The Sensual and the Vulgar: 100 Years of Illustrated “Goblin Market”

To know that people in the nineteenth century could actually read through the entirety of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and believe that it was intended as a child’s fairy-tale is almost embarrassing. For whatever reason those generations (in general) could not see the sensual innuendos being repeated again and again in Goblin Market, the ability for society to see the obvious second meanings of the poem has grown over time. This progression of understanding is available to be noticed in the way which drawing and artwork inspired by Goblin Market have steadily grown bolder over time. There have been many different artistic interpretations and companions to this rhythmic poem, and all of them seem to hint (and eventually indulge) at the sexual meanings it presents.

The first drawings for Christina Rossetti’s work were done by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He drew two pictures for the poem just after its first publication in 1861.

The title page:                                          The frontispiece:

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Probably because of when these were drawn, they do not highlight any promiscuity or sexual reference, but it is there in the detail. In the title page piece, the maid laying down on the has one of her gowns fallen off her shoulder. The maid laying on top of her can be seen as looking at peace in a way that maybe a lover would be in the arms of their beloved. In the frontispiece, the goblin men, which are depicted as animals which Christina depicted them as: “One had a cat’s face,/One whisked a tail,/ One tramped at a rat’s pace,/ One crawled like a snail” (lines 71-74).  It isn’t as sexual as the title page, but there is still all of the animals staring at her so intently. The badger has his tongue sticking out and the rat is beckoning Lizzie to come join with his nailed finger.

The second set of pictures way down the line are drawn by Arthur Rackham and George Gershinowitz, both done over half a century later in 1933. Rackham’s picture used for this post depicts the rape scene of Lizzie towards the end of the poem. His work is titled:

“White and Golden Lizzie Stood”

It is more grotesque than the originals done by Christina’s brother, with the goblins shriveled and gray with sly faces and clawing hands (although animals are there as well). They are pulling at an obviously disturbed Lizzie in her white dress, probably symbolizing her virginity. It still does not point at the sexuality as much as art from later on will do, but it is still there, and it is very faithful to the poem’s descriptions. Gershinowitz’s work is having to do with the two maids united at the end:

“She Kissed and Kissed Her with a Hungry Mouth”

she kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth

This picture is a bit more sensual with the red “juice” running down Lizzie’s tilted neck and Laura kissing it off. “Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices” (line 468). But it is still only the 1930’s, and so the sort of crudeness that will come about with illustrations in the 1970’s is not there yet; but what does comes in the 1970’s will take Goblin Market to a new level.

In 1973, Playboy Magazine had Kinuko Craft draw up several pictures in the style of Arthur Rackham. These are by far the most sexual of all the pictures inspired by Goblin Market, and they go to show the difference between the interpretations of the nineteenth century and the twentieth.

It is done in the Rackham style from back in the 1930’s, and it does keep rather true to the poem; there are fruits attempting to be forced into Lizzie’s mouth, her dress is torn and the goblins “scratched her, pinched her black as ink,/ Kicked and knocked her,/ Mauled and mocked her” (lines 427-429). But the absolute crudeness and perversion that Playbook would commission is there in the shape of the fruit. Look closely and there are many different types of fruit being presented. But even if it seems too vulgar, it does seem to be something that Rossetti might have gotten on board with. It takes that sexuality that didn’t seem so obvious to the people of the nineteenth century and bring it right out on top.  Also, the importance of Playboy’s illustrations of Goblin Market is that it shows how relevant the poem is over one-hundred years to the culture.

Later on, in a graphic story edition of Goblin Market with illustrations done by John Bolton, the view of Rossetti’s work is further built upon. Even though it is not published by Playboy, it still contains much more sensuality and still goes along very truly to the work it is inspired by.

The rape scene is toned down from the Playboy version but still keeps a more crude level than others before it. And then the scene at the end where the two maids are together with the goblin juices, the sensuality that was expressed in Dante Rossetti’s work is still there; it is almost exact, but only without the restraint of a public in the nineteenth century.

Rossetti’s Goblin Market is still prevalent today, even more so than it was when it was publish over one-hundred years ago simply because of how it is perceived. The sexual tension and issues that were brought up by Rossetti show up in each and every illustrated companion from the original publication to the present, even if their vulgarity and representation of the sensuality has increased over time, the message is still there.




  • Dettmar, Kevin; Damrosch, David; Manning, Peter; Wolfson, Susan. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fifth Edition. The Romantics and Their Contemporaries 2A. Pearson Education, Inc. 2012.