In this episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, with Heather Rose Jones, we analyze the poem “The Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti. We pay special attention to its homoerotic themes.
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Transcript for today’s show
Sheena had an idea to do a collection of Halloween themed podcasts from all the regular contributors to the Lesbian Talk Show, so I wanted to come up with a special Lesbian Historic Motif episode. It took me a while of brainstorming before I hit on a topic: Christina Rosetti’s poem “The Goblin Market”.
Rosetti was part of a talented family of Italian immigrants to England in the mid 19th century. Her father was a painter, but the more famous painter in the family was her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was one of the founders of the Pre-Rafaelite Brotherhood, a movement known for medievalism and sensuality. Another brother and a sister were writers. And Christina’s mother, Frances Polidori, was the sister of John Polidori, a close friend of Lord Byron and the author of what may be the first modern vampire story. (You see, lots of Halloween references.)
The Goblin Market indulges in a number of long flights of description. But before reveling in the beauty of the language, I want to focus specifically on the erotic imagery. So I’ll start by alternating excerpts from the poem with a synopsis of the overall story.
Two sisters, cautious Lizzie and daring Laura, encounter the goblin men who sell mysteriously tempting fruits.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
There is a long catalog of the fruits they sell, and then we meet the sisters:
Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bow’d her head to hear,
Lizzie veil’d her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger tips.
“Lie close,” Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
“Come buy,” call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.
Lizzie warns her sister not to take the goblins up on their offered wares and continues on home, but…
Laura stretch’d 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.
Definitely a description of someone giving in to temptation! Laura doesn’t have a coin to buy the fruit so instead they demand a lock of her golden hair in payment. Hair had a strong sexual symbolism in the Victorian era, and for a girl to give a man a lock of her hair was practically the next thing to handing him her virginity.
She clipp’d a precious golden lock,
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
Lizzie scolds her when she gets home, and reminds her of the cautionary tale of their friend Jeanie:
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;
This is foreshadowing Laura’s fate. Even as she scoffs at Lizzie’s warning, she says:
I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
To-morrow night I will
Buy more;” and kiss’d her:
“Have done with sorrow;
I’ll bring you plums to-morrow
Laura describes for Lizzie all the delicious goblin fruits she’ll bring back to share, and then they go to bed together.
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.
The next day they go about their usual chores, but Laura’s mind is elsewhere. And as they walk home in the evening, she listens for the calls of the goblins in vain. Lizzie can still hear the goblins, which day by day drives Laura to distraction.
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.
Laura begins to pine and waste away, just like Jeanie did. Her golden hair grows dull and thin, her spirit fades, she has “sunken eyes and faded mouth”. She stops eating and sits listlessly in a corner.
Lizzie watches her sister decline and decides the only option is to go buy goblin fruit to revive her, even though Lizzie is afraid of what price she might pay.
Till Laura dwindling
Seem’d knocking at Death’s door:
Then Lizzie weigh’d no more
Better and worse;
But put a silver penny in her purse,
Kiss’d Laura, cross’d the heath with clumps of furze
At twilight, halted by the brook:
And for the first time in her life
Began to listen and look.
The goblins come to meet her and not only offer her fruit but harass her physically:
Hugg’d her and kiss’d her:
Squeez’d and caress’d her:
Stretch’d up their dishes,
Panniers, and plates:
“Look at our apples
Russet and dun,
Bob at our cherries,
Bite at our peaches,
Lizzie tosses them her silver coin and holds out her apron for the fruit, but the goblins keep urging her to eat them, right there and then. When she steadfastly refuses, they turn nasty. It’s a bit reminiscent of street harassers when rebuffed. And the goblins try to force Lizzie to consume the fruit in a scene that feels a lot like sexual assault.
One call’d her proud,
Their tones wax’d loud,
Their looks 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.
Lizzie holds steadfast against this assault and is described as a citadel being unsuccessfully besieged.
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.
Having successfully resisted eating the fruit, Lizzie hurries homeward because, of course, she does have goblin fruit to bring home to Laura–the fruit that the goblins have smeared all over her while trying to make her eat.
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.”
Somewhat belatedly, Laura realizes that Lizzie might end up sharing her fate for trying to save her.
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?
And then, not from the addictive hunger for goblin fruit, but in gratitude and fear:
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.
Laura kisses Lizzie and in the process consumes the juice of the goblin fruits. But that juice has been transformed by Lizzie’s selfless deed.
Her lips began to scorch,
That juice was wormwood to her tongue,
She loath’d the feast:
Writhing as one possess’d she leap’d and sung,
Rent all her robe, and wrung
Her hands in lamentable haste,
And beat her breast.
