'Goblin Market' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and Symbolism

Come buy' – the Goblins' opening words echo a famous invitation in the Bible from God to his people:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Isaiah 55:1 TNIV

However, unlike the freedom of the biblical offer, the goblins are seeking to entrap those who accept their food.

The animalistic goblin men - The poem describes the goblins in terms of animals.

One had a cat's face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat's pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skcurry. (lines 71-6)

Honey badger, photo by Matěj Baťha, available through Creative CommonsA ‘ratel' is a honey-badger. Their animal-like features highlight their base nature and their wild passions and desires. Like animals, they are unpredictable and as their attack on Lizzie demonstrates, have the potential to become ferocious. The fact that they are neither fully animal nor fully human emphasises the fact that they are unnatural and unrestrained. It also increases the distinction that can be made between them and the two sisters.

Fire - The image of fire occurs repeatedly throughout ‘Goblin Market' and is used in various ways to depict life, passion, lust, life and health:

  • Amongst the list of fruits with which Rossetti uses to open the poem, she includes ‘Bright-fire-like barberries' (line 27). Amongst the long overwhelming list, it is easy to miss the use of the term ‘fire-like'. Its implicit inclusion could indicate the danger hidden by the fruit's ripe look and appealing and texture
  • After her first taste of the goblin fruit, Laura returns to the brook ‘most like a leaping flame' (line 218). Compared to Lizzie who accompanied her in a state ‘most placid in her look' (216), Laura's passion is shown to be unhealthy and dangerous
  • Laura falls into a swift decline when she is no longer able to enjoy life after tasting the goblin fruits:
‘She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay and burn
Her fire away' (lines 278-80)

Here, the extinguishing of her fire indicates the diminishment of her life. Immediately turning grey (line 277) and worn, she loses interest in the tasks she used to enjoy

  • Laura reclaims her life and reignites her spirituality by clinging to and kissing Lizzie. As a result:
‘Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart,
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame' (lines 507-8)
  • When Laura realises the sacrifice Lizzie has made for her sake, she associates fire with light and asks her, ‘Must your light like mine be hidden' (line 480). In this, she alludes to an image from the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament:
‘Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven'. (Matthew 5:15-16) TNIV
  • At the end of the poem, we are reminded that Lizzie's intention was to ‘win the fiery antidote' for her sister (line 557). An antidote is a medicine which counteracts the effect of poison or disease. The fact that this antidote was ‘fiery' indicates its potential to destroy as well as to heal.

Roots and shoots

  • Lizzie warns Laura not to buy the fruits of the goblin men and reflects, ‘Who knows upon what soil they fed / Their hungry thirsty roots?' (lines 44-5)
  • After Laura tasted the goblin fruit, Rossetti writes that ‘Her tree of life drooped from the root' (line 260)
  • As a warning, Lizzie reminds Laura of Jeanie who, after enjoying the goblin's fruits, ‘pined and pined away' (line 154) until she died. Her recognition that no grass grows on her grave suggests decay and lack of fruitfulness
  • Laura sets her hopes on a kernel stone and hopes it will take root and produce more delicious fruit for her to taste. When it fails, she declines further into depression and listlessness.

Honey from the rock … man rejoicing wine – these references allude to biblical phrases denoting goodness (God's provision for his people Psalms 81:16 Psalms 104:14-15) – however, the goodness of the goblins' fruit is illusory

Lizzie as a Christ-like figure - When Lizzie tells her sister to: ‘Eat me, drink me', (l.471) she echoes the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. See Aspects of literature > Big ideas from the Bible > Last Supper, communion, eucharist, mass.
In her sacrificial act of buying the goblin fruit to save her sister, Lizzie becomes a kind of Christ figure. According to the New Testament, Jesus described himself as the ‘Son of Man' who ‘g[a]ve his life as a ransom for many'. Mark 10:45. See Aspects of literature > Big ideas from the Bible > Redemption, salvation.

Rossetti describes Lizzie's act of redemption through metaphor and simile:

  • Like a lily in a flood - A lily has traditionally been considered as a symbol of purity and innocence. A flood is an overwhelming deluge of water that is both destructive and indiscriminate. By describing Lizzie as a ‘lily in a flood', Rossetti suggests that she is able to retain her purity and innocence even under pressure and the force of destruction
  • A rock of blue-veined stone - Whilst linking Lizzie to a rock indicates her strength which cannot easily be broken, the allusion to her as a ‘blue-veined stone' suggests both her intrinsic delicacy and her status as a royal child (of God). The phrase ‘blue blood' indicates noble birth or descent. By combining this image with the image of a rock, which is used throughout the New Testament to speak of Jesus, an understanding of Lizzie as noble and royal is sustained
  • A beacon left alone - A beacon is a conspicuous object which gives out light to guide and assist those people struggling in the darkness. Lizzie can be described as a beacon in that, as Christ who is described repeatedly as a ‘light' throughout the New Testament, she demonstrates a pure and holy way of living, ‘alone' and apart from the evil that exists in the world
  • A fruit-crowned orange tree - By describing her as ‘fruit-crowned', the poem indicates the goodness that Lizzie's acts produce:
    • In the New Testament, Jesus is himself described as the ‘tree of life' and talks about how followers who exemplify his life will bear good ‘fruit' Matthew 7:17, [John 15:4,86]
    • The word ‘crowned' denotes royalty and nobility. By using the term ‘crowned' in a description of Lizzie, Rossetti draws attention to her noble qualities of leadership and perseverance
    • Lizzie's purity is conveyed by it being an orange tree: orange blossom is a symbol of chastity (hence its use at weddings).

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Which of these symbols do you find the most striking and why?
    • Fire
    • Roots and shoots
    • Honey from the rock
    • A lily in a flood
    • A rock of blue-veined stone
    • A beacon left alone
    • A fruit-crowned orange tree
  • What do the symbols you have considered say about Lizzie's character?
    • What do they indicate about growth?
    • Which words indicate strength?
  • Think about the depiction of colour here. Where else in the poem is colour used?
    • What is the effect of this use of colour?


Sisterhood and female community

During the 1860s, Rossetti worked as a volunteer at a home that supported women who were coming out of prostitution. In addition, she was very much influenced by the establishment of Anglican Sisterhoods (see Religious context: Tractarianism). As a result, many of her poems focus on two or more women working for a common purpose.

Throughout Goblin Market, Rossetti speaks of the shared bond that exists between Laura and Lizzie. She describes them as ‘two pigeons in one nest' and ‘two blossoms on one stem' (lines 185, 188) and concludes the poem with the reflection that ‘There is no friend like a sister' (line 560).
Many common factors also see Goblin Market as an exploration of female sexuality.

The dangers of the marketplace

The poem opens with a long list of different ripe fruits. This list is overwhelming and confusing. Many are fruits imported from different countries such as dates, lemons and oranges. These would have been a novelty for many Victorian readers and their inclusion in the poem suggests an awareness of the changing commercial marketplace.

Laura buys the fruit from the goblin men with a curl of her hair. They compare it to coins when they speak of the ‘gold' upon her head and highlight its ‘precious' nature (lines 123, 126). This accords with the folklore tradition that fairies highly prize golden hair.

More about hair: Hair was a massive cultural commodity in Victorian culture. It was common to exchange locks of hair and put them in jewellery and other ornaments. Throughout the poetry of the period, women's hair has been variously depicted as a weapon, a veil, a snare, a web and a noose.


Investigating themes

  • In what ways is Laura's hair a commodity?
    • What do you think it signifies?
  • In her depiction of the marketplace, what comments do you think that Rossetti is making about Victorian society?
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