Your Goblin Market (1862) is a poem which teasingly resists a fixed interpretation. Is it a feminist tale / an anti-capitalist warning / a Christian allegory / a metaphor for anorexia / a story about addiction / or even a story about homeopathy (!) / an allegory against the pleasures of misplaced sexuality / a parable of female sisterhood / a story of lesbian incest / or simply a children’s fairy-tale with no further meaning whatsoever? We can most certainly find a piece of scholarship to support any view of the story. Reading such a poem is like entering a battle between understanding and the impossibility of understanding.
Laura and Lizzie are sisters and live by themselves in a small house in the wood. Morning and evenings, they hear eerie calls from goblin merchants, taunting them to buy exotic fruits. While Lizzie resists their calls, Laura succumbs, despite her sister’s warnings: she pays the goblins with a lock of her golden hair, and gorges herself on the forbidden fruits. Instead of satiating her craving, however, her desire for more only increases: the goblin’s fruit is the most delicious she has ever tasted. However, after having eaten it, Laura can no longer hear their enticing call: the goblins want to have nothing with her anymore. She grows sick with yearning and begins to age prematurely, wasting away in longing for the goblin fruit.
Fearing for Laura’s life, Lizzie goes to the goblin market to purchase more fruit for her sister. The goblin men tempt her to eat the fruit herself, but Lizzie refuses to open her mouth. They turn increasingly violent, abusing her verbally and physically, and trying to stuff fruit into her mouth. As she keeps her mouth closed and remains inviolable, they tear at her clothes and smear fruit’s juice on her naked body.
The goblins finally give up, and Lizzie runs back home covered in the juices of the forbidden fruit, and offers herself to her sister. On the verge of death, Laura kisses her sister’s naked body, sucking the juice off Lizzie’s skin. The forbidden fruit now tastes bitter to her, and she eventually recovers. The sisters grow up and have children, to whom they tell the story of the goblin market as a warning and a reminder that ‘there is no friend like a sister’.
Drawing from a variety of genres, such as fairy tale and gothic, and a variety of traditions, such as Medieval European folklore and biblical imagery, you use language to create a hypnotic and dreamlike atmosphere, blending rhythm, sound and the sensory perceptions of taste, touch, and smell, so as to convey the sisters’ seductive experience, while, at the same time, enchanting and unsettling the reader.
The poem is pervaded by erotic imagery and sensual language, full of words such as plump, pluck, juice, suck, bite, dripping. The goblins are described as animalistic men, acting like cats, rats, or snails (“One had a cat’s face, / One whisked a tail, / One tramped at a rat’s pace, / One crawled like a snail”), so as to entice the girls into giving in to the physical realm and into indulging its pleasures (“Come buy, come buy: / Our grapes fresh from the vine, / Pomegranates full and fine, (…) / Taste them and try: (…) / Figs to fill your mouth, (…) Come buy, come buy”).
Laura’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit can be read as a metaphor for sex, for the loss of her virginity, or for prostitution (“Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red: (…) / She sucked and sucked and sucked the more / Fruits which that unknown orchard bore’ / She sucked until her lips were sore”).
The goblins’ treatment of Lizzie can be read as a form of seduction (They “Hugg’d her and kiss’d her/ Squeez’d and caress’d her”, and invited her to “Bite at our peaches (…) Pluck them and suck them”), followed by gang-rape (they “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”), so that Lizzie is compared to “a rock of blue-vein’d stone/ Lash’d by tides obstreperously” and to “a fruit-crown’d orange-tree” being pollinated, “sore beset by wasp and bee”.
Sinful pleasure and transgression are also linked with addiction and bodily waste. Laura buys the fruit with a piece of her own body, and pays for her transgression with her health (she cuts a curl of her hair, which is reminiscent of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock ( 1712), where Petre cuts off a lock of Arabella’s hair without permission, a non-consensual personal invasion that alludes to rape). When Laura eats the forbidden fruit, she becomes insatiable, and her craving seems that of an addict: “I ate my fill,/Yet my mouth waters still“. The fruit acts in Laura’s body like a drug: “Swift fire spread through her veins, knock’d at her heart, / Met the fire smouldering there / And overbore its lesser flame”.
