1.4.3 Religion

Religion will prevail

Religion was the most striking point in her life but from my point of view, it was in her personality but she showed it in a different way to the audience . It’s obvious that religion stablished her life, her possible marriages, etc. But I wonder if religious wouldn’t have been so important to her mother and to Victorian society, if Christina Rossetti would have been so devote. I don’t think so. Anyway, religion was present all her life and it became a type of help for her in some difficult moments and it is reflexed in her poems as a way of changing society.  So, ‘Goblin Market’ was the least one could do.

Her faith in God and the Bible was a great part of her life, for example she gave up playing chess because she thought that her wish to win this game had become too strong. She believed that this would be a chance to become a more humble believer.

Religion seen through the ‘Goblin Market’:

Laura in ‘Goblin Market’ ultimately benefit from her experience and from their renunciation of illusions and earthly ideals. Spiritual ideals of love (in one reading of Goblin Market, Lizzie is a Christ figure). With the residue of resistance “syrup[ping] all her face,” Lizzie returns to Laura as a Christ figure, symbolically introducing Laura to a new spiritual direction for her passionate impulses, one that will in all senses save her from the betrayal that inevitably follows upon false expectations of fulfillment through sensual pleasures:

“Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men,”     [Poems, 1:23]

In Christina Rossetti’s long narrative poem, “Goblin Market,” two sisters are tempted by evil goblin merchants who haunt the woods and allure maidens with sumptuous fruits, the traditional symbol of temptation in the Bible. Christina Rossetti clearly intended the fruit of the goblin merchants to symbolize the forbidden fruit in the biblical story when Laura asks Lizzie if she has tasted “for my sake the fruit forbidden.” Christina Rossetti’s use of meaningful religious symbolism contrasts with Dante Gabriel‘s tendency to take up traditionally religious symbols but leave them vague and empty of meaning.

“Goblin Market,” one of Christina’s most sexual poems, contains numerous analogies to sexual appetites, but it is unclear whether she was aware of these sexual innuendos. As her desire for sensuous fulfillment becomes more intense, Laura takes on the characteristics of a beast, recalling the fate of many lustful figures in Dante’s Inferno:

(Laura) Then sat up in a passionate yearning,
And gnashed her teeth for balked desire, and wept
As if her heart would break.

The character of Laura closely parallels the figure of the She-Wolf which represents excessive desire: “her nature is so squalid, so malicious / that she can never sate her greedy will; / When she has fed, she’s hungrier than ever” (Inferno, I, 97-99). When humans are dominated by their emotions and sensations, they are reduced to the animal level and lose their capacity for freedom. Such errant desire unchecked by reason or the will of God resulted in the fall of man (Paradiso, XXIV, 103).

In “Goblin Market” (1859), Christina Rossetti alludes to the traditional discourse of forbidden fruit and the biblical account of the Fall. She does so both to challenge the decidedly patriarchal perception of women within Victorian culture in terms of sexuality, education and the marketplace and also to reconstruct the Christian idea of redemption.

The forbidden fruit undoubtedly refers to female sexuality, as many critics have stated, yet it can also relate to female education and knowledge. After all, it was from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Eve ate.

It is interesting to note that it is Laura — perhaps named after Petrarch’s courtly ideal (Bentley 72) — who becomes the fallen woman, partaking of the forbidden fruit. Karen Armstrong addresses the “angel” myth of woman being “an island of perfection in a dark world” by looking at the way Petrarch’s Laura was affiliated with the Virgin Mary, contrasted with the negative connotations associated with Eve (81).

Significantly, Rossetti blurs the distinction between the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and that from the Tree of Life. In the Genesis account of the Fall, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, as part of their punishment they are not allowed access to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22). However, in Rossetti’s poem, the fruit that Laura can no longer access is the same fruit that was originally forbidden to her. Furthermore, Laura’s “salvation” is actually found in tasting again the juices of the forbidden fruits, although instead of giving her an insatiable appetite as they did the first time, they perform the role of a “fiery antidote” (599), seemingly giving her enough to innoculate her, but not enough to feed her addiction. Essentially, therefore, Laura’s fruit of knowledge and her fruit of life are derived from the same source, obscuring the definition between purity and sin. This image is very different from the biblical view, for Christ said that “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18), clearly enforcing a difference between the two “fruits.”

The poem cannot be seen as merely a message of redemption, for that would entail Laura’s feeling that she was morally wrong in acquiring the fruit in the first place. Her cure is necessary, not for her spiritual reconciliation, but for her reintegration into her society.

