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Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.”
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.
“Oh,” cried Lizzie, “Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.”
Lizzie cover’d up her eyes,
Cover’d close lest they should look;
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.”
“No,” said Lizzie, “No, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.”
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
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 a wombat prowl’d obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.
She heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.
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.
Backwards up the mossy glen
Turn’d and troop’d the goblin men,
With their shrill repeated cry,
“Come buy, come buy.”
When they reach’d where Laura was
They stood stock still upon the moss,
Leering at each other,
Brother with queer brother;
Signalling each other,
Brother with sly brother.
One set his basket down,
One rear’d his plate;
One began to weave a crown
Of tendrils, leaves, and rough nuts brown
(Men sell not such in any town);
One heav’d the golden weight
Of dish and fruit to offer her:
“Come buy, come buy,” was still their cry.
Laura stared but did not stir,
Long’d but had no money:
The whisk-tail’d merchant bade her taste
In tones as smooth as honey,
The cat-faced purr’d,
The rat-faced spoke a word
Of welcome, and the snail-paced even was heard;
One parrot-voiced and jolly
Cried “Pretty Goblin” still for “Pretty Polly;”—
One whistled like a bird.
But sweet-tooth Laura spoke in haste:
“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.”
“You have much gold upon your head,”
They answer’d all together:
“Buy from us with a golden curl.”
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
But gather’d up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turn’d home alone.
Lizzie met her at the gate
Full of wise upbraidings:
“Dear, you should not stay so late,
Twilight is not good for maidens;
Should not loiter in the glen
In the haunts of goblin men.
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.
You should not loiter so.”
“Nay, hush,” said Laura:
“Nay, hush, my sister:
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
Fresh on their mother twigs,
Cherries worth getting;
You cannot think what figs
My teeth have met in,
What melons icy-cold
Piled on a dish of gold
Too huge for me to hold,
What peaches with a velvet nap,
Pellucid grapes without one seed:
Odorous indeed must be the mead
Whereon they grow, and pure the wave they drink
With lilies at the brink,
And sugar-sweet their sap.”
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.
Early in the morning
When the first cock crow’d his warning,
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetch’d in honey, milk’d the cows,
Air’d and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churn’d butter, whipp’d up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sew’d;
Talk’d as modest maidens should:
Lizzie with an open heart,
Laura in an absent dream,
One content, one sick in part;
One warbling for the mere bright day’s delight,
One longing for the night.
At length slow evening came:
They went with pitchers to the reedy brook;
Lizzie most placid in her look,
Laura most like a leaping flame.
They drew the gurgling water from its deep;
Lizzie pluck’d purple and rich golden flags,
Then turning homeward said: “The sunset flushes
Those furthest loftiest crags;
Come, Laura, not another maiden lags.
No wilful squirrel wags,
The beasts and birds are fast asleep.”
But Laura loiter’d still among the rushes
And said the bank was steep.
And said the hour was early still
The dew not fall’n, the wind not chill;
Listening ever, but not catching
The customary cry,
“Come buy, come buy,”
With its iterated jingle
Of sugar-baited words:
Not for all her watching
Once discerning even one goblin
Racing, whisking, tumbling, hobbling;
Let alone the herds
That used to tramp along the glen,
In groups or single,
Of brisk fruit-merchant men.
Till Lizzie urged, “O Laura, come;
I hear the fruit-call but I dare not look:
You should not loiter longer at this brook:
Come with me home.
The stars rise, the moon bends her arc,
Each glowworm winks her spark,
Let us get home before the night grows dark:
For clouds may gather
Though this is summer weather,
Put out the lights and drench us through;
Then if we lost our way what should we do?”
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.
Day after day, night after night,
Laura kept watch in vain
In sullen silence of exceeding pain.
She never caught again the goblin cry:
“Come buy, come buy;”—
She never spied the goblin men
Hawking their fruits along the glen:
But when the noon wax’d bright
Her hair grew thin and grey;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay and burn
Her fire away.
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:
While with sunk eyes and faded mouth
She dream’d of melons, as a traveller sees
False waves in desert drouth
With shade of leaf-crown’d trees,
And burns the thirstier in the sandful breeze.
She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetch’d honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook
And would not eat.
Tender Lizzie could not bear
To watch her sister’s cankerous care
Yet not to share.
