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  • Redemption and Representation in Goblin Market: Christina Rossetti and the Salvific Signifier
  • Victoria Coulson (bio)

Critical pieties die hard on the well-trodden slopes of Christina Rossetti’s “mossy glen” (l. 87).1[T]here is no market in Goblin Market,” Simon Humphries pointed out in 2007,2 an observation that has gone stubbornly unnoticed, or unprocessed, in subsequent scholarship on the poem. Rather than reconsidering the now venerable tradition of market-oriented readings of Rossetti’s text—a tradition whose founding moment we may locate in the early 1990s, when scholars such as Elizabeth Campbell, Terence Holt, Elizabeth K. Helsinger, and Richard Menke proposed their influential accounts of the poem as a more or less radical critique of commodity capitalism:3 in Herbert Tucker’s catchy formula, “put[ing] the market back in Goblin Market4—recent critics have ignored this exceptionally clear-sighted, and disruptive, element in Humphries’s analysis. In an article published in 2010, Jill Rappoport signals that it is business as usual in the critical agora with her description of how, “[i]n critical readings of Christina Rossetti’s most popular poem, the titular and titillating market has increasingly taken center stage as a site of coercive practices and a symbol of gendered trade”;5 and Robin Sowards, writing in 2012, takes as his starting point the contention that “it is not obvious how we are to reconcile the economic [reading] with the sexual [reading]” of the poem—a difficulty that he will resolve through the concept of “localism”—without questioning the assumption that such an economic reading will address itself to “the long supply chains of global capitalism” that underlie, and exemplify, as he would have it, the goblins’ nefarious activities.6 In Sowards’s argument, as in Rappoport’s, “capitalism” and “trade” are virtually synonymous with the nefarious, the “evil” (Sowards, p. 115), the “coercive” (Rappoport, p. 853), for bound up with the determination to construe the goblins’ behavior in terms of commercial practices is an equally robust idée fixe concerning the malign nature and effects of “the market” as a principle of economic organization and a widespread phenomenon of sociohistorical reality. It is impossible to find a [End Page 423] single modern literary-critical account of Rossetti’s poem (published either before or after Humphries’s 2007 essay) that refers to “the market” without conforming to the antimercantilist shibboleth. “As a practical and fashionable destination for shoppers and a popular subject for writers across several genres,” Clayton Carlyle Tarr wrote in 2012, “Covent Garden Market’s cornucopia of sights, smells, sounds—and most certainly its prospect of danger—would have been familiar to Rossetti, a life-long Londoner, and may have provided impetus for her poetic guidebook, Goblin Market,”7 while, also in 2012, Megan A. Norcia seemed to feel similarly obligated to temper the attractiveness of her account—of the relation between the goblins’ cry of “Come buy” and “the famous sounds of London cries by sellers of goods such as hot cross buns, cherries, or milk”—with reference to “[t]he caveats that the poem offers about daily commerce.”8 “Rossetti’s poem,” Norcia writes, “is situated between the lived, urban aurality of the streets around her home and the literary representations of the city that translated the oral cries into written discourse, so that readers could consume particular moral lessons about buying and selling” (p. 26; my emphasis). Just as the presence of the market in Goblin Market continues to be taken for granted, so too it is apparently to be taken as read that any “moral lessons” pertaining to the topic—whether drawn from Rossetti’s poem or from the contemporary “literary representations of the city” to which Norcia refers—will certainly not redound to the credit of that market. Fiat forum: caveat emptor.

In this article, I take Humphries’s observation that there is no market in Goblin Market as the starting point for a new account of Rossetti’s poem, an account that, in the first place, challenges the persistent critical projection of a putative mercantile project onto the figure of the goblins and the equally endemic critical failure to observe the norms of exactly...


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