An introduction to 'Goblin Market'

An introduction to 'Goblin Market'

In ‘Goblin Market’, Christina Rossetti experiments with language, form and imagery to create a world of temptation and mystery. Dr Dinah Roe considers Rossetti’s influences and the different ways in which the poem has been illustrated and interpreted since its publication.


Set in a fairytale world and exploring themes of temptation, sacrifice and salvation, ‘Goblin Market’ tells the story of a fraught encounter between sisters Laura and Lizzie and evil goblin merchants. When Laura exchanges a lock of her golden hair for the chance to taste the goblins’ enchanted ‘fruit forbidden’, she deteriorates until she is ‘knocking at Death’s door’. Her sister Lizzie offers to pay the goblins ‘a silver penny’ for more of their wares, which she hopes will act as an antidote to Laura’s malady. The goblins violently attack Lizzie, smearing their fruits ‘against her mouth’ in a vain attempt ‘to make her eat’. After the goblins are ‘worn out by her resistance’, Lizzie returns home, and Laura kisses the juices from her sister’s face and is restored.

Second edition of Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, with original covers

Second edition of Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, with original covers [page: frontispiece and title page]

Second edition of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and other Poems with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s frontispiece and title page designs, 1865.

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Form and genre

On first reading ‘Goblin Market’, eminent Victorian critic John Ruskin declared that Christina Rossetti’s ‘irregular measures’ were the ‘calamity of modern poetry’ and that she ‘should exercise herself in the severest commonplace of metre until she can write as the public like’.[1]

Ruskin’s tin eared critique unwittingly identifies one of ‘Goblin Market’s’ greatest strengths: its experimental form. A poem whose compelling narrative is animated by a surprising lyric energy, it never conforms to a set rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. For instance, the goblin merchants’ cries in the opening lines tempt not through lavish verbal description, but through form. 

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; –

The sing-song rhythm of alternating dactylic and trochaic feet mimics the sound of street vendors hawking their wares, while the rhyme scheme eschews traditional corresponding rhyme words in favour of the incantatory repetition of ‘berries’ and a seductive sibilance that hints at the fruits’ dark properties. What is essentially a shopping list is transformed by the musical qualities of Rossetti’s technique, anticipating Walter Pater’s Aesthetic creed that ‘all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’.[2] Drawing on the conventions of a variety of literary genres including the gothic, fantasy, biblical, children’s literature and fable, Rossetti creates a disorienting fairytale atmosphere that is simultaneously seductive and alienating.

Goblin Market illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Goblin Market illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Arthur Rackham’s series of illustrations from 1933 interpreting ‘Goblin Market’ as a tale of the loss of sexual innocence.

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Rossetti wrote this poem in 1859 while volunteering at the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary for ‘fallen women’ in Highgate. Dedicated to the reform and rehabilitation of prostitutes, this Anglo-Catholic institution was remarkable in the period for its conviction that women who had transgressed sexually could be redeemed. Biographers and critics have argued that the themes of temptation, sexual exchange and sisterly redemption in this poem are influenced by its poet’s experience working as an ‘Associate Sister’ at Highgate.

Advertisement for a house for 'fallen women' from The Morning Post

Advertisement for a house for 'fallen women' from the Morning Post

An advertisement for the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary where Christina Rossetti volunteered. From The Morning Post, 1860.

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The poem first appeared in Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). Rossetti’s skilful and original blend of sound and sense delighted critics and readers alike, although critical plaudits initially exceeded commercial sales. Its fairytale cadences led the Spectator to declare it ‘a true children’s poem’, yet the paper also noted that its adult themes of temptation, transgression and redemption also appealed to a mature readership.[3] The poem was greeted with rapturous applause when the publisher Alexander Macmillan read a manuscript version out loud to a working men’s society in Cambridge. Rossetti herself was not writing for children during this period, emphatically declining to contribute to a children’s book on the grounds that ‘children are not among my suggestive subjects’.[4] Literary admirers included Algernon Charles Swinburne, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Lewis Carroll, whose Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (1865) was partially inspired by the poem. Rossetti returned the compliment in 1874, writing a book of children’s stories entitled Speaking Likenesses, which she hoped would imitate Carroll’s success in the booming children’s market.

Letters between Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Alexander Macmillan, 1860-94

Letter from Christina Rossetti to her publisher Alexander Macmillan concerning the 1876 revised edition of Goblin Market and other Poems; Rossetti asks to cancel the word ‘fairy’ from the ‘List of illustrations’, distancing the volume from the fairy tale tradition.