However, nothing is simple in this poem of yours. After all, Laura is redeemed of her sensual transgression only by committing another: by licking the fruit juice out of her sister’s body. What are we to make of Lizzie’s lines? “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”. And how should we read Laura’s response? “Shaking with aguish fear, and pain, She kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth”. You seem to be trying to steer away from equating female sexuality with sinfulness. Are we to understand that the sinful nature of Laura’s transgression was not in its physical or sensuous nature, but in the kind of love and the spiritual pursuit behind it?
There is also a complex use of doublings in your exploration of the duality of human nature: Laura may be read as Lizzie’s double, but she is never an evil twin. After her confession of having eaten the fruit, Laura is not expelled from Eden, but rather rests even more deeply mingled with her sister, “cheek to cheek and breast to breast/ Locked together in one nest”, “Folded in each other’s wings, / They lay down in their curtained bed: / Like two blossoms on one stem.”
In your poem, sensual life is not contraposed to the spiritual life, but rather to death: the sensual and spiritual can only truly exist when coupled, in a twin’s embrace, and death is what happens when one of them is either denied or forsaken. Laura’s redemption is not found in denial, but in the very act of sucking once again the juices of the forbidden fruit: the transient experience of tasting the fruits of knowledge and of life is made long-lasting in the twin’s embrace. Laura’s salvation lies in the knowledge that, without love, the forbidden fruit can only bring a corruptible sense of fulfilment.
Lizzie’s encounter with the goblins is as transformative for her as it had been for Laura: instead of running away, she conquers her fear, and gains experience by giving up her innocence in exchange of knowledge. This enchanted fruit is turned into a “fiery antidote”. Lizzie learns to resist temptation and thus stands up against evil. After her encounter with the goblins, she is not an unsullied maid, but a bruised victor returning from the battlefield.
Here, you deliberately blurred the limits between purity and sin, salvation and fall from grace. Yours is not a straightforward dichotomy of ‘abstention as good’ and ‘consumption as sinful’. Moreover, in your poem, life and death are also coupled in a twin’s embrace: “She fell at last; / Pleasure past and anguish past, / Is it death or is it life? / Life out of death”.
Despite its sexual undertones, the forbidden fruit in your poem has been read as an allusion to Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit in Eden (but with goblins), and their subsequent fall from grace. Unlike Eve, however, and unlike the treatment given to fallen woman in Victorian literature, Laura is tempted, then deliberately choses transgression, and is redeemed in the end.
Furthermore, she is redeemed by another woman – which, in a very progressive tone for its time, illustrates the redemptive power of female resistance, solidarity, and sisterhood. Instead of being expelled from the Garden of Eden, your Laura is awarded a second chance. Instead of being ostracized, dying of guilt or committing suicide, your fallen woman not only regains respectability, but, in the end, also gets married and has children.
I also wonder who Adam and Eve are in your poem: if the goblin men are meant to be your Adam, then your Eve, as Laura, is the tempted, not the tempter; or, perhaps, in an equally subversive gender reversal, Laura is your Eve, and Lizzie your Adam. “Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted / For my sake the fruit forbidden?”, asks Laura when her sister comes back home. How am I to read this?
Equally puzzling is Lizzie’s invitation to her sister: “Eat me, drink me, love me”. Can this act of self-sacrifice be read as Christ’s redemption of humanity’s sins? “Take; this is my body”, we read in Mark 14:22. Likewise, Lizzie saves Laura by offering herself to the goblins (and, later, by offering her own body to feed her sister). Or should we read Lizzie as a female version of Odysseus, tied to the mast, resisting the sirens’ song?
Laura does not fit the category of a fallen woman as the Victorians conceived of it, and Lizzie is no angel in the house either. None of them is virginal, but both are pure. They are Eve, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Adam, and Christ – all together, in a confusion of fallen and unfallen.
To try to fit your poem into a fixed meaning would only bring a corruptible sense of fulfilment. But your poem is no goblin fruit: is it death or is it life? Like an Eucharist gift, there may be beauty in uncertainty.
“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 lipLest they should cram a mouthful in:But laugh’d in heart to feel the dripOf juice that syrupp’d all her face,And lodg’d in dimples of her chin,And streak’d her neck which quaked like curd.”– Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market