever comes to fetch fruit for the victim can herself be ensnared. Christina, as she evokes her wonder, lacks Arnold's precision and gloss, but she surpasses him in originality.
Arnold again shows conscious wonder in his non-human characters. His merman is the creation of a sensitive and civilized gentleman who tried to imagine what a submarine man, if there was such a being, would feel when his mortal wife had forsaken him, if there could be such a situation. But Arnold's Merman, however he yearns, speaks only for the poet himself. E. D. H. Johnson writes:
The protagonists of his poems are invariably lonely and isolated figures, alien to their environment. Mycerinus, the Forsaken Merman, the Scholar-Gipsy, Empedocles, the author of 'Obermann' display an unmistakable family likeness, since all are, in fact, projections of their creator's own essential homelessness in the Victorian world.9
Most poets in an age of unbelief must, like Arnold, read feelings into their non-human characters and consequently humanize them. Who can really know the heart of a merman or of a goblin? (Who except an intuitive poet like Christina Rossetti!) It is true that Arnold's Merman lives at the bottom of the ocean and sits on a red coral throne, and his merbabies have cold, strange eyes. But none of the merpeople are essentially non-human in the way, for example, of Donatello in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun. Hawthorne never needs to tell us out-right that Donatello has the ears and tail of a faun. We take these things on faith because Hawthorne, though often a conscious artist, was also intuitive when it came to drawing a character out of the Italian antiquity he so loved. Arnold's hero is just a sad young man, and his merbabies, in spite of their cold, strange eyes, are little different from the children of the shore.
Christina's goblins, on the other hand, are utterly non-human. Christina does not ask herself, "What does a goblin look like? How does he talk to a maiden he wants to entice?" She knows how a goblin looks and what he will say. Elfland is fully realized in her mind; she has only to record what she sees there. She owed a little to many poets but a great deal to none. She wrote almost apart from her times, apart from the past and the future. She was as much a resident of elfland as of London, and does not have to describe scenes wonderingly (like Matthew Arnold) because she writes immersed in wonder and therefore able to take it for granted. Carlyle says that Homer made gods and heroes real in his epics so long as he believed in them himself.10 Christina, whose heart if not her mind believed in goblins and understanding animals, made them real in much the same way. Thus, when she chooses to create a fantastic folk-tale, she does not need to imitate the mood and style of a primitive art form; she speaks like the primitive himself, with all his naive acceptance of wonder. She accepts goblins without question, and so do her readers:
One had a cat's face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat's pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.
Usually they coax and entreat, but sometimes they drop their masks and reveal themselves in pure evil. H. P. Lovecraft and other writers of horror have supposed that beyond this world we know, there are other, alien worlds, where evil broods across the shadowed landscapes. Surely Christina's goblins belong to such a place. They are creatures out of time and space, real as the nocturnal phantoms that chase us down the corridors of the sleeping mind, and as inescapable. Broad daylight will dissipate them, but here, in their ageless world of shadow, they are unconquerable—except by innocence.
Fredegond Shove writes that Christina "delighted in the delineation of the grotesque beings, seized their pace, apprehended their gait, their speech, their demeanour and their awful spiritual significance."11 Even the metre of "Goblin Market" suggests the alien nature of the creatures. Closely as it resembles Arnold's metre in "The Forsaken Merman," it lacks artistic finish, his smoothness within irregularity. But this very roughness, some writers believe, is indispensable to the poem because it "apprehends the gait" of the goblins, who crawl, prowl "obtuse and furry," whisk, and tramp. In Dante Gabriel's illustrations for the first edition we see the goblins as animals dressed like men. A rat, an owl, a wombat, a parrot crowd around Laura eager to force down the poisonous fruit. But Christina herself imagined them not as animals in clothes, but as almost man-like, with subtle differences. William Michael describes Christina's own water-colour sketches of the creatures: "She draws several of the goblins,—all very slim, agile figures in a close-fitting garb of blue; their faces, hands, and feet are sometimes human, sometimes brute-like, but of a scarcely definable type."12 Simply to have made her goblins animals would have been quaint, but not, after all, very sinister (and with her love of animals she would not have wanted to equate them with goblins). But to combine the human and the animal into something which was neither, something incomparably alien, was worthy of her high originality. Other poets have given us goblins with tails. But no one except Christina, not even Dante Gabriel, would have made a goblin "whisk" its tail or prowl like a wombat, "obtuse and furry." At first the description makes us smile. Then we look behind us and listen for sounds outside the door.
There is also a contrast between Arnold's and Christina's human characters. Arnold's faithless wife, Margaret, belongs to the world of men, as he intended (his Merman, we feel, is human in spite of the poet's effort to instill him with wonder). Margaret sits at her spinning wheel and remembers her husband and children, and she is sad in the way of most wives:
And anon there breaks a sigh,
And anon there drops a tear,
From a sorrow-clouded eye,
And a heart sorrow-laden,
And a long, long sigh…."
But Christina's maidens, though human, are inseparable from her fantasy world; they are not such young girls as we could meet in St. James' Park, but two more incarnations of the fairy-tale princess who graces "The Prince's Progress" and "Maiden-Song." On their own terms they are real enough. Laura is light-hearted and thoughtless. She has a strong sensuous appetite and ignores her sister's warning to avoid the forbidden fruit. Lizzie is prudent without being a prude. She has heard stories about the goblins and wisely shuns their enticements. She also has courage and cunning enough to outwit them when Laura is in danger. Laura and Lizzie are both vivid, three-dimensional girls, but they are still fairy-tale princesses in their extraordinary grace and beauty and in the fact that, like Nausicaä and Penelope in the Odyssey, they walk in wonder:
Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.
Landscapes and scenes in "The Forsaken Merman" and "Goblin Market" are as unlike as the characters. Arnold describes the haunt of the merpeople as:
Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
Where the winds are all asleep;
Where the spent lights quiver and gleam,
Where the salt weed sways in the stream,
Where the sea-beasts, ranged all round,
Feed in the ooze of their pasture-ground;
Where the sea-snakes coil and twine,
Dry their mail and bask in the brine;
Where great whales come sailing by,
Sail and sail, with unshut eye,
Round the world for ever and aye….
A longing for the remote and fanciful charges every line. But the merkingdom remains a world looked into from the outside. There are, it is true, touches which might have belonged to Christina, like the whales with "unshut eye." For the most part, however, the passage has clearly been written by a cultivated poet who could not describe a submarine kingdom as if it really existed, but only as he would like for it to exist.
Christina, on the other hand, does not paint pictures of wonder and stand back in awe. The details flow naturally out of her imagination. A simple, repeated line in parentheses sets the mood for all her scenes: "Men sell not such in any town." Indeed, men do not sell such fruit as the goblins' anywhere, and further, the goblin landscape is like nothing in the world. Where is this country in which maidens and goblins traffic in deadly fruit? It simply is. Like the Brontë sisters, Christina had carried out of childhood a secret land, and she had chosen at last to transcribe it on paper. The scene of the sisters asleep in their bower is an unforgettable glimpse into that land. Laura and Lizzie are:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall'n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gazed in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forebore to fly.
Not a bat flapped to and fro
Round their nest….
There is no image in the scene which is not both characteristic of Christina and appropriate to her elfland. In such a world animals walk on equal terms with men and understand with human hearts; the lumbering owl will not fly if the sound of his flight disturbs the sleeping maidens. In such a world, too, only fairy-tale-castle imagery can capture the richness of the sisters' beauty as they sleep. They are like two "wands of ivory tipped with gold for awful kings."
A later scene is pictured even more imaginatively. Images flow from the poet's fancy like gifts from an upturned Christmas stocking:
White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood,—
Like a rock of blue-veined stone
Lashed by tides obstreperously,—
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary, roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire,—
Like a fruit-crowned orange-tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee,—
Like a royal virgin town,
Topped with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguered by a fleet
Mad to tug her standard down.
Not only is Lizzie compared to an orange tree, and the goblins to wasps and bees, but with a little imagination the tree can be seen as a fortress whose buildings are blossoms, and the insects become a besieging army!
Hawthorne wrote in The Marble Faun, that neglected monument to wonder: "In Miriam's motion, freely as she flung herself into the frolic of the hours, there was still an artful beauty; in Donatello's, there was a charm of indescribable grotesqueness hand in hand with grace…."13 Like Miriam, "The Forsaken Merman" is instinct with artful beauty. Like Donatello, "Goblin Market" has a charm of indescribable grotesqueness hand in hand with grace. It is a matter of preference whether we call the work of intuitive wonder superior or inferior to the work of conscious wonder. Each in its way is matchless. But it is clear that "Goblin Market" has a very different excellence from "The Forsaken Merman," and to a greater extent, from all other poems in the language; and that, in its unique and artless art, it is Christina Rossetti's fantastic masterpiece.
1. Quoted Mary F. Sandars, The Life of Christina Rossetti (London, 1930), p. 105.
2. Poetry of the Victorian Period, ed. George Benjamin Woods (Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, New York, 1930), "Goblin Market," p. 562, lines 422-423—hereafter cited as Poetry. All lines quoted from "Goblin Market" will hereafter be identified by line numbers in parentheses.
3. George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody (London, 1910), p. 354.
4. Elisabeth Cary, The Rossettis: Dante Gabriel and Christina (New York, London, 1900), p. 254.
5. Poetry, "The Forsaken Merman," p. 429, lines 85-90. All lines quoted from "The Forsaken Merman" will hereafter be identified by line numbers in parentheses.
6. E. D. H. Johnson, The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry (Princeton, 1952), p. 161.
7. Violet Hunt, The Wife of Rossetti (New York, 1932), p. xiii. Also, William Michael Rossetti in the edition he edited of his sister's poems—The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (London, 1924), p. 460—notes that "Goblin Market" was dedicated to Maria. "Christina," he writes, "had some particular occurrence in her mind, but what it was I know not. The two poems which immediately precede Goblin Market in date show a more than normal amount of melancholy and self-reproach…."
8. Fredegond Shove, Christina Rossetti: A Study (Cambridge, 1931), p. 39.
9. Johnson, p. 147-148.
10. English Prose of the Victorian Era, ed. Charles Frederick Harrold and William D. Templeman (New York, 1938), "Biography," p. 31.
11. Shove, p. 37.
12. Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti, p. 460.
13. The Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Norman Holmes Pearson (New York, 1937), p. 638.
Jeanie Watson (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: Watson, Jeanie. "'Men Sell Not Such in Any Town': Christina Rossetti's Goblin Fruit of Fairy Tale." Children's Literature 12 (1984): 61-77.
[In the following essay, Watson contrasts several seemingly disparate thematic elements in Rossetti's "Goblin Market," ultimately characterizing the poem as a fusion of religious allegory and subversive fairy tales.]
Although Goblin Market has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest of children's poems1 and has repeatedly been labeled a fairy tale, in line with Christina Rossetti's own insistence on this point, there has been no serious, extensive consideration of Goblin Market as a children's poem drawing upon the themes and forms of traditional children's literature. This is true because, in large part, readers from the beginning to the present have had difficulty concentrating on anything other than the framework of Christian allegory—a more "adult" genre—which is so apparent in the poem. This overriding critical attention to the allegorical moral, while it has produced a number of instructive and illuminating readings, has been less than entirely satisfactory. It is the contention of this essay that only by viewing Goblin Market as a tale for children, a tale which is structurally based on the interweaving of the predominant nineteenth-century strands of children's literature—the fairy tale and the moral tale—can the poem's true moral, for children and adults, be understood. Further, it is the interplay between moral tale and fairy tale that allows Goblin Market 's thematic statement to be utterly subversive and yet ultimately moral.
In 1898, Mackenzie Bell, Christina Rossetti's early biographer, quotes Christina's surviving brother as having written: "I have more than once heard C[hristina] aver that the poem has not any profound or ulterior meaning—it is just a fairy story: yet one can discern that it implies at any rate this much—that to succumb to a temptation makes one a victim to that same continuous temptation; that the remedy does not always lie with oneself; and that a stronger and more righteous will may prove of avail to restore one's lost estate."2 The ambivalent reaction to the dual elements of fairy tale and allegory are neatly summarized by Bell's commentary on a contemporary critic:
James Ashcroft Noble, in a penetrating essay called "The Burden of Christina Rossetti,"… says that "Goblin Market may be read and enjoyed merely as a charming fairy-fantasy, and as such it is delightful and satisfying; but behind the simple story of two children and the goblin fruit-sellers is a little spiritual drama of love's vicarious redemption, in which the child redeemer goes into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil, that by her painful conquest she may succour and save the sister who has been vanquished and all but slain. The luscious juices of the goblin fruit, bitter and deadly when sucked by selfish greed, become bitter and medicinal when spilt in unselfish conflict." This is admirably and eloquently put, but it may be questioned whether the critic has not perhaps somewhat overstated the case for didacticism in the poem.
With only a few dissenting voices,3 the moral of Goblin Market has, then, from the beginning been seen primarily within the framework of the Christian allegory of temptation, fall, and redemption. The goblin fruits become the forbidden fruit of Genesis and Revelation, the fruit of illicit sensuality. Knowing she should not, Laura trafficks with the goblin men, buys their fruit with a golden curl and a single tear. Having once eaten of the fruit, she is no longer a maiden and can no longer hear the goblins' cry, "Come buy, come buy" (l.4).4 She is saved from death only by the redemptive act of her sister Lizzie. Laura's commentary at the end that "there is no friend like a sister" becomes a tribute to Lizzie's saving love.
The moral is very clearly stated and seems to fit the allegorical redemption:
For there is no friend like a sister
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.
It should be a neat and satisfactory ending, but it is not. Indeed, far from being satisfactory, the allegorical moral makes many readers very uncomfortable, although they cannot readily explain their lack of ease. Eleanor Walter Thomas, a Rossetti biographer, writes about an early critic who sounds frustrated, almost angry: "The critic, F. A. Rudd, wrote paragraph after paragraph in solemn condemnation of the fantastic Goblin Market as immoral: he could find not a syllable in the poem to show that yielding to evil as incarnate in the goblins was at all wrong in itself. What is the moral? he weightily inquires. 'Not resist the devil and he will flee from you, but cheat the devil and he won't catch you. Now all these sayings and silences are gravely wrong and false to a writer's true functions.'"5 Similarly, other readers simply do not believe that the poem says what the allegory says it says. They argue that rather than condemning physical passion, the story of Laura and Lizzie celebrates that passion: "Temptation, in both its human and theological sense, is the thematic core of Goblin Market…. Goblin Market celebrates by condemning sensuous passion."6 In the same vein, Ellen Golub says: "Rossetti seems to condemn such [sexual] passion, but in her condemnation she offers much description of it. Eros being very much present, it is the seduction of girls by goblins which engages reader attention."7
Those who are able to accept the moral at face value either have the courage of an appalling lack of sensibility (for example, "The most charming scene of all is that of the sisters, grown to woman's estate, telling their own children of their terrific adventure" [Meigs, p. 291]), or they read the lines as an accommodation to the prevailing status of women, and women writers in particular, in Victorian times, the very necessity of that accommodation calling forth a proud and defiant independence. Jerome J. McGann argues that the goblins represent the Victorian marketplace, "institutionalized patterns of social destructiveness operating in nineteenth-century England" that promise women fulfillment of their desires through love and marriage, promises which are illusionary and by which women are betrayed.8 But, continues McGann, "the poem is unusual in Christina Rossetti's canon in that it has developed a convincing positive symbol for an alternative, uncorrupted mode of social relations—the love of sisters" (p. 250). Gilbert and Gubar also see Rossetti as making a virtue of necessity: "Christina Rossetti and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Barrett Browning build their art on a willing acceptance of passionate or demure destitution. They … are the nineteenth-century women singers of renunciation as necessity's highest and noblest virtue."9 Gilbert and Gubar discuss the important connection which Goblin Market sets up between "the unnatural but honey-sweet fruit of art" and the "luscious fruit of self-gratifying sensual pleasure" (p. 570), and they rightly assert that "the fruit of 'Goblin Market' has fed on the desirous substrata of the psyche, the childishly self-gratifying fantasies of the imagination." But, they conclude, since "young ladies like Laura, Maude, and Christina Rossetti should not loiter in the glen of imagination, which is the haunt of goblin men like Keats and Tennyson," they must learn "the lesson of renunciation" and feed on "bitter repressive wisdom, the wisdom of necessity's virtue, in order to be redeemed" (p. 573).
As insightful as many of these readings of Goblin Market are, they still do not banish our discomfort over the ending of the poem. That this is so is because, finally, Christina Rossetti does not want us to be comfortable. It may well be that Victorian institutions necessitate a positive sisterly alliance in a male-less world. And it may be that women's sexuality and creative impulses are systematically and severely repressed. But Rossetti does not believe that it should be so. To be redeemed in this kind of world is to be damned. Goblin Market is an extremely subversive poem which, while acknowledging the "wisdom of necessity's virtue," refuses to accept it, insisting instead on the right to dearly bought goblin fruit. This stance is made possible through Rossetti's choice of form for the poem: the interplay of fairy tale and moral tale. This interplay subverts the accepted moral into the immoral and makes imaginative knowledge the only righteousness acceptable.
Mary F. Thwaite, in her history of children's books, From Primer to Pleasure in Reading, lauds Goblin Market by saying: "With Christina Rossetti … the children's muse found the crystal springs of true poetry. There had been nothing of the quality of her lyrics for the young since Songs of Innocence. Finest of all is her fairy poem Goblin Market …. Both the theme and the style are fascinating, expressed with a lilt and pace new in children's verse" (p. 135). Although the poem may appear to be something new, its form is firmly rooted in two traditional genres of children's literature. Goblin Market is, as Christina Rossetti repeatedly insisted, a fairy tale. But the poem is also a moral tale. Both genres have had a long history in children's literature, and both were popular in Rossetti's time. That she was familiar with the whole range of moral tales and fairy tales is clear from her own and others' accounts of her youthful reading.10 However, the forms are essentially antithetical, one being used for didactic purposes to teach children proper spiritual and social conduct, the other being secular or amoral, or even immoral, in its lesson.
Moral tales of the mid-nineteenth century, some of which emphasized a virtuous life founded on right conduct and some of which were unabashedly religious in their didacticism, had their source in the emblem books, Christian allegories, and stories of saints and martyrs of earlier centuries. The subsequent evolution of the moral tale occurred in response to social and philosophical changes, stimulated by the theories of John Locke, who held that books for children should be pleasant and entertaining to read. Morality and right conduct were seen as more important than knowledge, and reason as preferable to imagination. "Fairies and fairy lore, 'goblins and spirits'; with other superstitions, he [Locke] regarded as belonging to the useless trumpery. Imagination and enthusiasm were to be avoided—as were unintelligible ideas about God, the Supreme Being whom children should be taught to love and reverence. The sober light of reason and common-sense was to illumine the child's life" (Thwaite, p. 34).11
The strictures against fairy tales, which had caused them to be available for many years primarily only in chapbooks, had, by the end of the eighteenth century, been eased by the tales being transformed—albeit through truncation and softening—into models for moral instruction. The fairy tale, thus bowdlerized, became domesticated and acceptable. "The moralizing of fairy tales (when they were admitted by the creators of juvenile literature at this period) was rec-ognized as a cunning method of utilizing for good the youthful predilection for the fabulous" (Thwaite, p. 72). Still, reputable English editions of the Perrault tales were published in the last half of the eighteenth century, and German Popular Stories, or Grimm's Fairy Tales, was published in English in two volumes (1823–26). Therefore, by mid-nineteenth century, legitimate fairy tales were readily available.
In Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti combines the social and religious forms of the nineteenth-century moral tale, making the religious allegory seem to serve the social function of warning against any illicit desire or action outside the boundaries accepted by society. At the same time, the context for this moral tale is the goblin fairy tale, precisely the imaginative, out-of-bounds kind of story that had aroused so much suspicion.12 Rossetti uses these two popular, but embattled, forms for her own purposes, simultaneously diffusing and intensifying the true moral of her poem by making it a poem for children.
The musical lilt and fast-paced narrative of Goblin Market, the short, easily read lines and the concrete, sensory imagery of color, taste, sound, and texture all argue for the poem's special appeal to children, as do also the fantastic goblin creatures and the fairy "haunted glen" (l. 552). But it is not only on the level of the Victorian child as audience that Goblin Market is a tale for children. Within the poem itself, the story of Laura and Lizzie's encounter with the goblins is the story told the children, time after enraptured time, by the maiden turned mother. The tale that Laura lived becomes the tale her children—and we—hear. There is a shift in critical perspective when we listen as a child to the poem. What seduces us into wanting to hear the story again and again is not the moral tale warning but the same thing that enthralls the children and seduced Laura: the goblin fruit of a fairy tale. The overt text of the moral tale makes the story "acceptable"; the subtext of the fairy tale presents Rossetti's moral. And we believe the fairy tale.
Goblin Market 's Laura and Lizzie live in the safe and orderly daytime world of the moral tale in which one event follows another in predictable, simple fashion:
Early in the morning
When the first cock crowed his warning,
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetched in honey, milked the cows,
Aired and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churned butter, whipped up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sewed;
Talked as modest maidens should:
In this domestic scene, work, common sense, and right conduct prevail, and the moral tale assures us that this, indeed, is the way things ought to be. The maidens' orderly lives are lived within boundaries, a life of milk and honey, cakes and cream, wholesome food of innocence and righteousness. They are, in fact, as Rossetti makes clear through her verbal allusions, following the moral percept of Isaac Watts's well-known poem "Against Idleness and Mischief," published in 1715 as one of his Divine Songs for Children:
How doth the little busy bee13
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
The admonition to be as neat as the bee is followed by the warning that Satan will find mischief for idle hands. Presumably, as long as one is industrious, one is safe. However, Laura has always been busy as a bee, and still she has eaten goblin fruit. In addition, it is after her eating of the fruit that the passage comparing the sisters to bees occurs. It is not until Laura realizes that she cannot have more goblin fruit that
She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetched honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook
And would not eat.
If Laura cannot have the goblin fruit, she will not eat the cake and honey either.
There is other evidence as well that the overt didacticism of the moral tale is at variance the actual message of the poem, that the fairy tale, in other words, is subverting the moral tale. By not doing her chores, Laura leaves herself open to the punishment warned against in country superstition for those who do not keep their houses clean and tidy—to be pinched by the fairies. Although a visit by the goblins is precisely what Laura desires, they do not come to her. It is, instead, Lizzie who is pinched "black as ink," having offered the goblins the payment of a "silver penny" (ll. 427, 324)—the traditional reward left in the shoe of the neat housekeeper. The moral tale sequence of cause and effect and the usual admonitory system of punishments do not seem to hold in the expected way. We are in the out-of-bounds world of fairy tale rather than the orderly world of the moral tale.
Wariness of Goblin Market 's moral tale message increases when we recall another instance from the earlier moral tale tradition of the bee's being used for moral instruction. In 1686, John Bunyan published A Book for Boys and Girls; or Country Rhimes for Children. This book, known in the mid-nineteenth-century as Divine Emblems; Or Temporal Things Spiritualized, has as one of its figures the bee:
Upon the Bee
The Bee goes out and Honey home doth bring;
And some who seek that Honey find a sting.
Now wouldst thou have the Honey and be free
From stinging; in the first place kill the Bee.
This Bee an Emblem truly is of sin
Whose sweet unto a many death hath been.
Now wouldst have Sweet from sin, and yet not dye,
Do thou it in the first place mortifie.
