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Issue 20 Guest Artist:
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Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Goblin Market’s Allotropic Sisters by Alan Wall


In 1859 Christina Rossetti started writing a poem in which a young woman called Lizzie has her body kissed and frenziedly sucked at by her addicted sister Laura. At the same moment Christina’s brother Dante Gabriel was presumably doing something similar with the body of another Lizzie, Lizzie Siddal. The lethal juices that cover Lizzie’s body are miraculously transmuted into restoratives in ‘Goblin Market’; the lethal juices inside Lizzie Siddal would kill her within three years. They consisted largely of laudanum. The year in which Christina’s book was published, 1862, was the year of Lizzie’s death. It appeared with illustrations by Christina’s brother Dante Gabriel, at least one of which shows female features bearing more than a passing resemblance to those of Lizzie Siddal in her prime. In the same year that she was writing the poem, Christina started voluntarily helping at the Saint Mary Magdalene penitentiary in Highgate, an institution for the assistance and reformation of fallen women. When her brother had painted Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee the year before, he had employed the features of Miss Siddal to portray that fallen woman. And when in the year of publication Lizzie was buried in Highgate Cemetery, Dante Gabriel deposited a manuscript book of his poems with her corpse, together with a Bible. Seven years later he had her body exhumed under cover of darkness so that he could get those poems back in order to publish them. In early January 1895 Christina would finally join her sister-in-law amongst the Rossetti family graves, at plot number 5779, Highgate Cemetery. Thus do text and body intermingle finally to become the body of the text.

Lizzie Siddal was working-class (or very nearly so), and almost exactly Christina’s age. Dante Gabriel obsessed over her visually for many years, and we know that Christina was greatly intrigued by the nature of her brother’s obsession with this woman from a lower social class. In her poem ‘In An Artist’s Studio’ she writes: ‘He feeds upon her face by day and night.’ The verb ‘feed’ there catches the intention, given the desperate ingestion of the forbidden potions from Lizzie’s body that Laura so desperately craves in the poem. Christina herself never married, turning down three separate suitors, and as far as is known, never had any kind of physical affair with anyone, though recent biographers have speculated about possible relationships with her sister, her other brother, and even her father. Nothing can be proven. Not so in the case of Dante Gabriel, who like his namesake maintained a vivid interest in the opposite sex all his life, and at times seemed to be doing more than enough carnal loving for both himself and his sister; Lizzie was one of his numerous affairs, even though he was finally to marry her, impregnate her, bury her, and dig her up again. When Christina died she was wearing three wedding rings on her wedding finger. Her last note requested that all three be deposited in the offertory of a church. Here, it would seem, is true trinitarian renunciation. And as the Bellman reminds us in The Hunting of the Snark: ‘What I tell you three times is true.’

Faced with ‘Goblin Market’ interpretation understandably grows nervous, because this is a poem which will not permit any straightforward translation into narrative, psychological or sexual comprehensibility. Faced with it one is reminded of Freud’s three-part conceptual manoeuvre in regard to dream interpretation. The commanding concepts here can be: condensation, displacement and overdetermination. No image ever owns up to being exactly what it is. Manifest content should not be assumed to be a transparent expression of latent content. Cathexis will all too often infuse not the desired object or person, but another one nearby along the proximate chain of signification. And there is never merely one cause for anything, but frequently a myriad. Nothing here is simply determined; all is always and everywhere overdetermined. Every instant arrives announcing its manifold complexity. Even the prosody confuses. Ruskin thought it altogether too uneven, fatally indebted to the Coleridge of ‘Christabel’, while Saintsbury deemed it ‘a dedoggerelized Skeltonic’, owing some sort of debt to the irregular Pindaric mode of the seventeenth century. Both of them evidently thought it a trifle wayward.

