‘Goblin Market’ (1862): the Rossettis in collaboration

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Christina Rossetti', September 1866
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Christina Rossetti’, September 1866

Morning and evening 
Maids heard the goblins cry: 
‘Come buy our orchard fruits, 
Come buy, come buy.’

So begins Goblin Market, one of Christina Rossetti’s most popular and distinctive poems and an acknowledged classic of Victorian literature. It is a fairy tale, an allegory of sin and redemption and a feminist tribute to the powers and bonds of sisterly love all in one, though there have been many more critical interpretations besides. Its story follows two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who live by themselves in a little house near a wood. They are accustomed to hearing the eerie calls of the goblin merchants selling their exotic fruits pass near the house, until one day Laura, despite her sister’s warnings, succumbs to curiosity and tastes the fruits. Having eaten she then craves for more, eventually growing sickly with yearning. Lizzie decides to go to the goblins to get more fruit for Laura; she is violently attacked by the creatures who attempt to force-feed her their fruits, yet she remains steadfast and keeps her mouth closed until they give up. Lizzie returns home covered in juices and pulp, and Laura, who is on the verge of death, sucks and drinks it from her until she is miraculously restored to life. ‘For,’ Rossetti declares, ‘there is no friend like a sister’. I always find the poem’s irregular, shifting rhyme scheme and metre rather hypnotic and dreamlike, though John Ruskin complained that Rossetti’s use of such irregularities was detrimental. ‘Your sister,’ he wrote to Dante Gabriel after reading Goblin Market, ‘should exercise herself in the severest commonplace of metre until she can write as the public like.’ Ever the traditionalist!

John Brett, 'Christina Rossetti' (unfinished), 1857. I particularly like the gorgeously patterned oversized bird feather Brett incorporates into the background,
John Brett, ‘Christina Rossetti’ (unfinished), 1857. I particularly like the gorgeously patterned oversized bird feather Brett incorporates into the background.

Christina composed the poem in April 1859, and in August 1861 Macmillan agreed to publish it in a volume along with some of her other famous poems, including ‘Remember’, ‘After Death’ and ‘The Convent Threshold’. Her brother Gabriel immediately set about the task of designing illustrations, and completed them in December that year before the book was eventually published in 1862. Gabriel actually only produced two drawings to be printed in the volume, both of which illustrate Goblin Market only, and they are the first of many attempts by artists over the years to visualise Christina’s haunting and sometimes disturbing poem. Gabriel’s two illustrations appear at the very front of the book, one as a frontispiece and the other on the title-page, and the exact lines in the poem they depict are clearly indicated by the swirl-lettered captions beneath. Gabriel also designed the borders of the title-page, complete with rose motifs set in a geometric grid, as well as the external binding — thus, the book itself becomes a kind of art-object, beautiful both in cover and content.

Gilt binding of 'Goblin Market and Other Poems' designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Gilt binding of ‘Goblin Market and Other Poems’ designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, frontispiece and title-page of 'Goblin Market and Other Poems' by Christina Rossetti, published 1862
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, frontispiece and title-page of ‘Goblin Market and Other Poems’ by Christina Rossetti, published 1862

The frontispiece (detail below) portrays line 125 of the poem, as Laura succumbs to the temptation of the goblin fruit. Although she has ‘no coin […] No copper in [her] purse’ (ll. 116-118) to pay with, the goblins instead beseech her to ‘buy from [them] with a golden curl’, for the gold of her luscious hair is deemed more valuable by faeries than the gold of human currency: ‘You have much gold upon your head.’ (l. 123) In Rossetti’s picture, Laura kneels and poises to snip off a tress with a pair of scissors while the goblins jostle towards her. The composition is flat and crowded, and a close-up of the printed wood-block reveals a dense variety of textures, patterns and lines which lend the image a rich, detailed and decorative quality. The six goblins themselves seem to have stumbled out of some curious, anthropomorphic menagerie: human hands are juxtaposed with the heads of a rat, a fish, a cockatoo, an owl and what I take to be a dormouse and a wombat. (In the case of the latter, a whole book has been written by John Simons about Gabriel’s obsession with wombats and exotic animals!) Another interesting element of the picture is the presence of another female figure in the top left-hand corner, who walks away uphill from the gathering. She looks back over her shoulder and carries a jug in one hand — we can tell that the jug is heavy because she swings out her other arm to steady herself. Is this Lizzie, running off after warning her sister about the goblin men? Simon Humphries notes that Gabriel has interpreted his sister’s poem wrongly in portraying Lizzie looking back at Laura, since it implies that she is intentionally deserting her without making an effort to save her as she later does — that is, if it is even Lizzie at all. I would here point out that Christina makes much of the sisters both having golden hair; this woman on the left has dark hair, and the poem makes no mention of her bearing a jug at this point. Dante Gabriel has come up against one of the great challenges which any illustrator faces: whether to follow the text as closely as possible, or interpret it more subjectively.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Buy from us with a golden curl' (detail), c. 1861-62
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Buy from us with a golden curl’ (detail), c. 1861-62