Further evidence for this idea can be found in the bond between Laura and Lizzie. If Lizzie is a redemptive Christ-figure, it would be necessary for there to be a relational separation between them after Laura eats the fruit, in order to symbolise the separation between God and humankind at the Fall, and this would need to be combined with a sense of shame on Laura’s part. Instead, Laura openly tells Lizzie of the bliss she experienced in eating her fill of the “sugar-sweet . . . sap” of the fruit (183), without compromising their relationship at all. Rather than her confession being followed by a symbolic eviction from the Garden of Eden, in the next stanza Rossetti writes of the closeness, almost co-mingling of the sisters:

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.
Moon and stars gazed in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapped to and fro
Round their nest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest. [184-98]

This image is clearly not of purity foiling sinfulness, as would be expected in a traditional rhetoric of redemption, but more along the lines of what D’Amico sees in Rossetti’s religious works: “Mary, the mother of God, and Mary Magdalene, the sinner, stood together at the Crucifixion. Therefore the disobedience that had cost Eve Eden need not cost her heaven” (“Eve, Mary and Mary Magdalene” 175). This idea suggests a spiritual and moral equality between what is holy and what is redeemed. Yet I see Rossetti’s image as even more radical, since even before a price has been paid for Laura’s redemption, there is no relational discord between what can be seen as arguably divine nature and human nature: the two sisters remain equal in spite of Laura’s apparently immoral act. Therefore, although Lizzie does play the role of a Christ-figure, it is not for Laura’s spiritual redemption, as it is quite evident that her spiritual position — identified through her relationship with her sister — is never lost.

It appears, then, that Rossetti is not necessarily condemning the consumption of the fruit as sinful, but rather she questions whether to do so would be profitable. This interpretation ties in with St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (I Cor. 6:12). It is quite possible that Rossetti considered this verse in her attitudes toward fallen women, as well as her general perspective on life: she looked for the eternal rewards of heaven, rather than the temporal rewards of earthly life. The goblins play a deceptive role, enticing Laura into a corruptible sense of fulfilment — corruptible because it cannot last; she can only buy the fruit once, but she does not realise this until after she has eaten it, and she thus falls under its power. The goblins cry of “come buy, come buy” throughout the poem seems to reflect the biblical trope of referring to the acquisition of heavenly rewards in terms of purchasing:

Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? [Isa. 55:1-2]

The Book of Revelations echoes this idea: “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fires, that thou mayest be rich” (Rev. 3:18). Within this discourse of buying and selling, it is easy to see the produce of the goblins as the corruptible, temporal rewards of earthly life that should be passed over, not because they are necessarily bad, but because there is something better to seek, something that will satisfy where the goblin fruit cannot: the eternal, incorruptible rewards of heaven. This idea relates to Christ’s words: “provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth” (Luke 12:33).

Lizzie’s subversiveness in seeking out the goblins is justified both through her reluctance and her sense of self-sacrifice. She is compelled to act in order to promote freedom for women within her society by confronting the goblins — and consequently the patriarchal system of ostracism. The resolution of the poem reflects Rossetti’s apparent ambivalence in regard to womanhood. The “willed confusion of fallen and unfallen” (Leighton, “Laws” 235) in “Goblin Market” shows that Rossetti was evidently torn between realising how blatantly her society seemed to disregard the biblical precedence for forgiveness and acceptance and actually being able to function effectively as an individual within that society. As D’Amico suggests, Lizzie is not the “pure unfallen sister” who saves the fallen woman (“Equal Before God” 70); neither does she function as the pure “opposite” of her sister — “the virginal woman is not set before the reader as an ideal” (76).

The implications of eating forbidden fruit are ambiguous in “Goblin Market,” just as Rossetti’s view is ambiguous concerning the role and status of women in her society. She addresses the restrictions placed on women, using biblical examples to reveal that these restrictions are incongruous with the will of God. In “Goblin Market” in particular, she pulls down the ideological boundaries of femininity, allowing women to escape from the extremes of classification: an angelic Virgin Mary, devoid of sexuality, or an Eve, punished for seeking knowledge. Rossetti puts her unswerving hope in Christ and heaven for the restoration of her society; a hope perhaps exemplified by the unconditional love Lizzie shows in both “saving” and accepting her sister.

Significantly, Rossetti blurs the distinction between the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and that from the Tree of Life. In the Genesis account of the Fall, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, as part of their punishment they are not allowed access to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22). However, in Rossetti’s poem, the fruit that Laura can no longer access is the same fruit that was originally forbidden to her. Furthermore, Laura’s “salvation” is actually found in tasting again the juices of the forbidden fruits, although instead of giving her an insatiable appetite as they did the first time, they perform the role of a “fiery antidote” (599), seemingly giving her enough to innoculate her, but not enough to feed her addiction. Essentially, therefore, Laura’s fruit of knowledge and her fruit of life are derived from the same source, obscuring the definition between purity and sin. This image is very different from the biblical view, for Christ said that “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18), clearly enforcing a difference between the two “fruits.”

