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English 549 Commentary 2 on Rossetti's Goblin Market

Another commentary... I ended up doing this over again because I felt I rambled too much.

Added by colin #442 on 2004-06-16. Last modified 2004-06-16 21:33. Originally created 2004-06-16. F0 License: Attribution
Location: World, United States, California, San Diego, College Heights
Topics: personal
: engl549

2004-04-06-0826 Engl 549 Farber Commentary #2
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, 1859
Colin Leath 750-1000 words.
The use of imagery, versification, sound patterning, and sound effects in Goblin Market

Goblin Market is a long poem that I was compelled to read right through the first time I saw it, long ago, in browsing through the reader. In the reading assignment for this day, I noticed that none of the other of her assigned works had the same effect. I initially found them sing-songy and insipid, and worried that somehow I'd changed and would be bored on re-reading Goblin Market. By line 35, I wasn't. It would be a shame to analyze this art, I thought. On the other hand, if I could understand why it worked, I might be better able to write something with similar effect.

One reason it works is that it is easy and quick to read, and on one level, the meaning of the poem is clear. An opposite to this effect I find to be Tennyson's In Memoriam, where each section is on a varying theme, and rarely is there a clear surface meaning to a section. Rossetti's Shut Out is another example of this opposite. The surface meaning doesn't draw me in. Though Shut Out is clearly not just about a spirit walling up a gate to her garden, I'm not that compelled to try to figure out what in fact she is writing about.

Goblin Market is about goblins selling fantastic fruit. Even a child can understand and find interest in that surface symbol. Second, the language / symbology is clearly meaningful throughout. An opposite to this would be the card game in Pope's Rape of the Lock: a wall of text which doesn't mean anything to me unless I spend much time studying it... or Robert Browning's works... or Keats, or much of great poetry! The greatness if the Goblin Market is that while it is quick to engage me, and holds my attention strongly with little effort on my part, there is enough happening there to allow for knowing and loving the poem in much more depth as with, say Ode on a Grecian urn. Loving it in depth is the purpose of this commentary.

So far I've worked using broad statements and comparisons to other works. Looking right at the poem and nothing else, I see:

  • Short line lengths.
  • Irregular meter
  • Shared endings of lines
  • Refrains ("come buy" "come buy")
  • Double meaning (ditto)
  • First syllable stress
  • Rich vocabulary
  • Sex.

The "come buy" refrain, simple though it is, has an intriguing effect because it is so close to "come by." It's very like the effect of Blake's creative spelling & ampersand use. It serves to make me more awake, to feel, whoa, there's something new here... what's going on. It's conceivable this effect would not be found by another reader or readers of Rossetti's time.

The first 32 lines though, were not notably more compelling to me than Rossetti's other assigned poems. But once I'm at line 35: whoa! "Among the brookside rushes, Laura bowed her head to hear, Lizzie veiled her blushes: Crouching close together In the cooling weather, With clasping arms and cautioning lips, With tingling cheeks and finger tips. "Lie close," Laura said, Pricking up her golden head:"

And damn... I'm gone. I look up from the poem into nowhere, and wonder what the hell is going on. When I first read the poem, I didn't know a thing about the author, or even when the poem was written. Was she some devious lesbian feminist or what? How does her language have such effect? Its allure is in part that on the surface it is so simple and so innocent... and for all I know it is possible that the author intended only a fraction of what I'm getting from it... like perhaps that woman who was swimming in the pool who in so many ways reminded me of someone I have loved... she prompted so much within me that I was quite shaken, but she was just swimming.

There isn't any greater regularity in this next section... if anything, it seems more variable. Some lines are couplets, some lines have common rhymes, but different syllable counts. I don't know what Rossetti was thinking, structure-wise, when she wrote this.

I just looked to see what interpretations others have posted online. They do not shed any more light, and my tendency is to believe that this was composed as some of my work has been composed. She sat down, somewhat trance-like to write, and played with plot and words until she had something she could read over and over and not be bored with, or better, felt magical every time she read it. It means something, but no more than a combination of words that sends her and a lot of others.

