Ronald D. Morrison (Ph.D., U of Kansas) teaches Victorian literature at Morehead State University in Kentucky. Recent essays have appeared in the Victorian Newsletter, the CLA Journal and the Kentucky Philological Review.
In "'Twilight is not good for maidens': Uncle Polidori and the Psychodynamics of Vampirism in Goblin Market," David F. Morrill argues convincingly that John Polidori's sensational tale The Vampyre (1819) is a likely source for Christina Rossetti's much-discussed and enigmatic poem Goblin Market. In his analysis, Morrill reminds us that Polidori was Rossetti's maternal uncle, and, although we cannot know conclusively that she read The Vampyre, Morrill maintains that the tale was typical of Christina Rossetti's reading as a young woman (1).1 According to Morrill, the goblins are vampiric creatures who "dole out strange, exotic fruits to young women who become drained, languid, bloodless," and ultimately he argues that "the implications of pleasure, pain, sucking, and enervation suggest some sort of vampirism, however muted and altered" (2). Morrill goes on to trace the ways in which Polidori's tale, which established most of the conventions of the modern-day vampire story, could perhaps have influenced Rossetti's best-known poem.
Morrill's essay seems convincing as a source study, especially if we regard The Vampyre as one of several possible sources for Goblin Market.2 If we place the works side by side, numerous similarities immediately become apparent. But, if we assume that Polidori's tale is one possible source for Goblin Market—as I will in this essay—the differences between the two works, most notably where Rossetti substantially modifies parallel sections in her uncle's work, become more revealing than the similarities. Indeed, Morrill never adequately develops the significance of how Rossetti has altered elements of her uncle's tale for her own artistic ends. Goblin Market is Christina Rossetti's radical rewriting of Polidori's tale that parodies The Vampyre's male-dominated perspective and values, while affirming the power and self-sufficiency of a feminine community and the feminine imagination.
Since Polidori's tale is not particularly well known, some brief background information on The Vampyre is in order. When the tale appeared in The New Monthly Magazine on 1 April 1819, it was without Polidori's knowledge or permission. Moreover, the work was attributed to Lord Byron, a fact which must have infuriated Polidori, who had been Byron's personal physician on his famous trip to Geneva in 1816, but who had later been dismissed after a falling out. Polidori, as is well known, borrowed a basic plot element of an aborted tale of Byron's, from which he created the tale that became known as The Vampyre. Ironically, even though Polidori was frustrated that his work was published under Byron's name, the famous poet's purported authorship also insured the tale's popular success.
But the irony doesn't end here. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf maintain that the Ruthven/Strongmore character is a caricature of Byron and that the story contains repeated references to Byron and his romantic exploits.3 For example, they explain in their annotations to The Vampyre that Lady Mercer, who appears early in Polidori's tale, may be a parody of Lady Caroline Lamb. The editors, drawing on Leslie Marchand's biography of Byron, remark that Lamb had "once visited Byron disguised as a page" and later appeared at a masquerade dressed as Don Juan (152). Such behavior finds a clear parallel in Lady Mercer, "who had been the mockery of every monster shewn in drawing-rooms since her marriage"; Polidori further tells us that in her attempts to attract Ruthven/Strongmore, Lady Mercer "did all but put on the dress of a mountebank, to attract his notice" (33). Furthermore, the editors point out that Polidori may have borrowed the name "Ruthven" from Lamb's character Clarence Ruthven, Lord Glenarvon, "the villain of Lamb's novel Glenarvon (1816), a fantasticated account of her affair with Byron" (152). Noting that there indeed was a Lord Ruthven in Polidori's day, Macdonald and Scherf conclude that Polidori changed the name in his never-completed revisions of the tale to "Strongmore" "to make the tale less libelous as well as less obviously Byronic" (152, emphasis added).4
More significant than Polidori's parodying of Byron, Macdonald and Scherf note that Polidori's tale forever changed the conception of the vampire. In fact, they list four significant innovations Polidori utilized in creating his vampire. The vampire of Eastern European folklore was "a corpse reanimated not by its own spirit but by an external, and often impersonal, evil force" (1). Thus, Ruthven/Strongmore is more of a human creature than his cousins from folklore, and he is clearly conscious of his depraved actions rather than subject to some external force. Macdonald and Scherf argue that one brief part of the tale is even told from Ruthven/Strongmore's point of view, and thus "[r]eaders can feel sympathy for him, in addition to fear and detestation" (3)rather like the reading public's response to Byron and some of his protagonists. Macdonald and Scherf's second and third cited differences are closely linked and continue to reinforce that Polidori was consciously parodying Byron: Ruthven/Strongmore is both an aristocrat and a constant traveller, who initially leaves England with his finances in an embarrassed state. But the fourth innovation is the most important for the present discussion: Ruthven/Strongmore is a seducer. As Macdonald and Scherf explain,