In his poem on the busy bee, Watts had domesticated the bee, turning it into an example of industry and order. Rossetti, through the force of her fairy tale, undercuts this meaning and goes back to Bunyan's earlier identification of the bee with sin. Bunyan advises those who wish the honey without the sting to first kill the bee. The fruits of the goblin men are "like honey to the throat / But poison in the blood" (ll. 554-55). The words are spoken by Laura at the end of Goblin Market, and like the speaker in Bunyan's poem, she has wished to divide the honey from the sting. The moral of Rossetti's poem is that one who would have the sweet "and yet not dye" must "in the first place mortifie" the neat and busy little bee of the moral tale. Goblin gifts often bring a curse with them;15 in this case, the curse is the painful death of the view which the moral tale embodies.
In Goblin Market, the bounded and orderly world of cottage and domesticity is juxtaposed to the "haunted glen" of "wicked quaint fruit—merchant men" (ll. 552-53). Traditionally, goblins were "evil and malicious spirits, usually small and grotesque in appearance,"16 who were known "to tempt mortals to their undoing" (Thwaite, p. 135). The temptation in Goblin Market is to leave the world of moral tale and enter the world of fairy tale. Katherine Briggs notes in The Faeries in English Tradition and Literature that "the plot of [Goblin Market ] is a variant of three main fairy themes: the danger of peeping at the fairies, the Taboo against eating Fairy Food, and the rescue from Fairyland" (p. 193). Christina Rossetti's original title for the poem was A Peep at the Fairies, indicating perhaps that the poem is her own dangerous peep at the fairies, despite the injunctions against such a look.
True fairy tales often bear little resemblance to light, delightful fantasies; in fact, they are stories of abandonment, betrayal, violence, and irrationality. To enter the world of fairy tales is to enter a world different from the world of order and reason and common sense which we inhabit in our daytime lives; there are ordering principles in fairy tales, but they operate the boundaries of ordinary life. As Bettelheim argues, "The 'truth' of fairy stories is the truth of our imagination, not that of moral causality."17 Fairy tales are "spiritual explorations" and hence "the most lifelike," revealing "human life as seen, or felt, or divined from the inside."18 The world of fairy tale is a world of knowledge, knowledge not accessible within the limits of the real world. The real world limits us to the known; it is safe, rational, capable of empirical proof. The fairy tale world is the "long, long ago" world of infinite possibility, existent now only in and through the imagination. Entering into the realm of possibility is dangerous—for possibility includes both vision and nightmare—but necessary for wholeness. The risk of imagination is most assuredly a temptation, the risk of chaos for the possibility of knowledge which is truth, truth which is beauty.
The temptation of fairy tale is immediate and urgent in Goblin Market. Maidens are urged to eat the luscious fruits of the natural world, which are also, paradoxically and magically, the fruits of imaginative creativity. The fairy tale world is inhabited by creatures of the imagination, born out of the human psyche. Here, natural and supernatural meet. Here, there is a suspension of disbelief. Here is the place where the oxymoronic exists. In the fairy tale world, one risks going beyond the boundaries of empirical rationality to experience more fundamental and intuitive truths. The fairy tale world is tempting because it promises knowledge and because we sense the underlying truth of that knowledge. "Subjected to the rational teachings of others, the child only buries his 'true knowledge' deeper in his soul and it remains untouched by rationality" (Bettelheim, p. 46). It is this "true knowledge" that Goblin Market tempts us to, away from the rational teachings which limit and restrict the imagination. The cry of the goblin men is almost hypnotic in its rich catalogue of fruits so numerous as to be virtually unending. The kinds and quantities and combinations of taste and color are unlimited, appealing to the senses and to the possibilities of imagination. The fruits are all ripe to the bursting point and "All ripe together / In summer weather" (ll. 15-16); they are "full and fine," ready to "fill" the mouth (ll. 21, 28), very like "Joy's grape" of Keats's Ode to Melancholy:
Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips19
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Intensity of experience, whether sensual or imaginative, requires the reconciliation of opposites, Melancholy and Delight. Joy that dwells with Beauty is achieved only through the sacramental bursting of the grape. "Honey to the throat" and "Poison in the blood" are necessary accompaniments.
The "mossy glen" (l. 87) where maidens may hear the cry of goblin men is a haunted, fairy place with "brookside rushes" (l. 33), fertile and rich and erotic in its connotations. It is a place as much feminine as masculine. In addition, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, the glen "represents a chasm in the mind, analogous to that enchanted romantic chasm" (p. 570) of Coleridge's Kubla Khan, a "holy and enchanted" place, "haunted / By woman wailing for her demon lover!"20 Coleridge's chasm is itself the fertile ground of the androgynous creative imagination. The goblin men, who presumably also eat the fruit they sell, are similar to Coleridge's poet of whom one should beware and around whom one should weave a circle thrice since "he on honeydew hath fed, / And drunk the milk of Paradise" (ll. 53-54). So Lizzie says, "We must not look at goblin men" (l. 42). The goblin men may be seen as androgynous creatures, unlike the men—or the women—of the town. Rossetti's liking for animals, especially unusual or bizarre ones,21 should keep us from assuming that she intends us to see the appearance of the goblin men in a negative way. Rather, their form combines the parts of the masculine-rational-mind and feminine-animal passion-emotion traditional dichotomy. It is they who are the possessors of the sensuous fruits of the imagination, but they also desire that maidens buy the fruit. "We must not buy their fruits," says Laura. "Who knows upon what soil they fed / Their hungry thirsty roots?" (ll. 43-45). Since the fruit shapes are full and round, erotically masculine and feminine, the soil would seem to be the androgynous ground of creative imagination.
A number of critics have noted in passing the resemblance between Christina Rossetti's poetry and that of Coleridge.22The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in both its similarities and dissimilarities, seems a particularly instructive gloss for Goblin Market since the same concerns are at issue in both poems. To begin with, the Rime and Goblin Market are both, broadly speaking, fairy tales. Both are journey stories, quests for the fruits of knowledge. The Mariner leaves the safe harbor of the rational and the known to enter, through an act of "irrationality," the world of fairy tale, that is, the world of the supernatural. Out-of-bounds and separated from the support provided by the dependable order of the natural world, community with his fellows, and a domesticated religious structure, he suffers the nightmare time of life-in-death. Finally, through an intuitive act of imagination and love, he perceives the beauty of the water snakes and the spell breaks. If one participates fully in the imaginative world, then that world is perceived in its wholeness and perceived as beautiful. Lack of participation shifts the perception so that the beautiful becomes ugly and destructive. In his spiritual alienation, the Mariner is repulsed by the crawling, slimy water snakes. Reconciled with, and by, the wholeness of love, he says, "No tongue / Their beauty might declare" (ll. 282-83). At last, he is spirited back to the safety of the land where he is compelled to tell his story to those who are receptive to its meaning.
Laura leaves the cottage and goes to the haunted glen. Despite all the warnings, she moves outside the limits of safety to buy with the coin of her body and the anguish of experience the fruits which cannot be had in any other way: "(Men sell not such in any town)" (l. 101). The goblin men invite maidens to "sit down and feast with us, / Be welcome guest with us" (ll. 380-81), and as long as the maidens do feast, the merchants' voices coo like doves and sound "kind and full of loves" (l. 79). It is only when Lizzie tries to give them back the silver fairy penny, in accordance with the moral tale, that the goblins revenge themselves on her. The punishing "rape" in which the goblin men try to force Lizzie to eat the fruit is a nightmare vision not unlike the "viper's thoughts" of the "dark dream" (ll. 94-95) summoned by the imaginative storm of Coleridge's Dejection: An Ode.
Laura, like the Mariner, becomes a storyteller, and the overt moral at the end of Goblin Market is strikingly similar to the moral at the end of the Rime:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Both morals, childishly sing-songey in cadence and almost simple-minded in tone, sound disconcertingly inadequate to the reader as summary statements for the turmoil that has preceded them. In both cases, we as readers are supposed to understand more than the speaker. What the Mariner says is true, but truer than he can explain. What Laura says is true, but not true enough; her vision is insufficient and, therefore, true to the moral tale but not to the fairy tale. The Mariner is changed by his experience. His tale is a "ghastly" one, and his glittering eye holds the listener. Because his moral is true to the fairy tale, the listener, the Wedding-Guest, is also changed:
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
Laura and Lizzie repudiate the fruits of knowledge. They are neither sadder nor wiser the following morning. For a terrifying experience of grace, they substitute a formulaic religiosity. We believe the Mariner's moral, but we do not believe in the efficacy of Laura's. What we do believe in Goblin Market is the truth of the fairy tale. Laura and Lizzie are saved to their damnation, and we and Christina Rossetti know it, even if they do not. The whole poem then becomes a moral poem of a different kind, one in which the immoral moral triumphs.
To see with the eye of imagination is to be outside the safe confines of conventional life; it calls for perception and participation in whole vision. The institutions and cultural attitudes of Victorian society make goblin fruit forbidden to maidens—and almost kindly so: one taste of the fruit cuts them off from expected female domesticity, and yet they are not allowed full and continued feasting. "Must your light like mine be hidden / Your young life like mine be wasted," Laura asks Lizzie. The light of imagination must be hidden, and thus life is wasted. Girls like Jeanie, who eat the goblins' fruit and wear the crown of flowers, pine away in "noonlight" (l. 153), lost equally to the glen and to the town. Lizzie's intervention keeps Laura from Jeanie's fate, but the "salvation" scene is strangely ambiguous. Laura, admonished by Lizzie to "Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices" (l. 468), "Kissed and kissed and kissed her." And again, "She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth" (ll. 486, 492) in an orgy of hunger for goblin fruit. But at the same time that she writhes "as one possessed," leaping and singing in a frenzy of Dionysian ecstasy,23 she "loathed the feast" and "gorged on bitterness without a name" (ll. 495-96, 510). Does the bitterness come from having eaten the fruit or from having to be saved from her desire for its taste? Similarly, who is speaking the lines, "Ah fool, to choose such part / Of soul-consuming care!" (ll. 511-12)—Laura or the narrator? And where, exactly, is the foolishness? There is a tone of longing even at the point of rejection. Laura has desired that which is forbidden her, though it should be hers by right. Perhaps what we hear in her voice is frustrated anger.
What is clear to the reader at the end of the poem is that the progression from innocence to experience and back to original innocence is no progression at all; it is at best, sad—we are the ones sadder and wiser—and at worst, immoral. Had Keats's Madeline in The Eve of St. Agnes24 remained
Blissfully havened both from joy and pain;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again,
[ll. 240, 242-43]
she would have been lost. For a rose to become a bud again is no more natural than to regain one's innocence; therefore, Laura's salvation becomes ironic:
Sense failed in the mortal strife:
Like the watch-tower of a town
Which an earthquake shatters down,
Like a lightning-stricken mast,
Like a wind up-rooted tree
Like a foam-topped waterspout
Cast down headlong in the sea,
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life?
The Mariner falls "down in a swound" (392); when his "living life returned" (l. 394), he prays, "O let me be awake, my God! / Or let me sleep alway" (ll. 470-71). He awakes to speak of the unity of life. Laura, her sense having failed, chooses "Life out of death" and falls at last, past the possibilities of both pleasure and anguish, "Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain." She has become a bud again.
Fairy tales have traditionally been able to triumph over the morals attached to them. The moral tags may or may not fit the story; they may be cynical or com-forting; they may disappear altogether.25 But, as Christina Rossetti knows, the power of the story remains, impervious to attack, reaching out like Laura's own yearning after goblin fruit:
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.
The power of the fairy tale remains as long as the story is told, passed down from generation to generation, whatever the intent of the teller. Thus,
Laura would call the little ones
And tell them of her early prime,
Those pleasant days long gone
Of not-returning time:
Would talk about the haunted glen,
The wicked quaint fruit-merchant men,
Their fruits like honey to the throat
But poison in the blood
(Men sell not such in any town).
The children listen—as do we—fascinated and intrigued by the story of the goblin men and their fruit. And Christina Rossetti, by letting her female character tell a fairy tale which delights and entertains as the children join "hands to little hands" (l. 560) to form a magic circle, affirms the truth of imagination and knowledge over conventional moral conduct. Maidens have the right to buy the fruit of Goblin Market.
1. The following is typical commentary found in histories of children's literature: "In the midst of what was, for the most part, merely pleasant verse for children, Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) provided them with one real, one can even say, one great poem in 'Goblin Market' (1862)," in Cornelia Meigs, et al., A Critical History of Children's Literature (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1953), p. 290. See also Mary F. Thwaite, From Primer to Pleasure in Reading (Boston: Horn Book, 1963), p. 135.
2. Mackenzie Bell, Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study (1898; rpt. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1971), p. 206.
3. Delores Rosenblum, in "Christina Rossetti: The Inward Pose," in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds., Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), says, "The poem really has less to do with temptation than with the consequences of indulgence" (p. 95).
4. Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems, ed. R. W. Crump, 3 vols. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), 1:11-26. References to Goblin Market will be taken from this edition.
5. Eleanor Walter Thomas, Christina Georgina Rossetti (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931), p. 60.
6. Lona Mosk Packer, Christina Rossetti (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1963), p. 142.
7. Ellen Golub, "Untying Goblin Apron Strings: A Psychoanalytic Reading of 'Goblin Market,'" Literature and Psychology, 25 (1975), 158.
8. Jerome J. McGann, "Christina Rossetti's Poems: A New Edition and a Revaluation," Victorian Studies, 23 (1979–80), 237-54.
10. Packer, pp. 13-14, discusses Rossetti's early reading, as does B. Ifor Evans, "The Sources of Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market,'" Modern Language Review, 28 (1933), 156-65. See also Thomas, pp. 151-52.
11. For a full treatment of John Locke's influence on children's literature, see Samuel F. Pickering, Jr., John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1981).
12. For accounts of this controversy see F. J. Harvey Darton, Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life (1939; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 218 ff.; Paul Hazard, Books, Children, and Men (Boston: The Horn Book, 1944); Michael Rotzin, "The Fairy Tale in England, 1800–1870," Journal of Popular Culture, 4 (Summer 1970), 130-54; Anita Moss, "Varieties of Literary Fairy Tale," Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 7, No. 4 (Summer 1982), 15-17.
13. Patricia Demers and Gordon Moyles, eds., From Instruction to Delight: An Anthology of Children's Literature (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 68.
14. John Bunyan: The Poems, ed. Graham Midgley (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1980), which is vol. 6 of The Miscellaneous Works of Paul Bunyan, gen. ed. Roger Sharrock.
15. Katherine Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 59.
16. Katherine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), p. 194.
17. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 117.
18. Quoted by Bettelheim, p. 24, from G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: John Lane, 1909) and from C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936).
20. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Complete Poetical Works, ed., E. H. Coleridge, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1912). Quotations from Coleridge's poetry will be taken from this edition.
21. See, for example, Packer, who observes: "We have seen that in From House to Home, written only six months before Goblin Market, such small animals form part of the speaker's earthly paradise" (p. 143).
22. See, for example, Zaturenska, p. 79; Packer, pp. 129, 132, 135, 198. D. M. Stuart, in Christina Rossetti (London: Macmillan and Co., 1930), says explicitly: "One of the earliest admirers of 'Goblin Market' was Mrs. Caroline Norton, who compared it to 'The Ancient Mariner.' It has, indeed, certain vague affinities with more than one of Coleridge's dream poems" (p. 54).
23. Carolyn G. Heilbrun's quotation from critic Thomas Rosenmeyer's discussion of The Bacchae of Euripides is interestingly appropriate: "Dionysus appears to be neither woman nor man; or, better, he represents himself as woman-in-man, or man-in-woman, the unlimited personality…. To follow him or to comprehend him we must ourselves give up our precariously controlled, socially desirable limitations," in Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Colophon Books, 1974), p. xi.
24. "It was in Hone's three-volume popular miscellany (1825) that Christina at nine discovered Keats…. She, and not Gabriel or Holman Hunt, was the first 'Pre-Raphaelite' to appreciate Keats. The poem which caught her fancy … was The Eve of St. Agnes" (Packer, p. 14). Barbara Foss, in "Christina Rossetti and St. Agnes' Eve," Victorian Poetry, 14 (1976), 33-46, discusses Rossetti's awareness of the passive role of Victorian woman and the frustration of always having to wait in inactivity. Rossetti's lines in From the Antique:
It's a weary life, it is, she said:—
Doubly blank in a woman's lot:
I wish and I wish I were a man:
Or, better than any being, were not:
echo Tennyson's "Mariana" in the weariness and wish for death that often accompanies the unimaginative passivity of "a woman's lot." It is little wonder that the goblin fruits are so tempting and being forbidden to feast on them so frustrating.
25. For example, in Perrault's Little Red Riding Hood, the girl learns that "young lasses … do very wrong to listen to strangers" (Charles Perrault, Perrault's Complete Fairy Tales, trans. A. E. Johnson et al. [New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1961], p. 77). What Red Cap learns in the Grimms' tale is to obey her mother. The moral at the end of Puss in Boots adjuring young people to value "industry, knowledge, and a clever mind" (Perrault, p. 25) is totally at variance with the success through deception taught by the tale itself. Moralités have now all but disappeared in the hands of today's publishers of fairy tales.
Peter Merchant (essay date June 1994)
SOURCE: Merchant, Peter. "'Like a Beacon Left Alone': The Position of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market." Children's Literature in Education 25, no. 2 (June 1994): 67-81.
[In the following essay, Merchant explores the continuing debate surrounding the intent and proper audience of Rossetti's "Goblin Market."]
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Lorraine Janzen Kooistra (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. "Goblin Market as a Cross-Audienced Poem: Children's Fairy Tale, Adult Erotic Fantasy." Children's Literature 25 (1997): 181-204.
[In the following essay, Kooistra suggests that the adult aspects of Rossetti's "Goblin Market" enhance its value as children's literature, commenting that the poem's "richness depends upon the tension between its simple language, nursery-rhyme meters, and fairy-tale form, as well as its serious commentary on sexual politics and sacrificial, sisterly love."]
Writing about the Alice books, W. H. Auden articulated a commonly held critical position: "There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children" (Auden 11). This point of view is implicit in our categorization of many "classics" that are cross-audienced either because, like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels, they began as adult books and were later adapted for children; or because, like Alice and The Rose and the Ring (and indeed like many Victorian fantasies), they began as children's books but are now read almost exclusively by adults. The idea seems to be that "classics" are those works that are not only simple enough, adventurous enough, and fantastic enough to appeal to children, but also have an underlying depth of meaning that is satisfying to a mature sensibility. Although cross-audience prose classics may originate in either the adult or the juvenile literary system, this is much less true for poetry. Most anthologies of children's poetry are in fact composed of poems written for adults but later thought suitable for children—such as Scott's "Proud Maisie," Arnold's "The Forsaken Merman," and Yeats's "The Song of Wandering Aengus."1
Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market is one such poem for grown-ups that has been appropriated for a juvenile audience in anthologies, school texts, plays, and picture books. It has also been commandeered for "adults only" in magazines and books, as well as on the stage. For this reason, Goblin Market is not only a cross-audienced poem; it also dramatically enacts the truism that good children's literature has no age restrictions, whereas some adult literature is accessible only to mature readers. In the course of Goblin Market 's long history of production, the children's fairy tale has remained open to dual readerships, but the textual boundaries of the erotic adult fantasy have been actively policed. Thus a typical blurb on a juvenile picture book claims that "Christina Rossetti's narrative poem can be read with pleasure by youngsters and adults alike" (Goblin Market, 1981). On the other hand, the poster advertising a recent Battersea Arts Center production of Goblin Market describes the work as "an erotic, adult fairytale" and warns: "This performance contains nudity and is unsuitable for children"2.
As both a children's fairy tale and an adult erotic fantasy, Goblin Market has managed to invoke par-ticularly polarized audiences. Yet there are perhaps more similarities between juvenile literature and sexual fantasy than there might at first appear. Both rely on contextual constraints—modes of production and distribution as well as nonverbal visual signs—to construct their implied audiences. And each takes its definition from implicit assumptions about sexuality. Because childhood is often defined as that period of life before sexual maturation, the topic of sexuality is generally deemed either inappropriate or incomprehensible to child readers. Erotic fantasy, on the other hand, designates its "adults only" readership precisely by featuring explicit sexual content. Christina Rossetti's poem offers a fascinating study in the politics of audience formation, for Goblin Market crossed all these boundaries from the outset: it was written for adults; it used the form of the children's fairy tale; and it was about sex.
Although Goblin Market 's internal audience is indeed "the little ones" to whom Laura tells her story,3 it is important to remember that the poem's first known public audience was not children but adults. In October 1861, publisher Alexander Macmillan read Rossetti's manuscript to a working-men's society in Cambridge. The workers' reception suggests that they recognized that Goblin Market 's simple style was actually a vehicle for its mature content: "They seemed at first to wonder whether I was making fun of them," Macmillan wrote the poet's brother Gabriel: "by degrees they got as still as death, and when I finished there was a tremendous burst of applause" (95). The men's suspicion that Macmillan was "making fun of them" suggests that their immediate reaction to the poem's nursery rhyme meters and skipping rhymes was that they were being patronized by a fairy tale meant for children. Their subsequent silence and appreciation indicates their final approbation of the poem's subject matter and its appropriateness for grown-ups. Although it is impossible to know for certain at this late date, it seems likely that Rossetti deliberately used the fairy-tale form—suitable for oral readings and hence accessible to wider audiences—to convey an important story to a specific group of adults. As Jan Marsh's research indicates, the writing of Goblin Market in 1859 coincided with Rossetti's initial employment as a lay sister at Highgate Penitentiary, a home for the reclamation of "fallen women." According to Marsh, this poem may not have been "written explicitly for the girls or Sisters at Highgate," but it is highly likely that it was inspired by Rossetti's work here. Moreover, because Rossetti probably worked at Highgate from 1859 to 1864 (Marsh, "Christina Rossetti's Vocation," 244-45), there may have been later opportunities to share the poem's emphasis on sexual sin and on sororal redemption with the audience who evoked it.
Although the precise relationship between Rossetti's poem and its potential listeners at Highgate may never be known, Goblin Market 's original print public is clear: the poem was produced for adults in Rossetti's first volume of poetry, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).4 Even in its first production as an adult-directed work, however, Goblin Market 's richness as a cross-audienced poem was immediately discerned. Mrs. Charles Eliot Norton, one of the poem's first reviewers, recognized Goblin Market 's potentially dual audience when she observed that it was a poem "which children will con with delight, and which riper minds may ponder over" (402). Despite this early recognition of the poem's availability to a readership of children as well as adults, however, the evidence suggests that the poem remained the predominant property of "riper minds" in Christina Rossetti's lifetime. Although Victorian children doubtless read Goblin Market (or had it read to them), neither personal memoirs nor accounts of nineteenth-century children's reading habits make any mention of the poem, which only later became a "children's classic."5
The first evidence we have of children "conning" Goblin Market is its appearance in school textbooks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Richard Altick indicates in his social history of the nineteenth-century's mass reading public, Matthew Arnold's campaign to develop culture and taste by introducing British literature into the curriculum resulted in the publication of anthologies specifically designed for elementary school pupils. The children's task was to memorize passages of poetry and explain the allusions (Altick 159-61). How much "delight" there was in this process is open to conjecture. What is much more certain is that this kind of institutional production went a long way toward establishing Goblin Market as a children's classic.
A school textbook defines not only a general audience (children), but also a specific sector of the juvenile population—for example, eleven- to fourteen-year-olds. For this reason, Goblin Market was constructed as a poem for children at precisely the same time—and by the same set of discursive practices—that "the child" was being differentiated according to age, sex, and class. Thus the issue of what is children's literature always brings with it the accompanying problematic of what is "the child." And, as Jacqueline Rose observes, "there is no language for children which can be described independently of divisions in the institution of schooling, the institution out of which modern childhood has more or less been produced" (7). The construction of the child, and of a literature for her, will always be overwritten by "grown-up" economic and educational institutions, as well as by the historical contexts and material conditions out of which these ideologies have developed. The questions, "what is good for the child?" and "what can we produce for the child?" are closely connected.
Practically speaking, a school textbook necessarily has a dual readership: the teacher and the student. Mary A. Woods, headmistress of the Clifton High School for girls, drew on her teaching experience as well as on her own favorite reading matter when she published her anthologies of poetry for the classroom. Justly praised for the originality of her selections, Woods must also be credited for the insight that led her to select Goblin Market as a poem adolescent girls—as opposed to the seven- to eleven-year-olds targeted in her First School Poetry Book (1886)—would enjoy. She originally included the poem in A Second School Poetry Book (1887) for use in "the Middle Forms of High Schools, i.e. … girls from eleven to fourteen or fifteen" (Woods v), and years later, when she divided her Second Poetry Book into two parts, the first for the Lower Middle Forms (girls eleven to thirteen), and the second for Upper Middle Forms of High Schools (girls thirteen to fifteen), Woods reserved Goblin Market for her oldest students. It seems a reasonable conjecture that practical classroom experience motivated Woods to present Rossetti's poem to the more mature pupils as the group who would most appreciate it. Although this appearance in a school textbook marks Goblin Market 's debut as children's literature, it is equally clear that a definite sector of the juvenile population has been targeted: those on the threshold of sexual maturation and womanhood.
A similar age distinction for the implied child reader is apparent in the three-part Children's Rossetti, which Macmillan published in 1914. Designed for use in the classroom, each volume of poetry is directed to a different age level. Goblin Market appears in the third volume, which is designated for senior students. Like Woods's anthology—and like the Goblin Market edited by schoolteacher Edith Fry in 1912 for Blackie's Library for Senior Pupils—the Children's Rossetti indicates its school-text status by its glosses on hard or unusual words and its elucidations of allusions and abstruse meanings. At the same time, Macmillan's Children's Rossetti and Blackie's Goblin Market designate the child reader in another, nonverbal way: by the presence of illustrations.6 Their inclusion raises the issue of the material ways by which a juvenile audience is written into a book. Size of type, margins, and spacing are some of the visual signs used to designate readerships. The dimensions of the book, the sturdiness of the paper, and the style of jacket design are also important. But no single visual sign proclaims "children's book" with the same compelling authority as do pictures. In children's books as in other forms of literary production, "readers are made by what makes the book" (Macherey 70).
Economic factors are inextricably linked to the business of moving adult poetry into the children's literary system. Poetry anthologies directed at the young, whether for use as school textbooks or to be given as gifts or prizes, were a reliable source of income in the turn-of-the-century book trade (Feather 159). Publishers were quick to capitalize on two guaranteed sellers in the rapidly developing children's market: fairy lore and colored prints. The gift book became "big business" as "the illustrators cast their particular vision on time-honored fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and fables" (Meyer 26, 14). As Christine Chaundler confides in The Children's Author: A Writer's Guide to the Juvenile Market (1934), "the easiest kind of story to sell" to publishers in this period was the imaginative fairy tale (19, 13). I cite Chaundler here because she was also, in fact, one of the first editors to seize on Goblin Market as an appropriate fairy tale for an illustrated children's anthology, My Book of Stories from the Poets (1919). Dora Owen was quick to follow with her Book of Fairy Poetry (1920). Owen's anthology makes explicit the artificiality of the notion of "children's poetry" by drawing attention to the gift book's dual readership: "This anthology is designed primarily for children but also for all lovers of poetry and fairy-lore" (preface). The table of contents confirms that almost all the poems included in this collection—from Shakespeare's "Ariel's Song" to Gerard Manley Hopkins's "A Vision of Mermaids" and W. B. Yeats's "The Host of the Air"—were written for adults. But as one of Warwick Goble's popular gift books, this lavish publication, with sixteen tipped-in colored plates mounted on dull-olive art paper and protected by tissue guards, was calculated to appeal to adult buyers who wanted the best for their children—and themselves.
If gift books like the Book of Fairy Poetry seem designed for both the drawing room and the nursery, others had a more age-specific appeal. Like Owen's anthology, Chaundler's My Book of Stories from the Poets is illustrated with glossy color pictures. Chaundler's collection differs from Owen's, however, in that she translates the poems in her collection into prose in order to make the stories more "natural" and hence more accessible to her child reader (Chaundler, My Book, ix). Chaundler's intervention suggests how inappropriate Goblin Market might seem to certain children's publishers and editors. In the process of converting Rossetti's poetry to prose, Chaundler inculcates a moral at every opportunity, lest Rossetti's fairy tale seem to celebrate rather than forbid pleasure. For example, the child reader is warned at the outset of the story that "though the goblin fruit was so beautiful to look at, the village people did not dare to buy it…. For the goblin fruit was poisonous and brought terrible grief and harm to the unwary person who ate of it" (1-2). It is only after this meaning is established that the protagonists, Lizzie and Laura, are introduced. These golden-haired, rosy-cheeked sisters are clearly divided into naughty and nice categories. And when Laura tastes the antidote on her sister's face, the real cure is not, as it is in Rossetti's poem, the fruit juice itself, but rather contrition for her naughtiness: "And overcome with grief and remorse she pressed Lizzie to her, and kissed her again and again, while for the first time since she had eaten of the forbidden fruit, tears of penitent sorrow fell from her eyes." As her lips touch the "magic juices," Laura suddenly realizes "how foolish and wrong she had been to taste goblins' fruit, and with cries and tears she paced up and down the room, until at last she fell unconscious to the floor" (10). Suitably punished and remorseful, Laura is allowed full recovery, but the moral of Rossetti's epilogue—"For there is no friend like a sister"—is displaced in Chaundler's adaptation by warnings against curiosity and disobedience, the misdemeanors of childhood.
Not all gift books, of course, were anthologies. Many were single works published in newly illustrated separate volumes. One of the reasons that the "Golden Age" of illustrated books for children reached its peak between 1905 and 1914 (Dalby 7) was that many Victorian classics went out of copy-right in this period. When the copyright on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland expired in 1907, for instance, eight newly illustrated versions were published in the first year alone (Felmingham 29). Even Rossetti's Goblin Market, which never achieved the almost cult status of Alice, inspired six newly illustrated editions in the first three decades of the century. The development of the three-color process and the relatively cheap costs of paper and printing at this time provided the economic base for an expanding industry that was institutionally supported by schools and libraries, as well as by a growing middle-class audience with changing attitudes toward both children and books. The development of the industry and the establishment of its market were also assisted by magazines such as The Bookman and The Studio. In 1896, The Bookman added a new section on children's books to its annual survey of illustrated books in its Christmas supplement (Rose 105). In 1897, The Studio devoted its entire special winter issue to "Children's Books and their Illustrators." In his article, art critic Gleeson White candidly admits that the illustrated children's books of the day are in fact produced by, and for, adults: "As a rule it is the 'grown-ups' who buy; therefore with no wish to belittle the advance in nursery taste, one must own that at present its improvement is chiefly owing to the active energies of those who give, and is only passively tolerated by those who accept" (5).
White's tacit admission of the dual adult-child audience for illustrated books is in line with much recent writing on books produced in what has been called the new "Golden Age" of children's literature. Treld Pelkey Bicknell credits this renaissance to such factors as "the interest of excellent writers and artists in the children's book field, great technical advances in printing (especially the opportunities offered by offset lithography), marketing techniques to expand sales, full-blown awareness of the importance of children's books among publishers, teachers, librarians, and parents" (in Kingman 58). Trading in what Brian Alderson calls "the international nostalgia market" (in Kingman 23), artists and publishers have seized on Victorian fantasy classics as vehicles for their work. Illustrated fairy tales, in other words, are once again "big business." Two notions that have remained constant since White's fin-de-siècle article on illustrated children's books are first, that picture books both give pleasure to the child and educate her aesthetic sensibilities; and second, that picture books are too good for children alone: adults, especially collectors, are also important consumers.
Three newly illustrated editions of Goblin Market produced in this most recent "Golden Age" confirm these picture-book principles. Two of them—one published by Victor Gollancz in 1980, the other by David R. Godine in 1981—self-consciously write in their dual readership by their picture-book-as-art-book approach to the form. These books represent the new, post-modern gift book, which is calculated to appeal to children, collectors, and prize-giving juries. The other publication was brought out in 1970 by E. P. Dutton in America and in 1971 by Macmillan in the United Kingdom. Illustrated and adapted by Ellen Raskin, this book is more specifically targeted at a child reader—and, of course, the parents, librarians, and teachers who buy books for her. For this reason, this Goblin Market is, like Chaundler's earlier adaptation, an interesting text to study, for it tells us much about how contemporary attitudes to children simultaneously produce "the child" and the book. As with Chaundler's version, it is not only the addition of pictures, but also the active censorship and emendation of the text, that enables Ellen Raskin to represent Rossetti's poem for modern children.
According to Zohar Shavit, the business of translating adult texts into children's books involves "an adjustment of the text to make it appropriate and useful to the child, in accordance with what society regards (at a certain point in time) as educationally 'good for the child' and an adjustment of plot, characterization, and language to prevailing society's perceptions of the child's ability to read and comprehend" (Shavit 113). As we have seen, Christine Chaundler translated Rossetti's poem for a postwar child audience by converting the putatively difficult poetry into comprehensible prose. At the same time, she altered the plot and characterization to inculcate contemporary ideologies of sin and remorse, using the tale as an appropriate apparatus for behavior modification in disobedient children. The fairy tale contained a pill. Half a century later, no such bitter pill must be swallowed in Ellen Raskin's adaptation of Goblin Market. Rather, Raskin presents modern children with a carefully censored version of the poem, omitting all references to death and muting any suggestion of sex and violence. What is educationally "good" for the modern child is, apparently, not a cautionary tale, but rather a happy experience in a fairy-tale world where nobody really dies or gets hurt.
In Raskin's updated version of the poem, the goblins are mischievous but not downright evil. Gone is the moral universe of Christine Chaundler's fairy-tale world. Instead, Raskin set out to make the goblins "appealing" in order to render "Laura's temptation more plausible" (Raskin, "Afterword"). Making the goblins visually appealing, of course, is also a means of downplaying any sense of danger or fear that the language of the poem might evoke; as Raskin notes, the goblins "had always been drawn as frightening creatures" ("Afterword"). Thus Raskin's illustrations write the child reader into the scene in two ways: first, by the visual code of the picture book, which features brightly colored watercolors splashed across all the page openings; and second, by the visual censorship of violence and danger through the representation of "appealing" goblins. Raskin's goblins are funny little men and animals in bizarre, faintly medieval costumes whose antics appear comic rather than abusive or threatening.
This visual framing of the meaning of Rossetti's poem is combined with an active intervention with regard to its plot and language, one designed to make it suitable for "the contemporary reader." Although Raskin claims her emendations are all in the interest of eliminating "outdated Victorian proprieties" ("Afterword"), in fact the 1970s version seems considerably more squeamish than the poem published in 1862. The cautionary story of Jeanie,
Who should have been a bride; But who for joys brides hope to have Fell sick and died In her gay prime
is erased, as are other suggestions that encountering goblin men might be fatal. When Laura tastes the fruit a second time, there is no suggestion that sense might fail "in the mortal strife," and the question "Is it death or is it life?" is similarly silenced. Although representations of death were not only tolerated, but also positively endorsed in Victorian and Edwardian children's books (Peppin 12; Smith 91), such images are apparently no longer appropriate for the modern child—on the printed page, at least (screen adaptations are a different matter).
Sexuality, on the other hand, has always been a more or less taboo area in the realm of representation for children. But notions of what is sexy are both historically contingent and subject to the different restrictions of verbal and visual media. In 1919 Christine Chaundler, for instance, had no difficulty in verbally representing the two sisters lying "side by side in their little white bed, their golden heads close together on the pillow" (5), whereas in 1970 Ellen Raskin clearly finds such sexual resonances disturbing and deletes the passage. Both adapters find Rossetti's language beyond the comprehension of children in the scene where Lizzie calls upon Laura to "Eat me, drink me, love me." Chaundler has Lizzie say "never mind my bruises—kiss me and taste the goblins' fruit once more!" (9-10). Raskin omits this passage altogether, and alters Rossetti's "Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices" to "Hug me, kiss me, taste the juices / Squeezed from goblin fruits for you" (26; italics added). The accompanying illustration shows an unconscious Laura lying in her sister's arms as the fruit juices drip off Lizzie's face into her open mouth (p. 27). Such a visual representation displaces any sexual resonances evoked by the sisters' embrace by eliminating the kisses altogether. A theatrical version of Rossetti's poem, first arranged for acting by E. Hynes in the Girls' Realm Annual for 1913 and later rearranged by the Rev. Maurice Bell in 1921, similarly omits the embrace between the sisters. After Lizzie triumphs over the goblins in the last scene, Laura simply reenters the wood, fully restored to her former youthful beauty (15). Presumably Laura's cure had to be effected off-stage because the passionate encounter between the sisters was deemed inappropriate or beyond the understanding of a young audience.
If, as Peter Hunt argues, the study of children's literature "presents unique challenges of interpretation and production" because it "necessarily involves language acquisition, censorship, and the whole issue of sexuality" (21), the same is true—with the exception of language acquisition—for the study of adult erotica. Like children's literature, adult fantasy material produces its audience under conditions of censorship and defines itself in terms of sexuality. Moreover, it uses specific visual signs, connected to its specialized methods of production and distribution, to designate its target audience. And when it comes to establishing meanings and audiences, images can be as important in the production of erotic fantasy as they are in material for children. At the same time, of course, erotic fantasy defines itself by its obsessive concern with precisely what children's representations disguise or displace. Far from omitting passages like "Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices" and "Eat me, drink me, love me," restricted productions of Goblin Market make the sexual possibilities of such images central to their representations.
Adapted versions of Rossetti's poem have been produced explicitly for grown-ups in Playboy in 1973, in Pacific Comics in 1984, and on the stage in 1995. Erotic representations present images of sexual fantasy in forms that deliberately restrict audiences by age and, often, by sex. Thus, the cover of Playboy inscribes its audience with the words "Entertainment for Men"; Pacific Comics warns that its contents are for "Mature Readers"; and the posters and programs by the Battersea Arts Center (BAC) caution that the performance "is unsuitable for children." This is, of course, a long-established marketing ploy. The king in Huckleberry Finn, for instance, knows that in staging the Royal Nonesuch, the key to a sell-out crowd is not the representation itself, but rather the promise of titillation and the expression of the forbidden by signals like "Ladies and Children Not Admitted" (Twain 136). Similar advertising labels for Goblin Market distinguish between the children's fairy tale and the erotic adult fantasy by signaling the explicit portrayal of nudity and sexuality. In contemporary productions of Goblin Market, mature content is defined by images of heterosexual gang rape and lesbian love.
Because all three versions that present Goblin Market as an erotic fantasy for adults include images of naked women touching each other, it seems worthwhile to focus on their differences. Although all the audiences are restricted, Playboy, with its international circulation, has a large readership—whereas the BAC production, with its three-week run of performances in a seventy-five-seat theater,7 and Pacific Comics, with its narrow distribution to the direct sales marketplace of the specialist comics store, both have relatively small audiences. In addition, Playboy belongs to that category of erotic fantasy whose specialized marketing and production methods give it the designation "pornography" (Caughie and Kuhn 156). Although context and mode of consumption also place Pacific Comics on the fringes of the pornography industry, the BAC's Goblin Market, which played to a mixed public audience, belongs to a different tradition altogether—the avant-garde tradition of fringe theater. There are also important differences in production and representation. Neither Pacific Comics nor the BAC evoke the child in their representation of the poem. Playboy, on the other hand, deliberately presents Goblin Market as children's literature in order to make its "Ribald Classic" especially provocative. The editor invites his readers to be "turned on" by what "the kids have been reading for the past 114 years" (Rossetti, "Goblin Market: Ribald Classic," 115). As if deliberately duplicating the verbal text as a work for children, moreover, Playboy abridges Rossetti's poem in much the same way for the adult sexual fantasist as Ellen Raskin did for the contemporary child:8 by deleting about a third of the lines and omitting the stories of the kernel stone and Jeanie. Thus, the displacement of the textual language by the accompanying graphics allows Goblin Market to be transformed into adult erotica. Predictably, Playboy celebrates the very moment that Raskin's text omits and her picture revises; a full-page glossy spread now gives a sexually explicit representation of the sisters' final embrace.
On the other hand, both the Pacific Comics "Pathways to Fantasy" version of Goblin Market and the BAC's dramatic production include Jeanie's story. In fact, Jeanie is central to Nick Hedges's dramatization of Rossetti's poem. Hedges wanted to convey the poem in a theatrical language as rich and sensuous as the literary language and included only two passages from the text: the story of Jeanie and the epilogue. The ghost of Jeanie, like some grotesque bride—a decrepit Miss Havisham in a tatty veil—appears in the opening scene and intermittently haunts the stage. The play opens with Lizzie and Laura raking away a pile of decaying autumn leaves, and uncovering sheets and pillows, which they use to make up a bed. When Jeanie flits in to lay her dead bridal bouquet on the girls' bed, the idea that "twilight is not good for maidens" is visually enforced at the same time that the sexual implications are underscored. Interestingly, the story of the kernel stone is also central to Hedges's conception of the poem: from her first encounter with the goblins, Laura keeps the kernel stone in her locked fist, despite all Lizzie's attempts to loosen her hold. It is not until Lizzie redeems her with the antidote that Laura can open her hand and release the poisonous stone.9 Far from being censored, images of death and disappointment are thus fore-grounded in this "erotic, adult fairytale" (BAC program notes). Perhaps this is because, in the realm of the erotic imaginary, sex and death have always been bed partners.
The stories of Jeanie and the kernel stone are also left intact in Pacific Comics's version of the poem. In fact, only eighty-three lines of Rossetti's text are omitted in this comic book for grown-ups. Omissions include repetitions and similes rather than plot-related material. The most significant textual alteration is actually a visual effect: the running-on of the lines of Rossetti's verse into regular chunks of prose, so that the poetic form of the language is disguised. Because the verse is not otherwise altered, this emendation seems motivated by the limited space a comic-book frame allows for lettering, rather than by the consideration of audience accessibility (as in Chaundler's conversion of verse to prose). Unlike children's books, the adult fantasy comic is not concerned with either language competency or the censorship of sex, death, and violence. On the other hand, there is an obvious similarity between children's books and comics: the necessary addition of colored illustrations. Indeed, comic-book convention demands multiple pictures on every page, so that John Bolton's artwork for the poem probably represents the most lavishly illustrated Goblin Market ever produced—which is likely why TV Ontario relied on this visual source in a recent production of Goblin Market for its Introduction to Literature series. Despite these similarities of production, the pictures in Pacific Comics are not, of course, designed for a juvenile audience. A specialist in the fantasy and erotic horror genre, Bolton evokes both the sensuous and the scary in his series of frames for the final encounter between the sisters.
Comics are often associated with children, but the production and distribution of Pacific Comics as a work "For Mature Readers"—sold in what Roger Sabin calls "the 'locker-room' atmosphere" of specialist shops that are "unwelcoming to women" (228)—establishes a very specific male audience for this production of Goblin Market. Indeed, adult comics inhabit a no-woman's land between pornography and juvenile literature; newsagents who stock them, for instance, usually place them "above the bottom shelf and the children's comics, but below the top shelf and the porn magazines" (106). There are historical reasons for this. Adult comics evolved in America as part of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies in reaction to the restrictions of the Comics Code. Established in 1954 in response to lobbyists like psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who wanted "to re-establish the line between what was acceptable for children, and for adults,"10 the code banned material relating to sex and violence (158, 161). Adult comics developed out of these conditions of censorship, and were at first an underground phenomenon. Then, with the emergence of "fandom" and the direct sales market, specialist shops appeared, initiating the "adult comics revolution" of the eighties in both Britain and North America (175-76). Pacific Comics was one of the new independents to focus on the "sword and sorcery" or fantasy genre for the direct sales marketplace. As editor Bruce Jones writes in his introductory letter to the reader, the "Pathways to Fantasy" title sets out to "define a new meaning for the word [fantasy] and with it reach a whole new generation of readers"—with the help of the fans who are "to share in the job of shaping and molding the look of our new book" by writing letters outlining their fantasy preferences.
The fantasies in this particular issue of Pacific Comics range from a story of a Neanderthal superhero fighting aliens and predators ("Stalking"), to a ghost story with erotic nuances ("A Night to Remember"), to a tale of an illicit encounter between a golden-haired virgin and a handsome prince who is married to a green-haired witch ("Hunger"), to an ironic retelling of the Medusa story ("Oh What a Lovely Es-tate Have We"). In the midst of these fantasies, Goblin Market is both the most artistically interesting and the most subtle in its sensuousness. The focus is on the relationship between the sisters—their beauty, love, and strength—more than it is on their relations with the goblins. Thus, both the power and the sexiness of women, rather than their victimization, are the theme of Bolton's artwork. Coming from an artist who worked for a year producing Bionic Woman strips for Marvel, and whose personal artistic interest has always been female subjects, particularly nude female subjects, this emphasis is not surprising.11 The artistic excellence, coupled with the portrayal of lesbian love in a fantasy world, makes this version of Goblin Market highly collectable. In fact, it is probably a prime candidate for the label "GGA," or "Good Girl Art," which is used in collectors' price guides. As Roger Sabin explains in Adult Comics, the development of superheroes for girls (such as Wonder Woman and Sheena) also opened up a new market of older boys and men who liked "their undisguised erotic charge" and who valued "an artist's ability to draw sexy women" (223 and 288, n. 8). Thus the demand of collectors has established a market for high-quality glossy productions of erotic, adult fantasies like Pacific Comics's Goblin Market.
Clearly, the different strategies that go into the formation of age- and sex-specific audiences at particular moments in history depend on the material means of production and distribution, and on the ideologies produced out of these bases. But there is still room for a fair amount of overlap and blurred boundaries because the categories of "child" and "adult" are not fixed. The target audience for adult comics, for instance, is males aged sixteen to twenty-four (Sabin 3). This was precisely the age of the reclaimed prostitutes at Highgate Penitentiary (Marsh, Christina Rossetti, 224), who may have inspired Rossetti's poem and heard it read aloud. "Adult" in these very different contexts seems defined by those over sixteen who have a certain amount of sexual awareness, for whether it is received as an erotic fantasy or as a sexual parable, the poem in these instances requires a sexually sophisticated audience.
But sexual knowingness is a slippery term by which to discriminate between children and adults. Goblin Market 's first targeted child audience, after all, hovers right at the edge of this great divide between innocence and experience, for Headmistress Woods included the poem in her anthology for fifteen-year-old schoolgirls. In fact, almost all productions of Goblin Market for children (with the exception of Ellen Raskin's picture book) target the oldest "child" category available to juvenile literature: those aged eleven to fourteen.12 In thinking of Goblin Market as a children's fairy tale and an erotic adult fantasy, then, it is important to keep the boundaries fluid rather than distinct: it is not a question of "either or," but of "both." This was brought home to me when I gave my own eleven-year-old daughter, Alison, an unillustrated copy of Goblin Market to read. She enthused about the poem: how much the sisters loved each other, and how one sister saved the other from the wicked goblins. Then I asked if she had found it at all frightening. There was a long pause before she admitted, "Well, mummy, I think I would have, if I had understood it." In her reading she had focused, as perhaps other children have done, on the comprehensible fairy-tale plot of the poem, while at the same time she both sensed and submerged the sexual undertones of its imagery and themes. As Auden suggests, some "comprehension presupposes adult experiences" (11); but the act of reading may include unconscious strategies of self-censorship as well.