She night and morning
Caught the goblins’ cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy;”—
Beside the brook, along the glen,
She heard the tramp of goblin men,
The yoke and stir
Poor Laura could not hear;
Long’d to buy fruit to comfort her,
But fear’d to pay too dear.
She 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,
In earliest winter time
With the first glazing rime,
With the first snow-fall of crisp winter time.
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.
Laugh’d every goblin
When they spied her peeping:
Came towards her hobbling,
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing,
Chuckling, clapping, crowing,
Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and mowing,
Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel- and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter skelter, hurry skurry,
Chattering like magpies,
Fluttering like pigeons,
Gliding like fishes,—
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,
Citrons and dates,
Grapes for the asking,
Pears red with basking
Out in the sun,
Plums on their twigs;
Pluck them and suck them,
“Good folk,” said Lizzie,
Mindful of Jeanie:
“Give me much and many: —
Held out her apron,
Toss’d them her penny.
“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.”—
“Thank you,” said Lizzie: “But one waits
At home alone for me:
So without further parleying,
If you will not sell me any
Of your fruits though much and many,
Give me back my silver penny
I toss’d you for a fee.”—
They began to scratch their pates,
No longer wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a smart, ache, tingle,
Lizzie went her way;
Knew not was it night or day;
Sprang up the bank, tore thro’ the furze,
Threaded copse and dingle,
And heard her penny jingle
Bouncing in her purse,—
Its bounce was music to her ear.
She ran and ran
As if she fear’d some goblin man
Dogg’d her with gibe or curse
Or something worse:
But not one goblin scurried after,
Nor was she prick’d by fear;
The kind heart made her windy-paced
That urged her home quite out of breath with haste
And inward laughter.
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.”
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?”—
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.
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.
Her locks stream’d like the torch
Borne by a racer at full speed,
Or like the mane of horses in their flight,
Or like an eagle when she stems the light
Straight toward the sun,
Or like a caged thing freed,
Or like a flying flag when armies run.
Swift fire spread through her veins, knock’d at her heart,
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame;
She gorged on bitterness without a name:
Ah! fool, to choose such part
Of soul-consuming care!
Sense fail’d in the mortal strife:
Like the watch-tower of a town
Which an earthquake shatters down,
Like a lightning-stricken mast,
Like a wind-uprooted tree
Like a foam-topp’d waterspout
Cast down headlong in the sea,
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life?
Life out of death.
That night long Lizzie watch’d by her,
Counted her pulse’s flagging stir,
Felt for her breath,
Held water to her lips, and cool’d her face
With tears and fanning leaves:
But when the first birds chirp’d about their eaves,
And early reapers plodded to the place
Of golden sheaves,
And dew-wet grass
Bow’d in the morning winds so brisk to pass,
And new buds with new day
Open’d of cup-like lilies on the stream,
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.
Days, weeks, months, years
Afterwards, when both were wives
With children of their own;
Their mother-hearts beset with fears,
Their lives bound up in tender lives;
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:
Then joining hands to little hands
Would bid them cling together,
“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.”
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
If you’ve been following my posts as I’ve written them, then you’re probably pretty family with the name of this poem. It is the eponymous poem of her most famous collection of work (Goblin Market and Other Poems – duh!).
The collection was published in 1862, but the poem itself is thought to have been composed in 1859. This date correlates with an important and related event in her life. In 1859 she joined St Mary Magdalene’s house of charity as a volunteer. This was an organisation dedicated to supporting former prostitutes and helping them to reform their lives.
In my opinion, the poem directly relates to this as we see Laura give into her primal lust and ruin her reputation. We see that this event leaves her destitute and dying, but the sacrifice of her sister Lizzie enables her to survive and find a role in the world again, where she uses her tale to warn others from making her mistakes. In Victorian society, and probably now too, being a prostitute is seen as pretty bottom of the barrel stuff. There is no way a prostitute at the time would have the option of marriage proposals and leading a normal life and if her profession was public she would be a societal pariah. However, with the support of her fellow women (taking the Lizzie role) at the charity there was some hope of redemption and returning to society.
Whenever you think of prostitute (admit it!) there is the temptation to see evil in the women drawn into it; however, very often they are victims of circumstance or even crime. I suspect this would be even more true in Victorian time, but also this poem is probably addressing a broader group of fallen women, including those who have engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage and thus ruined their reputation and standing in society.
