Christina Rossetti was born on December 5, 1830 in London to Gabriele and Framces Rossetti. The youngest of four children, she was characterized by her father as being the “storm” of her siblings and was known for her passionate temper. Looking back at her childhood, Christina Rossetti told her niece, “You must not imagine, my dear girl, that your Aunt was always the calm and sedate person you now behold. I, too, had a very passionate temper; but I learnt to control it. On one occasion, being rebuked by my dear Mother for some fault, I seized upon a pair of scissors, and ripped up my arm to vent my wrath. I have learnt since to control my feelings—and no doubt you will!” (“Christina Rossetti”). She eventually learned to control her fiery nature, probably mostly due to the influence of religion. Religion played a huge part in guiding Christina’s life, and her humble and reserved nature later in life was the product of living based off of Christian principles. The influence of religion on Christina’s life is evident in many of her works, and it is a huge contributor to the heavy religious tones in the Goblin Market.
Health played another huge role in Christina’s life. In 1845, she experienced a nervous breakdown, and this contributed to the health problems she had later in life. Although she was at first diagnosed with a heart condition, a later doctor said that he thought the problem was more psychological. Her illness caused her to be a semi-invalid for the rest of her life, and is mirrored in Goblin Market’s characterization of Laura when she becomes sick from eating the fruit of the goblins.
Christina’s humanitarian work also contributed to her poems. At the beginning of the 1859, the same year she wrote Goblin Market, she began volunteering at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary. This institution helped “fallen” women get back on their feet. Her experiences at the penitentiary are reflected in Goblin Market, where Lizzie helps Laura, who is a “fallen woman,” and allows her to be redeemed.
Although Goblin Market is probably Christina’s most famous work, she began writing when she was very young and composed many poems privately before she became a public figure in the writing community. She didn’t officially submit an actual work of hers until 1848, when she was 17, and submitted two of her poems, “Death’s Chill Between” and “Heart’s Chill Between,” to the very well-known literary periodical The Athanaeum. Her next submissions came in 1850, when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the literary circle in which her brother was prominent, released a literary journal called The Germ. Seven of her poems were published here, but since she published them under an anonymous name, she didn’t truly begin to make a name for herself until she released her volume of poetry Goblin Market and Other Poems in 1862. Although she published many poems after this that achieved critical success, Goblin Market was generally considered her best and most famous poem, and it stayed that way up until her death on December 29, 1894.
Rossetti’s Christ and Brotherhood influences:
Two movements that were happening in Christina Rossetti’s time were the Tractarianism movement and the Pre-Raphaelites, both of which had an influence on Christina’s works.
Tractarianism began in the mid to early nineteenth century, and was split up into two different divisions. One of the segments, called the “Puseyites,” were active after 1845 and published works that attacked the liberal invasion of Christianity and what they saw as the weaknesses of the Church. These were significant in revitalizing the church’s commitment to its traditional values, and contributed to the Anglican Church’s establishment of the Eucharist. Rossetti uses the idea of the Eucharist—that, is the embodiment of Christ and salvation—to develop the fruit in her poem Goblin Market (Hill 457). Rossetti was a devout member of the Church of England converted to Tractarianism along with a few other Pre-Raphaelite women.
Christina was also a major part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, even though she was never officially a member. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded by William Holman Hunt and a group of British artists and poets, shared the idea that art should be natural and should be prophetic. The movement encompassed both art and literature, and believed the two to be interchangeable. However, they mostly focused on paintings, and so they achieved little literary success besides Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti, who, of course, was never officially part of the movement.
Although most of their movement focused on paintings, in the second phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement the impact on poetry began to increase. During this time period there was a greater emphasis on the sensual description and a greater incorporation of eroticism in the paintings and poetry. This impact is very distinct in Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” as she uses sensual language in her descriptions of the fruit the Goblins are trying to sell penning phrases like “figs to fill your mouth” and “pomegranates full and fine.”
The Sexual Nature of Goblin Market
There is a great deal of sexual imagery in Goblin Market, and one way it is presented is through Laura’s interaction with the goblins. Since she has no money, she can only pay by giving them a lock of hair, “reflecting the traditional association of hair with sexuality” (Brownley 180). There is also vivid sexual imagery during this scene, such as when Laura “sucked and sucked and sucked the more/Fruits which that unknown orchard bore/She sucked until her lips were sore” (line 128). This marks her initial entry into a sexual world, and the effects this has on her are immediate.
These effects have already been made evident by the story of Jeanie, who ate the fruits of the goblins and ended up dying. Rossetti clearly equates the choice of eating the fruits with a loss of sexual purity, which she illustrates when Lizzie mourns that Jeanie “should have been a bride” (line 313). Since a traditional requirement of marriage is for the bride to be sexually pure, Jeanie not being fit to be a bride shows that she was no longer chaste. Daisies are also not able to grow on her grave, and since daisies are a symbol for innocence, this shows that Jeanie has lost hers.
Although Lizzie is hesitant about going to the goblin market because she knows what happened to Jeanie, ultimately, her love for her sister causes her to compromise her own sexual purity in an effort to save Laura. Through this sacrifice, she is forced to confront her own fear about entering unknown sensual territory. Rather than being an entirely negative thing, this is portrayed as actually being enlightening, because “for the first time in her life/she began to listen and look” (lines 327-328). This makes her meeting with the goblins seem like a rite of passage, and shows that Lizzie needed to go through this experience—for both Laura and herself—to allow them to truly be grown up and marry, as they do at the end of the poem.
“Eat me, Drink me, Love me,” Tractarian Eucharist in Rossetti’s Goblin Market:
Christina Rossetti mixes her sensual description with the ideas of Christianity and sacrifice at the end of her poem with the actions and words of Lizzie when she sacrifices her body to help revitalize Laura. When Lizzie exclaims to Laura “eat me, drink me, love me” she is invoking that notion of the last supper and Christ’s sacrifice to save man (Rossetti line 471).
Towards the end of the poem, Lizzie begins to take on Christ-like qualities. She sacrifices her body to attain the only cure for Laura’s falling into temptation. Rossetti draws connection between the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit and the Goblin’s fruit, in lines 478 and 479 Laura asks, “Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted/ for my sake the fruit forbidden?” While that is the obvious connection, Lizzie’s sacrifice for another person whom she loves is more reminiscent of Christ’s sacrificing his life for humanities salvation. Lizzie brings salvation to Laura by allowing the Goblins to beat her and attempt to force-feed their fruit to her.
The themes of Goblin Market are clearly directly related to Christina’s life. Her sexual uncertainty, a result of the fact that she never married, is reflected in the character of Lizzie, who is initially hesitant to enter the unknown world of sensuality. Religion, which Christina felt was so important, is also evident in the Christian elements of the poem, which go farther than the simple Adam and Eve motif and incorporates elements of the Eucharist. The blend of all of the elements she uses provides not only a sense of complexity in the poem, but provides some insight into the complexities of the author herself.