Because Goblin Market for children has been produced primarily for adolescents, it is worth asking how young people in this age group might represent the poem themselves. A recent production of Goblin Market as a dance drama put on by a ninth-grade class from the Lincoln County School of Performing Arts for the Sears Niagara District Drama Festival in 1993 provided me with a unique opportunity to see how some contemporary thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds read Rossetti's poem. The students in Catherine M. Thompson's Grade Nine Comprehensive Arts Class produced their own script, set, costumes, soundtrack, and choreography for their performance. The play was also overseen by a student director, and so it can be fairly called a youth production. Their source material was Anita Moss and Jon C. Stott's The Family of Stories: An Anthology of Children's Literature, but despite this context for the poem, these "children" clearly did not read Goblin Market as a juvenile fairy tale. Instead, they produced a drama of violence, abuse, and death, whose main message seems to be "just say no to fruit." Their Goblin Market is the story of drug pushers whose traffic means certain death for the unwary. This fate is reinforced by the visual imagery: Jeanie's coffin dominates the stage at center back throughout the entire performance, and twice Jeanie rises from the grave to dance in a dream sequence as a warning to the addicted Laura. At one point, the goblins insinuate that Laura must trade sexual favors for fruit or risk a beating.
What was most interesting to me as I watched this production was not the teenagers' inclusion of sex, violence, and death, or even their interpretation of Rossetti's story of unquenchable desire as a tale of drug addiction.13 Rather, I was astounded by their alteration of the relationship between the sisters. Like the Reverend Bell's dramatic adaptation, this student performance omits Lizzie and Laura's healing embrace. In this production, however, the omission seems to reflect squeamishness about feminism rather than sexuality, and it results in a story of female victimization rather than female power and sisterhood. In fact, the close relationship between the sisters is entirely lost: Lizzie is whiny and Laura self-centered. Instead of coming home with her face dripping with juices that Laura must kiss away, Lizzie brings her sister actual pieces of fruit, thereby eliminating the need for the recuperative embrace. Moreover, far from thinking first of Lizzie's danger as in Rossetti's text,
Must your light like mine be hidden,
Your young life like mine be wasted,
Undone in mine undoing
And ruined in my ruin
the Laura of this student production simply snatches the fruit and begins to eat voraciously. For her part, Lizzie is not motivated to brave the goblin men primarily out of fear for her sister's life, but rather because Laura hits her and yells at her (in fact, calls her a bitch) to force her to bring her more fruit. Indeed, the entire performance focuses on individual needs rather than altruistic actions. Although the play ends with a narrator reading Rossetti's epilogue, the message that "there is no friend like a sister" is ironically contradicted by the preceding performance.
It is perhaps not fair to look for consistency and acumen in a performance of ninth-grade students, but I think the production does suggest that this group of contemporary adolescents, at least, had no trouble incorporating the thematics of sex, death, and violence into their understanding of Goblin Market. Moreover, the students reproduced the generic dualities of the poem—its combination of fairy story and cautionary tale—with some skill. In other words, they certainly seemed to have some comprehension of the sexual experiences that Rossetti's poem invokes—but not its religious or redemptive ones. If any censorship is operating here, it is not the kind of active policing that "tones down" adult material for children either by eliminating references to sex or death or by suppressing immoral content. On the contrary, by a curious inversion, these fin-de-siècle adolescents suppress the moral precisely by enacting scenarios of sexuality and violence on a stage where selfishness is substituted for selflessness. The production is a timely reminder that our constructions of childhood innocence are, indeed, constructions. At the same time, the students' production dramatizes the degree to which historical time and place shape both narratives and interpretive strategies.
Goblin Market 's richness depends upon the tension between its simple language, nursery-rhyme meters, and fairy-tale form, as well as its serious commentary on sexual politics and sacrificial, sisterly love—whether that love is seen as spiritual, feminist, or both. By playing with the shifting nuances of innocence and experience in a chain of evocative images, Goblin Market 's language inscribes the possibilities of its own production as not only a children's fairy tale and a piece of adult erotica, but also as a religious allegory, a feminist fantasy, a moral tale, and more. At the same time, Goblin Market 's other producers—its adapters, illustrators, directors, and performers—remind us of the many ways in which texts operate within a network of institutional, economic, and ideological forces that produce audiences and meanings with each representation. The ongoing dialectic between language and readers produces Goblin Markets whose forms of communication are indeed determined by the conditions that determine their production.14
1. The poems are taken from the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children (1982), ed. Edward Blishen, but these selections are typical of many children's anthologies.
2. Battersea Arts Center, England's "National Theatre of the Fringe," produced a stage version of Goblin Market, adapted and directed by Nick Hedges, 4-29 Apr. 1995.
3. Unless otherwise noted, all citations of Goblin Market are taken from The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, vol. 1, 11-26.
4. For a history of this work's production and reception in the Victorian and modern periods, see Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, "Modern Markets for Goblin Market," Victorian Poetry 32, nos. 3-4 (1994): 249-77.
5. See, for example, Annabel Huth Jackson, A Victorian Childhood; E. M. Field, The Child and His Book; Edward Salmon, Juvenile Literature as It Is; Amy Cruse, The Victorians and Their Books; Lance Salway, A Peculiar Gift: Nineteenth-Century Writings on Books for Children; and Richard Altick, An English Common Reader.
6. Goblin Market is illustrated in Macmillan's Children's Rossetti with Gabriel Rossetti's original two plates for the poem. Blackie's Goblin Market is illustrated with two full-page black-and-white plates and a frontispiece by Florence Harrison, who illustrated Poems of Christina Rossetti as a Blackie gift book in 1910.
7. The BAC Goblin Market's audience had, however, a wider international audience than its London debut would suggest: the production also toured Prague and Jerusalem.
8. Raskin abridges the poem by 197 lines and Playboy by 199 lines. Except for the story deletions mentioned above, most of the omissions (repetitions, similes, and the like) relate to matters of linguistic richness rather than plot.
9. Information in this paragraph is taken from a telephone interview with Nick Hedges, 9 May 1995.
10. Wertham wrote The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) in which he argued that comics led to delinquency. With his authority as a psychiatrist, Wertham led the crusade against comics that ultimately resulted in the industry's establishment of the Comics Code. See Sabin, esp. chap. 12.
11. Interview with John Bolton, 13 Dec. 1994.
12. Children's literature is usually defined as books for readers under age fifteen. See Darton 1.
13. A similar reading of the poem as a story of drug addiction and sexual abuse was given in the Trestle Theatre Company's production of Goblin Market, with original music composed by Aaron Jay Kernis. This production toured England from 12 January to 22 January 1995 with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
14. I am indebted here to Pierre Macherey's theory that books do not produce readers by some mysterious power, but by historical and material conditions (Macherey 70).
Auden, W. H. "Today's 'Wonder-World' Needs Alice." Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics' Looking-Glasses, 1865–1971. Ed. Robert Phillips. New York: Vanguard, 1971.
Blishen, Edward, ed. Oxford Book of Poetry for Children. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Caughie, John, and Annette Kuhn, eds. The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1992.
Chaundler, Christine. My Book of Stories from the Poets. London: Cassell and Co., .
―――――――. The Children's Author: A Writer's Guide to the Juvenile Market. London: Pitman & Sons, 1934.
Cruse, Amy. The Victorians and Their Books. London: Allen & Unwin, 1962.
Dalby, Richard. The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration. London: Michael O'Mara, 1991.
Darton, F. J. Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life. 3d. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Feather, John. A History of British Publishing. London: Croom Helm, 1988.
Felmingham, Michael. The Illustrated Gift Book, 1880–1930. Aldershot, Eng.: Scolar, 1988.
Field, Mrs. E. M. The Child and His Book: Some Account of the History and Progress of Children's Literature in England. 2d ed. London: Wells, Gardner, Darton, 1892.
Goblin Market. Dir. Jay Mathes for the Lincoln County School of Performing Arts at the Sears Ontario Drama Festival, Sean O'Sullivan Theater, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ont., 23 Feb. 1993.
Goblin Market: Introduction to Literature Series. Videocassette. TV Ontario, 1994.
Goblin Market. Music Composed by Aaran Jay Kernis. Dir. by Toby Wilsher and Joff Chafer. Performed by the Trestle Theater Company and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. On tour in England, 12-22 Jan. 1995.
Goblin Market. Dir. Nick Hedges. Battersea Arts Center, London, 4-29 Apr. 1995.
Hunt, Peter. Criticism, Theory, and Children's Literature. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.
Jackson, Annabel Huth. A Victorian Childhood. London: Methuen, 1932.
Kingman, Lee, Grace Allen Hogarth, and Harriet Quimby, eds. Illustrators of Children's Books, 1967–1976. Boston: The Horn Book, 1978.
Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. "Modern Markets for Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry 32.3-4 (1994): 249-77.
Macherey, Pierre. A Theory of Literary Production. Trans. Geoffrey Wall. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
Macmillan, George A., ed. Letters of Alexander Macmillan. Printed for private circulation, 1908.
Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography. London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.
―――――――. "Christina Rossetti's Vocation: The Importance of Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry 32.3-4 (1994): 233-48.
Meyer, Susan E. A Treasury of the Great Children's Book Illustrators. New York: Abradale, 1987.
Moss, Anita, and Jon C. Stott, eds. The Family of Stories: An Anthology of Children's Literature. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1986.
Norton, [Mrs. Charles Eliot]. "'The Angel in the House' and 'The Goblin Market.'" Macmillan's Magazine 8 (Sept. 1863): 398-404.
Owen, Dora, ed. The Book of Fairy Poetry. Illus. Warwick Goble. London: Longmans, Green, 1920.
Peppin, Brigid. Fantasy Book Illustration, 1860–1920. London: Studio Vista, 1975.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Rosetti [sic], Christina. Goblin Market. Illus. John Bolton. Pacific Comics. "Pathways to Fantasy" 1.1 (1984): 9-18.
Rossetti, Christina. Goblin Market. Illus. Florence Harrison. Ed. Edith Fry. London: Blackie and Son, 1912.
―――――――. The Children's Rossetti. Illus. 3 pt. London: Macmillan, 1914.
―――――――. Goblin Market. Arranged for acting by Maurice Bell: Maurice Bell, Wheatley Vicarage, Oxon, 1921.
―――――――. Goblin Market. Illus. and adapted by Ellen Raskin. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970.
―――――――. "Goblin Market: Ribald Classic." Illus. Kinuko Craft. Playboy 20.9 (1973): 115-19.
―――――――. The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti. Ed. R. W. Crump. Variorum ed. Vol. 1. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
―――――――. Goblin Market. Illus. Martin Ware. London: Victor Gollancz, 1980.
―――――――. Goblin Market. Illus. George Gershinowitz. Boston: David R. Godine, 1981.
Sabin, Roger. Adult Comics. London: Routledge, 1993.
Salmon, Edward. Juvenile Literature as It Is. London: Henry J. Drane, 1888.
Salway, Lance, ed. A Peculiar Gift: Nineteenth-Century Writings on Books for Children. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Kestrel, 1976.
Shavit, Zohar. Poetics of Children's Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
Smith, Joanna. Edwardian Children. London: Hutchinson, 1983.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Airmont Books, 1962.
White, Gleeson. "Children's Books and their Illustrators." The Studio, Special Winter Number (1897): 1-68.
Woods, Mary A. A Second School Poetry Book. London: Macmillan, 1887.
―――――――. A Second Poetry Book. London: Macmillan, 1890.
Sabine Coelsch-Foisner (essay date fall 2002)
SOURCE: Coelsch-Foisner, Sabine. "Rossetti's Goblin Market." Explicator 61, no. 1 (fall 2002): 28-30.
[In the following essay, Coelsch-Foisner offers Robert Herrick's 1648 poem "Cherry-ripe" as possible source material for Rossetti's "Goblin Market."]
Of the many possible literary models for and influences on Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" (1859), one obvious source seems to have escaped critical attention: Robert Herrick's "Cherry-ripe" from Hesperides (1648):
Cherry-ripe, ripe, ripe, I cry,
Full and fair ones; come and buy:
If so be, you ask me where
They do grow? I answer, There,
Where my Julia's lips do smile;
There's the land, or Cherry isle:
Whose plantations fully show1
All the year, where cherries grow.
Isolated from the context of rustic life and sensuous fulfillment, the fruit-cry of Herrick's merchant "Cherry-ripe, ripe, ripe, I cry, / Full and fair ones; come and buy" provides the central motto of Rossetti's fairy poem about temptation and redemption: "Maids heard the goblins cry: / Come buy our orchard fruits, / Come buy, come buy" (2-4).2 Put into the mouth of little grotesque and beastlike creatures, the call recurs throughout the poem and is pivotal in the narrative structure. It arouses the appetite of virtuous maidens and signifies pleasure, pain, and death, because once they have tasted the fruit, they do not hear the "sugar-baited words" (234) anymore and pine away. When the steadfast Lizzie resists their aggressive offer, the goblins vanish, and the fruit-cry is no longer heard in the poem. But the sly merchants survive in a tale of sisterhood and female constancy told by mothers to their "little ones" (548).
The formal regularity of Herrick's trochaic tetrameter lines in rhyming couplets is abandoned in Rossetti's poem in favor of lines varying in length and meter to match the destabilizing effect of the goblins' presence in the world of Laura and Lizzie. Still, the hobbling quality of opening trochees and masculine line endings, characteristic of Herrick's poem, and the tetrameter rhythm—often split into dimeter lines of one trochaic or dactyllic and one iambic foot—are maintained in "Goblin Market" and put into the service of an overall impression of spontaneity and uncontrolled, hyperactive energy: "Out in the sun, / Plums on their twigs; / Pluck them and suck them, / Pomegranates, figs" (359-62). The alliteration "full and fair" is echoed in line 21 of Rossetti's poem: "Pomegranates full and fine," and the repetition of "ripe," chiming with "cry," "buy," "isle," and "smile" in Herrick's poem, furnish the ground rhythm in "Goblin Market," where the assonance is extended to "try," "wild," "fly," "vine," "fine," and "Bright-fire-like," as well as to the repeated catalogues of similes: "Like a lily in a flood,—/ Like a rock of blue-veined stone […] / Like a beacon left alone …" (409-12, see also 82-85, 188-90, 340-47). All these strengthen the goblins' haunting cry, but just as the fruit is both pernicious and an antidote to the disease of mind and body it causes, the assonance also conveys opposite connotations in "life" and "light," which are repeated several times after Laura's rescue and indicate the countermovement to "buy."
Images, too, are traceable in Rossetti's poem, but employed in a manner that subverts the speech situation and complementary metaphysical tone in "Cherry-ripe" and its treatment of gender, possession, and heterosexual love. Herrick turns a rustic ritual into a cunning celebration of carnal love by relating the ripe fruit to his mistress's smiling lips. Ripeness, with its implications of growth and decline, is transferred onto an isle of abundance and unchanging bliss: "Whose plantations fully show / All the year, where cherries grow." Rossetti's goblins, too, draw attention to the fair weather that ripens their fruits and flowers—"All ripe together / In summer weather" (15-16)—and the sisters speculate about the otherworldly genial climate and odorous meads whence they must come: "Plucked from bowers / Where summer ripens at all hours" (151-52). Yet, it is a land full of mysteries and dangers. Instead of Herrick's fruit merchant, we are offered wicked, quick-tempered goblins, whose "wry" (338-39) laughter haunts Laura's and Lizzie's rustic paradise; sensuous pleasure has degenerated into aggressive male sexuality, and the cherries, though "worth getting" (172), are forbidden. As in "Cherry-ripe," oral images predominate in "Goblin Market," but lips are vulnerable and insatiable, and there is something unsettling, even pathological, about desire. Laura indulges in the fruit until "her lips were sore'" (136). When she longs for more and cannot quench her hunger she "gnashed her teeth for baulked desire" (267), her mouth fades (288), and she denies all earthly food. The libido is transferred from a transgressive heterosexual relationship, treated in terms of a violent act (Lizzie "[w]ould not open lip from lip / Lest they should cram a mouthful in" [431-32]), onto the healing sisterly kiss, which carries both erotic-incestuous and liturgical connotations: "Come and kiss me. / […] Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices […] / Eat me, drink me, love me […]" (466-71). Once more Laura's "lips began to scorch" (493) as she sucks her sister's mouth smeared with the juice of the goblins' fruits.
In the context of Herrick's Hesperides, we know that "this same flower that smiles to-day, / To-morrow will be dying."3 Yet the poet who is conscious of life's transience constantly seems to be saying "Here, here I live […]."4 Herrick's fruitmonger speaks from a participant perspective, praising and enjoying the bounties of Cherry isle: "Where my Julia's lips do smile." Rossetti's poem is written from a feminine and outsider perspective, aware of the moral injunction against sensuous indulgence imposed on women and reluctant to enter cherry land. Two worlds are juxtaposed—pleasure and duty, innocence and experience, childhood and adulthood, feasting and fasting, time and timelessness, the familiar and the unknown, domesticity and wilderness, night and day, life and death. The only link between them is the goblin's fruit-cry. For the kernel-stone Laura retrieves from the goblin world proves lifeless, which suggests a reversal of Herrick's fertile plantations: "It never saw the sun, / It never felt the trickling moisture run" (286-87).
Another image in Rossetti's poem helps to destroy Herrick's association of luxuriance and vitality and, by destroying it, generates a redemptive vision of sisterhood. Contrary to Herrick's beloved Julia dwelling in Cherry isle, a barren tomb awaits maidens who cross the border of cherry land in "Goblin Market." Jeanie's grave, where no daisies bloom, negatively draws on nature's laws in Cymbeline (4.2.217-21), when Guiderius and Arviragus promise Imogen (Fidele): "With female fairies will his tomb be haunted, / And worms will not come to thee […]."5 Rossetti's poem eventually discards the moral implications of this image: neither brotherly (Cymbeline) nor heterosexual ("Cherry-ripe") love will make fruits and flowers grow. Sororal love is the sole redeeming virtue in what proves a revisionist fantasy in the context of Renaissance love poetry: "And new buds with new day / Opened of cup-like lilies on the stream" (535-36).
The way Rossetti transforms and integrates the cry of Herrick's epicurean fruit vendor into a feminine fantasy about repressed desire and illicit sensuous pleasure, about renunciation and sisterhood, suggests a dialogical engagement with central elements of "Cherry-ripe": its controlling hedonism and amatory tone, its celebration of heterosexual love, its patriarchal stance, and the voice's full knowledge of the land where the cherries grow.
1. All quotes of Robert Herrick's "Cherry-ripe" are from Bernard and Elizabeth Davis, ed., Poets of the Early Seventeenth Century (London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967) 34.
2. All quotes of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" are from The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., vol. 2 (New York, London: Norton, 1993) 1479-90.
3. From Herrick's "To the Virgins, to make much of Time," in Davis 38-39.
4. From Herrick's "His Content in the Country," in Davis 46-47.
5. W. J. Craig, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (London: Henry Pordes, 1977) 1122.
Helen Pilinovsky (essay date spring 2004)
SOURCE: Pilinovsky, Helen. "Conventionalism and Utopianism in the Commodification of Rossetti's 'Goblin Market.'" Extrapolation 45, no. 1 (spring 2004): 52-64.
[In the following essay, Pilinovsky portrays Rossetti's "Goblin Market" as a subtle critique of Victorian culture, particularly with regards to the role of the Victorian marketplace.]
The Goblin Market is seen as being a fairy tale trope: it is a metaphor for the figurative and literal interactions and transactions between the worlds of the fantastic and the mundane. Christina Rossetti brought this trope out from the recesses of folkloric convention to the forefront of Victorian literature with her poem of the same title in 1862. "Goblin Market" is, on its surface, a tale of two sisters who encounter a troop of sinister supra-natural merchants whose wares carry temptation and, potentially, damnation. These sisters, Lizzie and Laura, achieve redemption through the embrace of conventional morals and the observation of the rules of the Faerie world. However, "Goblin Market" is far more than that: it is an apt translation of the dangers that modernity posed for traditional society, and of the values that might conceivably survive the transition, making the survival of the people swept up in it possible.
The Victorian period was a time of turmoil and adjustment; its people struggled to organize the traditions of the past and the innovations of the future into a comprehensible, orderly whole. Nowhere is this more evident than in the evolution of Victorian fairy poetry from the views implied by traditional folklore to their own unique and idiosyncratic positioning of Faerie within Victorian culture. The earliest works posited the fantastic, typically, as representing the disturbing incursion or the unfamiliar into their established order; later works presented the fantastic as representing an alternative, a potential solution. Christina Rossetti managed to integrate both positions in her poem, "Goblin Market." Jack Zipes notes that "the creation of fairy tale worlds by British writers moved in two basic directions from 1860 until the turn of the century; conventionalism and utopianism."1 However, "Goblin Market," generally speaking, cannot be classified wholly as one or the other; instead, it is a combinations of both, combining the values of the past with the societal concerns of the present.
Contemporary reactions to Rossetti's poetry displayed unease and discomfort with both the subject matter and the question of intended audience; at that point in time, fairy tales were seen as being a genre of innocence, in large part because of the influence of the Grimms.2 Her themes of temptation and consequence, and her allusions to mature issues of sexuality and addiction, simply did not fit comfortably within that context. Despite the fact that her treatment of these issues followed a structure that presented society as being a positive influence, the poem caused discomfort simply for raising the critique in the first place. Over the next several decades, the genre grew steadily more popular, and, concurrently, more subversive, coming to be influenced by the French contes de fees as well as by the German marchen.3 By the late Victorian period, the idea of the fairy tale as a method for exploring problematic social issues had come to be more fully accepted within the social unconscious. This shift in resulting reaction reflects the measure of influence that the fairy tale and the fantastic had come to hold within Victorian culture.
Christina Rossetti was born in London on the 5th of December, in 1830, and died on December 29th, 1893. "Goblin Market" is dated to 1859, was first published in 1862, and is thought to have been partially inspired by earlier fairy poems, as the subject gained steadily in popularity throughout the Victorian period. Notably, her original title for the poem was "A Peep at the Goblins," alluding to a popular poem, "A Peep at the Pixies," written by Eliza Bray in 1854; the title that we know was suggested by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the course of his illustrating the text.4 However, earlier Victorian pieces were far more restrained in their treatments of the parallels between the older customs of folklore and modern life; Rossetti, in marked contrast, appears to have coupled an extensive knowledge of folkloric convention with the chance to address her societal concerns. Rossetti's innovation in using the traditional structure of folklore to add depth to her intended moral represented a new idea for the Victorians.5
The nature of the poem, and its complexity, have challenged critics from the beginning. While editing a collected edition of her poetry, Rossetti's brother, William Michael Rossetti, said "I have more than once heard Christina say that she did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale." The statement, judging from the critiques of the time, was as unconvincing then as it is now. In a contemporary review, Mrs. Charles Eliot Norton plaintively asked, "Is it a fable—or a mere fairy story—or an allegory against the pleasure of sinful love—or what is it?"6 Mrs. Norton came to the conclusion that it was an amalgamation of sorts, saying that the poem was a "ballad which children will con with delight, and which riper minds may ponder over."7 U. C. Knoepflmacher notes that she "became the first to argue that 'Goblin Market' might, in fact, equally appeal to two segregated audiences, the sexually innocent and the sexually mature."8 Rossetti's biographical information may shed some light on the question of the bifurcated audience; she, like her heroines, and, indeed, like most Victorians, was undoubtedly concerned with issues of desire and propriety.