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Speaking Likenesses by Christina Rossetti

Speaking Likenesses by Christina Rossetti [page: 18-19]

Although Rossetti insisted that 'Goblin Market' was not a children's fairytale poem, in 1874 Rossetti ventured into the booming children's literature market with the fairytale story Speaking Likenesses

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Illustrations and design

The manuscript version is dedicated to Rossetti’s older sister Maria, but the influence of Christina’s painter-poet brother Dante Gabriel is more obvious in the published text. He convinced his sister to abandon her somewhat cloying original title, ‘A Peep at the Goblins’, provided illustrations from ‘Goblin Market’ for the volume’s frontispiece and title page, designed the binding and advised her on page size and the type of paper to be used. He was also involved in the design of the second edition in 1865, correcting the jawline of one of the sleeping sisters in the title page illustration.

Letters between Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Alexander Macmillan, 1860-94

Letter from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Christina’s publisher Alexander Macmillan, asking to see printer's proofs for Prince’s Progress after ‘the Goblin Market was so ill done’.

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A founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists who were particularly interested in the interactions of words and images in general and of poetry and art in particular, Dante Gabriel had previously illustrated William Allingham’s The Music Master and an edition of Tennyson’s poems published by Moxon in 1857. Christina was aware that her brother’s commercial savvy and artistic skill contributed to the success of her first volume of poetry, writing that she preferred her brother as illustrator of her works ‘to the world in general’.[5] As Lorraine Janzen Kooistra has persuasively argued, ‘Goblin Market’ is a landmark publication in the history of English illustration, influencing book design and illustration from the mid-19th century to the present day. The poem has been illustrated upwards of 20 times, ranging from the more traditional Laurence Housman (1893) and Arthur Rackham (1933) gift-book editions to the Pacific Comics version by John Bolton (1984). The detailed surviving correspondence between both Rossetti siblings and Alexander Macmillan about the production of Goblin Market and Other Poems reveals the extent to which the Rossettis shared an artistic vision and exercised control over their work. This Pre-Raphaelite collaborative spirit is also evident in Arthur Hughes’s illustrations for Christina’s later book of children’s verse, Sing-Song (1872), some of which were based on the poet’s own pencil drawings.

Letters between Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Alexander Macmillan, 1860-94

Letter from Christina Rossetti to her publisher Alexander Macmillan, December 1871, in which she reveals something of her shared artistic vision with her brother Dante – here, regarding Arthur Hughes’s illustrations for Sing-Song.

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Manuscript of Sing Song, a collection of nursery rhymes by Christina Rossetti

Manuscript of Christina Rossetti’s book of children’s verse Sing-Song, with Rossetti’s own pencil drawings. Arthur Hughes, the published book’s illustrator, based his illustration for ‘Crying, my little one…’ on this drawing.

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Initially received as a moral allegory about the dangers of giving in to temptation, the poem was recast by feminist classic The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) as a parable of female resistance and solidarity. By contrast, in 1973 Playboy Magazine presented the poem as unambiguously pornographic; the text was accompanied by a Kinuko Craft illustration of the goblin attack on Lizzie that left little to the imagination. ‘Goblin Market’ continues to appeal to a popular audience; it has been set to music many times and adapted as a play by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon in New York (1986) and Nick Hedges in London (1995).

The 20th-century revival of interest in the poem opened the floodgates for Feminist, Marxist, Freudian, Queer Theory and New Historicist critiques which variously interpreted the poem as a warning about the dangers of a free-market economy, a protest against hazardous practices in 19th-century food-adulteration, a Christian tale of sacrifice and salvation, a parable of lesbian empowerment, a fable about anorexia, an expression of incestuous yearning and a tribute to the delicious oral and aural pleasures of poetry itself. ‘Goblin Market’ has continued to thrive in the academic marketplace. The poem continues to attract critical interpretations and artistic adaptations as colourful and diverse as the goblin merchants’ wares, challenging Christina Rossetti’s surely disingenuous claim that she ‘did not mean anything profound by this fairytale’.[6]


[1] John Ruskin to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 24 January, 1861, Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. by Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl, vol. 2 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 391.

[2] Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Literature (London: Macmilllan, [1873] 1913), p. 140.

[3] Spectator 12 April 1862, 414–15, quoted in Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), p. 282.

[4] Christina Rossetti to Unknown Recipient, 7 March 1862 in The Letters of Christina Rossetti, ed. by Antony H Harrison, vol. 1 (Carolottesville: University Press of Virginia), p. 159.

[5] Ibid., p. 232.

[6] William Michael Rossetti, ‘Notes’ from The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (London: Macmillan, 1904), p. 459.

  • Dinah Roe
  • Dr Dinah Roe is a Senior Lecturer in 19th century literature at Oxford Brookes University. She specialises in Victorian poetry, specifically that of the Pre-Raphaelites and is planning a book on the interactions of literary and visual arts in Pre-Raphaelite art.

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