It is this innovation that unites the first three. The combination of fear and sympathy made possible by the vampire's human consciousness can evolve into a combination of fear and desire. The elegance that the vampire's high status implies makes him attractive; the power it also implies makes him irresistible. The mobility of the vampire enables him to seek out new victims to seduce. (4)
Examining Rossetti's poem with Polidori's four major vampiric innovations in mind reveals that Rossetti was highly selective in borrowing from her uncle's story, and her revisions help to underscore important thematic elements in Goblin Market. First, Rossetti's goblins are not particularly human; indeed she endows them with the characteristics 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 skurry. (lines 7176)5
But if they are not entirely human, they are also not the ghastly reanimated corpses of Eastern European legend. Rossetti most often refers to the creatures as "goblin men," calling into question their very nature. Are they goblins or are they men? The answer is of course both and neither. Indeed, the goblins resemble vampires in that they possess characteristics of both humans and animals—a customary feature of the supernatural in folklore and in popular culture. Such a rhetorical strategy allows Rossetti to portray the alluring but frightening sexual and economic power of men without referring to flesh-and-blood men at all.
Also significant is Rossetti's modification of Polidori's second and third innovations. The goblins are obviously not aristocrats, but they are nevertheless quite rich. Because of all the luscious fruits with which the goblins tempt Lizzie and Laura—and the possible symbolic significance of "the fruit forbidden" (479)—it is not surprising that critics have seldom noticed how the goblins transport and display their wares. In her initial description of the goblin men, Rossetti describes a goblin who "bears a plate" (57), while another "lugs a golden dish / Of many pounds weight" (5859), and repeatedly she calls attention to their costly dishes and plates (10203, 17577). Futhermore, the luscious fruits of the goblin men are themselves signs of wealth and social status. As Mary Wilson Carpenter has suggested, perhaps the goblin fruits represent the
"fruits of empire": these are not just the common, home-grown English apples and cherries, but also a rich variety of gourmet fruits imported from foreign climes—pomegranates, dates, figs, lemons, and oranges, "citrons from the South." These are luxury fruits that appeal to "sundry refined tastes" such as have been cultivated by Britain's colonial empire. (427)
Moreover, Laura is captivated by imagining the origin of the fruits: "Who knows upon what soil they fed / Their hungry thirsty roots?" (4445). Such sensuous fruits from exotic locales fill Laura with an inextinguishable appetite and unquenchable thirst that her simple life and its homely pleasures cannot satisfy.
Polidori's last innovation—the vampire as seducer—is certainly consonant with traditional views of Rossetti's poem. Lizzie and Laura respond to the goblin men with, in Macdonald and Scherf's expression, "fear and desire." Macdonald and Scherf maintain that Ruthven/Strongmore is attractive in part because of his economic and social power, which suggests a parallel in the goblin men's economic power and their exotic luxury fruits. Rossetti's twice-repeated assertion that "Men sell not such in any town" then takes on a slightly different meaning in this context, emphasizing the status of the alluring fruits. Like most seducers, the goblins begin with tender encouragements and declarations of love:
She heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather. (7780)
The cries of the goblin men—("Come buy, come buy")—are, of course, false advertising. In the original Latin, "seduce" means "to lead away," and indeed the girls are temporarily led away from their rich, full life together. In Laura's case, she gives up her curl, symbolic of both an economic and sexual exchange with the goblins; consequently she is left with only a desperate longing for the intoxicating fruits. Later, when Lizzie tries to buy fruit with her silver penny, the goblin men drop their guise as seducers and turn violent, trying to force Lizzie to consume their fruits. As we shall examine in detail below, Lizzie and Laura ultimately triumph over the goblins in a dramatic rewriting of Polidori's plot, but first we must briefly examine other significant differences between the two works.
