Breaking the Boundaries between the Natural and the Supernatural World in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”
Christina Rossetti’s most well-known poem, the “Goblin Market,” interested many literary and cultural scholars over the years, providing them an immense opportunity for writing down different, individual interpretations. Various topics were created by people who each read a unique meaning into the tale, for example the ultimate importance of heroic, sacrificial sisterhood; the underlying homoerotic tension between the girls; or the presence of far darker, human or inhuman, phenomena working in the background. Some of these above-mentioned scholars, like Mary Arseneau, partly focus on how Rossetti’s spiritualism filters through the symbolism of her work thus enabling a morally Christian, or even allegorical, reading. In this sense, the presence of the extraordinary, or the supernatural in general, is studied solely on a theological level, and is mainly seen in temptations presented by demonic creatures and in the eventual redemption of a once innocent, but now sinful soul. My aim is to present another, broader layer of supernatural reading that may be explicitly understood as a result of its familiarity, yet I believe it still deserves to be discussed and analyzed. The story of the young sisters, Laura and Lizzie, captures a great amount of unique elements originated from fairy-tales, English folklore and Gothic fears from the unknown. Every piece of mystical, folkloristic, frightening component is more or less know to us and, from time to time, invade our naturally constructed environment in the collective shape of doubts or superstitions – just like the peaceful, domestic home is conquered by the ever-threatening supernatural in “Goblin Market.”In order to trail down most of the occurrences connected to the supernatural world in “Goblin Market,” we need to look at several situations from the poem that are undoubtedly connected to the extraordinary and validate its existence within the frames of the work. To do that, it is essential to create an overall categorization of the visible conflicts between places, physical boundaries, and different entities; and most importantly to analyze the main plot between the girls and the evil merchant men as a battle for consuming vital powers. These certainly violent, actual and symbolic, collisions are reconstructed by Rossetti based on certain folkloristic beliefs, and on fears coming from the strangeness of the unidentified world around us. Both of the branches intertwine different human doubts we experience when talking about the mysterious, unexplainable other side no one can ideally see.
Many instances throughout the whole poem indicate the disturbing presence of the supernatural reality encompassing the land on which the sisters’ lodging stands. Although nature, by definition, is the most natural of the surroundings, it still serves as a home for malignant entities and as a stage for strange occurrences. Magical fairies, who are preying on lonely, weak girls mainly during the evening, populate the “haunted glen” (Rossetti 552). “Twilight is not good for maidens;/Should not loiter in the glen/In the haunts of the goblin men.” (Rossetti 144-146) It is not surprising however that the hunting and haunting ground of the evil spirits is beyond the forest, thus closer to the brook and the glen. According to Yliaster Daleth’s Demonomicon (a remarkable encyclopedia of monstrous, demonic beings), many creatures belonging to the fairy-lore throughout the British Isles tend to choose underground, hilly places and dens as berths for themselves (187). The fuathan, on the other hand, is an extremely malevolent and violent fairy who lives by rivers or lakes and attacks anybody who even attempts to near his vicinity (Daleth 197). While the inexplicable is trying ceaselessly to creep closer to the natural world, the whole space in its wake becomes more and more mystical, dangerous and lifeless. On the grave of a poor girl, for example, “to this day no grass will grow” (Rossetti 158) and flowers “never blow.” (Rossetti 161) This death-like state is certainly the result of the presence of the community of fairies that probably live off pure living force.
There is a physical border, though not exactly a firm one, between the sisters’ house and the spooky brook side, which is an actual gate. When Laura is out late and eventually heads towards home, Lizzie meets her “at the gate” (Rossetti 141) and scolds her for being so irresponsible that she has defiled their common rules against staying out in the dark woods completely alone. With her absolute transgression, Laura has let the supernatural to get a hold on her, which she cannot shake off herself until the near end of the story. “The borders between the human world and fairyland are hazy and tenuous. If they are crossed then consistent action only can guarantee success, which is why superstitions give rise to ritualistic actions. To err in fairyland results in enchantment” (Jackson 124). Laura is unable to enjoy the safety of the ordinary home barricaded by the gate anymore, since it has already become corrupted by her out-of-place presence and turned into infertile, like the grave of Jeanie before.
One day remembering her kernel-stone She set it by a wall that faced the south;Dew’d it with tears, hoped for a root,Watch’d for a waxing shoot,But there came none;It never saw the sun,It never felt the trickling moisture run: (Rossetti 281-287).
It appears that only in her sister’s, Lizzie’s loving embrace can Laura feel herself safe and secured. The symbol of the “nest” as a natural protection given and strengthened by Lizzie is visible twice in the poem when the girls are “Like two pigeons in one nest/Folded in each other’s wings,” (Rossetti 185-186) or “Cheek to cheek and breast to breast/Lock’d together in one nest.” (Rossetti 197-198) A foreshadowing is present in these instances that indicate Lizzie’s crucial part in the story: she will be the savior, the redeeming “beacon” (Rossetti 412) who eventually stops the supernatural powers from completely absorbing her sister.
The most significant representatives of the supernatural world are the goblin men whose cry is verbally invading the girls’ place of residence “morning and evening” (Rossetti 1) thus inverting the domesticity and natural stillness of the home into constant bewilderment even before Laura’s transgression. Goblins are “ugly demons or evil spirits much like pixies …, and they do not differ much from elves” (Jackson 130). “Goblin Market” is undoubtedly a successful cautionary tale that “reproduces the real folk fear of the fairies as tempters with poisonous gifts to offer” (Briggs 208) and does this with real gravity. That Rossetti was familiar with fairy-lore in general is indisputable, since “among the books read by Christina Rossetti and the other Rossetti children was The Fairy Mythology of Thomas Keightley” (Evans 157). Even though “none of these stories contains the plot of Goblin Market,” (Evans 157) the collection of Keightley must have served as a guide for creating the authentic ‘little people’ of her poem whose greatest strength against normalcy resides in seduction.
Rossetti’s goblins are strangely distorted, small creatures, and physically they partly resemble actual animals whose bodies are deformed into something monstrous and definitely unnatural. She effectively creates a fairy-tale like mood with the help of language while listing them the following way:
One had a cat’s face,One whisk’d a tail,One tramp’d at a rat’s pace,One crawl’d like a snail,One like wombat prowl’d obtuse and furry,One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry. (Rossetti 71-76)
According to B. Ifor Evans’s essay, Rossetti “gave each goblin one animal feature, and in this way heightened the magic atmosphere of her poem” (164). Yet, these goblins are not entirely animalistic: they can speak, they have a profession, they are cruel and their look is certainly evil. “They are darker, more mysterious, more powerful, more terrifying, and more human” (Morrill 2) than the ones in the original fairy-lore, and all their features are highlighted by destructive magical powers. Therefore, in this way, Rossetti emphasizes their undeniable dangerousness and, as an answer for contemporary superstitions, she creates an ever-threatening, tangible reality beyond the safe borders of home in “Goblin Market”. “The widespread cultural anxiety about the purpose of portentous monsters was partly a reflection of scientific naïveté … but more essentially it was a reflection of human nature” (Asma 44).
The goblin merchants have a mischievous way to trick humans and gain their souls for supper: they have extraordinarily luscious fruits that “are not governed by natural laws” (Arseneau 86) therefore they can use them as empty promises for satiety. They are trying to sell the fruits that are “Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;” (Rossetti 30) always available, and definitely not native. These various kinds of mystical fruits are so unique that they “All ripe together/In summer weather, –” (Rossetti 15-16) and they provoke a constant temptation with their colorful, though fake, beauty, mostly to women. No one actually knows where they come from, whether they are poisonous or not, or what they really worth. As Lizzie puts it: “We must not buy their fruits:/Who knows upon what soil they fed/Their hungry thirsty roots?”” (Rossetti 43-45) Even the goblins admit that “Such fruits as these/No man can carry:” (Rossetti 375-376) and at the end it is finally revealed that they are “like honey to the throat/But poison in the blood;” (Rossetti 554-555).
The main conflict is crystalized when the goblin men are approaching the sisters with their tempting, enchanted wares. Lizzie, ever the cautious one, warns her sister against accepting their presents. “Their offers should not charm us,/Their evil gifts would harm us.”” (Rossetti 65-66) Lizzie completely blocks out the invaders as she thrusts “a dimpled finger/In each ear, shut eyes and ran:” whereas “Laura appears aware that she should not listen to the goblin men, and by her own admission she does not know where the fruits have come from” (Arseneau 85), yet she is too curious to leave. Instead of drawing back to safety, Laura chooses “to linger/Wondering at each merchant man” (Rossetti 67-70) and this will eventually cause her inevitable fall. Even though Lizzie warns her sister multiple times about the dangers of talking to the merchant men, Laura cannot help her instincts and unconsciously subjugates herself to the dark magic of the goblin men. During a highly ritualistic scene, she uses her golden hair as money when “trades a lock that ultimately surrenders her body” (Rappoport 854) and finally tastes the tempting fruits. It seems as if the goblins had completely charmed her and made her lose her self-control in order to get her life essence. After sucking the fruits dry, and at the same time giving away the power that keeps her alive, she slowly turns into a hollow vessel.
Day after day, night after night, Laura kept watch in vainIn sullen silence of exceeding pain.She never caught again the goblin cry:“Come buy, come buy;” –She never spied the goblin menHawking their fruits along the glen:But when the noon wax’d brightHer hair grew thin and grey;She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn To swift decay and burnHer fire away. (Rossetti 269-280)
According to Anthony Jackson, the writer of the essay “The Science of Fairy Tales?,” “the spirits are symbolic devices to account for the accidents that befall us and the plot concerns the transgression of some moral rule and the reparations made to overcome it” (124). In this sense, Laura’s temptation is the cause of her “swift decay” (Rossetti 279) and she has to overcome this moral transgression in order to be healed. “Consequently, Laura can no longer engage in domestic chores, thus demonstrating the larger concerns of the poem with the destruction normality, of sisterly domesticity, and of the Victorian status quo” (Morrill 8).There was a girl in the past who has already been killed by the life-sucking goblins, and her cautionary tale is expressed by Lizzie immediately after Laura’s apparent mistake.