So what of the little people in the poem, those goblins? There is clearly an echo here of Christina’s knowledge of legend and fairy tale. In those dark and sinister realms, it is worth remarking that little people – whatever their nomenclature or nationality – tend to be either very good or very bad. The dwarfs who tend and dote on Snow White, despite occasional moments of grumpiness, and a seemingly Stakhanovite commitment to the work ethic, are essentially beneficent. But small, ugly misshapen creatures recur throughout fairy tales as malevolent tricksters, and omens of ill-fortune. They arrange for the childless to have a child, but then insist on claiming the infant for their own dark purpose. They do deals that seem advantageous, but tend to turn out badly for everyone else but themselves. So the dwarf in literature is at best an ambiguous figure, as occasionally in life too. The Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz were bright and delightful harbingers of joy to Dorothy and her companions in the film. But the actors themselves did their best to turn the Culver Hotel where they were all staying into an orgiastic scene worthy of the last days of Caligula. Boozing, whoring, pimping, they astounded everyone with their depravity; everyone but themselves, that is, since that was how many of them made their living out there on the street, when not being employed as sentimental choruses in Hollywood movies. One of them even managed to get himself wedged into a toilet bowl after an egregious drinking bout, and had to be pulled out of it by a much taller person.

There was a curious reprise of this motif when Randy Newman wrote a song called ‘Short People’, which contained the memorable line ‘You’ve got to pick them up just to say hello’. In an interview with a sympathetic auditor, Newman was asked if the song was not meant metaphorically, as a kind of parable about people with shrunken spirits. Not at all, he replied, he had been staying at a hotel where people of diminished growth were having a convention. He had found them the most unpleasant, selfish and rude group of human beings he had ever encountered, and so had written the song. His concerts were picketed by certain short people for some time after. As if to ram home the point that being very short does not necessarily make you very nice, the film In Bruges has a dwarf (not he insists ‘a midget’) who is partial to hard drugs and hookers, and is looking forward to an all-out race war between blacks and whites, irrespective of size, nationality or religion. On the other hand, we might note that in Dante Gabriel’s menagerie on Cheyne Walk, Christina’s favourite creature was the wombat, small, furry, and unquestionably non-linguistic. This last detail was presumably a negotiable plus or minus, since she used to call Charles Cayley, one of her three suitors, ‘my special mole’.

Goblins, sprites, mischievous elves. They can be difficult to separate out into specific identities. ‘Gnome’ as a word arrives in its present form in Pope’s Rape of the Lock, and appears to root back through the French gnome to the Latin gnomus, carrying the sense of earth-dweller. Such creatures are frequently chthonic. The gnome was of earth, as the salamander was of fire, the sylph of air, and undine of water. The mythic function of goblins and gnomes might be similar to that of Cinderella: the connecting up of what is above here on the earth with what is below, often by means of cellars. When Satan encounters his only begotten son Death at the end of Book Two of Paradise Lost, the youthful inheritor is referred to as a goblin. This text featured notably in Christina’s upbringing, since her father translated the whole of it into Italian. And then there was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had been using the word goblin for a couple of years before Christina’s poem was written. He refers to trolls as ‘a kind of goblin men’, and even alludes to modern means of production and transportation when he speaks of ‘this goblin of steam’. The goblins are gargoyle-like: intriguing certainly, but you do not necessarily want them at the centre of your iconography.