Examining point of view in Goblin Market and The Vampyre reveals a major way in which Rossetti has revised her uncle's story. Polidori's short tale without exception forces readers to adopt a distinctly male perspective, with the tale told either from Aubrey's or, very briefly, Ruthven/Strongmore's point of view. Polidori focuses almost entirely on Aubrey's and seems to insist he deserves readers' pity because the two women he loves fall victim to the vampire Ruthven/Strongmore. The first victim is the Greek girl Ianthe, "a being, so beautiful and delicate, that she might have formed the model for a painter, wishing to portray on canvass the promised hope of the faithful in Mahomet's paradise" (3738). Even as Polidori's narrator asks readers to see Ianthe as an innocent creature, he also asks them to visualize her as a houri, a virgin nymph in an Islamic heaven. Her very innocence is figured as sexual ripeness. Like the figures on Keats's urn, she is full of sexual potential: she is forever to be enjoyed. Predictably, although Aubrey considers marrying her, she dies a virgin, ravished by the vampire rather than by time. The vampire's second victim is Aubrey's own sister, who "was yet only eighteen, and had not been presented to the world" (45). In each case, however, Polidori devotes very little time lamenting the victimization of the women, all the while agonizing over how Ruthven/Strongmore enacts his vengeance—in a sort of vampiric cuckoldry—on Aubrey. Indeed, Polidori makes Aubrey the tragic victim rather than any of the women that Ruthven corrupts or kills. And although the tale ends sensationally with the discovery that "Aubrey's sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!" (49), the tale also concludes with the nervous breakdown and death of Aubrey, who dies too late to save his beloved sister. The "tragedy" works primarily because his sister's death is presented as an affront to Aubrey's masculine power.
In sharp contrast, Rosetti concerns herself exclusively with young women and their roles as both tragic victims and heroic victors in Goblin Market. Morrill describes Polidori's sylph-like Ianthe, who stands for "innocence, youth, and beauty, unaffected by crowded drawing-rooms and stifling balls" (Macdonald and Scherf 38), as a "spiritual ancestor of Lizzie and Laura" (Morrill 4). Yet there are some differences between Ianthe and Rossetti's young sisters. Rossetti's description of Lizzie and Laura's rural, domestic life is much more earthy, much more sensuous than Polidori's descriptions of Ianthe and her world. Polidori consistently presents Ianthe as a "sylph-like figure" (38) or an "almost fairy form" (39). In contrast, Lizzie and Laura lead a humble existence that, although somewhat idealized, presents more accurately the simple pleasures of English rural life. Here Rossetti describes the rhythm of their life together after Laura's fall:
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetched in honey, milked the cows,
Aired and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churned butter, whipped up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sewed… (20208)
Their daily routine revolves around nourishing foods and healthy activities, all of which sharply contrast the goblins' fruit and the extraordinary hunger and thirst they produce in their victims. Although Rossetti's young women clearly differ from the decadent society women in Polidori's tale, they also appear as more substantial, less idealized versions of Polidori's Ianthe.