Rossetti gives a human face to these women, showing the power of temptation alongside their beauty to make us sympathetic to them. However, the tempters, namely the goblin merchants, seem to be a representation of men who are really lust-filled and lewd. Rossetti’s disturbing representation of these figures is surely a fierce comment on the double standards of societal values, where a woman without virtue is demonised, while men can do what the hell they like!
Cor blimey! I’ve already covered this in my mini essay above, but let me just sum it up here.
Goblin Market explores our understanding and judgement of fallen women (in England we now talk about girls as damaged goods if they’ve got a scandalous sexual history) and has a strong feminist-like message about societal attitudes and hypocrisy. However, the poem also has ties with the ever present struggle between heavenly purity/morality and the temptations of the flesh that seem to haunt Rossetti.
Oh God, what have I let myself in for! 29 stanzas to go, 3000 words to sum up. Starting with the title:
Goblins are probably familiar to you as those slimy, disgusting green things in The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, but if you don’t know what they are then here is my take on them as a race/species: vile looking and smelling creatures that live under the earth and are generally imagined as being cruel and crude tricksters. I won’t bother to explain a market, other than to make the point that you go to the market to get what you want.
On the surface then we have two girls visit the market of some horrible green things. However, poetry is never that easy and we need to look beyond the obvious. The whole poem is a thinly veiled metaphor for the sexual desires and the impact of giving into them. As such I will be writing my comments addressing the metaphor rather than the more obvious surface meaning.
Taking the two words of the title together we get a Rossetti metaphor for the natural sexual urges and instincts that we all possess. Particularly at the time of composition, sex is often demonised as being a somewhat smutty and dirty past time only to be endured for the fact it helps the human race survive. Of course this is nonsense and we shouldn’t be ashamed or shy about sex, but I guess that is and was the world. Anyway, if the goblins represent this filthy lust then the fact the girls are at their market suggests that they want this and are filled with these natural urges.
The first couple of lines here are key to me. The sisters are hearing the cry of the goblins day and night and thus are seemingly constantly aware of their desires and interests. Rossetti uses ripe and juicy fruit to represent the fertility of the girls and the way she uses language is sensuous and suggestive throughout.
Now we see the girls’ reactions. While Lizzie is clearly ashamed that she is hearing these calls and feeling tempted by her body’s urges, Laura is listening intently and seems unable to resist the allure of the goblins, despite warning Lizzie of the dangers of giving into temptation.
Notice here that Rossetti does not distinguish between the sisters when talking about the urges and sensations their bodies feel, but only in relation to how they respond to these urges – Laura and Lizzie are both ‘tingling’ with excitement while contemplating the fruits the goblins are offering.
Bloody Laura. After warning Lizzie, it is Lizzie’s turn to tell Laura to get a grip. While Lizzie covers her eyes and attempts to resist the allure, Laura lifts her head for a clearer look and gives in, now telling Lizzie about the wonders she sees. I’ll discuss some of the imagery in the next section, but you should start noticing some images that could come across as being extremely phallic.
Lizzie remains strong, but only through sticking her head in the sand and resisting her desires – a familiar idea in Rossetti poetry. However, Laura is off and amongst the goblins. They are physically repulsive in Rossetti’s description, but Laura only hears the sound of a pure and beautiful dove. Clearly Rossetti is presenting her as being deluded by her urges and what she sees as being perfectly natural/fine is actually positioned as being a filthy act.
The goblins have piqued her interest and now she gives in willingly, it almost sounds to me like she is gagging for it at this stage (sorry!).
Now the goblins notice they have a willing customer. They offer their wares and Rossetti using various animal imagery to comment upon these sexual urges. If these urges are positioned as being animalistic then we think of them as something uncivilised and something that we should seek to control.
In this stanza Laura encounters a problem in that she doesn’t have any cash to pay for her desires. When I studied this with my students we didn’t make a lot of this stanza, but now I think it is probably one of the most critical.
If she had cash, then her purchases are somehow legitimate. However, she is having to pay for her fruit with her body (albeit it her hair). This could be a direct reference to prostitution or it could simply be Rossetti commenting on women who engage in sexual relationship before they have the proper currency – i.e. a marriage. Sex inside marriage certainly wasn’t viewed as being filthy (although it would have remained strictly private and an intimate topic), so this is the currency that would have allowed Laura to satisfy her urges appropriately.