In his last book Apocalypse D. H. Lawrence points to the split between the Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Scarlet Woman in the Book of Revelation, and finds there a fundamental division in the western psyche regarding the female and sex. We split into two the sexual woman and the mother; the holy woman and the whore. The division recurs in countless manifolds, and frequently without the conscious notice of the person doing the splitting. One can read Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ in such a fashion. Lizzie and Laura are sisters; they share a bed; they came out of the same womb. One of them ingests the fruits on offer from the sinister goblins, and the other does not. One becomes addicted, and the other becomes her nurse. One is a fallen woman, and the other the lady from the Society for the Suppression of Vice, or an assistant at the Saint Mary Magdalene in Highgate, where Christina was offered the post of Superintendent. While one becomes the Scarlet Woman, the other remains the Woman Clothed with the Sun. They thus act out in narrative form Lawrence’s s apocalyptic division of woman into two contrary hemispheres at the beginning of the Christian era. It is notable in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including those containing the image of Lizzie Siddal, how frequently the woman appears to be oscillating between virgin and Magdalena. In one painting Lizzie was the world’s most famous fallen woman; in another, Ecce Ancilla Domini, her sister-in-law (first unofficially, then officially) was the Blessed Virgin Mary, receiving the word of the Lord, which will turn in her womb into the Word of God. Both painted by the man who stood between them, Dante Gabriel, who soon after Lizzie’s death would portray her as his namesake Dante’s lifelong (and virginal) inamorata Beatrice. The original Dante portrayed the inhabitants of both heaven and hell; Christina has the Greek word for messiah embedded in her name.

One way to allegorise this bifurcating drama is to think of it in chemical terms: one element expresses itself in different allotropic forms, as carbon expresses itself as both diamond and graphite. Laura/Lizzie is having it both ways, and Rossetti’s imagination seems to know this, even though her conscious ego (let alone her superintending superego) would surely have baulked at the notion:

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…

Indistinguishable then, it seems, except for one crucial thing: appetite. Now Jeanie, we are told in the poem, ate of the addictive fruit on sale from the goblins, and instead of becoming a bride, fell childless into her grave; not in the bleak midwinter, but with the first snows starting to fall. Lizzie turns her body into the meal Laura must eat to quell her dreadful craving. She has gathered the fateful juices all over her person, without consuming a single drop herself, keeping her lips tight shut, and her body now becomes the anti-body that her sibling needs to cure this life-threatening addiction. After a night of torment (though one seemingly filled with erotic dynamics), all is well, marriage and fecundity beckon for both of them. Sadly, the same was not to be for Lizzie Siddal. After years of prevarication Dante Gabriel married her in 1860. Soon after, she became pregnant, but gave birth to a stillborn child, a tragedy from which she never fully recovered. Some claim she had never fully recovered from lying in freezing water, pretending to be the drowned Ophelia, while John Everett Millais painted on, oblivious to the condition of the hypothermic, waterlogged young woman in the tub before him, after the heaters had failed. She was being employed to impersonate a chilly corpse, and seems to have come remarkably close to becoming one. Afterwards, she carried on consuming those fatal fluids, without any redemptrix to transmute them into anti-bodies for her. She died, it seems, through a self-administered dose of laudanum, having taken to rocking the empty cradle of her stillborn child, and hushing visitors, so as not to wake her invisible offspring. This scene from history appears now as vivid and hallucinatory as any in ‘Goblin Market’.

Structuralism understood (if sometimes a little too diagrammatically) how binary oppositions in language and imagery echo and express larger social and cultural oppositions. So nature and nurture, the raw and the cooked, the married and the unmarried, and of course the male and the female, find a myriad expressions in our arts and sciences. The first use of the nature/nurture contrast in English would appear to be Shakespeare’s, who has Prospero say of Caliban: ‘…a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick.’ The opposition to which he is alluding goes back at least two thousand years before that, with the opposition of physis and nomos in ancient Greek thought. After Freud and after Structuralism, we have become accustomed to reading texts allegorically where no allegory was ever consciously intended by the author. We have on the whole stopped writing allegories, and pursued the hermeneutics of allegoric reading instead.