Soon after Rossetti describes the domestic life of the sisters, however, she relates that Laura is, for a time, cut off from her previous life:
Lizzie with an open heart,
Laura in an absent dream,
One content, one sick in part,
One warbling for the mere bright day's delight,
One longing for the night. (21014)
Later Rossetti writes, "ever in the noonlight / [Laura] pined and pined away" (15354). Like a vampire, Laura feels enervated in the daylight and longs for both the comforting, concealing darkness and the luscious fruit she has tasted. The feminine victim of the vampiric goblin-men, Laura suffers a particularly feminine form of dis-ease, temporarily cut off from her healthy routine and from her comforting and life-affirming relationship with her sister. Laura, of course, is not the only victim of the goblins Rossetti describes. Jeanie, "Who should have been a bride" (313), tasted the fruit of the goblins, and soon she "dwindled and grew gray; / Then fell with the first snow" (15657). Rather than being mourned by a brother or lover, as are the women victims in The Vampyre, Jeanie is mourned by her two spiritual sisters. And it is the memory of Jeanie's fate that specifically motivates Lizzie's desire to save her sister from a similar end. As Angela Leighton observes, "Jeanie died, not because she ate the fruit, but because she had no sister to rescue her" (119). Lizzie reminds her sister that no grass will grow on Jeanie's grave, and, even more significantly, the daisies she plants on Jeanie's grave—"innocence" in the Victorian "language of flowers" (Honnighausen 11)—will not bloom either. Jeanie's story thus might describe either the moral fall of a Victorian woman or the victimization of a woman by a vampire, with perhaps Rossetti inviting parallels between the two processes.
Just as Lizzie will not forget the memory of Jeanie, neither will she abandon her sister to the intoxicating and ultimately toxic powers of the goblin-fruit.6 Not a monster to be shunned, Laura remains a sister who deserves her sister's love—and her sacrifice. Even after Laura's fall, Rossetti emphasizes striking similarities between the young women, here describing them sleeping together in one bed:
Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other's wings,
They lay down in their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall'n snow
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings. (18491)
In this passage, Rossetti stresses Lizzie and Laura's fundamental purity—represented by the images of the blossoms and snowflakes, as well as the two doves asleep in one nest. Whereas the women victims in The Vampyre do not scruple, in Polidori's words, "to expose the whole deformity of their vices to the public gaze" and sink to the "lowest abyss of infamy and degradation" (37), Rossetti stresses the essential equality of the two sisters even after Laura's fall.7 Whereas Polidori's tale gives us two simplistic categories of women—the innocent, exemplified by Ianthe and Aubrey's sister, and the corrupt society women in London and elsewhere—Rossetti implies that the differences between the two sisters in her poem are superficial and temporary rather than essential and permanent.
If Laura is cut off from a specifically feminine world, then it takes a powerful feminine action to restore her to that world. The restoration of the fallen, the victims of the vampire's bite, remains utterly impossible in Polidori's world. In Polidori's tale, all of the principal players are male—victim and victimizer. The women are only so many playing pieces designed to reveal Ruthven/Strongmore's depravity and Aubrey's courage—and later Aubrey's impotence. In contrast, the major characters in Goblin Market are female, with the goblins serving as a necessary plot element but otherwise being of little importance. Not possessing a lover or a brother to save her, Laura relies on the ingenuity of her sister, who alone can restore Laura to her previous condition. The erotic scene in which Lizzie provides nourishment to her dying sister has naturally elicited a great deal of commentary from critics, who have often interpreted the scene as a radically altered communion metaphor.8 Lizzie's statement "Eat me, drink me, love me; / Laura, make much of me" (47172) may very well represent Rossetti's reworking of Christ inviting his disciples to partake of his blood and body. Such a perspective does not, however, completely erase the erotic nature of the scene—nor should it, for surely both elements are present.
How does a reading of the poem aware of Polidori's influence alter the interpretation of this famous scene? Morrill may be helpful here, arguing that the communion scene at the end of Rossetti's poem might be related to vampiric lore: "To drink blood is evil; to drink Christ's blood is not. The juices have been transformed from one to the other simply by an act of heroism and sisterly love" (13). I would push Morrill's conclusion even further, however. Just as drinking blood is evil but drinking Christ's blood is not, perhaps then Laura's sexual union with the goblins has evil consequences but Lizzie's sensual union with her sister does not. An observant woman who may very well have been visiting reformed prostitutes at the time of the poem's composition, Rossetti clearly knew that sexuality could be a weapon—one most often used against women. But sexuality controlled by love can be literally and metaphorically regenerative in its powers. Lizzie, then, ministers unto her sister, restoring her health and freeing Laura from the seducing power of the goblins, "Their fruits like honey in the throat / But poison in the blood" (55455). In stressing the infectious nature of the goblin fruit, perhaps Rossetti is anticipating the work of Stoker, that much more famous writer of vampire lore. Like Stoker's Mina Harker, Laura is restored; but Mina is saved through the noble efforts of four men doggedly devoted to her recovery, while Laura is saved by another woman, a sister, and restored to a loving matriarchal community.