The fruit burns within her and Laura falls into a swoon. All through the night, Lizzie tends to Laura as if she were in a fever, but when morning comes:
Laura awoke as from a dream,
Laugh’d in the innocent old way,
Hugg’d Lizzie but not twice or thrice;
Her gleaming locks show’d not one thread of grey,
Her breath was sweet as May
And light danced in her eyes.
The poem ends with Lizzie telling the frightening cautionary tale to the next generation. A tale appropriate for a Halloween night.
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):
Would tell them how her sister stood
In deadly peril to do her good,
And win the fiery antidote:
Thus, the fruit-inspired sensuality has been left behind, as in a fever dream. The sisters have settled down to live conventional lives. What remains is the memory of the deep devotion that risks its life for the beloved.
Despite the rather striking homoerotic imagery in her poem, there is no evidence that Rossetti’s relationships with women went beyond sisterly devotion. On the other hand, she received three proposals of marriage from men and rejected them all so who knows? But my interest here isn’t on Rossetti’s personal life, rather on the strongly sensual imagery in her poem, depicting an intense devotion between two sisters that is expressed in language more suited to lovers.
The Goblin Market’s sensuality–not only the intense kissing and the more subdued scenes of cuddling in bed or “clasping arms and tingling finger tips”–occurs not only in the context of sisterly devotion, but also in scenes where the goblins tempt the women with their sinister fruit, or even try to force it on them. There isn’t a clear correspondence of the sensual with the forbidden.
This was an era when the trope of decadent lesbian sensuality tinged with the supernatural was becoming “a thing”, though primarily among male writers. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel” is a long supernatural-themed poem with lesbian elements that were strong enough to get it condemned as obscene. The content falls in the “monstrous seductress” genre where the noble maiden Christabel encounters the mysterious Geraldine in the forest and brings her home to her father’s castle where Geraldine has a strange and sinister influence on all she encounters. Christabel shares her bed with Geraldine and the significance of this is emphasized with descriptions of disrobing and embraces.
Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!
Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;
Ah! what a stricken look was hers!
Deep from within she seems half-way
To lift some weight with sick assay,
And eyes the maid and seeks delay;
Then suddenly, as one defied,
Collects herself in scorn and pride,
And lay down by the Maiden’s side!—
And in her arms the maid she took,
But Geraldine’s eventual goal is not to win Christabel but to supplant her in her father’s affections. The poem shares with the Goblin Market a supernatural force that causes the innocent woman to waste away. But here there is no sister to save her.
The same process of wasting away by the influence of a supernatural intruder who feigns same-sex affection occurs in Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire novel Carmilla. Carmilla appears at the residence of the protagonist in the guise of a young woman, said to be something of an invalid. Despite Carmilla telling little of her background, the two girls become close.
She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, “Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die–die, sweetly die–into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.”
And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.
In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.” Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.
Other works from the mid 19th century that carry this association of sensuality between women tinged with a mysterious and malevolent decadence include Honoré de Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes, and Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin. All these works have two things in common that contrast with The Goblin Market: they are written by men, and the sensual relationship shown between the women is destructive and a source of guilt rather than being a source of redemption.
Christina Rossetti’s work comes out of an entirely different tradition: that of Romantic Friendship, where close emotional relationships between women were idealized and valorized. Such relationships were not considered to partake of sexuality–though we know that in some cases they did. Within the Romantic Friendship tradition, descriptions of sisters cuddling together in bed or kissing passionately would not have been considered sexual, as such, and so could be portrayed without any sense of self-consciousness or guilt.
The Goblin Market is easily interpreted as an allegory–though an allegory for what is debatable. A Christian interpretation is certainly possible, with its themes of temptation, of a fall, and of redemption through an innocent person’s suffering on behalf of another. It’s also possible to see it as an allegory for drug addiction, and it’s thought that that part of the poem may have been inspired by Rossetti’s work at a charity house for former prostitutes–a context where she may have seen the effects of addiction to drugs or alcohol. Alternately, it can be viewed as an allegory of predatory male sexuality and sexual trauma. It’s worth noting that the goblins are referred to consistently as male and no other male characters figure in the poem.
Given all these considerations, interpreting the sensual imagery and passionate embraces of the poem as depicting lesbian eroticism is not entirely unproblematic. These complexities are always present when modern readers try to find connections with literature from another era.
And now, an entertainment for the night of Halloween, when pathways open up between the worlds, and someone who lingers on the path at twilight may hear goblins calling out, “Come buy, come buy.”
The Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti, published in 1862 and read by Heather Rose Jones
[The text of the poem has not been included in this transcript. It can be found in many places on the web, including the following page belonging to the Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44996/goblin-market]