In the light of a century of such readings, ‘Goblin Market’ becomes structurally intriguing. The bed, so often the centre of fairy tales and legends, is here shared by two females. The only male presences in the poem are the goblins, those little merchant men for whom trade and corruption appear indistinguishable (and Ruskin, whatever his doubts about the metre, would have had little difficulty with that). Although husbands are indicated in the final section, they never actually appear; they are merely an aspect of the sisters’ discursive endgame. There is no father here. So the masculine has been displaced to a dwarfish malignancy beyond the hearth. We might note too that since the goblins have to be paid for their wares, they hint at a new commercial Gesellschaft where the tiny healing community of the loving sisters retains the identity of a Gemeinschaft. Lizzie takes a silver penny, with which to purchase the substances for her sister to abuse, but the goblins throw this coin back at her. They want her, it seems, not merely some abstract means of exchange; they want the particularity of her body, not the abstracted mediation of her coin. She offers them merely a silver token, but Laura had given the real gold of her hair. All the same, Emerson’s goblin of steam had been effecting its Industrial Revolution out on the street and in the stations. We might note that there is no sign of it in that emblematic Pre-Raphaelite painting, Work, by Ford Madox Brown. There all the implements of labour are effectively pre-industrial, as F. D. Maurice and Thomas Carlyle look on, philosophically. Back in 1848 with Dombey and Son, Dickens had captured something of the real energetic frenzy of the industrial age, with his portrayal of the railways as they carved up England and speeded up existence.

Language itself operates as structure, according to Lévi-Strauss, so we note that the two open vowels of Laura’s name close up into a much tighter doublet in the name Lizzie. She keeps her nominal vowels closed, as she does her lips when the goblins try to get her to take their tempting poisons. Both girls share an alveolar for their opening syllable. (Alveolars seem to have a curious relevance here: Dante Gabriel cajoled Lizzie into dropping the second of hers from the family name Siddall.) One hemispheric identity opens as the other closes. It is Lizzie’s body which is deliriously sucked at by Laura, to satisfy her cravings. Lizzie is the bride to her own sister’s terrible desire, and in surrendering herself to be so consumed, she effects the necessary cure. She offers herself as a female version of the redemptive body.

All allegorical readings impose the present on the past. When Christian hermeneuts discovered typological patterns in Hebrew scripture, they were bringing their own post-messianic understanding to the reading of a pre-messianic tradition. Lévi-Strauss remarked of Freud’s reading of the Oedipus myth that it perhaps told us more about the preoccupations of the present than those of the past. Freud’s own allegorical interpretation here has become legendary, having been proclaimed the founding tenet of psychoanalysis. So let us remind ourselves that it could all have been otherwise, and might still become so in time. One could oppose Freud’s reading of the Sophocles play with an entirely different approach, based on anthropological motifs rather than sexual ones. Let us read the old play as an allegory of the theme of endogamy versus exogamy. Oedipus is safe as long as he stays away from Thebes; it is the endogamous return into his own family which brings about calamity. There was never a more dire warning against the dangers of inbreeding than the consequences of Oedipus bedding his mother. All the materials for this reading are there; all that we would need is sufficient cultural motivation. Which constellations we assemble to facilitate our readings are a matter of cultural orientation. In a culture which could not tolerate the sterility of widowhood, the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta would in effect be a re-balancing of the biological requirements; there would be a mathematical equation in the parricide followed by the subsequent wedding. He who created the widow must now uncreate her as a widow, by marriage. (Such symmetries characterise all mythic systems. Neoptolemus gets to marry Andromache after the Trojan War; it was his father Achilles who killed her husband Hector, so the two families re-join once more in an act of fruitful symmetric restoration, involving mothers, wives and sons.) A different reading might point out that Oedipus begins with an attempted infanticide. Laius and Jocasta decide to kill little Oedipus, because of the predictions of dire things to come should he grow into a man. Infanticide is the assassination of the future. The future duly returns to the present as executioner to kill both Laius and Jocasta, if – in the latter case – by her own hand. What goes around comes around.