Morrill concludes his essay by claiming that "rather than merely borrowing bits and pieces from and paralleling a work like The Vampyre, Christina Rossetti is in fact responding to its apparent nihilism" (13). In Rossetti's reworking of the myth, he continues, "men can be put in their place, the submerged force of Victorian sexuality can be suppressed, and the fashionable vices of the world can be replaced with sisterly love and spirituality" (1314). Such pronouncements are tremendously inviting, but each statement needs some modification. The poem seems more about the life-affirming relationship between the sisters than it does about men. Whereas Polidori may be fascinated by Byron and thus by Ruthven/Strongmore, Rossetti seems minimally interested in the goblins except for how Lizzie and Laura struggle against and finally defeat them. Similarly, I find it hard to accept Morrill's pronouncement that Rossetti "suppresses" sexuality in the poem. Perhaps she points to the potential dangers of male sexuality, but the sensuous domestic world of Lizzie and Laura, the strikingly erotic communion ritual they share, and even their roles late in the poem as mothers of small children all suggest that Rossetti celebrates feminine sexuality in the poem rather than suppresses it. Morrill's final assertion—that fashionable vice is replaced with "sisterly love and spirituality"is probably the most valuable of the three assertions but it does not describe Goblin Market in all its richness—or in all its erotic force. Some recent feminist critics have even argued that Rossetti actually described a sexual union between the sisters to demonstrate the spiritual union they so obviously share.9
Thus, even though some of Morrill's conclusions concerning Rossetti's indebtedness to Polidori's The Vampyre require modification, his overall contribution to an understanding of Rossetti's poem is quite useful. In my reading, an awareness of Polidori's tale as an important source for the poem mainly becomes valuable because of what she changes in her feminine-focused retelling of the vampire myth. While Rossetti's goblin men share many traits with Polidori's vampire, the subtle differences Rossetti introduces reveal her own agenda. Her goblin men are more human than the animated corpses of Eastern European legend, but they are not like the suave aristocratic Ruthven/Strongmore, who seduces and/or kills his female victims. The goblins are less like actual men than Polidori's vampire; indeed, they are almost cartoonish versions of the vampire, inspired as much by the Victorian nursery as by the gothic novel. Here Rossetti seems to be satirizing the seductive power of Ruthven/Strongmore—and perhaps men in general—by making her goblins into clownish merchant men. Although the goblins have seemingly caused the death of Jeanie, it turns out that Lizzie defeats them and reclaims her sister with relative ease. Although the scene in which the goblins force their fruits upon Lizzie is often described as an attempted rape, immediately afterward Lizzie laughs at having tricked the goblins, who skulk off like so many spoiled children:
At last the evil people
Worn out by her resistance
Flung back her penny, kicked their fruit
Along whichever road they took (43740)
Rossetti seems to be reducing the seductive power attributed to men by transforming Polidori's Byronic vampire into furry fruit vendors who have the economic power to procure fruit from exotic locales but who have little actual power over women possessing ingenuity and courage.