There is some really sexual imagery here, which I cannot believe Rossetti didn’t intend. Laura has her fruit and the way she eats it is incredibly graphic, sensuous and suggestive. Again the act is presented as being animalistic and inhuman.
Well, Laura gets back from the market to Lizzie and gets an earful. Lizzie reprimands her for being out late and thinks her reputation may suffer for being alone with goblins/men at an inappropriate time and place. She brings out an example of a girl, Jeanie, who did the same and had her reputation ruined.
At night Jeanie tooks gifts in exchange for goblin fruit – the very idea of prostitution. However, in the ‘noonlight’/afternoon she is pretty miserable. Take this to mean that in normal life she has problems because of her night time activities. Her profession has led to social condemnation and clearly no hope of her ever settling down to a respectable life. Once her looks go, her career is over, her life sounds pretty miserable and she dies with an undistinguished grave – suggesting that she dies alone and without any credit in society.
Laura isn’t fond of hearing this parable and instead raves to Lizzie about how much she’s enjoyed herself and promises to do it tomorrow.
This is a lovely stanza and a clever one. The sisters are described in terms that make them indistinguishable and emphasise their beauty and worthiness.
Why does Rossetti bother? I feel she is trying to make a point here that ladies who give into temptation are no different to those who do not. This positions sexual urges as being something all women feel and makes us question whether those who do give in really deserve to be demonised and have their lives ruined, like the example of Jeanie.
Lizzie and Laura could be the same person, but in one reality the urges are given into (Laura) and in another they are resisted (Lizzie). However, the value of Laura/Lizzie remains, regardless of whether they succumb or not.
However, there indistinguishable nature disappears in the ninth stanza. They wake up to do their innocent, rural farm chores and while Lizzie is still content with this life, Laura isn’t and her innocent life seems to have been ruined by desire and sexual urges.
Chores done, they head back to the stream where they first heard the goblins. Lizzie is again fearful and sets herself to resist her urges. Laura is positively jumping with excitement and lingers in the dark forest once again.
So Laura is hanging around hoping to meet up with some goblins again; however, they are nowhere to be seen. Read this as relating to her ability to get a man now she has a tarnished reputation.
Interestingly Lizzie still hears the calls of the goblins and urges Laura to hurry along so that her reputation isn’t tarnished by being out late.
Laura is in a panic that she’ll never be able to experience the goblin’s fruits again. This is where I begin to have trouble reconciling the poem with a pure focus on prostitution as surely she’d have her fair share of men regardless of her reputation. However, if we view Laura as just having engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship then we can see how the doors may have been closing for her as any respectable man wouldn’t be associated with spoiled goods. Thus by rushing to fulfill her urges, Laura has shot herself in the foot in the longer term.
Poor Laura has become a bit obsessed and her worry, that she will never again get to indulge in the pleasures she was exposed to, cause her to age prematurely. Interestingly, Rossetti uses the time of day here to suggest she should be at her peak. If it is the noontime of our life then I would imagine one to be at their most attractive/fertile/desirable, but Laura’s indiscretion means that society views her as an old spinster rather than an attractive marital prospect.
She is consumed by misery and regret for that which she will never have again. If I was being lewd I might speculate about what her trying to grow her own fruits represents, but I’ll leave that to you.
I see the end of this stanza as being a lament that she will never experience marriage and fulfilled long term sexual life.
Rossetti paints a picture of a girl who has just given up and accepted her fate as a sullied member of society. She no longer engages in the innocent and homely pursuits, which I’d associate with running a household. Is this an acknowledgement that she will never be required to run her own household?
Good old Lizzie to the rescue! Seeing Laura’s state of destitution, Lizzie endeavours to restore her to life by bringing her the goblins’ fruit. However, in this stanza she fears for her own reputation (remembering the tale of Jeanie) if she supports Laura.
Eventually Laura’s condition becomes too much for Lizzie to bear and she resolves to risk her reputation in order to support her sister.
This stanza is wonderful, with so much going on that I’ll tackle fully in the next section of my analysis.
The goblins greet Lizzie with laughter and glee as they think she has given into temptation. There is a chaotic scene as the goblins surround her, molest her and try to force their fruits into her hand.