Rossetti was deeply spiritual woman; she broke one engagement, with Pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson, on the grounds of her lover's conversion to Catholicism, and refused another, to Charles Bagot Cayley, likely as a result of his religious skepticism. Poems written during the periods of these events reveal that she had strong feelings for both men, but felt it untenable to give in to them because of her religion.9 The themes of "Goblin Market" reflect a number of Christian themes—temptation and redemption being foremost among them. The pagan roots of the poem are somewhat more difficult to trace. It is interesting to note that this poem is the first important piece of fantasy to use the market as a setting; this reflects the growing commodification of Victorian culture resulting from the Industrial Revolution, extending even to the commodification of personal interaction. Older tales frequently discuss journeys into fairy realms, by minstrels, midwives, and maidens, but this blended realm of the market is a new thing, representative of the temptations that had made their way into the Victorian world, creating a liminal space, a tenuous boundary between what had been proper in the past, and what would be proper in the future.10 Many older folktales are set in human markets, where those who had already been touched by Fairy in some way could discern the true nature of the Other in their midst; the mortals touched by fairy ointment representing, perhaps, those who had already been corrupted in some way. In those cases, however, there was a clearer demarcation between Them and Us. Here, mortals are fully susceptible to the lures of the goblins; the seeds of their own destruction lie germinating within them. The older rules of magic that separated the Mundane from the Fantastic no longer protect them. Now, they must rely solely on human traits of will, and on the rules of the market place itself. In stories of this type, beginning with "Goblin Market" and continuing through later tales to use this trope, always, there is some "unlawful" behavior, and the enactment of strict regulation by what authorities there be to bring matters back into balance.
Fundamentally, the market represents both economic and a social transgression—or, rather, the amalgamation of the two by a society that came to see money as being equivalent to honor and power. Social transgression came to be expressed through economic means. Thus, all of those instances of mortals buying goods unintended for their hands, as in Rossetti's "Goblin Market," or of stealing them,11 cheating others,12 and breaking contracts,13 to set only a few examples, become newly significant of their transgression against the norms of society, and doubly significant because of their occurrence in the liminal state of the market—a place where the norms must be more strictly observed, rather than less, so as to maintain the borders between the permissible and the forbidden.
The impression that Rossetti creates in her presentation of the two girls are both similar and dissimilar. The two girls are comparable in many ways, as can be seen in the following description:
Golden head by golden head, / Like two pigeons in one nest / Folded in each other's wings, / They lay down in their curtain'd bed: / Like two blossoms on one stem, / Like two flakes of new-fall'n snow, / Like two wands of ivory / Tipp'd with gold for awful kings. / Moon and stars gaz'd in at them, / Wind sang to them lullaby, / Lumbering owls forbore to fly, / Not a bat flapp'd to and fro / Round their rest: / Cheek to cheek and breast to breast / Lock'd together in one nest.14
The symbolism here implies the beauties of homogeneity, and the love and recognition of the familiar—this seems representative of Victorian society. However, the two are not identical; rather, they are like the id and the superego, with Lizzie being the more logical, and Laura the more impulsive. Lizzie is shown to be the more cautious of the two; potential danger does not engage her curiosity, but simply warns her off, as we can see in the lines where she reacts to her sister's curious reaction to the goblin men; we read, "'No,' said Lizzie, 'No, no, no; / Their offers should not charm us, / Their evil gifts would harm us."15 Lizzie heeds example of other girls' fates, and behaves carefully, in the prescribed manner; later, she will act as storyteller, as the experienced voice of reason. Laura, in marked contrast, is also aware of the dangers, but she is more rash; despite her knowledge of the likely consequences, we read how she disregards her sister's reiteration of the warning that she herself initially makes; she throws caution to the winds, and begins the process that will temporarily part the two when she ignores her own good sense and her sister's actions. We read,
Laura rear'd her glossy head, / And whisper'd like the restless brook: / "Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie, / Down the glen tramp little men. / One hauls a basket, / One bears a plate, / One lugs a golden dish / Of many pounds weight. / How fair the vine must grow / Whose grapes are so luscious; / How warm the wind must blow / Through those fruit bushes."16
The nature of Laura's transgression is very telling. Laura knows that to buy the fruits is forbidden to her. As Terrence Holt notes that "the ostensible function of [the] discourse of the marketplace is to stress the difference between maidens and goblins. Exchange, 'Goblin Market' claims, is the province of goblins, not little girls. The market is dangerous to maids, who belong safely at home,"17 a fact of which both girls appear to be aware. Laura, in particular, is aware of their dangers and their unfamiliar source. She says so herself, when she first warns Lizzie: "We must not look at goblin men, / We must not buy their fruits: / Who knows upon what soil they fed / Their hungry thirsty roots?"18 Yet she herself, referred to as "curious Laura," and "sweet-toothed Laura,"19 is vulnerable; she commits her actions while being aware of their consequences, if not of their full extent. Nevertheless, Laura yields to temptation. She resists it at first; we read, "Laura stared but did not stir, / Long'd but had no money"20 She attempts to explain her situation, saying, "Good folk, I have no coin; / To take were to purloin: / I have no copper in my purse, / I have no silver either, / And all my gold is on the furze / That shakes in windy weather / Above the rusty heather,"21 and then, finally, accepts the goblin bargain to trade a lock of her golden hair when they offer to barter. Rossetti writes, "'You have much gold upon your head,' / They answer'd all together: / 'Buy from us with a golden curl."22 According to the magical Law of Contagnation, which states that any part of a thing is equivalent to the entirety, Laura has given them herself; in exchange, she has taken their corruption into herself. It appears, as well, that she knows what she has done; after clipping off a lock of her hair, we read how she "dropped a tear more rare than pearl,"23 signaling her knowledge of her doom.
The description of Laura sampling the fruit is very sensual. We read,
She dropp'd a tear more rare than pearl, / Then suck'd their fruit globes fair or red: / Sweeter than honey from the rock, / Stronger than man-rejoicing wine, / Clearer than water flow'd that juice; / She never tasted such before, / How should it cloy with length of use? / She suck'd and suck'd and suck'd the more / Fruits which that unknown orchard bore; / She suck'd until her lips were sore; / Then flung the emptied rinds away / But gather'd up one kernel stone, / And knew not was it night or day / As she turn'd home alone.24
This brings us to the concrete nature of the market goods. The fruits of the poem have been thought to represent the desires of the flesh—the sensual nature of the poem is quite evident.25 This can also be seen in the references to the earlier goblin victim, Jeanie, who pines for the goblins as for lost lovers, described by Lizzie thus:
Do you not remember Jeanie, / How she met them in the moonlight, / Took their gifts both choice and many, / Ate their fruits and wore their flowers / Pluck'd from bowers / Where summer ripens at all hours? / But ever in the noonlight / She pined and pined away; / Sought them by night and day, / Found them no more, but dwindled and grew grey; / Then fell with the first snow, / While to this day no grass will grow / Where she lies low: / I planted daisies there a year ago / That never blow.26
That implication is strengthened later on in the poem, when we read how Lizzie "thought of Jeanie in her grave, / Who should have been a bride; / But who for joys brides hope to have / Fell sick and died / In her gay prime."27 As Carole G. Silver sees it, the goblins "have … ravished and destroyed Jeanie …"28 her choice of verb is particularly interesting, and apt, in that it implies transports of delight, abduction, and violation, all of which Jeanie has suffered, in one way or another. This reading foreshadows all that is to befall the two sisters, from Laura's initial pleasure in the fruit, to the way that it takes her away from Lizzie, and finally, to the abuses committed upon Laura in her attempt to save her sister. The fruits have been thought to represent narcotics as well as sensuality, as the Victorian period was rife with drug abuse, particularly that of opium, which is also known as the fruit of the poppy.29 Laura's inability to hear the goblin men thereafter seems similar to the tolerance that a drug user builds up; as can be seen in her reaction to the realization that the fruits will no longer affect her as they had is certainly reminiscent of withdrawal. We read,
Laura turn'd cold as stone / To find her sister heard that cry alone, / That goblin cry, / "Come buy our fruits, come buy." / Must she then buy no more such dainty fruit? / Must she no more such succous pasture find, / Gone deaf and blind? / Her tree of life droop'd from the root: / She said not one word in her heart's sore ache; / But peering thro' the dimness, nought discerning, / Trudg'd home, her pitcher dripping all the way; / So crept to bed, and lay / Silent till Lizzie slept; / Then sat up in a passionate yearning, / And gnash'd her teeth for baulk'd desire, and wept / As if her heart would break.30
The use of fruit as a symbol of temptation has both Biblical and Classical roots, in the apple of Eden, and the pomegranate of Hades. Both are well represented in the goblin's wares, referred to, respectively, simply as "apples," and as "[p]omegranates full and fine."31 In "Goblin Market," as in both of the former cases, knowledge of the forbidden is equivalent to death.
The manner of Laura's rescue from the goblin's by Lizzie is particularly interesting. She goes to buy fruit for her sister, but offers no more than mortal coin; the goblins receive it, not of their own volition, but when she tosses it at them. Rossetti writes, "'Good folk,' said Lizzie, / Mindful of Jeanie: / 'Give me much and many':—/ Held out her apron, / Toss'd them her penny."32 This is not their preferred payment; they wish to gain her company, and herself, and they demur, attempting to put her off with half-truths. In the typical way of fairies, they avoid outright lies, as these would invalidate any resulting bargains. They say,
"Nay, take a seat with us, / Honour and eat with us," / They answer'd grinning: / "Our feast is but beginning. / Night yet is early, / Warm and dew-pearly, / Wakeful and starry: / Such fruits as these / No man can carry: / Half their bloom would fly, / Half their dew would dry, Half their flavour would pass by. / Sit down and feast with us, / Be welcome guest with us, / Cheer you and rest with us."33
They speak the truth concerning the effects of consumption of their fruits absent of their presents, but they avoid informing potential customers of the effects of their wares; truly, a case of "Buyer, Beware," as Lizzie does. She is interested in partaking of their custom only on her own terms, a fact which obviously displeases them. Nevertheless, they have accepted payment, which they do not return when she says "If you will not sell me any / Of your fruits though much and many / Give me back my silver penny / I tossed you for a fee."34 The deal has been struck, and sealed with silver; by ancient rules of fairy, with which Rossetti appears aware, and which still operate in full force even in the confines of the market, they must attempt to fulfill their bargain; they "give" her the fruit by attacking her with it. We read,
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 look were evil. / Lashing their tails / They trod and hustled her, / Elbow'd and jostled her, / Claw'd with their nails, / Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking, / Tore her gown and soil'd her stocking, / Twitch'd her hair out by the roots, / Stamp'd upon her tender feet, / Held her hands and squeez'd their fruits / Against her mouth to make her eat …35
As Silver asserts, "What marks … Rossetti's goblin men as particularly threatening … is their grotesque materiality, their physical ludicrousness combined with their 'primitive' sexuality … Their elbowing, jostling, pinching, and clawing, amount to near rape, or at least sexual assault."36 They attempt to have their will of her physically, when they cannot coerce her through other means, to force the metaphorical properties of the fruit—carnality—when it will not be taken through manipulation. However, for Rossetti, free will is paramount, not only on the basis of religious principle, though those are invoked, as we shall soon see, but also on the principles of the market. Rossetti writes,
One may lead a horse to water, / Twenty cannot make him drink. / Though the goblins cuff'd and caught her, / Coax'd and fought her, / Bullied and besought her, / Scratch'd her, pinch'd her black as ink, / Kick'd and knock'd her, / Maul'd and mock'd her, / Lizzie utter'd not a word; / Would not open lip from lip / Lest they should cram a mouthful in: / But laugh'd in heart to feel the drip / Of juice that syrupp'd all her face, / And lodg'd in dimples of her chin, / And streak'd her neck which quaked like curd.37
Regardless of what they resort to, Lizzie will not accept. They literally cannot force her to acquiesce under conditions that she had not agreed to, and finally, we read how
At last the evil people, / Worn out by her resistance, / Flung back her penny, kick'd their fruit / Along whichever road they took, / Not leaving root or stone or shoot; / Some writh'd into the ground, / Some div'd into the brook / With ring and ripple, / Some scudded on the gale without a sound, / Some vanish'd in the distance.38
They return her penny, and storm off, unable to gain any advantage over her. They have attempted to fulfill the bargain on their terms, by forcing the goods that she had inquired about and paid for in advance upon her, which she will not allow; they refuse to fulfill the bargain on her terms, by simply giving her the fruit to carry off, knowing that they will not gain her "spirit" in that way, and perhaps that they will lose the benefits of a former "customer." Thus, matters have concluded with a draw; except, by breaking the rules of the marketplace by using physical force, they have granted her what she wanted all along, the means to rescue her sister from their coils. Lizzie has triumphed, simply by knowing the rules of the marketplace.
Lizzie's actions are heroic, but they are put forth in a singularly passive manner; martyr like, Lizzie allows herself to be brutally attacked so that she may bring the fruits of her labor back home to heal her sister. She is described thus;
White and golden Lizzie stood, / Like a lily in a flood,—/ Like a rock of blue-vein'd stone / Lash'd by tides obstreperously,—/ Like a beacon left alone / In a hoary roaring sea, / Sending up a golden fire,—/ Like a fruit-crown'd orange-tree / White with blossoms honey-sweet / Sore beset by wasp and bee,—/ Like a royal virgin town / Topp'd with gilded dome and spire / Close beleaguer'd by a fleet / Mad to tug her standard down.39
Rossetti alludes to the Virgin Mary, clothing Lizzie in her colors, and using the adjective "virgin" to describe her. The original, destructive, nature of the fruit is transmogrified by Lizzie's sacrifices on behalf and love for her sister. Upon returning home, she offers herself and her sacrifice to her sister; we read how
She cried, "Laura," up the garden, / "Did you miss me? / Come and kiss me. / Never mind my bruises, / Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices / Squeez'd 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.40
Here, finally, we see Laura begin to break free of the goblin spell, more out of concern for her sister than through any magical properties. Breaking free of her artificial lethargy,
Laura started from her chair, / Flung her arms up in the air, / Clutch'd her hair: / "Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted / For my sake the fruit forbidden? / Must your light like mine be hidden, / Your young life like mine be wasted, / Undone in mine undoing, / And ruin'd in my ruin, / Thirsty, canker'd, goblin-ridden?41
Laura begins to kiss her from concern, rather than selfishness, and continues when she feels the restorative power of the medicine that her sister has fetched for her. Rossetti writes,
She clung about her sister, / Kiss'd and kiss'd and kiss'd her: / Tears once again / Refresh'd her shrunken eyes, / Dropping like rain / After long sultry drouth; / Shaking with aguish fear, and pain, / She kiss'd and kiss'd her with a hungry mouth …42
Rossetti implies that Laura is still operating under the influence of the fruit when she performs these actions, saying, "Ah! fool, to choose such part / Of soul-consuming care!"43 Her concern for her sister is overtaken by her need for succor, with little sense of the depth of the support behind it. When Laura sucks the juices of the fruit from her sister's flesh, she is nurtured, like a babe by her mother. One has the sense that it is her sacrifice and love that heals Laura, as much as any goblin fruit. However, when she wakes, healed, she realizes the full extent of Lizzie's concern. We read how, recovered, "Laura awoke as from a dream, / Laugh'd in the innocent old way, / Hugg'd Lizzie but not twice or thrice."44
The last lines of the poem reiterate the Victorian value of society over individualism. Laura and Lizzie lead lives of virtue, mirroring one another as they had in the past, implying their reintegration into a homogenous, harmonious union. It is Laura who appends a moral to the tale of their experiences; she tells their collective brood that
… there is no friend like a sister / 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.45
Here, she completes her maturation into the speaker of the first warning of the poem, concerning the dangers of external life; she echoes her sister's role as the cautionary guide who related Jeanie's story. As Knoepflmacher points out, "'Goblin Market' … can be read as a progress-poem. Having mastered the meaning of a story she began as … [a] … participant, Laura can affirm her final maturation: she has become the equal of the sister who asked her to outgrow her narcissism by relating the tale of Jeanie."46 Rossetti implies that only thus can civilization stand firm against temptation; by each member supporting the next, so that those who weaken can be strengthened, and survive to lend their strength to others, in turn.
Though magic is often used as a metaphor for many disparate things, whether sex, narcotics, or a utopian solution, the desire for wonder is universal. Whether it results in good or ill depends on the specific situation … but, for the Victorians as a class, the effects were positive. The genre of the fairy tale provided a means for authors to address taboo subjects to a greater and greater extent throughout the passage of the 19th century, by utilizing both pre-existing traditions, and their own innovations. Rossetti presents a veiled critique of elements within society through the metaphors of the poem. However, she does at least partially subscribe to the "conventialism" discussed by Zipes by presenting society itself, and a closer relationship with it, as presenting the solution; as Zipes says, the plot demonstrates that readers should "reconcile themselves … to the status quo of Victorian society."47 The fact that Rossetti did have the courage of her convictions in questioning contemporary conditions through the metaphors of the poem in the first place is undeniable; her conclusion suggests her own views on their potential resolution—through the optimistically "utopian" qualities of unity, and support, rather than those of condemnation.
1. Victorian Fairy Tales: The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves, ed. Jack Zipes. Routledge Press, New York, 1987.
2. As Terri Windling notes in an essay entitled "Victorian Fantasies," "Early in the 19th century, magical tales and poems by the German Romantics (Goethe, Tieck, Novalis, etc.) were published in English magazines … [later] 19th-century European imports brought magical tales to an even wider audience: German Popular Stories by the Brothers Grimm, first published in England in 1823 … went a long way to make fairy tales acceptable to Victorian readers … for although [the] books are darker in tone than the simplified Disney fare of today, they were not as dark or sensual as the older tales they drew upon. (The Brothers Grimm revised the folk tales they collected to reflect their own Protestant values …) Subsequent English fairy tale books [of the early Victorian period] continued this moralizing trend, taming the complexity and moral ambiguity of older fairy stories by turning their heroines into passive, modest, dutiful … girls and their heroes into square-jawed fellows rewarded for their Christian virtues." (www.endicott-studio.com)
3. This can be seen, for example, in the work of J. R. Planche, and Frederick Robson, who collaborated in translating a number of the tales from the contes de fees to the British stage (Buczkowski, Paul, "J. R. Planche, Frederick Robson, and the Fairy Extravaganza." Marvels and Tales: The Journal of Fairy Tale Studies Vol. 15, No. 1).
4. Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems, ed. R. W. Crump, Penguin Press, Louisiana State University, 2001, pp. 885. The themes of the two works possess significant parallels; "A Peep at the Pixies" concerns the tale of a young woman who chances to hear fairy music, and pines for it thereafter. Rossetti is also thought to have been inspired by the Reverend Bray's fairy tale, "The Rural Sisters" and "The Pixies," by Archibald Maclaren.
5. Other Victorian authors also used fantastic elements in their work to express their philosophical concerns—for example, Tennyson used the Arthurian mythos to great advantage in addressing questions of artistic integrity and personal responsibility—and other Victorian authors used the fairy tale form to examine moral issues—John Ruskin wrote the popular tale "The King of the Golden River" to make his points concerning behavioral propriety—but Rossetti was one of the first to treat the fairy tale form, previously scorned as childlike, as a medium to explore concerns about topics touching adult society.
6. Knoepflmacher, U. C. Ventures Into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, pp. 320, qung. Macmillan's Magazine 8, 1863.
8. Knoepflmacher, pp. 320.
9. These poems, entitled Il Rosseggiar dell'Oriente, were discovered after her death. (Crump, pp. xliii.)
10. The liminal space of the market is an intensification of the pre-existing nature of Faerie as a land of borders, as is reflected in Rossetti's use of traditional conventions such as the facts that the girls can apparently only interact with the goblins at dusk and dawn—intermediate times that are neither night nor day—and in their increased vulnerability on the bank of the river and the road—places that imply travel and change.
11. A development that can be seen in many works; one notable example can be found in the 20th-century Books of Magic, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess in a collaboration that echoes that between Christina Rossetti and her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or those between numerous other Victorian authors and artists who felt that their written work was enhanced by being reflected in other mediums. The latter-day Interstitial Arts movement echoes the ideals of the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood in many ways, from their familiarity with fantastic themes to their focus on re-establishing the boundaries of artistic conventions.
12. The Green Pearl, a modern fantasy by Jack Vance, explores the idea of the market, going even further with the idea of the transgressive nature of interaction between the realms by making the criminal a halfling—an idea that Victorian authors could not address for reasons of propriety, though myths of changelings, as discussed by Yeats, certainly gave rise to them.
13. Neil Gaiman returns to the setting of the market in many of his works—giving rise to interesting ideas concerning the addictive nature of Faerie itself for artists—exploring the concept of broken contracts in two novels, Neverwhere and Stardust. Regardless of the disparate settings of the works discussed herein, written in different eras, and set in different worlds altogether, the rules of the market remain constant.
14. Rossetti, Christina. "Goblin Market," The Pre-Raphaelites, ed. Jerome H. Buckley. Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, 1986, lines 184-198, pp. 225 and 227.
15. Ibid., lines 64-66, pp. 222.
16. Ibid., lines 52-63, pp. 222.
17. Holt, Terrence. "Exchange in 'Goblin Market.'" Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader, ed. Angela Leighton, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1996, pp. 132.
18. "Goblin Market," lines 42-46, pp. 221.
19. Ibid., lines 69 and 115, pp. 222 and 223.
20. Ibid., lines 105-106, pp. 223.
21. Ibid., lines 115-122, pp. 223-224.
22. Ibid., line 123-125, pp. 224.
23. Ibid., line 126, pp. 224.
24. Ibid., lines 127-140, pp. 224.
25. Rossetti was volunteering at a penitentiary for young prostitutes at the time of the poem's composition (Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life. Viking Press, New York, 1995).
26. Ibid., lines 147-161, pp. 224.
27. Ibid., lines 312-316, pp. 230.
28. Silver, Carole G. Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, pp. 128.
29. Rossetti, sadly, had personal knowledge of the damage that this vice could cause, as her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was severely addicted to opium throughout the course of his life.
30. "Goblin Market," lines 253-268, pp. 228-229.
31. Ibid., lines 5 and 21, pp. 220 and 221.
32. Ibid., lines 363-367, pp. 231.
33. Ibid., lines 368-382, pp. 231-232.
34. Ibid., lines 386-389, pp. 232.
35. Ibid., lines 390-407, pp. 232.
36. Silver, p. 128.
37. Ibid., lines 422-436, pp. 233.
38. Ibid., lines 437-446, pp. 233.
39. Ibid., lines 408-421, pp. 233.
40. Ibid., lines 464-474, pp. 234.
41. Ibid., lines 475-484, pp. 234.
42. Ibid., lines 485-492, pp. 235.
43. Ibid., lines 511-512, pp. 235.
44. Ibid., lines 537-539, pp. 236.
45. Ibid., lines 562-567, pp. 237.
46. Knoepflmacher, pp. 324.
47. Zipes, pp. xxiii.
Buczkowski, Paul, "J. R. Planche, Frederick Robson, and the Fairy Extravaganza." Marvels and Tales: The Journal of Fairy Tale Studies. Vol. 15, No. 1.
Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems, ed. R. W. Crump, Penguin Books, Louisiana State University, 2001.
Holt, Terrence. "Exchange in 'Goblin Market.'" Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader, ed. Angela Leighton, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1996.
Knoepflmacher, U. C. Ventures Into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998.
Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life. Viking Press, New York, 1995.
Rossetti, Christina. "Goblin Market," The Pre-Raphaelites, ed. Jerome H. Buckley. Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, 1986.
Silver, Carole G. Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.
Windling, Terri. "Victorian Fantasies" 〈http://www.endicott-studio.com/forum〉.
Zipes, Jack, ed. Victorian Fairy Tales: The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves. Routledge Press, New York, 1987.
SING-SONG: A NURSERY RHYME BOOK (1872)
Sharon Smulders (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Smulders, Sharon. "Sound, Sense, and Structure in Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song." Children's Literature 22 (1994): 3-26.
[In the following essay, Smulders examines the structural and poetic content of Rossetti's verse book for children, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book.]