Thus the poem cannot be seen as merely a message of redemption, for that would entail Laura’s feeling that she was morally wrong in acquiring the fruit in the first place. Her cure is necessary, not for her spiritual reconciliation, but for her reintegration into her society.

Further evidence for this idea can be found in the bond between Laura and Lizzie. If Lizzie is a redemptive Christ-figure, it would be necessary for there to be a relational separation between them after Laura eats the fruit, in order to symbolise the separation between God and humankind at the Fall, and this would need to be combined with a sense of shame on Laura’s part. Instead, Laura openly tells Lizzie of the bliss she experienced in eating her fill of the “sugar-sweet . . . sap” of the fruit (183), without compromising their relationship at all. Rather than her confession being followed by a symbolic eviction from the Garden of Eden, in the next stanza Rossetti writes of the closeness, almost co-mingling of the sisters:

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.
Moon and stars gazed in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapped to and fro
Round their nest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest. [184-98]

This image is clearly not of purity foiling sinfulness, as would be expected in a traditional rhetoric of redemption, but more along the lines of what D’Amico sees in Rossetti’s religious works: “Mary, the mother of God, and Mary Magdalene, the sinner, stood together at the Crucifixion. Therefore the disobedience that had cost Eve Eden need not cost her heaven” (“Eve, Mary and Mary Magdalene” 175). This idea suggests a spiritual and moral equality between what is holy and what is redeemed. Yet I see Rossetti’s image as even more radical, since even before a price has been paid for Laura’s redemption, there is no relational discord between what can be seen as arguably divine nature and human nature: the two sisters remain equal in spite of Laura’s apparently immoral act. Therefore, although Lizzie does play the role of a Christ-figure, it is not for Laura’s spiritual redemption, as it is quite evident that her spiritual position — identified through her relationship with her sister — is never lost.

It appears, then, that Rossetti is not necessarily condemning the consumption of the fruit as sinful, but rather she questions whether to do so would be profitable. This interpretation ties in with St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (I Cor. 6:12). It is quite possible that Rossetti considered this verse in her attitudes toward fallen women, as well as her general perspective on life: she looked for the eternal rewards of heaven, rather than the temporal rewards of earthly life. The goblins play a deceptive role, enticing Laura into a corruptible sense of fulfilment — corruptible because it cannot last; she can only buy the fruit once, but she does not realise this until after she has eaten it, and she thus falls under its power. The goblins cry of “come buy, come buy” throughout the poem seems to reflect the biblical trope of referring to the acquisition of heavenly rewards in terms of purchasing:

Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? [Isa. 55:1-2]

The Book of Revelations echoes this idea: “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fires, that thou mayest be rich” (Rev. 3:18). Within this discourse of buying and selling, it is easy to see the produce of the goblins as the corruptible, temporal rewards of earthly life that should be passed over, not because they are necessarily bad, but because there is something better to seek, something that will satisfy where the goblin fruit cannot: the eternal, incorruptible rewards of heaven. This idea relates to Christ’s words: “provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth” (Luke 12:33).

Looking at the exact nature of Lizzie’s help for Laura, we cannot overlook the Christian themes pervading her “sacrifice” for her sister and many other aspects of the poem. While Rossetti was, as it has already been mentioned, strictly religious throughout her life, it would not be fair to restrict the reading of “Goblin Market” to a simple Christian allegory of sin ad redemption; religious themes, however, are prominent and cannot be overlooked. Lizzie is associated with white and blue – the colours of the Virgin Mary – but also gold; her selfsacrifice to save her sister clearly designates her as a Christ-like figure. Her request to Laura: “Eat me, drink me, love me” (l. 471), can thus be considered as analogous to the consumption of the flesh and blood of Christ during communion. The goblin fruits, as it has been mentioned previously, evoke the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, signifying temptation, sin, the Fall and knowledge.