In the same century that Lizzie and Laura, the allotropic sisters who share an elemental identity, split into users and non-users, then rejoined in unity as twinned mothers, other texts did not end so happily. It is seldom pointed out that whenever Mr Hyde is out ravaging and whoring, Dr Jekyll must presumably be doing it along with him. They too share the same bed, and came out of the same womb. Dr Jekyll, arriving in the great century of the isolation of the elements, goes into his chemical laboratory and sets about isolating the vital human element, the primal man. He chemically elicits this being out of himself, but there is no dialogue between the doctor thus encumbered with civilization and its discontents, and the unsocialised focus of appetites and rages that is Mr Hyde. All the same, Hyde’s identity came out of Jekyll; they are ontologically cognate. They represent an ouroboros, with the mouth of the present swallowing the tail of its own primitive vigour and identity. Darwin argued that our smile could well be a vestigial gesture of the primitive manoeuvre of baring the incisors to indicate that the flesh of an opponent would soon be torn. In Hyde the figure of Jekyll once more discovers the incisors behind the Voltairean smile, what Kenneth Clark used to call ‘the smile of reason’. Their final indissoluble chemical wedding augurs certain death for both. And it is curious to think that Christina was finishing her poem as the first copies of The Origin of Species came off the press.

Dorian Gray is consumed when his own alter ego can no longer be kept under lock and key, separated from the primary ego. Here is another image of separation of primal appetite from social subject; or, for that matter, of art from social requirement, as Ruskin might have put it. The figure of the double often tends to announce something sinister in legend; a premonition of death, for example. And bilocation, which is a form of spectral doubling, was often thought to occur at the moment of death. Henry James uses this motif with great brilliance in his story ‘The Friends of the Friends’, as he uses the idea of psychological alterity, the possibility of another life, perhaps the one not lived, in ‘The Jolly Corner’. Curiously enough, the motif was explored by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his painting How They Met Themselves, in which a couple meets its doppelgänger. The woman swoons, as though she recognised the image of her own death approaching in the shape of her double. The artist completed this painting in the two years after Lizzie’s death.

So, looking on the bright side, he had at least continued painting. Addicted as he had been to laudanum and alcohol, he had believed at the time of Lizzie’s death that he had been going blind, and had for a while abandoned painting, writing poems to Lizzie in a journal instead. This was the same journal which he had buried with her, before changing his mind and digging her up again. And as if the whole of Highgate had turned into one huge emblematic painting, a worm had eaten its way through the book, making some of the poems hard to read. This could presumably have been the invisible worm that flies in the night.

‘Goblin Market’ as a poem is over-resolved. Like many of Dickens’s novels, it insists on too forceful a redemption, too Victorian a resolution of all contingency and danger into causality and security. Can Laura really go from narcotic recidivism through cold turkey to cleaning up and staying clean for ever, in such a short time, in one night in fact? Too much appears serene in the aftermath of this enforced serenity. And it has only taken that one night, however frenzied the hours of darkness must have been. What a tangle the bedclothes would have presented to the dawn light, stained with so many illicit juices. Might it not have been more convincing if, like the ancient story of Persephone, the chthonic regions had claimed a part of one sister in perpetuity; if one seed of the pomegranate still pressed its suit on behalf of the gargoyle-like possessors of the underworld? Might not the poem convince us more if it ended something like this?

Then one day, writing letters,
Laura heard a familiar cry
Out in the lane: ‘Come buy, come buy.’
Goblin steam had flecked across the sky.
Before a thought could form
Of husband, children, or the gathering storm
She ran out, following the shrunken gleemen
Potent wares now back on sale
To twilight maidens; midnight women…

Dante Gabriel did in fact paint a picture entitled Proserpine, and in it Pluto’s unwilling bride is holding the pomegranate she has fatally bitten into, with no sister on hand to superintend her redemption. But that was many years later, and this time the model was neither Christina nor Lizzie, but Jane Morris, whose expression indicates that she too can boast of her acquaintance with the creatures of darkness, and the regions of the underworld. No wonder her mother Demeter had stopped the seasons turning for a while, in order to try to bring the poor girl home.