We must not look at goblin men,/We must not buy their fruits.
Who knows upon what soil they fed/Their hungry thirsty roots?
Virginia Woolf once wrote of Christina Rossetti, “If I were to bring a case against God, she would be one of the first witnesses I should call.” It is not the most wholehearted of endorsements. Rossetti suffers from it; most people know her, if they know her at all, as the woman who wrote the words to “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”. The remainder of her reputation is as a writer of morbid romantic and devotional poetry, with a heavy focus upon death and blighted love. She’s easy to make fun of, if you’ve never actually read her.
Penguin’s Little Black Classics ought to help rectify that. To begin with, they constitute a brilliantly simple marketing idea: to celebrate Penguin’s eightieth anniversary, a limited edition release of eighty short, small, elegant books of extracts from some of Penguin’s most famous publications, priced at 80p each. There is nonfiction from the writings of Charles Darwin, Samuel Pepys, John Ruskin, and Henry Mayhew, amongst others. There is fiction from Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, to name but a few. There is, of course, poetry: Basho, Hafez, Chaucer, Ovid, Catullus, Homer, Walt Whitman, and—not least—Rossetti. The Little Black Classics are pamphlet-sized and come without any supplementary material: no introduction, no footnotes, not even a back-cover blurb. The effect is to make the text immediate and fresh. You’re approaching something on your own that would normally be mediated for you through academia. For some readers, I imagine, it is their first time in years—perhaps ever—interacting with a non-contemporary text simply, on its own terms.
I bought two other Little Black Classics along with the Rossetti (extracts of Walt Whitman’s poetry, entitled On the Beach At Night Alone, and a collection of the medieval Persian poet Hafez under the enticing name The nightingales are drunk), but Goblin Market was a brilliant place to start because that freshness, that sense of coming to the text without mediation, was particularly vivid. I had barely read Rossetti; “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” hardly counts, and the other two poems of hers I knew were from my senior high school English class, where we had covered them in five minutes and moved on to other things. At Oxford, while we covered Victorian fiction and criticism and two major poets (Tennyson and Browning), the tutors roundly ignored her. So I knew almost nothing. I had few expectations, other than those adjectives mentioned above: morbid, romantic, devotional. They were fulfilled, but more adjectives crowded in as I read: playful. Contemporary. Clever. Earnest. Pathological. Painterly. And, oddly, sexy.
Goblin Market is a long poem and takes the form of a cautionary tale. There are two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. Both have golden hair and pale skin and inexplicably absent parents, as fairy tale sisters often do. Of an evening, they while away the hours by a stream in a dell near their house. Both hear the crying of goblin men, fruit-sellers and tempters. Lizzie resists and flees back to the safety of the house; Laura cannot resist, and eats. From then on she is cursed, restless and depressive, desperate for another taste of the goblin fruit, and Lizzie takes it upon herself to rescue her sister from the spiritual slough into which she has sunk.
So far, so Victorian, with its correlation of fruit or food with sexuality, desire, and excess, which, naturally, must be punished. Where Rossetti stands out is in the sensuality of her descriptions. The list of fruits that the goblin-men are hawking piles up like the fruits themselves; combined with the dactylic rhythms of the meter and the truncated lines, it gives a sense of voluptuous, almost breathless abundance:
Plump unpecked cherries,
Wild free-born cranberries…
Come buy, come buy.
And when Laura decides to stay behind in the glen, we know that she’s doomed long before she does, because the poetry tells us so, again in the most extraordinarily sensual manner:
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.
I mean, sorry, but that is hot. Not just for the neck imagery, although that’s part of it; it’s also the way Rossetti works her rhymes, abaccb, so that you think you know what’s coming and then there’s the final couplet with “launch/gone”, which don’t rhyme at all, although “gone” echoes back to “swan”, so there’s resonance but no predictability. It’s startlingly good. (There’s also the imagery of a woman as a ship without restraints, which is hot in yet another way.)
Her religious poetry lacks these febrile similes, but there’s an absolute assurance to them, especially the one called “Up-Hill”, which ends with a couplet that seemed familiar: “Will there be beds for me and all who seek?/Yea, beds for all who come.”
The certainty of the hope of heaven is fortunate, because almost all of the other poems are about death, or a pathological melancholy whose sufferers can find respite only in eternal sleep. The one which touched me most, however, was in an oddly different vein, a bit like Philip Larkin’s poem about the hedgehog. It’s entitled “A Frog’s Fate”:
Contemptuous of his home beyond
The village and the village pond,
A large-souled Frog who spurned each byeway
Hopped along the imperial highway.
It’s thoroughly charming. (“A large-souled Frog”! Of course.) The story ends badly, as stories tend to do for wildlife who insist on sharing roadspace with humans and their wheeled transport, and the frog’s dying “sob” or “croak” is a remorseful one: he should have stuck to the byeways. Rossetti’s final two stanzas turn the story into a meditation on the obliviousness of the great to the reality of the lives of little people—the wagoner who killed the frog was humming “A froggy went a-wooing” as he did so: “A hypothetic frog trolled he/Obtuse to a reality.” I really can’t decide what this reminds me of. Emily Dickinson in a playful mood, perhaps? Yet for all its light irony, it’s a terribly sad poem.
The final selection in the pamphlet is a series of nursery rhymes from Sing-Song, a collection Rossetti published in 1872. They start out weird: “Our little baby fell asleep,/And may not wake again/For days and days, and weeks and weeks,/But then he’ll wake again.” One imagines an ellipsis instead of a comma after the third line; we’re certainly being made to contemplate a baby whose sleep is the sleep of death. There’s sweetness: “My baby has a mottled fist,/My baby has a neck in creases;/My baby kisses and is kissed,/For he’s the very thing for kisses.” But it’s almost entirely overshadowed by falling leaves, ruined nests, caged linnets, and—finally—a grave: “Why did baby die,/Making Father sigh,/Mother cry?” Not at all the sort of things you’d be singing to your own infant. Who the intended audience could possibly have been is unclear. It reminds me, overall, of a comment one character makes in AS Byatt’s Possession, of a Victorian female poet partly modeled on Rossetti: “She doesn’t like children.” I don’t think Rossetti really did, either.
I’m glad to have been introduced to her this way, though. It allows one to make up one’s own mind about the poet and their work, which in some ways is intimidating but in others is a delightful freedom. Christina Rossetti may not have liked children, but I like her: for her fearless subject matter, for her clearly uneasy relationship with sexuality, for the wildly imaginative and colorful pictures that she paints with words. Goblin Market is a wonderful, haunting little pamphlet.