Despite all these offers, Lizzie is determined not to go the same way as Laura and Jeanie. She offers money for their fruit rather than giving a part of herself – thus doing things the right way. The goblins don’t want it though and want Lizzie to stay with them all and enjoy their fruits there and then.
Lizzie is a fighter though and refuses their advances and stands up for her friend by trying to get the fruits. Rossetti has the goblins attacking and abusing her, leaving her ‘soil’d’ and trying to force the fruits upon her.
If we relate this to society, this could be what happens to those that stand up for women with poor reputations. As Lizzie tries to support her friend Laura, despite her indiscretion, she is rounded on and castigated by society along with her.
However, Lizzie stands strong and her purity and virtue shine through in this stanza in the face of a storm of abuse and vitriol.
The goblins are pretty rough with her and try to force her to submit to her desires, but she remains resolute and pure.
If we are looking for sexual imagery then the goblins leaving her covered in the fruity juices, but being unable to get them inside her is a particularly harrowing picture.
Moving swiftly on, the goblins eventually grow frustrated and give up on their abuse, letting Lizzie leave and giving her her money back too. Does this represent Lizzie overcoming her own urges or does this represent her standing up to societal judgement and coming out with an upstanding reputation?
Lizzie races home, still caution that the goblins may still pursue her. She feels elated that she has overcome them – her urges/societal judgement.
When she arrives home she allows Laura to suck all the juices off her skin in order to satiate herself. I don’t think this is meant to be sexual in anyway, but basically means that Lizzie’s defiance of societal judgement to support her friend actually provides strength to Laura.
Laura is initially concerned that Lizzie has sullied her own reputation in order to support her, but without waiting for assurances she digs into the juices covering Lizzie’s face.
The juice is like poison to Laura and she seems to have some kind of fit. Don’t worry though, this is a rebirth as she realises the error of her ways and now she’s her former desire as being poisonous. She sheds her clothes symbolically to represent this new start and Rossetti’s imagery suggests that the rebirth is fanatical. Her belief in a pure life and avoiding earthly desires is that of a religious convert who wants to prove her worth to God.
Some more dramatic imagery showing us the extent of her transformation. Her former beliefs (which all strangely seem to be phallic symbols – ‘watch-tower’, ‘mast’, ‘tree’ could all be representation of an erect penis that seems to have been her only focus ever since her indulgence! However, all these are toppled and destroyed, meaning her cravings are being banished.
There is a very Rossetti -line at the end of the stanza where a question is posed about whether this represents life or death. If you’ve read my other Rossetti posts, you’ll probably recognise that idea of earthly death when Rossetti decides to dedicate her life to God instead of being fulfilled on earth as a wife and mother.
The question is immediately answered. ‘Life out of death’ suggests that Laura has gone through this idea of sacrificing her earthly life and fulfillment in order to be born again as a servant of God.
As she goes through this death and rebirth Lizzie watches her and makes sure she is okay. This also mirrors other Rossetti poems where this transformation is plagued with doubts and pain. Lizzie’s support helps Laura through and she is reborn fresh and pure to the world.
The final stanza is a little at odds with the extent of the rebirth that I read in the previous stanzas, but almost feels a bit tacked on to me.
We rejoin the sisters after a number of years and see them married and fulfilled as wives and mothers in the appropriate manner. The tale of the rest of the poem is used as a cautionary tale for their children in order to guide their behaviour growing up – it is also meant to guide us, as readers.
The six lines stress the importance of female solidarity. When one woman is in distress and trouble, it is up to others to support her through the tough times and help her recover her standing in the world.
Phew! That’s 6,208 words already! My MA dissertation was only 15,000 words.
Language and techniques
Bugger, I’m already three days behind schedule.
I’m not going to be as thorough here as I was above and rather than approach it stanza by stanza I am going to pick out the highlights here. If this one comes up in the exam you will have to do the same as there is no way an hour is enough to talk about this properly.
I’m going to break this down into five significant points, starting with fruity symbolism.
In the opening stanza we are barraged by offers of more fruits than we could shake a stick at. I’d take the range to represent the amount of temptation in the world, in a sort of there’s something for everyone manner. However, the descriptions of fruit get a bit more… fruity as we continue.