And indeed this last statement reveals the single major difference in Rossetti's rewriting of Polidori's tale. As various critics have maintained, Goblin Market celebrates a world that is exclusively feminine, a realm of feminine self-sufficiency.10 Although the girls eventually become "wives," we have no mention of their husbands, and even the children who appear late in the poem are essentially sexless. Lizzie needs no brother or lover to rescue Laura. Thus the poem is not so much about the power of the goblins but the power that Laura gives over to the goblins, a power that Lizzie easily reappropriates for the young women and their feminine community. The goblins tempt Lizzie and Laura so powerfully because they seem to assert that their exotic fruit will complete something lacking in the young women and in their environment. And it is precisely against such attitudes that Rossetti struggles in this poem. If the power that Laura gives over to the goblins is some sort of sexual power, then it seems appropriate that Lizzie might reappropriate that power through a sexual act shared by two women. Whereas vampire writers from Polidori to Stoker present human sexuality, especially an aggressive feminine sexuality, as horrifying, Rossetti rewrites the vampire myth to celebrate—part literally and part symbolically—the fecund power of feminine sexuality and the feminine imagination. In creating Lizzie and Laura's union, with both its sexual and spiritual elements, Rossetti focuses on the intense relationships between women that have often been trivialized or invested with evil in Western culture. Lizzie's bold action not only saves her sister from Jeanie's fate but becomes the subject of art—the tales Laura tells her children and Lizzie's. Rather than being hackneyed or overly sentimental, the poem's moral—"there is no friend like a sister" (562)becomes a profound truth for the young women and for Rossetti.
1 Morrill notes that the works of Anne Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, and Charles Maturin were readily available to Rossetti in the Polidori library (1). Marsh maintains that Rossetti did not read her uncle's tale (262) (although she does not cite a specific source for this claim) but notes that Rossetti may have read the famous vampire curse in Byron's Giaour (263). It is certain that Rossetti had read a fragment of a story by Polidori called "A Story of Miss Anne and Miss Emma with the Dog—Carlo" (Macdonald and Scherf 187). Even if it might be proved conclusively that Rossetti never read The Vampyre in its entirety, there are enough parallels to suggest that she knew the basic plot of her uncle's story, which was widely known.
2 Morrill acknowledges that Rossetti drew upon various sources in writing this poem. For example, Evans suggests sources in Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology, as well as in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and William Allingham's The Faeries. Marsh suggests the influence of The Fairy Family, published in 1857 and illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones (231). McGann argues that the fruit and merchant men are drawn from specific biblical texts (24748). Bentley posits that the poem was "originally written as 'an exemplary tale made imaginative' to be read by Rossetti to an audience of fallen women" (58), a conjecture which Marsh supports (235).
3 Macdonald and Scherf employ the name "Strongmore," the name Polidori uses in the unpublished holograph revision of the tale. To avoid confusion, I use the name "Ruthven/Strongmore." All quotations from The Vampyre are taken from the Macdonald and Scherf edition.
4 For additional parallels between Byron and Ruthven/Strongmore, see Macdonald and Scherf's annotations (15256). They comment that the name "Strongmore" has "connotations of phallic potency and size" (152).
5 All quotations from Rossetti's poetry come from Crump's edition.
6 Brownley points out that "intoxication" and "toxic" share the same root (180).
7 See D'Amico for Rossetti's conviction of the fundamental equality of fallen women and the sisters who visited them (78).
8 For variations of this argument, see McGann 251, Shalkhauser 1920, and Watson 5051.
9 See, for example, Brownley 18384, Casey 69, and Mermin 112.
10 Some examples include Casey 75, Gilbert and Gubar 567, Mermin 108, and Rosenblum 83.
Bentley, D.M.R. "The Meretricious and the Meritorious in Goblin Market: A Conjecture and an Analysis." The Achievement of Christina Rossetti. Ed. David A. Kent. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987. 5781.
Brownley, Martine Watson. "Love and Sensuality in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market." Essays in Literature 6 (1979): 17986.
Carpenter, Mary Wilson. "'Eat me, drink me, love me': The Consumable Female Body in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry 29 (1991): 41534.
Casey, Janet Galligani. "The Potential of Sisterhood in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry 29 (1991): 6378.
Crump, R.W., ed. The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti. Vol 1. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979.
D'Amico, Diane. "'Equal Before God': Christina Rossetti and the Fallen Women of Highgate Penitentiary." Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art. Eds. Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor. Dekalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1992. 6783.
Duffy, Maureen. The Erotic World of the Faerie. New York: Avon, 1972.
Evans, B. Ifor. "The Sources of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market." Modern Language Review 28 (1933): 15665.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman