Musings + Essays

No Friend Like a Sister.

By: Jen Shoop

There is a strange Victorian-era poem by Christina Rosetti called “Goblin’s Market” that you may have encountered in college. In it, Rosetti tells the story of a girl named Laura who, enticed by the wares of fruit-selling goblins, indulges and then falls into an entranced and debauched stupor, recovering only when her sister, Lizzie, intercedes on her behalf by putting herself at risk and purchasing more of the exotic fruit for her sister. The poem is frequently presented in a feminist critical lens, as the goblins are lecherous, violent males; sexually-charged language marks many-a stanza; and at least part of the narrative of the poem centers upon the sanctity of marriage and the danger of living outside of it as a woman. There is a sense that Laura’s indulgence at the market is shorthand for sexual dalliance, though the latter portion of the poem complicates this reading when Lizzie apparently purchases something at the market, but retains her virginity: the craven men “held her hands and squeez’d their fruits / Against her mouth to make her eat” but “White and golden Lizzie stood / Like a lily in a flood.” Other critics have interpreted the “fruit” as a reference to opium, and it is difficult not to appreciate this reading, as Laura appears on an insane high, then in the throes of addiction, and finally battling withdrawal, “her tree of life droop’d from the root.” What then are we to make of Lizzie’s purchase of additional supplies, which appears to somehow, inconsistent with the widely understood cycle of addiction, permanently relieve Laura of her craving? There are other highly legible readings, too, especially along the lines of Marxist criticism, given the centricity of the market trope and the buying/selling of goods.

When I re-read this poem the other day, I found the slipperiness of this central metaphor provocative — radical, even. How coy that Rosetti sets the table for these (and other) interpretations but then shifts the board just enough to unsettle the pawns from their squares.

From a metrical standpoint, the poem is similarly wild and free-wheeling, with a jolting meter that unpredictably shifts in poetic feet from couplet to couplet. (Art critic John Ruskin wrote that the poem “violat[es] the common ear for metre,” which is about right. It’s borderline painful to read.)

And there is also something unwieldy about the explicitness — the bawdiness and opulence — of the bulk of the poem against the singsong didacticism intended for “little ones” at the conclusion of the poem:

“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”

How can such bromides live alongside stanzas like:

“Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her,
Coax’d and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,
Kick’d and knock’d her,
Maul’d and mock’d her,
Lizzie utter’d not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in:
But laugh’d in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syrupp’d all her face,
And lodg’d in dimples of her chin,
And streak’d her neck which quaked like curd.”

(!) The scene above is wildly violent (!)

Re-reading this poem in my mid-30s, I think perhaps I missed the shrewd subtext to this poem, which now reads like a knowing wink, or perhaps an unknowable shrug. Rosetti thwarts thematic simplicity, refuses metrical regularity, and defies genre. But there is one element that remains resoundingly consistent and on-tone, regardless of how I read it: the unquestioning devotion of sisterhood.

I’ll take that on board. My life experience has proven the same to be true.

What do you think? How do you read the poem?


+Another snippet of Rossetti poetry that I loved.

+Interesting to think about this poem, and my reading of it, as I listen to Anna North’s “feminist Western” Outlawed. It is a feminist critic’s daydream. (More reading suggestions here.)

+My own musings on siblinghood.

+On being one of five children.

+The hand-embroidered sweater is gorgeous.

+This $128 was a no-brainer for me. My favorite silhouette, in easy-breezy white.

+Currently in my cart. J’adore!

+I’m not big on graphic tees for micro, but this one is too cute with jeans, and my Southern mama friends will appreciate this monogrammed style that I just bought him!

+This sleeveless sweater in the navy and ivory!!

+I love a denim shirtdress. Perfect with Chanel ballet flats.

+This $20 shower curtain is so chic.

+Have had this bunk bed bookmarked forever for mini. So clever with the pull-out trundle!

+What cool Parisian women wear.

+These one-pieces have a cult following. They are somehow OSFA and delightfully throwback. More of my favorite swim finds here, BTW.

+Another very cute swimsuit option for a baby girl (under $20). More children’s swim picks here.

+Pastel mocs for your little man. Perfect as an accompaniment to his Easter outfit.

+Fun $35 quilted coat — good for transition to spring in great colors.

+$30 children’s chivari chairs. Too cute!

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2 thoughts on “No Friend Like a Sister.

  1. I have only the fuzziest of memories of reading this in college (though I’m fairly certain I did) so it was fun to revisit today! One thing that came up for me with the mention of “forbidden fruit” was the story of the Garden of Eden, Eve eating the fruit from the serpent. And read through that lens — with Laura as Eve, then Lizzie appears almost Christ like in her ability to offer salvation.

    I am unsure if what is required of Lizzie (to go to the goblin’s market) has Biblical parallels (well, you could call Earth at large a goblin’s market and Christ becoming human a type of return…) but I see her going to the goblins as returning to the root of the pain/source of the issue and facing it with new strength. Nothing can be solved until it is faced, etc.

    In that sense, I’m tempted to read Laura and Lizzie as two parts of a whole (the imagery of them sleeping together “cheek to cheek and breast to breast” makes them almost seem like one). Laura representing the human, animalistic part of us; Lizzie the divine. Or as Lizzo puts it, “the human in me” vs. “the goddess in me.” 🙂

    But then there’s the stuff with Jeannie and marriage and all the housework and the nearly didactic stanza at the end so I admit I might be missing a lot here! Haven’t taken a stab at interpreting a poem in a long time, thanks for the chance 🙂

    1. Hi Joyce – Yes! I can definitely see this reading. I find it interesting that, as you note, it disintegrates by the poem’s end, just as the other interpretations do — it’s almost as if you can draw 2/3rds of a circle carrying the pen of any given critical lens but can’t make the ends meet! Intriguing and frustrating as a reader! Perhaps she’s trying to suggest that these moral bromides we pass along to children deny or evade the messy truths of real life?

      Thank you for jumping in here!


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