Christina Rossetti's collections of verse sequentially elaborate, according to Dolores Rosenblum, "a female aesthetic" of "poetic inexhaustibility" (134).1 Examining Rossetti's arrangements of poetry over the course of her career, Rosenblum nevertheless fails to address the relation between sequence and meaning in Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).2 The omission is startling for a number of reasons. Rossetti's juvenile poetic progress not only occupies the central position in her oeuvre but contains several of her "best songs" (Family Letters 94). Indeed, as William Rossetti observes, "the series includes various lyrics which, though not unadapted for children, are truly in a high strain of poetry, and perfectly suited for figuring among her verse for adults, and even for taking an honoured place as such" (C. Rossetti, Poetical Works 489-90).3 Yet owing to its status as children's verse, Sing-Song has rarely received the critical attention that it deserves, especially as a unified poetic sequence.4 Certainly, Rossetti's playful experiments in form and language allow readers to "experience Sing-Song … as a coherent text" (McGillis 221), but her sequential arrangement of lyrics informs this experience with meaning. Unfolding a narrative from cradle to grave, from winter to fall, from sunrise to sunset, Sing-Song invites readers to understand life as an ordered totality.
Sing-Song begins and ends with the sleeping child in bed. In the interval Rossetti guides the reader through three different, but simultaneous, temporal sequences. Taken together, these three synchronic movements divide into three successive phases, each slightly more comprehensive than the last. Grouping her 121 lyrics within roughly twelve decades, Rossetti uses clock and calendar to posit progress within circularity.5 In the first three decades she treats preparations and beginnings: birth and babyhood, dawn and morning, winter and spring. In the next four decades she focuses on growth: childhood, day, summer. In the final five decades she dramatizes a ripening into maturity: adulthood, dusk, autumn. In the last of these five decades she turns the sequence back to beginnings and thus underpins her asymmetrical arrangement with a symmetrical design. Doubling temporal on textual experience, these movements provide a syntax in which the poet grounds her exploration of the endless emotive and cognitive possibilities facilitated by rhyme and rhythm, repetition and apposition, sound and silence. For all the childish charm of single rhymes, Sing-Song makes rigorous demands on readers to create meaning from the formal, thematic, and structural constituents of the volume as a whole.
"By forming part of a sequence," says Christina Rossetti in Time Flies: A Reading Diary, a "single note" becomes one "element" within an "endless progression, of inexhaustible variety": "Change, succession, are of the essence of music" (29). As the title so engagingly suggests, Sing-Song aspires to the condition of music. Appropriately, the volume opens with a fugue containing poems about the newly born child and the newly born day. In the first two cradle songs a maternal speaker assures the baby of loving guardianship. Succeeding and varying this keynote, the next two poems replace the soothing presence of angels and mother with the dispossessing absence of parents and baby. The fifth lyric blithely announces several beginnings in the conflux of "morn," "born," and "springing":
Crows the cock before the morn;
Roses in the east are born.
Early birds begin their singing;
The day, the day, the day is springing.
"Born" describes the budding of flowers; "springing," the rising of the sun and the coming of dawn—that is, dayspring. But the position of the lyric within the sequence increases the field of semantic possibility. The prepositional phrases ("before the morn," "in the east") in the first stanza create a mood of anticipation at one equally with the seasonal and the diurnal moment. Because of the onomatopoeic repetitions, the feminine end-rhymes and the thrice-iterated "day," the momentum of the second stanza increases as Rossetti speeds toward the joyous climax of the poem.
The next several lyrics, which follow the child through early morning activities—taking medicine (6), receiving the eight o'clock mail (7), eating breakfast (8, 9)—modulate the established mood of expectancy. The emphasis in the breakfast lyrics on the coldness outdoors, for example, prepares for the sad "Dead in the Cold, a Song-Singing Thrush" (10), which initiates a second decade of lyrics. For the most part, these rhymes deal with unfulfilled hope and winter. But because "in music … one harmony paves the way to a diverse harmony" (C. Rossetti, Time Flies 29), this chilly series also incorporates the warmer notes of maternal reassurance found in "Your Brother Has a Falcon" (13) and of spring promise in "Hope Is Like a Harebell Trembling from Its Birth" (17). Although winter is treated as a period of possible miscarriage, its gestative dormancy eventually gives birth to the new season heralded in "Growing in the Vale" (20) and "A Linnet in a Gilded Cage" (21). In fact, the latter lyric not only suggests that "a linnet on a bough" is the "luckier bird" once "trees burst out in leaf" (21), but also recalls "the mournful linnets" (14) that lost their nest in the previous part of the sequence. Whereas the earlier poem describes a kind of abortive or false spring, the later one implies loss overcome. In successive lyrics, then, the poet comprehends and delivers the momentary tragedy.
Besides marshaling the order of lyrics in Sing-Song, the rhythmic progress of time constitutes a major thematic concern. Between "Minnie and Mattie and Fat Little May" (29-31) and "There Is but One May in the Year" (35), Rossetti brings the sequence closer to summer. Many lyrics in this part of the volume are meditations on the brevity of the season and the brevity of youth. Thus, in "Minnie and Mattie and Fat Little May" the youngest girl's name and the posies the girls carry—"Half of sweet violets, / Half of primroses" (30)—indicate late spring. Furthermore, this lyric adapts the carpe diem motif to the requisites of nursery rhyme. Instead of exhorting her readers to "Gather ye rose-buds while ye may," Rossetti says, "Don't wait for roses / Losing to-day" (31). She subverts, therefore, the impetus of the seventeenth-century lyric toward sexual initiation. Although "Minnie and Mattie and Fat Little May," the longest poem in Sing-Song, holds the moment for nine quatrains, time is inexorable. Indeed, from "The days are clear" (37) to "Brown and furry / Caterpillar in a hurry" (39), the poet dwells on the impossibility of arresting time; but in the caterpillar who may "Spin and die, / To live again a butterfly" (39), she intimates that transformation supersedes transience and that life embraces death.
Moving from spring to summer in "The Summer Nights are Short" (36) and again from May to June in "The Days are Clear," Rossetti also advances the course of the child's daily activities. Here, too, she proceeds from the babies of the beginning of the book to older children. With "A Toadstool Comes up in a Night" (40), she begins a section on various lessons involving numbers, coins, and colors, as well as clock and calendar time. In these poems, moreover, the concept of verse time emerges clearly in Rossetti's manipulation of metrical measure and duration. The lesson on sewing in "A Pocket Handkerchief to Hem" is exemplary for a steady rhythmic and verbal repetitiveness that imitates the even stitches required "Till stitch by stitch the hem is done" (41).
Writing of her Italian translations, Rossetti speaks of her efforts to marry the sound of her verse—assonance and consonance, rhyme and rhythm—to its meaning. She was justly proud of "Cavalli Marittimi," originally "The Horses of the Sea" (94), because "'Rotolandosi spumando vanno' gave … something of the accumulative on-come of the waves, mounting on each other's backs" (Family Letters 77). Although she represented herself as a spontaneous poet who eschewed "skilled labour" (Family Letters 65), her comments on her translations provide a unique glimpse into her poetic practice.7 Even in these most unpretentious and artless of lyrics, she worked scrupulously to achieve the necessary correspondence between form and content. Just as she strove for the sound of the surf in the open vowels of "Cavalli Marittimi," she captured the rhythm of the silent activity described in "A Pocket Handkerchief to Hem." Rossetti's mastery of phanopoeia, her description of action in sequences of sound and rhythm, transforms the tedious task of sewing into a delightful aesthetic experience. Verse time ameliorates and supersedes workaday time.
When "the hem is done," both the poem and the handkerchief come to conclusion: "And after work is play!" (41). This ending makes a fitting prelude to the nonsense complement to the rhyme, "If a Pig Wore a Wig" (42). But in the tailoress of the second stanza, "If a Pig Wore a Wig" playfully returns to the preceding sewing lesson and so denies that any activity is ever "done." Indeed, the accumulative on-come of separate lyrics militates against closure in Sing-Song. As in "A Pocket Handkerchief to Hem," the other lessons in Sing-Song not only contribute collectively to Rossetti's design but also address individually the relation of parts to a whole. Although the poems can be defined as mnemonic aids, their distinction lies in the felicitous complementarity of sound and sense. The poem "1 and 1 are 2," for instance, ends with the following couplet: "12 and 12 are 24 / Pretty pictures, and no more" (44-45). Here Rossetti comments ironically on the vignettes offered in each of the preceding couplets. They have been no more than pretty pictures. While recalling the "couple more" that ends the second couplet, the "no more" of the last couplet establishes the finality of closure. Reiterating "no more" in the first couplet of the following poem, however, Rossetti elides these two distinct poems and shows that closure is a highly artificial construct and is by no means absolute: "How many seconds in a minute? / Sixty, and no more in it" (46). But even a minute is not conclusive; it is part of a larger continuum. Requiring a more sophisticated knowledge than in the poem about addition, this lyric moves from the smallest units of time to the largest: "How many ages in time? / No one knows the rhyme" (47). Ending the poem with a riddle unanswerable because of the empirical limits of human knowledge, Rossetti achieves closure through a rhyme that calls attention to the inability to complete endless time except through a poetic contrivance. In Sing-Song as a whole, rhyme also negotiates the chasm between finite and infinite time, between dif-ferent conceptual orders. In other words, Rossetti seeks to comprehend eternity within the singsong rhythms and singsong rhymes of verse time.
In accordance with the idea that after work is play, the next series of lyrics, miscellaneous in theme, all offer a respite from work. But the woman poet's work is never done. Thus, once again recalling "A Pocket Handkerchief to Hem," a riddle at the center of the volume exploits mere sewing notions for its conceit.
There is one that has a head without an eye,
And there's one that has an eye without a head:
You may find the answer if you try;
And when all is said,
Half the answer hangs upon a thread!
Half the answer is the needle held by the mother in Arthur Hughes's illustration. The other half hangs upon the reader's willingness to try to organize the component parts of the poem into an intelligible whole. Strategically placing the direct address to the reader at the heart of the lyric, Rossetti uses conditional phrasing to stress how meaning is contingent on audience engagement: "You may find the answer if you try." Truly, half the fun of the poem hangs upon Rossetti's wordplay, for the thread of meaning in this riddle—and in others like "A City Plum Is Not a Plum" (12), "A Pin Has a Head, but Has No Hair" (54-55), and "The Peacock Has a Score of Eyes, with Which He Cannot See" (65)—depends on making sense of apparent nonsense.
In spite of its riddling nature, "There Is One That Has a Head without an Eye" yields to meaning "when all is said." The paired conundrums in the opening lines deploy a thread of associative logic, for pin is to needle as head is to eye. At the same time, the riddle frustrates associative thought, for a pin has no eye, the needle no head. Syntactic constructions implying negation—here "without" and elsewhere "no," "not," "never"—draw attention to the doubleness of language. Rossetti asks her audience to distinguish what is from what is not and uses puns to investigate the nature of single words with several denotative possibilities. For R. Loring Taylor, the concentration on verbal ambiguity reveals a basic "distrust of language" (xii): "The vision represented is thus, in its way, as absurd as that of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll, although its center is moral rather than mathematical like Carroll's or verbal like Lear's" (xiii). In confusing the poet's moral vision with an "overt didactic intention" (xii), Taylor misses the point. Even though Rossetti draws her opportuni-ties for wordplay from needlework, Sing-Song is far less overt in its didacticism than, for example, Speaking Likenesses (1874). And as this volume of prose tales reveals, the poet distrusts fantasy, not language.
Repulsed by Speaking Likenesses, John Ruskin asked in horror, "How could she or Arthur Hughes sink so low after their pretty nursery rhymes?" (37:155). Although she does not so much sink as change her stroke in this "Christmas trifle, would-be in the Alice style" (C. Rossetti, Family Letters 44), an answer lies in the medium chosen and the end proposed. Taking Carrollian fantasy to task, the Aunt who narrates these three stories keeps her would-be Alices busy with sewing, darning, and knitting. According to U. C. Knoepflmacher, Aunt is Alice's doubly punishing adult nemesis: she not only exacts work from her recalcitrant seamstresses but repays their industry with tales "which relentlessly discourage their potential indulgence in Alice-like fantasies" and which mock their childish incompetence ("Avenging Alice" 314). Additionally, as Rossetti explains in one of her devotional treatises, the labor that Aunt performs for "many poor friends" (Speaking Likenesses 50) and demands from her auditors possesses spiritual as well as social utility: "Whoso clothes the poor, weaves for himself (still more obviously weaves for herself) a white garment" (Face of the Deep 138). Whereas Aunt, intolerant of displays of feminine infantilism, frustrates her listeners' desire for regressive fantasy, the poet is gentler in her persuasions.
Like Aunt, the lyricist of Sing-Song submits Victorian idealizations of childhood innocence to the probation of experienced womanhood, but she is concerned to give her would-be Alices practice in mastering the delights of wordplay rather than the duties of needle-work. Nevertheless, because Sing-Song validates a comprehensible, albeit endlessly flexible and permutable, linguistic order, as well as a comprehensive temporal order, it is undeniably moral. Unlike the riddle about ravens and writing desks in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, all the riddles in Sing-Song are ultimately capable of solution. "Puns and such like," Rossetti readily admits, "are a frivolous crew likely to misbehave unless kept within strict bounds" (Time Flies 26).8 Although the puns in "There Is One That Has a Head without an Eye" might cause a temporary confusion of meaning, the poet's grammatical constructions exclude one range of semantic potential even as it is elicited. The frivolity of Carroll's wordplay contributes to Alice's growing irritation with the world underground, but Rossetti's riddles operate within the strict bounds necessary to temper linguistic misbehavior. In this respect, Sing-Song provides a good-humored initiation into the rites of language.
Such lightsome lyrics as "There Is One That Has a Head without an Eye," playful though they may be, put into relief the more perplexing questions that Rossetti poses in the course of Sing-Song. Indeed, her riddling allusions to the mysteries of life and death provoked one Victorian reviewer, Sidney Colvin, to marvel at the presence of both "a music suited to baby ears" and "a depth of pathos or suggestion far enough transcending baby apprehension." Because Sing-Song allows the "more complex self" to discover "the reward of its affliction of self-consciousness," it ranks among those children's books that are "more delightful still" for "the properly constituted grown-up reader" (23).9 To prove the appeal of Sing-Song to little listeners, other contemporary readers co-opt the preliterate child to the task of criticism. One notice ends by prefacing "If Hope Grew on a Bush" (68), a lyric of meditative pathos, with the following testament to the charm of the volume: "We know one who doesn't know her letters yet, and already knows half of it by heart" (review of Sing-Song, Scribner's Monthly 629). Still another, after abandoning the "limited little jury" consulted for opinions, decides the question of "whether or no Miss Rossetti would have done more for the children if she had done less for us" by simply being "very sincerely thankful to her for this as for her other poems" (review of Sing-Song, Nation 295).
By deliberately pitching her singsongs at two different audiences, Rossetti follows a precedent established in the title poem of The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1866). To her brother Dante Gabriel, she confided that she had written "The Prince's Progress" to meet the "mean capacities" of a "general public" but had also included "refined clues" for a more select readership (W. Rossetti, Rossetti Papers 81). Directed to a general public composed of children, Sing-Song similarly contains refined clues for Colvin's properly constituted grown-up reader.
Although the two answers offered for each of the four questions in "What are Heavy? Sea-Sand and Sorrow" (34) plainly accommodate two orders of readers, many of the amusettes in the central section of the volume refrain from the provision of obvious answers. Toward the end of the second movement of the sequence, "Sing Me a Song" (73) is perhaps the most interesting of these enigmas. Like the first line of "Dead in the Cold, a Song-Singing Thrush," its first line plays a variation on the titular singsong. Like "Minnie and Mattie and Fat Little May," it employs the three-sisters motif also found in such adult poems as "A Triad," "Maiden-Song" and "A Ring Posy." And like "There Is One That Has a Head without an Eye," it tests the reader's capacity to link and synthesize sequences of words and phrases to make meaning when all is said. In fact, the relation between the first and second stanzas of "Sing Me a Song" typifies Rossetti's method of balancing complementary halves in Sing-Song as a whole.
In "Sing Me a Song," Rossetti constructs a single narrative from two seemingly discrete experiences—a song and a tale. The parallelism of the opening petition and question of each stanza establishes not only a symmetrical but a tacit causal connection between song and tale. The contrast between three sisters in the first stanza and two in the second provides an im-plicit rationale for the shift between mirth and mourning. In the ellipsis between the two stanzas, the circle of girls suffers a rupture. Interestingly, Hughes's illustration for "Sing Me a Song" occupies this interstitial silence, for it shows the third girl loosing her hold on a sister and tightly grasping an angel's hand: she is both part of the dancing ring and apart, separated from her sisters by the arc of an angel's wing. That the poet particularly admired this "charming design" of "the three dancing girls with the angel kissing one" (Family Letters 35) attests to Hughes's perfect understanding of the requirements of the text.10 Describing the illustrations as "in the right spirit for such semi-childish semi-suggestive" lyrics (Selected Letters 278), William Rossetti astutely points to the interactive vitality of text and pictures in Sing-Song. The genius of Hughes's illustrations lies not only in their individual charm but also in the way they pick up on the refined clues in Rossetti's verse and contribute to the whole sense of Sing-Song. Although his depiction of the intercessory angel softens the experience of loss described in "Sing Me a Song," Hughes draws on the suggestive intersection of temporal and eternal realms in Sing-Song as a whole, making the illustrations into another level of the volume's meaningful dynamic.
Between "Sing Me a Song" and "Ding a Ding" (89), Rossetti advances into the third and final phase of Sing-Song. In the last five decades, she includes poems about autumn—or at least the end of summer—and homecomings. Many of the lyrics, like "Minnie Bakes Oaten Cakes" (82), concern adults rather than children. Although this poem marks a contrapuntal return to "Minnie and Mattie and Fat Little May," the later Minnie is a busy housewife. No longer part of a childish trio, she now anxiously watches "the church clock" as she awaits "her Johnny's coming / Home from sea" (82). This adult consciousness of time also informs the triplet of poems celebrating the cultural rituals used to punctuate the natural rhythms of life. Ringing changes on the traditional nursery-rhyme refrain, "ding dong bell," the tolling bells of "Ding a Ding," like those of "Sing Me a Song," remind the reader of time's passage and life's fruition. In "Ding a Ding," Rossetti again employs paired stanzas to contrast joy and sorrow, but here she balances a wedding against a funeral. The next poem dramatizes the substance of the first stanza of "Ding a Ding" :
A ring upon her finger,
Walks the bride,
With the bridegroom tall and handsome
At her side.
Less obviously but no less surely Rossetti takes up the burden of the second stanza of "Ding a Ding" in the poem that follows "A Ring upon Her Finger." In spite of the cheerfulness of "Ferry Me across the Water, Do, Boatman, Do" (91), the image of paid passage across the water suggests for the adult reader, if not the child, Charon's duties on the Styx—a subject that the poet had addressed just as whimsically, if more pointedly, in "Charon," published posthumously in New Poems (1896).
In keeping with the progressive arrangement of the volume, this triplet of lyrics on weddings and funerals ushers in a series that features childish wives and husbands. Cora Kaplan, speaking of the poet's reliance on synecdoche and metonymy, asserts that her verses generally "attempt to escape immediate or specific social determination" (61). Rossetti's grown-up singsongs, however, conduct an interrogation of the way marriage, the most intimate of cultural institutions, affects gender. The tensions consequent upon her mediation of patriarchal constructions of femininity are further complicated by her personal ambivalence on the subject of woman's position. Curiously, even though her own desire "to attain to the character of a humble orthodox Xtian" made it impossible for her to "aim at 'women's rights'" (Bell 111-12), her respect for motherhood compelled her to argue in favor of married women's suffrage. As she wrote to Augusta Webster, "If anything ever does sweep away the barrier of sex, and make the female not a giantess or a heroine but at once and full grown a hero and giant, it is that mighty maternal love which makes little birds and little beasts as well as little women matches for very big adversaries" (Bell 112). The heroic stature that Rossetti granted to mothers may account for the pathos of the shortest of the rhymes in Sing-Song: "Motherless baby and babyless mother, / Bring them together to love one another" (125). Her conservatism notwithstanding, she did not see maternity as the exclusive province of the married woman. In this respect, the couplet anticipates her later effort to claim the gratifications of motherhood for the single woman. "The childless who make themselves nursing mothers of Christ's little ones are," she observes in The Face of the Deep, "true mothers in Israel" (312).
Convinced that motherhood enlarged womanhood, Rossetti also believed that wifehood involved some diminishment. Because of the nature of Eve's "sen-tence," the "satisfaction" of woman's desire in marriage "must depend not on herself but on one stronger than she, who might grant or might deny" (Face of the Deep 312). Accordingly, when she treats feminine desire and dependence in her marital singsongs, dissatisfaction rivals satisfaction as her theme. Although the actors in these diminutive lyrics are themselves wee and little, Rossetti provides acute insight into larger issues relating to the generational and sexual dynamics of the family. "I Have a Little Husband" (104), for instance, poignantly renders a wife's emotional dependence. Restricted to the sphere of home and hearth, she must, like the adult Minnie, await her roving husband's return for the fulfillment of her desire. On the other hand, "Wee Wee Husband" (103) represents women's economic dependence in light of a two-stanza debate between husband and wife. The accompanying illustration of Punch and Judy actuates the element of conflict latent in the poem. Recapitulating the end-rhymes of "Wee Wee Husband," "What Does the Bee Do?" again dramatizes the domestic economy of marriage: husbands and fathers "bring home money," wives and mothers "lay out the money," and babies "eat up the honey" (108). Astonishing in its restrained simplicity, the poem aligns women and children as consumers of wealth against men (and bees) as producers of wealth. Such shrewd perceptions were not lost on contemporary reviewers. Citing "If I Were a Queen" (33), situated earlier in the sequence, one reader observes that it contains "perhaps a bit of satire … and a wise word on woman's wrongs" (review of Sing-Song, Scribner's Monthly 629). Another notes that this lyric possesses "a touch of hidden wisdom which the babies will find when they come to talk over the woman's-rights question" (review of Sing-Song, Nation 295). Because the innocuous impersonality of nursery rhyme encouraged Rossetti to engage the cultural determinants of behavior and belief rather more directly than she was otherwise wont, her juvenile lyrics on adult relationships are especially susceptible to ironic reading.
Among the lyrics on domestic relationships, Rossetti includes a few on old women and several on dolls that also address nineteenth-century constructions of femininity. Honored with gifts of food, "the dear old lady in the lane" (105) and Grandmamma in "A Peach for Brothers, One for Each" (115) command the lyric speaker's admiration. By contrast, the speakers of the doll poems barely repress their resentment of girlhood. In "I Have a Poll Parrot" (109) and "All the Bells Were Ringing" (102), torn and broken dolls may signal the necessary growth of the individual beyond childish toys. But although Molly in "All the Bells Were Ringing" mourns the loss of her plaything, the speaker's attitude communicates hostility rather than nostalgia. Anticipating Aunt's asperity in Speaking Likenesses, these poems register Rossetti's resistance to the ideology of feminine dependence insofar as it relegates women to what the social historian Carol Dyhouse calls "a permanently 'adolescent' state" (118).
"I Caught a Little Ladybird" (101) not only clarifies this resistance but illuminates the positioning of the doll poems among those on marriage. A conventional emblem of girlhood, the doll becomes a displaced metonym for Victorian womanhood in the course of the lyric.
I caught a little ladybird
That flies far away;
I caught a little lady wife
That is both staid and gay.
Come back, my scarlet ladybird,
Back from far away;
I weary of my dolly wife,
My wife that cannot play.
She's such a senseless wooden thing
She stares the livelong day;
Her wig of gold is stiff and cold
And cannot change to grey.
