Birdsong in the Air, Lilies on the Stream: On Keeping Time and Learning from the Past in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market
In Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, the goblins call out to young maidens “morning and evening”, offering tantalizing descriptions of fruit “sweet to tongue and sound to eye” (Rossetti 1, 30). They promise berries, peaches, pomegranates, figs; a variety of fruit, “all ripe together/In summer weather” (Rossetti 15-16). But what they refrain from telling their victims is that the sweetness of their goods comes with a bitter aftertaste. The eternal summer—the promise of satiation—is nothing but “sugar-baited words” (Rossetti 234). The price that must be paid for this temporary feeling of satisfaction is a destructive and perpetual hunger that deadens the senses to everything but the desire for more fruit. Morns do pass by, and fair eves do fly past; life goes on, but the price of the forbidden fruit must be paid. The price is time: a whole life’s worth of it (Rossetti 17-18). Christina Rossetti uses memories of the past, language that marks the passing of time, and the repetition of certain words and phrases to discuss the choices one makes in the present, the effect those choices have on the future, and ways in which an understanding of the past can help inform those choices. Her characters Laura and Lizzie, who are sisters and companions, orbit around each other, and the conflict in the story begins with Laura succumbing to the pull of another field. The poem goes on to ask the reader, “Which is stronger—death, or love?” Rossetti uses the characters’ memories of the past and experiences in the present to answer this question.
Rossetti first explores the consequences of consuming goblin fruit through Lizzie’s memories of Jeanie. In the past, the desire for goblin fruit stole away Jeanie’s time, youth, and vitality, leaving her to die a slow and painful death. In the story that Lizzie relates to her sister, Jeanie first eats the fruit during the summer, and consequently “[pines] and [pines] away”; and though she “[seeks the goblins] by night and day”, she never finds them again (Rossetti 154-5). Sick with desire for the fruit and despairing at her own circumstances, she eventually “[dwindles] and [grows] grey… [falling] with the first snow” (Rossetti 156-7). Lizzie tells her sister that no grass grows over the place where Jeanie is buried, and that while she “planted daisies there a year ago”, they have not and likely never will sprout and blossom (Rossetti 160). While Jeanie was alive, she was trapped in a physical and spiritual ‘winter’, unable to stop the decline of her body and her mind. Not even the return of spring, in the form of Lizzie’s daisies, can reach or save Jeanie from her winter now—her story is already over, and she is beyond Lizzie’s help. Lizzie remembers what happened to Jeanie and does not go down that same road when she hears the fruit-call, but Laura, who does not take the story to heart, answers it, just as Jeanie did before her. As a result, Laura’s physical and spiritual state after eating the fruit mirrors Jeanie’s: her hair grows “thin and grey” and she also “[dwindles], as the fair full moon doth turn/To swift decay” (Rossetti 277-180). The goblin fruit that had been grown in the summer plunges Laura, who is in the spring of her youth, into a bitter winter. Though Laura tries to make some form of spring return to her on her own terms by “[setting her kernel-stone] by a wall that faced the south”, “[dewing] it with tears, hoping for a root”, and “[watching] for a waxing shoot”, her attempts yield no fruit (Rossetti 282-284). However, it is not the continued consumption of the goblin fruit that saves Lizzie’s life. It would not have saved Jeanie’s life, either, had she regained access to the goblin market. Lizzie’s act of love is one that rids Laura of the desire that has been causing her to waste away, thus effectively pulling her out of her ‘winter’ and into a new spring.
Christina Rossetti also uses language indicating the passage of time to create a contrast between Lizzie and Laura’s world—a world of humans—and the fairy world of the goblin market. When Laura first eats the fruit, she is overcome with ecstasy, and, after indulging herself in such excesses that her lips become sore, makes her way home—though she “knew not was it night or day” (Rossetti 139). Rossetti uses the very same words to describe the state Lizzie finds herself in on her journey home later on (Rossetti 449). In comparison, there is a distinct awareness of the passage of time when the characters are not inside the goblin market. Lizzie and Laura’s daily duties around the house start “early in the morning/When the first cock crow’d his warning”, and they both go to the brook to draw water in the evenings (Rossetti 199). However, as Laura’s desire for the fruit grows, she becomes “listless” and no longer fulfils her responsibilities during their proper times (Rossetti 297). She can only dream of the fruit and long for its taste. Lizzie, on the other hand, is almost completely unaffected by the timelessness of the goblin market, and carries out her duties according to schedule. In fact, she becomes even more aware of the passage of time after Lizzie observes that her sister is “knocking at Death’s door” (Rossetti 321). Even as she enters the goblin market and is tempted and coaxed by the goblins, she constantly keeps the thought that “one waits/At home alone for [her]” at the forefront of her mind—she constantly remind herself about her sister, about what happened to Jeanie, and about how she must not lose track of time (Rossetti 383-4). The passage of time is most significant at the end of the poem, when Laura’s journey home is paralleled with the coming of spring. However, a larger shift takes place when Laura returns to Lizzie: a linguistic and temporal shift, which gives their victory and the resulting joy a deeper meaning, and saves them from sharing the same fate as Jeanie.
The feeling of completion, of ends hearkening back to beginnings, is expressed through the repetition of images and phrases that often appear in pairs. The goblins give Laura two nicknames—“Pretty Goblin” and “Pretty Polly” (Rossetti 113). Two girls hear the goblins’ call and decide to eat the goblin fruit. There are two sisters—Laura and Lizzie—who closely resemble each other. The goblins draw their attention by repeating the line, “Come buy, come buy” over and over again, and when Laura begins to desire the beautiful and delicious fruit, she starts to imitate the rhythm of their words too by calling to her sister, “Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie” (Rossetti 54). There are two stories in the poem: that of Jeanie, which has ended, and that of Laura and Lizzie, which is ongoing. But the movement from winter to spring, death to life, decay to renewal is not one that draws solely from the past, but is also one that looks forward in order to create a new future. This is reflected in the introduction of items in groups of three. Before this transition, the sisters are already treated as two halves of one whole. They resemble each other in appearance, and are likened to “two pigeons in one nest”, “two blossoms on one stem”, “two flakes of new-fall’n snow”, and “two wands of ivory” (Rossetti 185-190). And though the presence of the goblin market makes them differ in their priorities and desires, the language used to describe them after Laura eats the fruit still contains word pairings. The sisters are still deeply connected to each other, and not neither the goblins nor the allure of their fruit can separate them completely. After Lizzie returns from the goblin market, some of the symbols and words that were previously found in groups of twos then become groups of three, symbolising the restoration of Laura’s health, and their renewed and strengthened bond.
There are three beckoning calls in Goblin Market. The goblin men cry out “Come buy, come buy” to draw the children to them, Lizzie begs Laura to “come with me home” when they hear the goblin men calling for them again, and Lizzie tells Laura to “come and kiss me” when she returns from the market (Rossetti 3, 245, 466). There are three girls who are offered goblin fruit: Jeanie succumbs and dies from it; Laura, not considering Jeanie’s story, succumbs and begins to lose her life and vitality; and Lizzie, taking into consideration both Jeanie and Laura’s experiences, refuses, and though she is mocked and beaten, is able to return home and save Laura’s life. Lastly, there are only three scenes involving laughter. The first occurrence is when Lizzie, revelling in the unexpected success of her mission, “[laughs] in heart” even as the goblins are attacking her (Rossetti 433) . The second follows closely after, when she rushes home with “haste/And inward laughter”, anticipating her sister’s recovery (Rossetti 463).And the third comes from Laura herself. After she takes the “fiery antidote”, she regains the life and freedom her sister has gained on her behalf: and when she “[wakes] as from a dream”, she “[laughs] in the innocent old way” (Rossetti 559, 537-8). She then proceeds to embrace her sister not once, nor twice, but more than three times, signifying how they have come full circle—but that rather than leaving nothing but sorrow and barren land behind, they can live and flourish together (Rossetti 539). Laura finds that the fruit that had once been “honey to the throat” is actually “poison in the blood” (Rossetti 554-5). The fruit is “wormwood to her tongue” once the eater understands the price that must be paid for it: life, love, happiness, and wholeness—that of herself, and of the one she loves most (Rossetti 494). When she desired nothing else but goblin fruit, Laura once “kept watch in vain” during the night for the goblin men, but the night Laura receives the antidote, it is Lizzie who “[watches] by her” and tends to her, offering the help and care she was not able to offer Jeanie (Rossetti 270, 525). Which is stronger—death, or love? Spring has returned to their garden, and to Laura. The spell of winter and the enchantment of the goblin fruit have been broken by a force stronger than death. In the newness of morning, in a world filled with birdsong and “new buds [opening] cup-like lilies on the stream”, Laura awakes with “light [dancing] in her eyes”, with a new life ahead of her, and with her sister by her side (Rossetti 535-6, 542).
Jaslyn’s elementary school teachers were often chagrined to find her reading under her desk in the middle of class, and though she managed to concentrate on her studies in later years, she has always been and will always be a lover of stories. Jaslyn calls Thailand, Taiwan, and Canada home, but will always have a special place in her heart for Middle Earth. These days, she spends her spare time writing letters, wrestling with her sewing machine, devouring her latest favourite books (this month: Wodehouse), and working on Project No. 1 (still in its writing/revising stage). You can also find her in her little corner of the world: herheadintheclouds.art.blog/
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Poetry Foundation,
Pear Bird Flower Spring White via Pixabay [https://pixabay.com/photos/pear-bird-flower-spring-white-4903441/]. License: CC0 1.0 Universal.