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Story time: Goblin Market

In this video, Associate Professor Caroline Webb takes us out into the park to digest the poem, 'Goblin Market' by Christina Rossetti.
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In the first week we talked about different kinds of functions of poetry - how a poem can be used. One of the kinds I talked about then, was the poem for storytelling and this week we’re going to focus on a poem that does just that - Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’. Rosetti lived during the Victorian period and she wrote this poem in the early 1860s (it was published in 1862). Rossetti’s poem is doing something much more than a ballad (like the one I mentioned in week one, ‘The Three Ravens’). It’s even doing more than a bush ballad (like ‘The Man From Snowy River’).
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So what we’re going to be looking at this week is “what is this poem, and how does it work to tell a story using the devices of poetry?”
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The Victorian period was a time when English people became very interested in what fairy tales could do, and the very idea of a fairy tale became popular. They were inspired partly by the success of the Grimm brothers collection of German folktales ‘Kinder-und Hausmärchen’, the first edition, of which, was published in Germany in 1812 and the first English translation of which was published in 1823. Writers such as the scholar and critic John Ruskin wrote a novel-length fairytale called ‘The King of the Golden River’ (published in 1841), and Christian writers like George MacDonald wrote a number of fairy tales. Famously, his collection ‘Dealings with the Fairies’ (published in 1867) included fairy tales like ‘The Golden Key’.
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We’re going to be looking now at Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ as a fairy tale and asking “What does it mean? How does it tell its story?”
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“Morning and evening Maids heard the goblins cry “Come buy our orchard fruits,
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Come buy, come buy:”” These lines set up the poem that is to follow in a number of ways. First of all, they have a rhyme in them, and there’s going to be a lot of rhyme in this poem. They also have a short, quick rhythm (I’ll be talking about that soon). But even the opening line is interesting - “Morning and evening”. “Morning and evening” can suggest two times of day when maids heard the goblin’s cry - morning and evening - which have in common the fact that they are at twilight, they’re the fringe parts of the day. And indeed, most of the poem turns out to be set at these times.
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But “morning and evening” as a phrase can also suggest a continuity. This happened continually, over and over. So this is a constant temptation that is being set before the protagonists of our poem, Laura and Lizzie. We also know that maids heard the goblins cry. This is a poem that is speaking about girls and what happens to girls. This poem is interesting as a story. We can decide from the start that there’s something peculiar about it. It’s obviously not set in the real world. Although, in many ways, the life that Laura and Lizzie are generally leading was a real world thing for young women to be doing in the Victorian era.
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They live in a house, they have a dairy, they make food in the ordinary kinds of ways. But the fact that this is called Goblin Market, the fact that maids hear the goblin’s cry, tells us already that we’re in a fantasy space. The goblins are figures out of folklore.
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We have that setting, we have the peculiar, dangerous figures of the goblins, and we have our vulnerable and beautiful protagonists, Laura and Lizzie. The story tells us of the temptation of Laura and her fall, of the heroic self-sacrifice and redemption of Laura by Lizzie,
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and we have an aftermath. So, the poem goes through stages (as a story does), giving us events, incidents and response to those incidents.
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But the story is told poetically. There are a number of things that it uses to tell the story. First of all (and without even thinking of this as specifically a thing that only a poem can do), we have enormous effect on lists in this poem.
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The evocation of the fruit is particularly striking (right at the start, after those opening lines). Apples and quinces, Lemons and oranges, Plump unpeck’d cherries, Melons and raspberries, Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches, Swart-headed mulberries, Wild free-born cranberries, Crab-apples, dewberries, Pine-apples, blackberries, Apricots, strawberries;– All ripe together In summer weather.” That comment, “All ripe together In summer weather,” is a striking thing because, in fact, they wouldn’t be in normal circumstances. In English fields and orchards, these fruit don’t grow together - they don’t bloom together. And, in fact, in some cases, they don’t grow at all. Pineapples are not native to England - they grow there with enormous difficulty (in greenhouses) in Rossetti’s time.
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Lemons and oranges are also known as exotic fruit - they grow with difficulty in this climate. So, what the goblins are offering is a profusion, a multiplicity, of alluring fruit that would not be available to the ordinary person - certainly not at all times of year in Victorian England.
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We have the list then, and its overwhelmingness - its sense that the offering of a fruit is more than just an easy, “Oh, have a chip”. This is something special that is being provided, which Laura finds great difficulty in denying.
Nothing quite like reading a good book in a park with a picnic, wouldn’t you agree?
We’ve talked a little bit already about poems (such as ballads) having the ability to tell stories.

What’s your take?

Do we expect poems to tell stories? What is the difference between a story in poetry and one in prose?
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What Is Poetry? An Introduction to Literary Analysis

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