“Goblin Market, and Other Poems.” The Athenaeum, no. 1800, Apr. 1862, pp. 557–58.

“Goblin Market and Other Poems.” Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, vol. 13, no. 343, May 1862, pp. 595–96.

Rare Items Analysis: Opinions of Goblin Market” Directly after its Release

By Connor Haines

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The Athenaeum and the Saturday Review were two British periodicals that reviewed Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) by Christina Rossetti soon after its publication. The review written by The Athenaeum can be found in the Armstrong Browning Library, in the ABL Periodical section. Both reviews can be found in the online database C19: The Nineteenth Century Index. These reviews help give a glimpse into what people at the time would have thought of Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Goblin Market.” Specifically, they give readers an idea of what reviewers thought of Rossetti’s work. These observations and critiques offer insight into initial reactions to Rossetti’s poem that a modern reader might otherwise only be able to speculate on. These two periodicals can reveal how Rossetti’s peers ignored the deeper allusions to the humanizing of fallen women in her work, and instead decided to focus on a moral that stated a woman’s place was in the home.

It is important to note that both reviews are of Goblin Market and Other Poems, Rossetti’s collection of poems. “Goblin Market” is the titular poem, and as such both reviewers give it a significant portion of their review. However, other poems are reviewed, and both periodicals give an opinion of the author herself, not just the poem. Both periodicals have a positive opinion of Christina Rossetti as a poet. The Athenaeum says, “To read these poems after the laboured and skilful [sic], but not original, verse which has been issued of late, is like passing from a picture gallery with its well-feigned semblance of nature, to the real nature out-of-doors which greets us with the waving grass and the pleasant shock of the breeze” (557). To them, Rossetti’s writing was a breath of fresh air. They thought her to be both a skillful and original poet. TheSaturday Review likewise enjoys her writing, saying, “It is a pleasure to meet an authoress who has obviously given such conscientious labor to the task she has set herself to accomplish, and who has succeeded so frequently …” (595). Both reviews start off with a positive view of her skill and labor, if nothing else.

Yet, they have differing opinions of her work. The Athenaeum has a very positive view of her work, whereas the Saturday Review dislikes “Goblin Market.” The positive reviewer claims that “Goblin Market” has “an inner meaning for all who can discern it” (557). Yet, they seem to miss some of the meaning more commonly attributed to this poem in recent years. They think they have found a moral meaning in the poem, as they hint at when they describe, “Lizzie, however, desires to pay for the dainties which her sister had taken as a gift: a subtle hint, we suppose, that the pleasures which are noxious when unearned may fairly be enjoyed as the reward of toil or duty” (558). However, when comparing this review to the poem, it becomes clear that something was missed by the reviewer. Rossetti writes “She clipp’d a precious golden lock, / She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl, / Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red” (lines 126-8). Unlike what they claim, Laura did pay for the fruit, but instead of paying with coin, she paid with a lock of hair and a precious tear.  The Athenaeum misses this hint that Laura had to pay for the fruit with her body, but it does not miss the analogy of Lizzie as the fallen women entirely. They go on to state, “Lizzie wins Laura to repentance, and to a relish for those homely joys which she had scorned for the baneful sweets of Elf-land” (558). A reference to baneful sweets in the Victorian time period does imply some sexual temptation. Yet, this is rather glossed over as a potential deeper meaning, with the reviewer instead focusing on the homely joys instead of the potential allegory.

The Saturday Review has a much more negative view of the poem. It says about “Goblin Market,” “it may be presumed to be in some sense or other an allegory. But what the allegory is … we cannot undertake to say” (595). They do not understand the poem, and thus they misinterpret its meaning. What they take away is similar to what The Athenaeum discovers. They say,

Laura used to call their little ones round her, and tell them in sober seriousness of her own adventure and Lizzie’s devotion, as an inducement to the cultivation of family affection and trust. Where the moral inculcated is so excellent and proper, it may seem ungracious to complain of the unreal texture through which it is conveyed. (595)

Instead of recognizing an allegory about fallen women, they focus on the domestic sphere by dwelling on Laura’s story time with her family.

Both reviews missed the allegory that more modern readers will often pick up on. Laura had to give of her own body, much like how fallen women had to give of themselves in order to survive at times. Rossetti hints that to be saved, fallen women need another woman’s aid; in Laura’s case she receives help from her sister Lizzie. Why do the reviewers miss something that most modern readers notice and discuss?

There are a few potential reasons. These periodical articles are short reviews of entire collections of poetry. They did not have enough room to say much about these poems, and they did not have much time before moving on to the next work to review. It is possible that the writers could not spend much time or space thinking about “Goblin Market,” and thus missed most of the deeper meaning of the poem. It is also possible, however, that the end of Rossetti’s poem threw them off. The poem ends with both sisters happily married and telling their tale to their children. Focusing on family and women having their roles in the domestic sphere would have been a more comfortable message than the idea that fallen women should be lifted up by others. It was perhaps more comfortable for these men to miss, or ignore, the allegory in favor of a much more comfortable topic: women belonging and thriving in the domestic sphere.

While Rossetti’s poem had the deeper meaning of humanizing fallen women, these periodicals missed that message in favor of discussing the domestic sphere for women as a good moral. They missed Rossetti’s message that modern readers know to think about and discuss. That is what makes these reviews so interesting. They give modern readers a glimpse into how people during Rossetti’s time would have viewed her poems. They also give us a sense of how they viewed other matters of their time. The idea that a woman’s role should be confined to the home is not something most modern readers are comfortable with, but those during Rossetti’s time were uncomfortable at any suggestion of women outside the home. Thus, these reviews, and others like them, can give us a deeper understanding not just of “Goblin Market,” but of how readers of that time would view “Goblin Market” and the world around them.