[Complete Poems 2:44]
Added in the 1893 edition, the last two stanzas bespeak the continuing care that Rossetti lavished on her nursery rhymes to elucidate her meaning and refine the structural integrity of the poetic sequence. Her additions to "I Caught a Little Ladybird" move the poem from a charming reprise of a traditional nursery rhyme ("Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly Away Home") toward a species of cultural criticism, for in her reflection on the dolly wife, she comments ironically on Victorian women's consignment to perpetual childhood. More sardonic than "If I Were a Queen," the revised "I Caught a Little Ladybird" is likewise a women's rights poem. Its speaker prefers the freedom of the ladybird, who travels afar like the sailor in "I Have a Little Husband," to the insensibility of the dolly wife, who, moreover, lacks not only vitality but consciousness. Endorsing the lively play of thought and action above physical prettiness, Rossetti captures the doll's deficiencies in the stare that paradoxically persists through the livelong day and in the artificial wig of gold that cannot change to grey. Conveying the hint of a sneer in the sibilance of the ninth and tenth lines, she subverts a feminine ideal that militates against change and growth.
Having followed the child from infancy to maturity, Rossetti implies generative and cyclical renewal by again featuring babies in her final lyrics. Having also taken the reader from dawn to dusk, she closes the cycle with several poems on the moon, the archetype of change. Amid these nighttime lyrics, however, she also includes one on daytime. In one of the recursive moments in the book, this reflection on what the sun, apparently omniscient, might tell of joy and sorrow allows the poet to begin her final recapitulations and bring her readers to an enlarged awareness.
If the sun could tell us half
That he hears and sees,
Sometimes he would make us laugh,
Sometimes he would make us cry:
Think of all the birds that make
Homes among the trees;
Think of cruel boys who take
Birds that cannot fly.
The last four lines balance the first four lines and restate the double play between what is heard and what is seen and between what provokes laughter and what provokes tears, while the rhymes of the second and sixth lines and the fourth and final lines formally bind the two parts of the poem. The lyric is one of a pair, for Rossetti speculates in the next lyric, "If the Moon Came from Heaven" (122), about what the moon might impart. She encourages readers to think twice in "If the Sun Could Tell Us Half," but she now says wonderingly, "Only think." Because the moon "peep[s] by night / And do[es] not peep by day," her tale is necessarily not just conjectural but partial. On second thought, the sun, which Rossetti figures as the moon's masculine complement, can also tell only half a tale even if he tells all he knows. What is important, however, is not what the sun or moon might know but what the reader might think. Inasmuch as "If the Moon Came from Heaven" completes "If the Sun Could Tell Us Half," meaning resides in the reader's capacity to comprehend the sequential relation between the two poems and to reconcile into inclusive wholeness the antithetical positions represented by such pairs as day and night, joy and sorrow.
At the end of Sing-Song, Rossetti seeks to bring the reader round in time and in comprehension. Ever sensitive to the poet's design, Hughes takes up the idea of the temporal cycle in his illustrations, several of which include circles. In "If the Sun Could Tell Us Half," the circle of the sun reigns in the background of the illustration; in "If Stars Dropped Out of Heaven" (119), the darkened face of the earth encompasses the haloed angel; in "Is the Moon Tired? She Looks So Pale" (118), the crescent moon appears; and in "If the Moon Came from Heaven" and "O Lady Moon, Your Horns Point toward the East" (123), the moon wanes further. For the triplet of lyrics beginning with "Motherless Baby and Babyless Mother," Hughes again incorporates circles in his designs: in the first, a Celtic cross is in the background, and mother and child unite over the grave in the foreground (125); in the second, a full circle encloses a child beside its mother's bed (126); and in the last of the poems on death, a half circle frames the child who clasps "a snowdrop in her hand" (127). Harking back to the many poems of untimely loss at the beginning of the volume, lyrics such as "Motherless Baby and Babyless Mother" attempt to restore a harmony disrupted as early as "My Baby Has a Father and a Mother" (3) and "Our Little Baby Fell Asleep" (4). The latter precisely balances "Baby Lies So Fast Asleep," fourth from the end of the sequence. Because sleep stands euphemistically for death here, both of these lyrics conflate separate temporal movements in the sequence and afford further insight into Rossetti's sense of a cosmic moral order. As Roderick McGillis states, she "presents death as a positive aspect of life … by identifying death as one point in a larger pattern" (222) and as "an imaginative idea" (223). Death is not conclusion but part of a continuum; it is a rest and a beginning, a passage into new life.
At the juncture of carnal and spiritual existence, death and birth—apparent antonyms—are in fact synonyms. Although parts of Sing-Song seem morbid because they remind readers of the fragility of temporal existence, the volume as a whole offers the solace and reassurance of providential design. To the extent that Rossetti's design in Sing-Song seeks to capture this greater design, the volume exceeds the mathematical precision of 120 lyrics. Nevertheless, the poet provides a fitting end to the child's day in the two concluding lullabies. Of these, the last contains the fewest words and the tautest rhymes, moving through a kind of linguistic minimalism to the silence of closure. Notwithstanding this gesture to finality, "Lie A-Bed" (130) also challenges the ability to define an end, for it looks forward "till daybreak," or the beginning of Sing-Song. And because Rossetti has so recently called attention to sleep as both temporal and eternal rest, the final lines, "Never wake:—/ Baby, sleep," also resist single-minded approaches to closure. Meaning, like life, inheres in a generative rather than a conclusive order.
Once all is said in Sing-Song, Rossetti has proceeded through one diurnal cycle, one annual cycle, and one life cycle, establishing thereby a syntax that governs her development of reiterated motifs. Within each of the successive movements, scattered poems on birds and beasts, flora and fauna, wind and weather, provide thematic emblems. Although these repeated motifs contribute to the unity of the sequence, the meaning that Rossetti attaches to a particular image changes from rhyme to rhyme. Indeed, the multivalent associations mobilized and remobilized in such intertextual play might well suggest, as Steven Connor argues, that Rossetti treats "language as a game—an essentially closed, self-sustaining activity" and that nursery rhymes permit her "to indulge the expressivity of a language emptied of content" (440). By reinvoking motifs, she seems, however, not to divest language of content but to demonstrate how context invests language with meaning. By recontextualizing motifs, she explores the connotative possibilities of language and so challenges, albeit playfully, the intellectual and imaginative resources of her readers.
Rossetti's floral catalogs provide a prime example of the way the sequential placement of repeated motifs affects their meaning. Early in the volume "Hope Is Like a Harebell Trembling from Its Birth" represents the first of several floral poems. In looking forward to the treatment of the rose toward the center of the volume, this lyric is anticipatory, like springtime. Although "Harebells and sweet lilies show a thornless growth," still, "the rose with all its thorns excels them both" (17). But because the rose is less suitable as an emblem for childhood than the primroses that Minnie and Mattie and fat little May gather, it is rarely mentioned in the other spring lyrics. Once the volume moves toward high summer and toward adulthood, however, Rossetti makes it an emblem for feminine desirability. Personifying the rose as female, she privileges it within her floral catalogs. Even as the sequence passes into its autumnal phase, the rose who "tips her bending briar, / And half unfolds her glowing heart" remains the "lady of all beauty" (99). The thorny rose eclipses not only the apple tree and the corn but the lily as well.
The lily has a smooth stalk,
Will never hurt your hand;
But the rose upon her briar
Is lady of the land.
Later lyrics reverse the hierarchical relation established in the floral poems.
Omitting such qualifying conjunctions as but (17, 99) or yet (74), used in earlier inventories, the poet implies the superiority of the lily over the rose by giving it the position of final emphasis in one rhyme late in the sequence.
The rose that blushes rosy red,
She must hang her head;
The lily that blows spotless white,
She may stand upright.
Full-blown rather than half-blown, the rose cedes to the upright and spotless white lily. Uninterested in budding or blossoming womanhood at this point in the volume, Rossetti now refrains from giving priority to the rose's beauty. Later still, the feminine rose is wholly repudiated: "A rose has thorns as well as honey, / I'll not have her for love or money" (116). Recalling "Wee Wee Husband" and "What Does the Bee Do?" the end-rhymes "honey" and "money" infect the rose with the taint of sexual and commercial exchange. The speaker instead responds to the needs of the approaching winter, choosing "holly, bold and jolly, / Honest, prickly, shining holly" (117).
As the floral poems suggest, Rossetti is far from capricious in the different meanings that she ascribes to her favorite images. Examining the significance of a specific image within the context of a specific moment, she explores the subtleties of poetic form and language and the semantic resonance of rhyme and rhythm, silence and sound, apposition and repetition. Similarly, her translations, additions, and revisions, like Hughes's illustrations, attest to the inexhaustible vitality of the poetic processes chronicled in Sing-Song. Because the accumulative on-come of successive rhymes posits a dialectic (as in "Sing Me a Song" ) between the discursive modes of song and tale, lyric and narrative, the progressive arrangement of Sing-Song provides a fertile matrix for readers, whatever their ages, to participate in these perpetually generative and abundantly worthwhile processes.
In respect to theme, form, and structure, Sing-Song does not differ substantially from Rossetti's verse for adults. Such adult pieces as "Winter Rain," "Winter: My Secret," "Another Spring," "Spring Quiet," "Spring," "A Summer Wish," "Summer," "Autumn," and "Autumn Violets" manifest the same preoccupation with temporal change. For her very slight singsongs, Rossetti does not neglect her craft but pares away all linguistic excrescence and works within the narrowest and most impersonal of lyric forms to distill a fullness of meaning. Like her nursery rhymes, the many poems simply entitled "Song" in Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) and The Prince's Progress and Other Poems exhibit a technical range and dexterity, a suggestiveness of thought and feeling, belied by their physical smallness and verbal economy. Nursery rhyme as a genre thus provided the poet, already adept at polishing simplicity into subtlety, with a discipline to which she was accustomed. So although Sing-Song deliberately calls attention to its status as children's literature through allusions to "Hop-o'-my-thumb and little Jack Horner" (16) and adaptations of nursery rhyme refrains like "cock-a-doodle-doo" ("kookoorookoo") and "ding dong bell" ("ding a ding"), the poet carefully reworks her material in the composition of lyrics individually and collectively.
Notwithstanding the modesty of its claims as a nursery rhyme book, Sing-Song reveals the same self-conscious architectural refinement evident in Rossetti's volumes of adult verse. In fact, it anticipates the sequential movement of A Pageant and Other Poems (1881), which Rosenblum identifies as "a pivotal work" (149) in Rossetti's oeuvre. Beginning with two keynote poems, Pageant then proceeds through "The Months: A Pageant," a "drawing-room acting piece" written for the family of "one of the All Saints Sisters" (C. Rossetti, Family Letters 96). Using the calendar to place temporal experience within a ritualized form and order, the title poem reenacts the movement from winter through autumn dramatized in Sing-Song and anticipates the movement from early to later life in Pageant as a whole. The second movement in the volume includes several important sonnet sequences—namely, "Monna Innominata," "The Thread of Life" and "Later Life" —that Rossetti hoped would "claim attention" from mature readers (Family Letters 94). Insofar as "The Months" precedes a pageant of verse for adults, the 1881 volume reinscribes the sequence chronicled in Sing-Song as a generic, as well as a temporal, phenomenon and shows that the connection between Rossetti's verse for children and adults is fluid and processive. What Rosenblum says of her religious and secular poetry applies equally, therefore, to her work for children and adults: these two "canons" of verse possess an essential "sameness" in the approach taken to language and life (155).11 But Rossetti's poetry, for all its sameness, reveals a startling expressive versatility and experiential intensity.
Childless, Christina Rossetti dedicated her rhymes "without permission to the baby who suggested them" (Sing-Song, v)—Charles Cayley's nephew—and rejoiced later when her brother William's children were "imbued with Sing-Songs" (Family Letters 74). Although she thought herself "to be deficient in the nice motherly ways which win and ought to win a child's heart" (75), she imbued Sing-Song with the necessary poetic feeling to win not just children but adults. Indeed, because Sing-Song alternates, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti observes, "between the merest babyism and a sort of Blakish wisdom and tenderness" (2:797), the volume positions itself between two audiences. Although its semichildishness is certainly not unadapted for the innocent listener, its semisuggestiveness should commend itself to the notice of experienced readers. In Sing-Song, as in Rossetti's other volumes of verse, the poet's imposition of order on individual lyrics enhances their formal and thematic suggestiveness and contributes to the structural integrity of the collected works. Adapting her characteristic concerns to the technical constraints of nursery rhyme, she exploits the vigor and flexibility of a genre so familiar as to breed critical neglect, if not contempt. The product of animated wit and seasoned wisdom, Sing-Song demonstrates Rossetti's resilience as a poet. It belies, moreover, its own artless simplicity and contains many fine lyrics not unadapted for mature reflection.
1. In "Christina Rossetti and Poetic Sequence," Rosenblum follows the lead established by David A. Kent in two essays on the structural significance of Verses. In "W. M. Rossetti and the Editing of Christina Rossetti's Religious Poetry," Kent argues that Rossetti's brother's rearrangement of Verses in The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti is responsible for its "reputation as a loose compilation devoid of significant structural meaning—the product, in short, of 'slavish copying' and no more" (21). In "Sequence and Meaning in Christina Rossetti's Verses (1893)," he demonstrates that the meaning of the volume as "spiritual pilgrimage" (261) inheres in the sequential order that Rossetti imposed on disparate poems collected from her devotional prose works.
2. Rosenblum calls A Pageant and Other Poems (1881) "Rossetti's third volume of new poems" (146).
3. With "some regret" (C. Rossetti, Poetical Works 489), William Rossetti refrained from dismembering the sequence and dispersing individual nursery rhymes among his sister's mature verse. Because, as Kent demonstrates, William had no such scruple with respect to Verses or indeed any of her other volumes, he must have appreciated the structural integrity of Sing-Song.
4. In "Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song and Nineteenth-Century Children's Poetry," Barbara Garlitz's failure to consider the relevance of arrangement to meaning could lead to misperception. For her, Rossetti "too often used stock themes, though, of course, her superior style, taste, and judgment greatly improved them" (542). But in overlooking the originality of Sing-Song as a cohesive sequence, Garlitz does not sufficiently distinguish the volume from the popular anthologies that she uses for comparison. Furthermore, her contention that "the nature poems have no moral" (539) holds only insofar as they do not function as moral exempla; the poems are shaped by the morality informing the volume. Finally, although she rightly points out the moral and sentimental components of Sing-Song, Garlitz does not adequately treat its inherent playfulness and so loses the balance that Rossetti so carefully constructs.
5. Rossetti's addition of five more lyrics to the 1893 edition does not substantially alter the dynamic. She did, however, expand many lyrics. She supplemented "I Have a Little Husband" and "The Dear Old Lady in the Lane" each with an extra stanza, for example. These additions clarify the narrative dimensions of the original lyrics.
6. Unless otherwise noted, all citations to Sing-Song refer to the pagination of the Dover edition, a faithful and full republication of the volume as it first appeared in 1872.
7. William repeats her self-estimate in his "Memoir" for The Poetical Works: "Her habits of composition were entirely of the casual and spontaneous kind, from her earliest to her latest years" (lxviii). Inspiration "came to her (I take it) very easily, without her meditating a possible subject, and without her making any great difference in the first from the latest form of the verses which embodied it; but some difference, with a view to right and fine detail of execution, she did of course make when needful" (lxviii-lxix). But as Antony Harrison points out in the first chapter of Christina Rossetti in Context, she submitted her work to intensive revision. Like the revisions to "Maude Clare," "Song" and "The Bourne," which Harrison discusses (4-10), Rossetti's translation of the Sing-Song lyrics into Italian and her comments on the difficulties encountered in the process provide insight into her habits of composition. For Ninna-Nanna, she sought the help of "a better Italian" (Family Letters 77)—her cousin Teodorico Pietrocola-Rossetti. Appreciating his assistance, she nevertheless preferred her "own in case their Italian could pass muster,—and very likely it could not, which would make all the difference" (78).
8. Commenting on this passage from Time Flies, Steven Connor says that Rossetti "is remarkably dogmatic in her devotional works about such frivolity in language" (441). But as the following pun on branded suggests, she was not so dogmatic as to refrain from wordplay even while stating her reservations about it: "This connexion of fire with St. Blaise is not, it seems, accounted for: the fact however remains certain. A pun on his name of 'Blaise' has been suggested as the connecting link, but only to be branded as 'absurd' by at least one author of repute. Yet let us hope that this particular pun if baseless is also blameless" (Time Flies 26).
9. Colvin's comments on the adult reader complement Knoepflmacher's reflections on the adult writer in "Balancing of Child and Adult." Concentrating on the work of Margaret Gatty, Carroll, and Kipling, Knoepflmacher demonstrates that Victorian fantasists' conscious awareness of two classes of readers inspired them to exploit an ironic complexity inherent in "the simultaneous yet opposing demands of growth and arrest" (497).
10. The illustrations for Sing-Song caused Rossetti much consternation and delayed publication. Originally she approached her publisher, then F. S. Ellis, with a manuscript she had illustrated herself. At her later request, Alice Boyd was commissioned to execute the illustrations. The result was less than happy. However, Ellis's hesitation to publish Sing-Song after the lukewarm critical reception given to Commonplace, a volume of prose tales, provided Rossetti with a welcome way of avoiding offense to Boyd. Only after she had received her release from Ellis and turned to the publisher George Routledge and Sons did Hughes become her illustrator.
11. This sameness is most evident in "Goblin Market" precisely because it confounds generic distinctions. Although Rossetti did not write "Goblin Market" for children, the end of the poem constructs the experience of the poem as a tale about childhood told to children, for Laura—the sister who falls prey to goblin temptations—"call[s] the little ones / And tell[s] them of her early prime, / Those pleasant days long gone / Of not-returning time" (Complete Poems 1:25, ll. 548-51).
Bell, Mackenzie. Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study. 1898. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1971.
Colvin, Sidney. Review of Sing-Song, by Christina G. Rossetti; The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald; Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll; More Nonsense, by Edward Lear. Academy 3 (15 January 1872): 23-24.
Connor, Steven. "'Speaking Likenesses': Language and Repetition in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry 22.4 (Winter 1984): 439-48.
Dyhouse, Carol. Girls Growing up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Garlitz, Barbara. "Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song and Nineteenth-Century Children's Poetry." PMLA 70 (1955): 539-43.
Harrison, Antony H. Christina Rossetti in Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Kaplan, Cora. "The Indefinite Disclosed: Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson." In Women Writing and Writing about Women, ed. Mary Jacobus. London: Croom Helm, 1979.
Kent, David A. "Sequence and Meaning in Christina Rossetti's Verses (1893)." Victorian Poetry 17.3 (Autumn 1979): 259-64.
―――――――. "W. M. Rossetti and the Editing of Christina Rossetti's Religious Poetry." Pre-Raphaelite Review 1 (May 1978): 18-26.
Knoepflmacher, U. C. "Avenging Alice: Christina Rossetti and Lewis Carroll." Nineteenth-Century Literature 41.3 (December 1986): 299-328.
―――――――. "The Balancing of Child and Adult: An Approach to Victorian Fantasies for Children." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37.4 (March 1983): 497-530.
McGillis, Roderick. "Simple Surfaces: Christina Rossetti's Work for Children." In The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, ed. David A. Kent. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987. 208-30.
Rosenblum, Dolores. "Christina Rossetti and Poetic Sequence." In The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, ed. David A. Kent. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987. 132-56.
Rossetti, Christina. The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti. Ed. R. W. Crump. 3 vols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979–90.
―――――――. The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse. 4th ed. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1902.
―――――――. The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. 1908. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1968.
―――――――. The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. London: Macmillan, 1904.
―――――――. Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book. Illus. Arthur Hughes. 1872. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1968.
―――――――. Speaking Likenesses. London: Macmillan, 1874.
―――――――. Time Flies: A Reading Diary. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1885.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.
Rossetti, William Michael, ed. Rossetti Papers, 1862 to 1870. London: Sands, 1903.
―――――――. Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti. Ed. Roger W. Peattie. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.
Ruskin, John. The Works of John Ruskin. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903–12.
Review of Sing-Song, by Christina G. Rossetti. Nation 14 (2 May 1872): 294-95.
Review of Sing-Song, by Christina G. Rossetti. Scribner's Monthly 3 (1872): 629.
Taylor, R. Loring. Preface to the Garland edition of Sing-Song, Speaking Likenesses, Goblin Market. New York: Garland, 1976.
Joel Westerholm (essay date spring 1999)
SOURCE: Westerholm, Joel. "In Defense of Verses: The Aesthetic and Reputation of Christina Rossetti's Late Poetry." Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 51, no. 3 (spring 1999): 191-203.
[In the following essay, Westerholm presents a critical re-examination of Rossetti's final poetry collection, Verses, asserting that, "[t]he history of the reception of the poetry of Christina Rossetti may constitute the archetypal example of the critical neglect of mature women's devotional poetry."]
A gem of an untitled sonnet opens Christina Rossetti's last volume of poems, Verses.
Alone Lord God, in Whom our trust and peace,
Our love and our desire, glow bright with hope;
Lift us above this transitory scope
Of earth, these pleasures that begin and cease,
This moon which wanes, these seasons which decrease:
We turn to Thee; as on an eastern slope
Wheat feels the dawn beneath night's lingering cope,
Bending and stretching sunward ere it sees.
Alone Lord God, we see not yet we know;
By love we dwell with patience and desire,
And loving so and so desiring pray;
Thy will be done in earth as heaven today;
As yesterday it was, tomorrow so;
Love offering love on love's self-feeding fire.
The poem is replete with poetic virtues. For example, two moments of aporia enrich the poem immensely. First, the ambiguous opening address initially leaves one wondering whether a comma is missing, and "alone" describes the speaker, since God is certainly not alone. We quickly discover that she makes the claim of the first command of the Decalogue, that God is God alone not because He is without company, but because He is the only divine one, in His nature unique. God's unique eternality makes all our trust, peace, love, and desire glow bright with hope, in contrast with the transitory scope of earth, which disappoints our hope. The moment of aporia, however, is not canceled by its resolution, for the suggestion that the speaker is alone is implicit in her finding the comforts of earth inadequate.
Second, the double reading of the phrase "we see not yet we know" is not canceled when the ambiguity is. The intertextual nature of the phrase, echoing Jesus' words to Thomas, "Blessed are they that have not yet seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29), suggests that the putative "we" of the poem are among the blessed. But the suggestion that "we see not yet" is reinforced in the image of the wheat heliotropically seeking the sun before it rises: the wheat certainly will see the sun towards which it bends. The simile is powerfully suggestive: as the opening of the sestet makes explicit, disappointed by the transitory pleasures of the life we know, we turn to Him whom we cannot yet see, but whom we know to be eternal.
In the phrase "these pleasures that begin and cease," the ear intertextually attuned might note how Rossetti's pleasures abbreviate the cycle of the "grating roar" of pebbles on Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," which "Begin, and cease, and then again begin." Rossetti believes that earthly pleasures do not begin again, that as part of earth's "transitory scope," they cease without reaching fruition: the moon wanes without waxing; the seasons decrease without growing full.
I want to argue that the neglect of this sonnet and the rest of Verses is symptomatic of the neglect of much, perhaps even most, nineteenth-century women's poetry. In reviving these women's works, gynocritics have focussed our attention on poems dealing with sexual power relationships and vocation, but they have consequently neglected the poets' mature work. The poet of either sex who after a certain age continues to write about romantic love found and lost strikes us as an arrested adolescent. Nor need the published writer of multiple volumes of poems worry over issues of vocation. Mature women poets have usually turned to devotional verse: Dora Greenwell, Adelaide Procter, Alice Meynell, and the two women who wrote under the pen name "Michael Field" all increasingly turned to religious subjects as they got older. These works have been underrepresented in anthologies and neglected by critics.