The second illustration (below) depicts another instance of the word ‘golden’, which occurs a little later on line 184. Laura has tasted the treacherous goblin fruit and that evening craves for more, saying that she will go and buy more the next night. For the time being, she and her sister nestle together in ‘their curtained bed’ to sleep. There is no denying the air of dreamy sensuality in Rossetti’s illustration; as in the poem, the sisters lie ‘golden head by golden head, / Like two pigeons in one nest / Folded in each other’s wings’. (ll. 184-186) Their arms enfold and enclose one another in a circle of intimacy, and furthermore there is barely a straight line anywhere in the drawing: it’s all arabesques, soft curves and floral patterns to mirror the soft rhymes and lullaby tone of the poem’s lines. The viewer is also left uncertain as to which is Laura and which is Lizzie. They are virtually indistinguishable and inseparable from one another, both having the same cascading hair, slumberous eyelids, pouting lips and thickset jaws. You might recall my previous post about Gabriel’s fascination with doppelgängers and doubling, and here is another image of a pair of identical female figures. This is suggested in Christina’s poem that the sisters are ‘like two blossoms on one stem, / Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow’ (ll. 188-189), and have similar-sounding names (it’s easy to get ‘Laura’ and ‘Lizzie’ confused). Aside from this, a circular hole on the left appears to be a window into a dream, perhaps Laura’s yearning vision of the goblins and their tempting fruit. They dance down a hillside beneath a crescent moon, led by the same owl-faced goblin from the previous image. Both illustrations have top-left-to-bottom-right diagonals in the left-hand corners of their compositions, subtly suggesting an echoing of the daytime reality of the first picture in the nighttime dreamworld of the second. This particular illustration could be seen to contribute to homosexual readings of Goblin Market: its portrayal of close, intense female intimacy — the woman on the right even with her dress slipping down to nearly reveal her breasts — anticipates the incident later in the poem in which the sisters kiss one another with an almost erotic intensity.  I always recall with interest an English seminar last year in which we discussed this illustration, and the general consensus of my classmates that there is something decidedly masculine or ‘mannish’ in the women’s physiognomies, as if androgynously blurring genders.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Golden head by golden head', c. 1861-62
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Golden head by golden head’, c. 1861-62

Gabriel’s drawings for Goblin Market only depict the poem’s first half, and he did not then go on to portray Lizzie’s quest to redeem her sister’s fall into temptation, the notorious sequence in which, ‘white and golden’, she bravely resists the goblins’ violent attacks upon her (ll. 408-446). Nevertheless he has selected a moment of temptation and a moment of sisterly love, certainly two of the poem’s core themes, as the focus of his pictures. It is, in my view, a very successful collaboration between sister and brother, and out of the many illustrations produced by later artists I consider Gabriel’s to be closest to the dreamy spirit of his sister’s famous poem. Is this because they were created contemporaneously? Finally, the Rossetti Archive lists a stained-glass window designed by Gabriel and manufactured by William Morris’ Firm, depicting a group of mischievous animal-faced creatures all sporting rather swanky sun-hats, which is apparently titled Goblin Market. Another scholar reckons the window was actually designed by Arthur Hughes, but it would make a nice ending to this story if it were by Gabriel!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Goblin Market', stained-glass window, c. 1862
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Goblin Market’, stained-glass window, c. 1862


Further information

  • The full text of Goblin Market, with line numbers
  • An overview of Christina Rossetti’s work on the Victorian Web, with numerous articles on context and themes.
  • Listen to an episode of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time about Christina Rossetti on BBC iPlayer, first broadcast 1 December 2011 (if iPlayer doesn’t work in your country, this link may work instead)

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