It’s Not You, It’s God: Christina Rossetti’s Relationship with Religion and Its Subsequent Role in her Poetry
Setting: 20th century Mont-Blanc retreat. Four reincarnated Romantic and Victorian poets are climbing the summit of the mountain, talking amongst themselves.
Elizabeth Barrett (Not-Yet) Browning: So, like, this guy keeps sending me these really weird love letters, and I don’t know what to do. What do you three do to get away from a man’s unwanted advances?
Lord Byron: I don’t.
Mary Shelley: If I were you I’d tell him your address changed or something, give him the wrong one. Knowledge is power, and it’s a dangerous and destructive thing.
Christina Rossetti, staring straight into the camera like The Office: I’d become a nun.
It’s perhaps a slight oversimplification and erroneous to say that Christina Rossetti entered the (Anglican) Sisterhood to escape betrothal, partially because it was her sister who joined Anglican nunhood, and partially because disregards the fact that Rossetti was serious about her faith, devout and devoted to the point that it’s present as a theme in literally everything she wrote. Even, or perhaps especially, in one of her most famous poems, “Goblin Market.“
Christina Rossetti was born in 1830 in London, some 20+ years after Browning, Shelley, and Byron. Fun fact: her mom was the sister of Byron’s physician. Her Dad was an exiled Italian poet, and she was educated at home in what had to be one of the most successful homeschoolings ever. Her parents gave her religious works, fairy tales, novels and other classic works to read and study. She liked Keats, and he would influence a lot of her later writing, along with Italian writers like Dante and Petrarch. Her brothers founded the pre-Raphaelite art movement, and her grandfather, who owned a printing press, privately published her first book when she was 12. Her childhood was a happy and healthy one, until the 1840s, when her father became ill, the family became poor, and life became a lot worse, leading her to suffer a nervous breakdown when she was 14 (Packer).
However, it was during this time that her mother, her sister, and herself became lifelong adherents to High Anglicanism, which is sort of like dietetic Catholic and, thanks to the Oxford movement and its increased importance on rituals, eventually developed into what’s known as “Anglo-Catholicism.” Rossetti turned down a total of three suitors for religious reasons; one of whom because he converted to Roman Catholicism, the others because they didn’t share her beliefs. Whether this religious rejection stemmed from pickiness, selectiveness in the name of personal salvation, or served simply as an excuse is still a debate among scholars.
Personally, I think all three played a factor, the impact of each is unknown, but what’s not uncertain is her deep devotion to Christianity. Rossetti spent ten years of her life volunteering at a penitentiary for prostitutes and unmarried mothers, helping retrain them for domestic service. This real-life commitment to the lives and souls of women gives her poetry a ring of authenticity and faithfulness few other writers can claim. “Goblin Market”, arguably her most famous work, a fairy tale about sisters and sex is a prime example of Rossetti’s art imitating life.
III. SEXUAL THEMES
Rossetti wrote over 400 religious verses, but “Goblin Market” remains her most famous, and for good reason. Although she claimed it was a children’s fairy tale, and that she meant “nothing profound by it”, one only must read the poem once to argue otherwise. Or, not even the whole poem, but simply a few select lines of it, which I have conveniently typed below for you as proof:
She sucked and sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore
She sucked until her lips were sore; (Rossetti, 134-136)
The above lines are taken from the scene where Laura first eats the goblin fruit, an experience that was nearly orgasmic in nature. This is not the kind of poem you would want to read to a room full of high schoolers, let alone younger children. The poem is rife with sexual connotations, from verb choice (sucking) to Rossetti’s constant description of body parts (lips, breasts).
In the 1970s, Playboy did a spread of “erotic” poems with the “Goblin Market” as a feature, if that is any indication of its theme. It’s also an indication of Playboy’s, and most pornography’s, deeply disturbing and troubling portrayals of female sex. The poem may be full of erotic imagery, but it is not, in the slightest, a healthy depiction of sexuality, and shouldn’t be treated as such, or hailed as a beautiful and erotic piece of art.
The reason for this lies in another scene, in which Lizzie visits the Goblin men to save Laura, and is violently assaulted and attacked. She undergoes a violence that is indisputably sexual in nature, as the fruit she is being forced to eat represents the loss of virginity (Flygare). Not only does the poem contain undertones of rape, there are also suggestions of incest between the two sisters. They are described as sleeping together, and the climax of the poem is whenever Lizzie shares the juices of the goblin fruit with Laura to save her. Both of these elements, rape and incest, are proof of two things: 1) it is decidedly not for children and 2) it should absolutely not be used for sexual entertainment.