Skipping to the third stanza we get positively sexual connotations to the descriptions of ‘luscious’ grapes combined with the image the vines growing. The growth of a vine could be viewed as phallic and representing the penis. Not convinced? What about when Laura succumbs and finally tastes the fruit? She ‘suck’d their fruit globes’ like ‘honey from the rock’. Maybe my mind is just twisted, but I can only imagine this being the description of a blowjob/oral sex with the rock representing you know what and the globes you know what else.
However, it is not just the imagery here that connects us raw lust and sexuality. Check out Rossetti’s verb choices. The goblins say their fruit is there to ‘pluck and suck’: what’s the third word in this rhyming list? Well, maybe not for Rossetti, but these words are almost onomatopoeic and the heavily stressed monosyllabic words sound aggressive, decisive and sexual.
Laura ‘suck’d and suck’d and suck’d’ (verb repeated five times in the sixth stanza) and she ‘flung’ away the remains of her fruit. These are passionate actions and lack refinement and class. She is going for it! Taken away in the heat of the moment and really enjoying herself. The repetition of ‘suck’d’ serves to show her insatiability in the face of her finally giving into temptation.
Contrast this insatiability with the tranquil and quaint rural life of the sisters’ farm. Here they are engaged in making ‘cakes for dainty mouths’, but Laura’s mouth is anything but dainty when she’s having her fill of the goblins’ fruity treats.
You can see how it changes Laura as well, in the thirteenth stanza we see her awake, while her sister sleeps, with a ‘passionate yearning’ and she ‘gnash’d’ her teeth. The fruit has transformed her from an innocent soul to a little minx!
Nasty Goblin Men
I love Rossetti’s description of these chaps. Before I explore it using some quotations from across the texts, let me give you an overview of how I see their importance.
If this poem is designed to support the fallen women in society that Rossetti was associated with through her charity work, then who do the goblins represent? I’d see them as being either the punters who use prostitutes or alternatively (and more satisfyingly) all men.
Now these fallen women were castigated by society and seen as being impure, unfit for marriage and as all round terribly bad. However, remember that it takes two to tango. If these women are evil and castigated, what about the men that have helped them achieve this infamous position? Well, men’s reputations could never be tarnished in the same way. In fact, in Cousin Kate, we have a lord who basically uses and abuses our poetic voice and continues his life without a care.
So, Rossetti decides to show the other side of the coin and Laura’s beauty, innocence and purity (shown through her almost twin-like status with Lizzie and their simple, country life) is contrasted with a the hideous nature and actions of these men.
While Laura’s lust and urges make her hear their cries as the ‘voice of doves cooing together’, which suggests similar purity and goodness. However, her urges are betraying her senses and causing her to make a poor judgement (young girls always go for the wrong guys… or maybe that’s just the story of my youth!). Rossetti consistently compares the goblins to animals with ‘a cat’s face’, walking at ‘a rat’s pace’, ‘crawl[ing] like a snail’ and prowling like a ‘wombat’. Not only is comparison between human and animal usually not very complimentary, but look at her choice of animals. With perhaps the exception of the cat, these are verminous animals that we actively try to exterminate. Laura in contrast is a dove and a pigeon, much more respectable and graceful.
Look too at the way they act. ‘Racing, whisking, tumbling, hobbling’, ‘hawking’ their good and they ‘tramp’ around the woods. A complete lack of grace or elegance and sounding chaotic, but this soon gets worse. Later in the poem, the goblins’ assault on Lizzie paints them as vicious rapists or thugs who are manipulating young, innocent and naive girls.
In the nineteenth stanza, they ‘laugh’d’ and there are a hundred verbs thrown at us by Rossetti to describe they way they jostle around Lizzie trying to get the chance to exploit her. Comment on the alliteration here along with the repetitive ‘ing’ in these five or six lines, which makes you read the poem like a ritualistic chant that adds to the threat and menace of their actions. This gives way to even more aggressive behaviour in the next stanza where they are ‘barking, mewing, hissing, mocking’ as they tear at her body and clothes.
Okay, you get the idea. Rossetti’s description of the goblins is a deliberate attempt to make the reader think about where we place the blame and judgement when a sexual act occurs outside of marriage. We are sympathetic with Laura who is merely misled by her desires, while the goblins are physically repulsive, but more importantly seem to enjoy the misery and pain they inflict without a thought to their own reputations.