Perhaps the most significant influence of Tractarian religious doctrine on Rossetti’s poetry is the concept of Soul Sleep. According to this belief, souls of the dead do not go directly to judgment and Heaven or Hell, but remain suspended in a state between life and death until Christ’s Second Coming and the Final Judgment; the time of this suspension is also when a soul’s particular judgment takes place. Soul Sleep is a state in which the soul can receive visions of Paradise (or everlasting torment), a liminal period of uncertainty and ambiguity, but also tranquil rest. The importance of Soul Sleep, in which death and dreaming are interwoven, for Rossetti’s poetry cannot be overstated. The time after death is connected with freedom, especially of the imagination; all restrictions, which weigh so heavily on women during their earthly existence, are relaxed. The death-like lethargy into which Laura falls after being “healed” by Lizzie is an obvious manifestation of Soul Sleep. No glimpse into the process of Laura’s particular judgment is given, but her return to life means that the verdict was favourable; reconciled with her sister and her sexuality, she is destined for a sort of heaven on earth, the paradise of sisterhood. Both the religious themes and the idea of sisterhood can be traced back to Christina Rossetti’s close, but rather troubled relationship with her sister, Maria Rossetti. Maria had a huge influence on Christina: it was she who introduced the poet to the orthodox Tractarian movement. Most likely, it was also she who persuaded Christina out of her two important relationships with men – the Catholic Collinson and the agnostic Cayley – on the grounds that Christina shouldn’t marry outside of the Church of England. The sisters’ relationship can provide certain hints as to how Christina formed her ideas about relationships between women.

Many critics have been in the 20th century who began to read “Goblin Market” with a religious approach, noting the undertones of Christianity and a very obvious Christ figure: Lizzie, the sister of Laura and her “savior,” in a way. Lizzie manages by the poem’s end to revive her ailing sister and save her from certain death that would have resulted from her inability to resist the goblin men’s tempting fruit.

The major religious current that runs throughout the poem is the possibility of Lizzie as a Christ figure, which I think is one of the most probable and apparent possibilities in the work’s entirety. Lizzie, from the start of the poem, proves wiser than her sister, for she cautions her sister about the dangers of the goblin men and the fruit they nightly peddle:
“Oh,” cried Lizzie, “Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.” (l. 48-49)
Lizzie’s urgent cautions are unheeded by her sister, whose “golden head” is instantly drawn to the calls of the goblin men (l. 41). Laura is thusly characterized as the more human or naturally flawed of the two sisters, since Lizzie is able to have the strength to resist the temptation of the fruit of the goblin men. This wise sensibility that supersedes her sister’s is an indicator to us that Lizzie might have to intercede later on in order to protect her sister, and her calm sensibility almost creates a sense of foreshadowing that may later lead to the occurrence of a miraculous event. The main reason why Lizzie is thought to be a Christ figure is the fact that she makes a huge sacrifice for her sister in order to save her life, for she goes to see the goblin men one night in an attempt to buy some of their fruit to give to her sister. When Lizzie realizes that her sister needs some more of the fruit, she risks her safety to go get some for her. Laura literally eats and drinks of Lizzie’s body, which hints at the Eucharist when Christ said to eat and drink of his body. Simon Humphries notes this in his article entitled “The Uncertainty of “Goblin Market!” when he quotes the
“Prayer of Consecration in the Common liturgy,” in which Christ says, “Take, eat, this my Body is given for you…Drink ye all of this; for this is my blood of the new Testament, which is shed for you” (Humphries 394). Marylu Hill!s critique of “Goblin Market” finds that the major action of the poem rests upon Laura’s salvation via the consumption of her sister’s body, which has been smeared with the goblin men!s fruits. Obviously suggestive of Holy Communion, Hill asserts that “Eucharist as sacrifice and saving meal is clearly at the heart of  “Goblin Market!” (455).

The ending is undoubtedly the poem’s most child-friendly element, and it helps add fuel to Rossetti’s assertion that “Goblin Market” was, in fact, a simple children’s poem with a very available moral lesson, which would go back to Rossetti’s religious beliefs. Rossetti’s devoutness when it came to religion resonated throughout all
aspects of her life to the fullest extent. Even her love life was clouded by her severe Christian beliefs, for she received two marriage proposals from two different men and chose to marry neither of them because of the fact that her suitors! Religious beliefs were not completely compatible with her own. The first who proposed to her was a young man by the name of James Collinson, and Rossetti refused him because he was a Roman Catholic. In an effort to win her back, he became a member of the Church of England like she was, but he soon drifted back to Roman Catholicism, and though it “broke her heart and for ever shadowed her life,” Rossetti promptly ended their relationship (Woolf). The second of Rossetti’s love interests was Charles Cayley, and he proposed to her several years after her relationship with Collinson had ended. So, I think Christina Rossetti loved religion but in a different sense, she didn’t want a religion which oppressed her and dictated and imposed rules for her; she wanted a religion in which she could trust and feel good. A religion which let her to carry out feminist values, make for freedom a way of living, without cultural discriminations. She demanded equality of opportunity  for everybody by religion.



One Response to “1.4.3 Religion”

  1.   blade fat lady Says:

    Just discovered this blog thru Google, what a pleasant shock!

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