By Cailin Roles (MA ’19), Department of English, Kansas State University
Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem “Goblin Market” tells the story of Laura and Lizzie, two young unmarried sisters who are tempted day and night by the cries of goblin fruit merchants. When Laura succumbs to temptation and trades a lock of her hair for a taste of the fruit “sweeter than honey from the rock,” she falls mortally ill (Rossetti 129). Through Lizzie’s intervention, however (and, ironically, another taste of the goblins’ fruit), Laura regains her health, youth, and beauty.
“Goblin Market” has been read allegorically by countless scholars, particularly in terms of gender and sexuality. Critics cite the poem’s references to Eden and the forbidden fruit, its apparent sympathy for “fallen women” (since, miraculously, Laura makes it out of the poem alive!), and the homoerotic undertones of the two sisters’ relationship.
Each of these interpretations depends heavily on the poem’s tongue-twisting first stanza, in which the titular goblins cry out the names of twenty-nine different fruits available for purchase. And yet, as Rebecca F. Stern points out, few critics consider the fruit simply as food.
Take a moment and consider the list of fruits the goblins profess to sell:
Apples, quinces, lemons, oranges, cherries, melons, raspberries, peaches, mulberries, cranberries, crab-apples, dewberries, pine-apples, blackberries, apricots, strawberries, grapes, pomegranates, dates, bullaces, pears, greengages, damsons, bilberries, currants, gooseberries, barberries, figs, and citrons.
It’s a mouthful, of course, but it’s also a strange list to anyone who knows about seasonality, especially since Victorian farmers didn’t have our present ability to easily circumvent natural harvest seasons. Blueberries, for example, are only in season from June to August, while quince are harvested from September to November.
We could chalk this up to the goblins having magical harvesting abilities, but that seems a bit cheap for an otherwise deeply complex poem. So why these fruits?
First, it’s useful to think about the year Rossetti was writing: 1859. The early days of spring were unexpectedly warm, while the later were blighted by a severe frost. According to Richard Menke, it is unlikely that fresh fruit would have been available at this time. Instead, Victorians would have had to rely on imported or greenhouse-grown produce.
One might argue, then, that the goblins are importers or talented horticulturalists (assuming they also have significant economic power, that is). But would non-fresh fruit really be as “sweet to tongue and sound to eye” as the goblins’ fruit is (Rossetti 30)?
Here’s where food adulteration becomes crucial. Adulteration in this context refers broadly to food that doesn’t meet legal standards. Most commonly, food adulteration involves adding a foreign substance to a food to increase its quantity or mimic a higher degree of quality.
Food adulteration was a massive problem in Victorian London, both when Rossetti was writing “Goblin Market” and when it was first published. Flour was cut with chalk and alum; spices were mixed with lead and mercury; even alcohol was spiked with essence of cayenne to give it a cheaper kick.
As for fruit—green produce like gooseberries were kept looking bright and appealing with copper, to the point that writers of the period recommended shoppers to choose fruit with unappealing colors to avoid risking their health. Perhaps when the goblins are described as being “full of airs and graces,” it’s because they are quite literally selling poison as fruit (Rossetti 337).
A literal reading such as this becomes complicated when we reach the poem’s end and Laura’s return to health—although, even an allegorical understanding must tackle with the seeming paradox of the goblins’ fruit as antidote.
Personally, I think Lizzie’s means of attaining the fruit changes its nature. She isn’t duped by the goblins, she never tastes the fruit, and she does not part with coin or hair to receive its juice. While I don’t recommend eating copper to treat copper poisoning, it’s worth considering that, for Rosetti, a sister’s selfless love can counteract some good old unregulated capitalism.
Menke, Richard. “The Political Economy of Fruit.” The Culture of Christina Rossetti, Ohio UP, 1999, 105-136.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Poetry Foundation,
www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44996/goblin-market. Accessed 18 Feb. 2019.
Stern, Rebecca F. “‘Adulterations Detected’: Food and Fraud in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market.’” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 57, no. 4, March 2003, pp. 477-511. UC Press, doi:10.1525/ncl.2003.57.4.477. Accessed 18 Feb. 2019.