The history of the reception of the poetry of Christina Rossetti may constitute the archetypal example of the critical neglect of mature women's devotional poetry. Dolores Rosenblum explains:
As a middle-aged poet [Rossetti] could not appropriately go on writing about youthful themes: early death, disappointment in love, or the kind of florid renunciation that characterizes "The convent threshold" (I, 61-65), for instance…. [S]he would go on to write prolifically in the mode she had already established in the religious verse she wrote and published in the sixties: the lyrics in which she decries the world's vanities and dramatizes an intimate relation with God.
Rossetti's final volume of poetry, Verses, was her best-selling volume when it first came out: my edition declares itself part of the fifteenth thousand, in its fourth year of publication. But in this century the poems have nearly disappeared. The two recent anthologies of Victorian women's poetry (see Breen; Leighton) and two paperback editions of her poems include nothing from Verses. Jan Marsh's Everyman edition is a notable, though limited, exception: she includes twelve pages of meritorious examples.
Nor have the critics been much more attentive. In the landmark volume edited by David Kent, The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, Rosenblum discusses the sequencing of Verses in four fine pages, concluding that the book exemplified "the Chinese box of Rossetti's religious verse" (155). But no critic since has given the book more than a passing reference. Even a collection of essays on her work, the special issue of Victorian Poetry edited by Antony Harrison, included nothing on her last and longest volume of poetry.
And that is a pity, for the older Christina Rossetti remains an interesting writer and person. I have written elsewhere of the respect that I believe her religious prose merits. But we know from her letters, too, that she was a lively, amusing thinker. She no longer looked like Mary at the annunciation, having suffered the effects of Graves' disease. But she appears not to have been too disturbed: she did, after all, use as a carte de visite a photograph of herself that she called "The Idiot." And in her maturity she frequently joked about her looks. She wrote to Dante: "If only my figure would shrink somewhat! For a fat poetess is incongruous especially when seated by the grave of buried hope" ([The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti ] 95).1
The poems, however, have a different, and not at all modern, aesthetic. G. B. Tennyson claims that "one could illustrate almost every Tractarian topic and interest … with poems from the pen of Christina Rossetti" except for doctrinally polemic poems and hymns (201). I shall qualify his points somewhat, but his point remains true: Rossetti's aesthetic is bound up with her theological convictions, and as such, it differs substantially from that of most modern readers. My discussion of her aesthetic practices seeks to complicate what has been said of her relationship with Tractarian poetics: she certainly adopted the Tractarian use of Romanticism, creating analogies to natural phenomena from which she drew moral lessons. But she rejected Tractarian reserve: First, while reserve enabled the Tractarians to avoid the sentimentality of which too much devotional poetry was guilty, it failed utterly in communicating any passion involved in religious experience. Second, while the Tractarians sought to reserve certain information from the uninitiated, Rossetti sought to make all she knew clear and plain, writing in simple language and explaining her metaphysical paradoxes.
Discussion of Rossetti's devotional poems has centered around the Tractarianism Tennyson identified as an essential context of Rossetti's poetry. Katherine Mayberry discusses how the Tractarian approach to nature was Rossetti's, as well: "The practice of searching for God's truth in His carefully laid-out universe, of finding meaning in material reality and moral lessons in all experience, was, for the Tractarians and Christina Rossetti, both a religious and a poetic activity" (113). Rossetti's metaphors drawn from nature do more than illustrate; they often are extended into the poetic form itself in demonstrating the spiritual truth she draws from physical reality. For example, in a short, untitled poem, Rossetti uses a series of circular images and repeated words and phrases to suggest how all human goodness derives from God and returns to Him:
Lord, we are rivers running to Thy sea,
Our waves and ripples all derived from Thee:
A nothing we should have, a nothing be,
Except for Thee.
Sweet are the waters of Thy shoreless sea,
Make sweet our waters that make haste to Thee;
Pour in Thy sweetness, that ourselves may be
Sweetness to Thee.
Rossetti's reusing the rhyme words from stanza to stanza reminds God that what she offers in this prayer is what God has given her.
Similarly, in "Where neither rust nor moth doth corrupt," the poem concludes with a comparison between the lifestyles of two birds, requesting that she be more like the swallow than the sparrow:
Nerve us with patience, Lord, to toil or rest,
Toiling at rest on our allotted level;
Unsnared, unscared by world or flesh or devil,
Fulfilling the good Will of Thy behest:
Not careful here to hoard, not here to revel;
But waiting for our treasure and our zest
Beyond the fading splendour of the west,
Beyond this deathstruck life and deathlier evil.
Not with the sparrow building here a house:
But with the swallow tabernacling so
As still to poise alert to rise and go
On eager wings with wing-outspeeding wills
Beyond earth's gourds and past her almond boughs,
Past utmost bound of the everlasting hills.
The eleventh line magnificently balances on the fulcrum of "alert," with the first half imaging stasis, in the Keatsian double-entendre "still," as preparation for flight. She learns, analogically, that she should be like the swallow, unbound by what she has so that she is ready to migrate, not to the south, but to a world beyond "this deathstruck life and deathlier evil." On this point Rossetti's, and the Tractarians', aesthetic is not modern. Nature may offer symbols, but not moral lessons: Seamus Heaney's skunk is not a sign of God's truth. Analogy is too close to Victorian natural theology. We anthologize In Memoriam and "Dover Beach," which deny the goodness of nature.
But if we grant such analogies legitimacy, Rossetti does them much better than did the Tractarians. John Keble writes in The Christian Year that the "rustling breeze" and "tiny leaf" join with "fragrant clouds of dewy steam"—"dewy steam"?—to "Pay … Their tribute to the genial heaven" (3). Even G. B. Tennyson is ready to concede, "Stylistically, Christina Rossetti is a far finer poet than her Tractarian predecessors" (202).2
However, Rossetti also differs substantially from the Tractarians. Mayberry believes that Rossetti differs in quality, not kind: she is simply the better poet. "To compare her poetry with that of [Isaac] Williams, who is probably the best of the acknowledged Tractarian poets, is to realize that Rossetti was as much a leader as she was a representative" (129). But Linda Schofield declares that Rossetti and the Tractarians had "fundamental differences in attitude and technique" (301). Schofield is right. The Tractarian doctrine of reserve involved two distinct, though not incompatible, concepts. Rossetti's aesthetic differs from both.
First, Tractarian reserve taught these poets to reserve their emotions from view. Isaac Williams says poetry comes from
that reserve or retiring delicacy, which exists naturally in a good man, unless injured by external motives, and which is of course the teaching of God through him. Something of this kind always accompanies all strong and deep feeling, so much so that indications of it have been considered the characteristic of genuine poetry, as distinguishing it from that which is only fictitious of poetic feeling.
(qtd. in Tennyson 47)
Williams believes, then, that God has taught the Tractarians (good men all, no doubt) to display retiring delicacy in their poems, for "all strong and deep feelings" are "always accompanie[d]" by reticence.
The contortions that result from the Tractarian attempt at emotional reserve can be aesthetically disastrous. When, in the midst of his meditation on the passion in the poem for Good Friday in The Christian Year, John Keble asks God, "Wash me, and dry these bitter tears," the tears seem unmotivated: he has already pointed out that the true pathos of the scene is so distant in time as to be "long-forgotten," and though "in all lowly hearts He suffers still," "we triumphant ride and have the world at will." Only belief in the impropriety of crying would make drying tears necessary. In numerous places Rossetti's speaker pleads for tears—in Verses, for instance, in "Cried out with Tears" the speaker worries, "Ah me! my penitence a fresh offence,/Too tardy and too tepid and too brief", a line notable for its apt break in alliteration. She recognizes the value of powerful emotion, and fears to have too little.
Williams' description of reserve brings us to the long-running debate on sentimentality in literature written by women. Powerful religious emotion can seem insincere, and women poets are particularly susceptible to the charge. Even modern critics sympathetic to Rossetti's Christianity, like Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Lord David Cecil, have found the emotion of devotional poetry problematic, tending to express what one ought to feel more than what one does feel. Cecil explained: "A writer's best poetry is usually the expression of his keenest feeling. And though many people have caught a passing whiff of pious emotion, only a few have felt it with the strength and the continuity that they feel sexual love or pleasure in nature" (Gardner 126). Helen Gardner responds: "History records countless persons who have died for their religion; martyrs of love, though more popular as subjects for drama and fiction, are less common in life" (127).
Christina Rossetti's late religious verse successfully treads the fine line between the anemic verse of the Tractarians and the sentimentality of Mary Howitt and Adelaide Procter. The powerful emotions she displays in the poems are always under artistic control, especially in her highly structured generic forms. Rossetti's two most used genres in Verses are two of the most tightly structured forms in poetry, the sonnet and the rondel. The sonnets from Verses described above demonstrate that Rossetti expressed emotions powerfully within even the more demanding Petrarchan form. Even more impressively, Rossetti repeatedly uses the rondel, a form generally restricted to light verse, to wondrous effect in Verses. In many of her rondels, the repetition of the first phrase in the fourth and eleventh lines has an incantatory power:
Grant us such grace that we may work Thy Will
And speak Thy words and walk before Thy Face,
Profound and calm, like waters deep and still:
Grant us such grace.
Not hastening and not loitering in our pace
For gloomiest valley or for sultriest hill,
Content and fearless on our downward race.
As rivers seek a sea they cannot fill
But are themselves filled full in its embrace,
Absorbed, at rest, each river and each rill:
Grant us such grace.
We should not, of course, be surprised that the poet who rhymed all twenty-six lines in the third of the "Old and New Year Ditties" could write a poem of eleven lines with only two rhymes. But the circular form of the poem is also expressed in the flawlessly extended metaphor of rivers running to the sea, where the water returns to its source. This poem's religious emotion is so artistically controlled by genre and metaphor that it never falls into sentimentality.
The greater problem for modern readers may be that the one emotion Rossetti allows full expression is guilt: Rossetti's most powerful poems are often racked with remorse in a way people tend to find morbid. Thus Virginia Woolf says, "if I were bringing a case against God [Christina Rossetti] is one of the first witnesses I should call" (1).3 Rossetti "as a reward for all her sacrifices," "died in terror, uncertain of salvation," says Woolf. Gilbert and Gubar claim that Rossetti lived "banqueting on bitterness,… bury[ing] herself alive in a coffin of renunciation" (575). And Kathleen Jones, in her recent biography of Christina Rossetti, tells us: "Christina's God … is a God of the Old Testament; terrible, yet loving" (166).4
That Rossetti felt guilt is certainly true, as does any Christian faced with the holiness of God in contrast with the sinfulness of the self.5 That such guilt was morbid, and caused her artistic life to be wasted, could only be established by analysis of her late poems, something none of the critics I have quoted do. Here is a poem expressing a powerful sense of guilt, carefully, artistically shaped into a Petrarchan sonnet:
O Lord, I am ashamed to seek Thy Face
As tho' I loved Thee as Thy saints love Thee:
Yet turn from those Thy lovers, look on me,
Disgrace me not with uttermost disgrace;
But pour on me ungracious, pour Thy grace
To purge my heart and bid my will go free,
Till I too taste Thy hidden Sweetness, see
Thy hidden Beauty in the holy place.
O Thou Who callest sinners to repent,
Call me Thy sinner unto penitence,
For many sins grant me the greater love:
Set me above the waterfloods, above
Devil and shifting world and fleshly sense,
Thy Mercy's all-amazing monument.
The early lines, in which she distinguishes between "Thy saints" and "Thy lovers" and herself, establish another wonderful moment of aporia in line ten, in which she initially appears to be arriving at a name for herself, "Thy sinner." Indeed, though she asks God to call her to penitence, changing her way of life and thus making the name inappropriate, the name would fit the pedestal of the monument she describes in the conclusion.
The poem speaks powerfully, but reading it is not a comfortable experience. In "The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently," Thomas Lux recently observed:
a voice is saying it
as you read. It's the writer's words,
of course, in a literary sense
his or her "voice" but the sound
of that voice is the sound of your voice.
Not the sound your friends know
or the sound of a tape played back
but your voice
caught in the dark cathedral
of your skull, your voice heard
by an internal ear informed by internal abstracts
and what you know by feeling,
Here, perhaps, is the key to the difficulty modern critics have with the power of the guilt and repentance Rossetti expresses. We are uncomfortable to hear ourselves speak in our most familiar voice such words of self-condemnation. That discomfort may be the best indication we could have that Rossetti has indeed written a great poem.
The second aspect of Tractarian Reserve also does not apply to Rossetti's devotional poetry. Catherine Cantalupo quotes from one of Rossetti's devotional works, Time Flies: "any literal revelation of heaven would appear to be over spiritual for us; we need something grosser, something more familiar and more within the range of our experience" (42). Cantalupo believes that Rossetti "tries, by simplicity and modest language, to make the essentially mysterious intelligible" (280). Making the mysterious intelligible is precisely what the Tractarian doctrine of Reserve was designed to prevent. As Tennyson phrases the doctrine:
it is both unnecessary and undesirable that God and religious truth generally should be disclosed in their fullness at once to all regardless of the differing capacities of individuals to apprehend such things.
… Both the sacredness and the complexity of the subject of religious truth are such that they require a holding back and a gradual revelation as the disposition and understanding of the recipient mature.
Had Rossetti believed that "God and religious truth" should not "be disclosed in their fullness at once to all," instead of suiting her explanations of heaven to her readers, she would have left them uncomprehending, for the knowledge would be unsuited to their grosser, less spiritual natures. Rossetti kept her religious language simple, believing that she ought to explain God so that anyone could understand. As she said in the preface to Called to be Saints, "I even think that a flower familiar to the eye and dear to the heart may often succeed in conveying a more pointed lesson than could be understood from another more remote if more eloquent" (xvii-xviii). Rossetti believed that biblical language represents a divine truth that homely and familiar words could make more understandable. Rossetti followed Herbert's instructions at the conclusion of "Jordan (II)": "There is in love a sweetness ready-penn'd. / Copy out only this, and save expense." She succeeded even more than did Herbert.
Consider, for instance, the poem titled, "I will come and heal him"; the title is from Matthew 8, in which Jesus heals a centurion's servant from a distance.
O Lord God, hear the silence of each soul,
Its cry unutterable of ruth and shame,
Its voicelessness of self-contempt and blame:
Nor suffer harp and palm and aureole
Of multitudes who praise Thee at the goal,
To set aside Thy poor and blind and lame;
Nor blazing Seraphs utterly to outflame
The spark that flies up from each coal.
My price Thy priceless Blood; and therefore I
Price of Thy priceless Blood am precious so
That good things love me in their love of Thee:
I comprehend not why Thou lovedst me
With Thy so mighty Love; but this I know,
No man hath greater love than thus to die.
The opening line, which calls on God to "hear the silence," metaphysical in its paradox, resolves as gracefully as anything in Donne and Herbert. Although souls are silenced by knowing that they do not deserve to be heard—their "self-contempt and blame" have left them voiceless—God can hear souls that cannot make their "cry unutterable of ruth and shame." But not only their silence makes hearing them difficult. God must also hear over the clamor of praise around him: the image of prayer as incense on an altar is borrowed from Revelation 5, but here the conflagration of praise from "blazing Seraphs" can overwhelm the small "spark" that flies upward from the unspoken prayers of the penitent. And the fine pun of "utterly" in the seventh line reminds us that the angels can utter when sinful souls cannot. Thus in the octave the problem is posed: How can God, in the midst of a symphony of praise, hear prayers that cannot be spoken?
Implicit in the asking is the poet's belief that she can be heard; otherwise, she would not speak. That implication is made explicit in the sestet, which begins with the recognition that the price of her salvation has been paid, that she asks for what has already been given, since God's love was expressed in self-sacrifice. Rossetti's speaker needs to reassure herself, or better, needs God to reassure her, that her place in God's love is secure. The lines, then, mime an attempt to grasp for assurance, both in their momentary confusion represented in the repetition of "My price Thy priceless Blood; and therefore I / Price of Thy priceless Blood";6 and in their grasping at existential evidence, that good things love her because they love the blood that has redeemed her.
The poem brilliantly analyzes one of the paradoxes of Christian faith in terms entirely appropriate for one who wants to speak in words "familiar to the eye and dear to the heart." The poem's existence creates the paradox, language about the inability to speak, which the poem's images, like metaphysical conceits, develop and explore in leading us to the message of the grace of God. The emotions are powerful and artistically expressed. While the humility of the octave may offend modern belief in self-esteem, the sestet declares the great worth of the speaker, established, not by her own merits, but by the imputed value of Christ's sacrifice for her. Her being heard by God depends not on her ability to outshout all the praise of heaven, but by God's eagerness to listen to one for whom He has died.
Had I world enough and time, I would at this point repeat Antony Harrison's point that Victorian England did not offer enough to satisfy Rossetti's craving heart, that Rossetti's feelings of worthlessness were much complicated by patriarchal Victorian England's undervaluing women (Context 91). The prayer to God appeals over the heads of the disparag-ing society to the authority that much of society still accepted. Part of the reason many of the madwomen in the attic wrote to and about God was that they found in their faith affirmation of their worth. God valued them for things other than their appearance—particularly significant to the older Christian woman poet.
Rossetti's late poems, then, speak with power, though they present modern readers with substantial aesthetic problems in examining nature analogically for evidence of God's truth, in expressing powerful devotional emotions, in eschewing complexity. Unfortunately, recent critics have concentrated on "Goblin Market" and the youthful poems of failed love. Most appear not to have read her later, devotional poetry, perhaps trying to avoid the saint whom they either dislike or pity. The late devotional poetry is wonderful, and the woman, grown round and cheerful, who peers through half-closed eyes out of a photograph she calls "The Idiot," is at least as interesting as the waif-like adolescent recoiling from the angel of the annunciation.7
1. Consider, in contrast, William's description of his sister's looks in the Memoir: he spends pages defending the accuracy of their brother Dante's representations of Christina in his two paintings using her as the model for the Virgin Mary, and pages more explaining that while she was not "a beauty," and "handsome" and "pretty" did not quite apply, "[s]he was assuredly much nearer to being beautiful than ugly" (lx). I suspect that Christina would have shared my amusement at his discomfort.
2. Antony Harrison has also suggested several connections between the Tractarian aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelitism, and Christina Rossetti was, in many ways, the true defender of the Pre-Raphaelite faith. Thus, her poems share with the Tractarians "the highly self-conscious revival of sonnet sequences … the interest in medieval topoi and literary forms, along with attempts to create a medieval atmosphere in their works," and
a detailed focus upon sacramentally resonant, often symbolic and typological nature images; a concern with palpably realized emotional suffering and with death, often producing poems that stress mutability, that expose a Romantic quest for permanence, or that become fundamentally elegiac in tone; and, finally, an interest in beauty itself as a poem's subject matter.
3. Professor Linda Peterson of Yale University first directed me to Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary as a source for the attitudes of recent critics toward Rossetti's late poetry.
4. Most of these attitudes appear to grow out of reactions to William Michael Rossetti's memoir, in which he describes Christina in her last days as torn by guilt and uncertainty about her eternal state; he claims that on her deathbed, "the terrors of her religion compassed her about, to the overclouding of its radiance" (lix). But William's version of matters should not be assumed correct; see Kent.
5. The Czech philosopher Jan Patocka has argued that for the Christian, one's own identity ultimately resides in guilt: "individuality is vested in a relation to an infinite love and humans are individuals because they are guilty, and always guilty, with respect to it" (107). Jacques Derrida, commenting on Patocka, agrees: "What gives me my singularity, namely, death and finitude, is what makes me unequal to the infinite goodness of the gift that is also the first appeal to responsibility. Guilt is inherent in responsibility because responsibility is always unequal to itself' (51). That postmodern thinkers find themselves arriving at a point a Victorian woman poet knew a century ago is a fine irony to savor.
6. For a recent study of Rossetti's use of repetition, see Sylvan Esh, "Not Speaking the Unspeakable: Religion and Repetition in Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata Sequence," Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 34.4 (Autumn 1994): 835-51.
7. An early version of this essay was delivered at the conference on The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and its Circle, the Armstrong-Browning Library, Waco TX, April 1994. Many thanks to those who expressed appreciation for that paper, and to an anonymous reviewer at Renascence, whose editorial comments were precisely right.
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―――――――. The Complete Poems: A Variorum Edition, volumes I and II. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979, 1985.
―――――――. The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. New York: Haskell House, 1968.
―――――――. Time Flies: A Reading Diary. London: SPCK, 1885.
Rossetti, William Michael. "Preface and Memoir." Christina Rossetti, The Poetical Works. London: Macmillan, 1906. Reprinted New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1970.
Schofield, Linda. "Being and Understanding: Devotional Poetry of Christina Rossetti and the Tractarians." The Achievement of Christina Rossetti. Ed. David A. Kent. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987. 301-21.
Sisson, C. H, ed. Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems. London: Carcenet, 1984.
Tennyson, G. B. Victorian Devotional Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.
FLY AWAY, FLY AWAY OVER THE SEA: AND OTHER POEMS FOR CHILDREN (1991)
Cathleen Towey (review date June 1991)
SOURCE: Towey, Cathleen. Review of Fly Away, Fly Away Over the Sea: And Other Poems for Children, by Christina Rossetti, illustrated by Bernadette Watts. School Library Journal 37, no. 6 (June 1991): 98.
K-Gr. 5—[Fly Away, Fly Away Over the Sea: And Other Poems for Children is a] fine collection of poems celebrating nature, enhanced by exquisite water-color illustrations. These were first published in 1872 and are still in print in Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (Dover, 1969). The selections, never longer than 14 lines, are simple, yet highly effective in creating a mood. Most of the individual works stand alone on a page and are enriched by beautiful muted paintings. Each page is set off by a border that further highlights and extends the poem. Soft combinations of purples, pinks, yellows, and greens are repeated throughout. A magical anthology to be treasured and read aloud with pleasure.
WHAT CAN I GIVE HIM? (1998)
Elizabeth Devereaux (review date 28 September 1998)
SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth. Review of What Can I Give Him?, by Christina Rossetti, illustrated by Debi Gliori. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 39 (28 September 1998): 58-9.
Rossetti's tender, lyrical poem "A Christmas Carol" unfolds on a split screen, offering a peek at the lives and dilemmas of two girls, one present day, and one "in the bleak midwinter long, long ago." On the left-hand pages [of What Can I Give Him? ], a girl and her grandfather enjoy a snowy day and prepare for Christmas, while on the right, a poor servant girl hauls water for a desert inn where an expectant couple has just arrived. Gliori preserves the pristine simplicity of Rossetti's words while her visual interpretation expands their meaning. Ages 4-8.
Rosenblum, Dolores. "Goblin Market: Dearth and Sufficiency." In Christina Rossetti: The Poetry of Endurance, pp. 63-107. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.
Extensive critical analysis of "Goblin Market" focusing on the poem's enduring relevance within the children's literature genre.
Sandner, David. "Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market and the Feminine Rereading of the Fantastic Sublime." In The Fantastic Sublime: Romanticism and Transcendence in Nineteenth-Century Children's Fantasy Literature, pp. 103-14, 121-36. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Two separate articles detailing the sexual and moral themes in Rossetti's "Goblin Market."
Smulders, Sharon. "Fresh Fields of Endeavor: Short Stories and Nursery Rhymes." In Christina Rossetti Revisited, edited by Herbert Sussman, pp. 92-122. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Offers commentary on several of Rossetti's lesser-known short stories and nursery rhymes.
Stern, Rebecca F. "'Adulterations Detected': Food and Fraud in Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market.'" Nineteenth-Century Literature 57, no. 4 (March 2003): 477-511.
Examination of the symbolic meaning of food in "Goblin Market."
Additional coverage of Rossetti's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 51; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 4; British Writers, Vol. 5; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 35, 163, 240; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 1:3; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1:1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 50, 66; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 7; Poetry for Students, Vols. 10, 14; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 20; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Children.