- Christina Rossetti:Illness and Ideology
Doubtless the most familiar references to illness in the poetry of Christina Rossetti appear in Goblin Market after Lizzie's sister Laura has banqueted on the sumptuous fruits proffered by the demonic Goblin men (the only males, one recalls, who actually appear in the poem). Ecstatic for the moment, Laura returns to the maidens' garden cottage promising to bring her sister "plums . . . / Fresh on their mother twigs" and "cherries worth getting." She describes her feast in detail:
"You cannot think what figs My teeth have met in, What melons icy-cold Piled on a dish of gold Too huge for me to hold, What peaches with a velvet nap, Pellucid grapes without one seed: Odorous indeed must be the mead Whereon they grow, and pure the wave they drink With lilies at the brink, And sugar-sweet their sap."1
Such delicate fruits would, in our own age, appear to be a tonic for any illness, but Laura's allusion to iconic lilies, in this context, suggests the delusory quality of her gustatory experience: soon, in fact, "her tree of life drooped from the root" (l. 260). She is overwhelmed by "her heart's sore ache" and an unquenchable "passionate yearning" (ll. 261, 266). She sickens, says the narrative voice:
Her hair grew thin and gray; She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn To swift decay and burn Her fire away.(ll. 277-280)
With "sunk eyes and faded mouth" (l. 288), her final stages of deterioration begin. In a both literally and figuratively pivotal passage that appears about midway through the poem, when Laura, "dwindling / Seemed knocking at [End Page 415] Death's door" (ll. 320-321), her sister Lizzie is reminded of
Jeanie in her grave, Who should have been a bride; But who for joys brides hope to have Fell sick and died In her gay prime.(ll. 312-316)
Eventually, of course, Lizzie braves the Goblin glen and the vicious assaults of the demons themselves, to return dripping with fruit juices which Laura sucks from her body and by which she is miraculously saved, indeed resurrected: "Life out of death" (l. 524), we are told, was their effect. As with so many modern vaccines, the antidote to the disease—presumably unavailable to Jeanie—is derived from its source.
Before leaving this passage about Jeanie, crucial to a number of the poem's ideological resonances, we should observe its striking statement of causality and its equally startling collocation of associations: here "joys brides hope to have" are implicitly identified with Laura's powerfully sensual experience of the Goblin fruit, defining her temptation by the Goblin men as a sexual one. Moreover, the premature and illicit experience of such "joys" causes Jeanie to become a "fallen" woman (recall that she "fell sick"). This association becomes explicit with Rossetti's choice of the word "gay" to describe her: the term in the mid-Victorian lexicon commonly referred to prostitutes.2 In this central passage from Rossetti's title poem in her début volume, an equation is thus set up between the indulgence of female sexual desire and sickness unto death. In cultural context, this poem can be read as a monitory exemplum and thus an extreme instance of Victorian sexual repression: it reflects a profound fear of female sexuality and its potential consequences.3
The fear and sublimation of female sexual desire and insistence upon the dangerous, if not fatal, effects of its indulgence emerges often—metaphorically, if not literally—in much of Rossetti's poetry. We witness it not only in Goblin Market: it permeates her works,4 prose as well as poetry, from the 1850s—one immediately thinks of her juvenile prose tale, Maude, as well as poems such as The Convent Threshold and "An Apple-Gathering," for instance—to her last major poems, including the justly admired Monna Innominata sonnet of sonnets. That fear, I will eventually argue, also played a powerful role in Rossetti's own life, from the emergence of her passionate religiosity at about the same time as her serious adolescent illness—to her ultimate rejection of two marriage proposals, and...