One interesting element for me is the clear ridicule and offhand evil in the manner the goblin men are presented. It is an element that made it easy for me to think this was a modern poem, not a Victorian one... The satire/realist presentation of how boys and men will group and harass women, and seek to exploit them for sex and then leave them now seems a sort of cliche, and yet it's not? Partly because so few women writers I've come across have written of the ogling crowd in this way, and I've certainly not come across a male writer who presents it like she does. Wordsworth and other romantics with their focus on the common people did not cover this aspect (I believe)... I doubt Victorian poets would touch the cliche in this way... If they did, it would be as in Pope's Rape of the lock, which is basically about the same thing, but presented more in the way all writers tend to treat it: Oh, this is just a thing that guys do. In fact, Pope's Rape, was written, initially, to perpetuate that very perspective.

And (inspired by something I read online), there has to be a wryness and an inward laughter in the ending "For there is no friend like a sister..." and yet it works, because its true and she's serious!

I'm learning/ finding that an element of the great poetry is in a sort of interlocking and shifting level of meaning, and also unity in the poem on many different levels of meaning. Shakespeare's sonnets come to mind. I also think there is a human feast (and I'm walking right into your resonance here) on a symbol that when plopped into one's consciousness sets all sorts of bells ringing on so many different levels. You mentioned setting up a base meter and then playing off against it. The same can be done with meaning.

I've been having this experience recently, and possibly before without paying much attention to it, of walking down a street in desolate San Diego suburbs, and my mind starts going off-- memories of all kinds in all different ways just coming out of the blue. And it is almost a rush to walk down a street in desolate San Diego suburbs because I never know what will pop out at me inwardly next. (c.f. Jorge Luis Borges short story ''Funes, the Memorious"). Writing these things is another example of that.

I'm already over word count, and have done a good job as usual of avoiding the purpose of the assignment. What you're asking for, of course, is like sending someone through a unimaginable fantasy world in one of those glass-walled train cars and telling her to keep her eyes on Pope's description of the card-game battle in the anthology on her lap.

There may be patterns in this thing... but, I expect, the way poetry works is that the poet must write poetry. Then, she'll ask, how can I do what so-and-so did so well? She goes back and looks at the other's work, learning from it then.

I chose one of Shakespeare's sonnets for my paper, and there, doing the close analysis, and knowing I have to stick to it, has been wonderful. Back on task:

The imagery of the girls' heads and necks is so incredibly alluring! How did Rossetti come upon this? Does she know of some formula?

"Laura reared her glossy head,
"Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch When its last restraint is gone.

My g-d. Even the first line "glossy head" off by itself, expresses so much allure. And this is not the kind of beauty that brings me into the center of myself.... c.f. Joseph Campbell and... Joyce[1]. I'd better stop. Overall, the rhythm could be characterized as sexual, the rhythm of sex. The poem also can be seen in the same way: like sex, something intense can be had in the first encounter. Like sex the basic experience can be built upon with further practice and study.

[1] In the same way, said Stephen, your flesh responded to the stimulus
of a naked statue, but it was, I say, simply a reflex action of the
nerves. Beauty expressed by the artist cannot awaken in us an emotion
which is kinetic or a sensation which is purely physical. It awakens,
or ought to awaken, or induces, or ought to induce, an esthetic
stasis, an ideal pity or an ideal terror, a stasis called forth,
prolonged, and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty.


A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea.
She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange
and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a
crane's and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned
itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as
ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her
drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts
were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom
was as a bird's, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some
dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and
touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.

She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence
and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of
his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze
and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the
stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The
first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint
and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither
and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek. 

-- Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul, in an outburst of profane joy.

He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His
cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and
on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the
sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.

Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the
holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had
leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate
life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal
youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open
before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and
glory. On and on and on and on!

He halted suddenly and heard his heart in the silence. How far had he
walked? What hour was it?


His throat ached with a desire to cry aloud, the cry of a hawk or eagle on
high, to cry piercingly of his deliverance to the winds. This was the
call of life to his soul not the dull gross voice of the world of duties
and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service
of the altar. An instant of wild flight had delivered him and the cry of
triumph which his lips withheld cleft his brain.


His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her grave-clothes.
Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of
his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new
and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.

Colin Leath <>    

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