IV. RELIGIOUS THEMES
For almost as much vulgar sensuality that exists in the poem, there can also be found a similar number of religious messages, specifically Christian ones. The whole narrative, as Zachary Nevin argues in his article “Rising from the Fall: Experience and Grace in Goblin Market and Comus” is that of a “biblical fall, a standard pattern of temptation, fall, redemption, and restoration.” This lines up well with Rossetti’s personal life, especially her work in “redeeming” fallen women.
But, Nevin points out, Rossetti doesn’t simply restate the Genesis account. Rather, in a brilliant blend of blasphemy and faithfulness, she “converts the story into a feminist commentary through the gendering of her characters” (Nevin). By making her primary characters both female and have them play the roles of both sinners and saviours, Rossetti completely disarms her Victorian audience of any sexist ideas such as the female-is-the-sinner and the male-is-the-savior.
Rossetti does not, however, make Laura sacrifice her agency in her role as the “fallen woman” (Palazzo). She makes it explicitly clear that it was Laura’s choice to visit the Goblin men. “She clipped a hair from her golden lock” (Rossetti, 126). This has interesting implications if the poem is meant to be read as a redemption story that can potentially be applied to a Victorian-era notion of a “fallen woman,” i.e. a prostitute. I don’t think Rossetti is arguing that prostitution is a choice, which would be a far too oversimplified and problematic view of a woman so closely intertwined to literal “fallen women” to hold, but I do think she wishes to emphasize the fact that despite whatever factors led a woman to “fall”, she can, through herself and through others, partially retain her sense of agency and choice.
Whereas Laura acts as the “fallen woman”, Lizzie serves as the saviour figure, Christ-like and sacrificial. Before she can rescue Laura, though, she must “discover her own sexuality”, thereby suggesting sexuality is a dangerous form of knowledge, which symbolises sin, strongly evoking the apple in the Garden of Eden. This is not a coincidence on the part of Rossetti; the moral of the poem is not one of reconciliation between sex and religion, although she does join the two, albeit in a twisted sort of fashion.
Pre-Laura’s fall, the sisters are described in terms of innocence rather than ignorance, and their ideas about the world and sexuality, especially Lizzie’s, are described as very black-and-white and naive. Whenever Laura chooses to taste the “forbidden fruit”, Lizzie must then choose between her own innocence and Laura’s life. Sexuality, therefore, is characterised as something that can be given or taken away, but also taken back and reclaimed, although never fully.
It’s not entirely clear as to whether Rossetti is writing sexuality as anything more than a negative temptation, although her lurid verses tend to lead the reader astray and make one wonder just how much of a temptation she truly sees sex as; and perhaps this was her point, to quite literally tempt the reader with the same thing as her characters. Although Rossetti married sex and religion in “Goblin Market”, both the plot of the poem and her own life seem to hint that the two are far from compatible, and should, in fact, remain divorced. In “Goblin Market”, sex is exchanged for sisterhood and companionship, whereas in her own life, Rossetti replaced it with God.
While we know Lizzie and Laura were left content with each other and with life, becoming wives and having children of their own, we’re left speculating as to whether the same happened to Rossetti, and exactly to what extent religion can play the role of a relationship.
VI. BONUS END SCENE
Setting: 20th Century Mont-Blanc retreat. Four reincarnated Romantic and Victorian poets are climbing down the mountain, talking amongst themselves.
Elizabeth Barrett (Almost) Browning: I think I should just accept his letters, I mean, who knows how long I will have to live, should probably just count the ways he’s tolerable and move forward with it, you know?
Lord Byron: If you end up not accepting him, you are more than welcome to pass said letters onto me.
Mary Shelley, to Rossetti: So, are you still going to become a nun?
Christina Rossetti: No, I think instead of taking God as my wife, I’ll have Jesus as my boyfriend. It’ll be great, the writing will be fantastic!
Lord Byron, staring straight into the camera like The Office: Hopefully, no one will read you as repressed or sexually frustrated, and then write about how that influenced your poetry, ha.
[All laugh merrily at this notion as they continue down the mountain.]
Flygare, Julie. “Intertwining Themes in ‘Goblin Market.’” The Victorian Web, 20 Oct. 2003, http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/crossetti/flygare6.html. Accessed 2 May 2017.
Packer, Lona Mosk (1963) Christina Rossetti University of California Press pp13-17
Palazzo, L. Christina Rossetti’s Feminist Theology. New York, NY, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Nevin, Zachary. “Rising from the Fall: Experience and Grace in Goblin Market And.” SURJ , 2009, web.stanford.edu/group/journal/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Nevin_Hum_2009.pdf. Accessed 2 May 2017.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: 4th ed, vol. 2B, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar et. al., Pearson Education, Inc. 2010, pp. 1650-1663.