Victorian Poetry 43.4 (2005) 455-472
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"Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me":
Eucharist and the Erotic Body in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market
In the scholarship surrounding Goblin Market, there is no dearth of readings which focus on the erotic nature of its imagery. In addition, any number of readings of the poem focus on its allegorical rendering of spiritual redemption. Few readings, however, have attempted to bridge the gap between these two approaches. And almost none, as Diane D'Amico has noted in her work Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender, and Time, have "yet given any detailed attention to Rossetti's Eucharistic beliefs,"1 even though Eucharist as sacrifice and saving meal is clearly at the heart of Goblin Market. But, as I will argue in this essay, the both/and nature of Rossetti's central image of the erotic body as the vehicle for salvation—an image that is at once profoundly spiritual and profoundly erotic—can only be understood through an appreciation of the Anglo-Catholic doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. This doctrine, shaped by the teachings of Saint Augustine and heavily influenced by such key Tractarians as Edward Pusey and Robert Isaac Wilberforce, is, like Goblin Market itself, a bewildering and eroticized combination of the physical and the spiritual. Moreover, the doctrine of the Eucharist offers a paradigm of desire, echoed in Goblin Market, which acknowledges the physical body and asserts that the body may be used (and even enjoyed) in the service of what Augustine and Pusey see as the highest good, that is, "the closest union of God and man."2
In this essay I will first sketch briefly the history of Rossetti's reading of Augustine (specifically The Confessions) and her connection with the Tractarians. I will then offer some background concerning the Anglo-Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist as well as a discussion of the role of the physical body—that is, the body of Christ as literal nourishment— in Eucharistic language. Finally, I will offer a reading of Goblin Market through the twin sensibilities of erotic desire and spiritual satisfaction. In this reading, I will argue that Rossetti's startlingly physical imagery is the logical and indeed appropriate spiritual conclusion of Eucharistic doctrine. In so [End Page 455] doing, I will suggest that Rossetti is using the body not as a symbol or metaphor but rather as the concrete conduit through which humans understand God. In other words, for Rossetti, humans do not so much transcend the body as they experience the transcendent through it. As such, Rossetti resists a purely ascetic repression of the body even while insisting it be employed in the service of a higher desire.
The influence of such spiritual reading as John Keble's The Christian Year and Edward Pusey's translation of The Confessions of Saint Augustine3 left its mark on Rossetti's personal theology of the Eucharist, as did her early initiation into the rarified world of the Tractarian movement.4 As early as 1844, Rossetti was attending Christ Church, Albany Street, whose minister was a dedicated follower of the Tractarian movement and its efforts to revitalize the Anglican High Church tradition. Edward Pusey himself, one of the leading lights of Tractarianism, preached there frequently. It thus stands to reason that Rossetti's Eucharistic beliefs were shaped by both the conversion tradition found in The Confessions (which Augustine describes as the soul's search for the only food that will satisfy our spiritual longing—that is, heavenly food) and the High Church tradition of the Tractarians. Indeed, one of Rossetti's earliest works, the novella Maude (written between 1849 and 1850 when Rossetti was nineteen but not published until after her death), reveals these influences with her tale of a young woman torn between the allure of art and the call to God, expressed ultimately in a conflict over receiving the Eucharist and resolved by a final act of spiritual conversion.
Throughout her poetry and prose, Rossetti...