But ever in the noonlightShe 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 (Rossetti 153-157).
However, Laura is disinterested in the other girl’s death; Lizzie is “Mindful of Jeanie” (Rossetti 364) and is certain that the goblin men now have a hold on her sister’s body as well. She is unable to “watch her sister’s cankerous care” (Rossetti 300) who “Seem’d knocking at Death’s door:” (Rossetti 312), so she heads out to get an antidote for the goblins’ evil malady. She carries a silver coin with her, which she attempts to purchase Laura’s salvation with. It is visible that she has learnt from her sister’s unfortunate case and refuses to invite the men into another life. She stands her ground against the goblins who are “visibly demurring,/Grunting and snarling.” (Rossetti 392-393) at her and try to “make her eat” (Rossetti 407) their poisonous fruits. Lizzie is finally bathing in pure power coming from her absolute resistance and “baptized in goblin juice, Lizzie is able to drive the goblins away, to make them vanish. At the same time, she magically transforms herself into an antidote for goblin poison and invites her sister to partake of her and be saved” (Gitter 172). When the goblin juice “is simply a fluid with which male goblins tempt young girls, it is poison, but when it is transubstantiated on the unyielding lips of the virtuous Lizzie, it becomes a spiritual tonic” (Gitter 173). She can successfully save her sister from her own mistake whose breath is again “sweet as May” (Rossetti 541) after the poison has left her body.
Finally yet importantly, another, interesting reading is worth mentioning, and to do this it is crucial to emphasize that fairy folklore is probably not the only source Christina Rossetti portrays in “Goblin Market,” since she also “uses certain details of the vampire myth – acts of biting and sucking, enervation, and death without grace” (Morrill 1). To depict the goblin men as incubi –seductive male demons (Asma 113) – is just as relevant as recognizing vampiric features about them. David F. Morrill’s entire essay perambulates this issue, and he is the person who acknowledges Rossetti’s uncle’s, John Polidori’s (the writer of The Vampyre) influence on his niece’s long poem. Morrill emphasizes that “because of its nature as foreign invader, the vampire cannot cross a threshold until invited,” (6) which notion also stands its ground when talking about the goblins as simple invaders coming from a supernatural background. When Laura gives them “a precious golden lock,” (Rossetti 126) she becomes infected by their juice and changes entirely. She is no longer a decent Victorian woman, but a would-be vampire hungry for blood and “longing for the night” (Rossetti 214). Lizzie eventually saves her sister, “the energy has passed from the goblins back to their victim; Laura has clearly returned to the ‘real’ world of spirituality and Victorian stability” (Morrill 13). Morrill concludes that “the otherwise mawkish and sentimental ending becomes a necessary denouement by demonstrating the Victorian belief in the family as the last refuge of emotional and spiritual order” (13).
As a conclusion, it can be declared that Christina Rossetti personified the supernatural not just as an actual land next to ours but also as an atmosphere beclouding human perception of reality. She successfully mingled fairies from British folklore with blood-sucking creatures, gave them immense dark magic as a weapon to destroy mankind, only to be overthrown by a virtuous, loving girl. She put them on the same level where current superstitions about the unknown stand and with a realistic resistance drove them away from the natural land. When the girls are successfully integrated back to society (they marry and have children of their own), their powers are not essential anymore, but their unique connection as sisters via blood remains their greater strength they can always call forth if needed.
Arseneau, Mary. “Incarnation and Interpretation: Christina Rossetti, the Oxford Movement, and ‘Goblin Market.’” Victorian Poetry 31.1 (Spring 1993): 79-93. JSTOR. Web. 05 Jan. 2019.
Asma, Stephen T. On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
Briggs, K. M. “Folklore in Nineteenth-Century English Literature.” Folklore 83.3 (Autumn 1972): 194-209. JSTOR. Web. 04 Jan. 2019.
Daleth, Yliaster. Demonomicon: Démonológiai enciklopédia és gyakorlati kézikönyv. Tuan Kiadó, 2009. Print.
Evans, B. Ifor. “The Sources of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market.’” The Modern Language Review 28.2 (Apr. 1933): 156-165. JSTOR. Web. 04 Jan. 2019.
Gitter, Elizabeth G. “The Victorian Literary Kiss.” Browning Institute Studies 13.Victorian Women and Men (1985): 165-180. JSTOR. Web. 04 Jan. 2019.
Jackson, Anthony. “The Science of Fairy Tales?” Folklore 84.2 (Summer 1973): 120-140. JSTOR. Web. 04 Jan. 2019.
Morrill, David F. “‘Twilight is Not Good for Maidens’: Uncle Polidori and the Psychodynamics of Vampirism in ‘Goblin Market.’” Victorian Poetry 28.1 (Spring 1990): 1-16. JSTOR. Web. 04 Jan. 2019.
Rappoport, Jill. “The Price of Redemption in ‘Goblin Market.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 50.4 The Nineteenth Century (Autumn 2010): 853-875. JSTOR. Web. 05 Jan. 2019.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Handout. English 1027F. London, ON: Huron University College, 2013.
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