Oh, you should also mention a lovely line in the last stanza. Their fruits are described as being ‘like honey to the throat But poison in the blood’. What a lovely little line or two! This mirrors The Convent Threshold’s idea that earthly love and sexuality is a temporary state that risks ruining one’s chances of eternal happiness in heaven. Tasting honey is lovely short term, but drinking poison means you are screwing yourself in the long run.
Lizzie vs Laura – an internal struggle
Do Lizzie and Laura really exist? Well, no it’s just a poem. However, could we argue that Rossetti is writing about her own struggle.
The sisters are so similar that in stanza that they are as ‘two blossoms on one stem’, implying they are almost indistinguishable. It is not just in appearance, but they are also both beset by temptation. In the second stanza, while we may focus on Laura’s bowing her ‘head to hear’ showing her interest in the goblins, you might have missed Lizzie’s ‘blushes’. This suggests to me that she is thinking the same thoughts as Laura, but is trying to suppress them. Ultimately she does, but her initial urge shows that it is within all women to give in to temptation. Lizzie takes one path and Laura another, but it could quite easily have been the other way around.
Think about Rossetti’s struggle between heavenly focus and earthly desire in poems like The Convent Threshold and we should be able to see an echo here. One side of us wants to give into the temptation as Laura does, but another part tries to resist.
While I think Rossetti purposely gives us a twin to emphasise Laura’s ever-woman status, she also uses Lizzie to give the reader a moral message.
We are given a story of Jeanie’s straying from the path leading to a life of misery and an untimely and indistinguished death and can reflect on how she was abandoned by those around her. However, Laura is saved by Lizzie’s love for her and desire to see her survive and repent for her sexual sins.
Rossetti wants us to see the good in Laura as she is consistently described in glowing terms and thus she wants the reader to recognise that she is worthy of saving. Laura is a ‘rush-imbedded swan’, ‘a lily from the beck’ and a ‘moonlit poplar branch’, all images which position her as initially something white, beautiful and symbolically pure and innocent, but being drawn into the darkness or danger.
Lizzie’s effort to save Laura are rewarded. With her help Laura is able to realise that the fruits are ‘wormwood’ or poison to her and she rejects them completely (giving herself to God?). She ‘rent her robes’ is a symbolic shedding of her past life and beliefs, beckoning in a new, reformed life. It all works out well and she goes on to lead a respectable life and spinning her own tale as one of warning to her children.
More phallic imagery
As if you need more of my awkward descriptions of the lurid images my mind has transformed Rossetti’s wonderful words!
Anyway, examine the stanza where Lizzie is standing strong against the goblins’ assault (stanza twenty-one). Ever image sees Lizzie positioned as something standing tall and erect against the fierce storms, bees or fleets. These are all phallic symbols and show us what is going through Lizzie’s minds. Although I suppose she is actually standing firm against the temptation of the goblins’ own ‘gilded dome[s] and spire[s]’!
Even better we see Laura’s rebirth toppling a variety of similar phallic images. As she dismisses temptation from her mind, we see the ‘wind up-rooted tree’ and the ‘watch-tower… shattered down’. It is as if she has got rid of the erect penises that haunted her dreams and waking hours!
Sorry to be so crude, but it is hard to avoid. Also, image having to listen to me explain this/discuss this in class – much more awkward!
It lacks regularity, which works as a mirror of the struggle in the mind between our urges and maintaining our respectability (in society and before God).
I’d also mention the goblins’ song in the opening stanza. It is really pleasing to read because of the simple rhyme and repetition of the fruits – song-like. It almost bounces along and leaves us wanting to sample the range of fine fruits they have on offer. Rossetti has created this feeling to show us how appealing our urges are, they feel natural and are easy to follow.
There is a tone more in there, but I will leave you with that in the hope that you don’t become overwhelmed!
I think I would position this as defiant. Rossetti shows where the evil lies and tells us we should feel sympathy for sweet, naive Laura. The tale within the tale of Jeanie gives us a sharp morale reminder that our judgement can destroy others who are deserving of our support.
The ending is almost like Rossetti saying to us, ‘see what good we can do if we support each other and help get the fallen back on the right track.’ A little sanctimonious, but at the time this sort of message of support and sisterhood would’ve been really powerful.