Examining the Voice of Negation in a Close Reading of “Goblin Market”
Christina Rossetti’s poems were viewed as moral pieces, especially in comparison to her brother Dante’s sensual and even sexual poetry. However, Rossetti’s poetry is demonstrative of the Victorian mindset in that, it is not simply dutiful and preaching. Rossetti’s poems, like the Victorians, are full of questions about life…what it means to be a human and what it means to be a woman. Rossetti asked these questions in a way that allowed her poetry to be seen as simple and moral, if deceptively so.
“White and golden Lizzie stood, ‘-‘-‘-‘
Like a lily in a flood,– ‘-‘-‘-‘
Like a rock of blue-veined stone ‘-‘-‘-‘
Lashed by tides obstreperously,–” ‘-‘-‘—
(Goblin Market 408-411)
In these four lines from Goblin Market Rossetti is using her characteristic manner of seeming to say something very simple while implying much more.
First, let us look at these four lines from a technical standpoint. The first three lines contain seven syllables, four of them stressed with three interspersed unstressed syllables. The regularity of the rhythm, combined with the soft, lulling repetition of the ‘L’ sounds (in “Lizzie”, “like”, “lily”, and “lashed”), create a singing, lullaby-like sound to this somewhat erotic cautionary tale.
Each of the first three lines begins and ends with a stressed beat, so that the line break interrupts a potential spondaic foot. The end-stops on the lines framed by stressed beats create an exaggerated pause between the lines, so that they seem to stand independently from each other. This effect breaks apart the format of the similes. The pauses and breaks make the reader separate the tenor from the vehicle, so that we are not sure what exactly is “Like a lily” or “Like a rock”…is it Lizzie? the way she’s standing? her color or purity?
The similes also draw interest because they contradict each other. A “lily in a flood” is going to behave very differently than a “rock of blue-veined stone / Lashed by tides”. The lily is likely to be broken or uprooted by a flood, whereas a stone may wear down only over years and years of being struck by tides. Particularly, “obstreperous” tides are problematic, since the word “obstreperously” declines into three unstressed beats, breaking the rhythm of the lines. The tides, therefore, are noisy and uncontrolled, lack force against the rock, fading where the rhythm dictates that they should remain strong.
The role of color in these four lines invokes angelic and royal imagery. Lizzie is “White and golden”, colors associated with purity and angels, and with “blue-vein[s]” indicating aristocratic or royal blood. Lizzie represents, in these lines, an idealized woman: she is angelic and noble. However, Rossetti seems to call into question what the idealized woman is: is she pure and dainty like a lily, or cold and persevering like stone? Or, is the perfect woman somehow called to the impossible task of being all of these things at once? The even rhythm and soothing, reassuring consonance of the repeated ‘l’ all are forces to make the reader take the work as a simple tale of the triumph of morality. But the off-beat the last line, the odd use of the word “obstreperously” and, most importantly, the incongruous similes make the reader uneasy in this reading. If Rossetti wanted her readers simply to understand that all women should strive to be like Lizzie, why would she create impossible credentials for Lizzie? Rossetti uses negating imagery to cause the reader to ask the important question: what is a moral woman? Is it Lizzie? Is it possible to be?
“Still the world would wag on the same, ‘-‘-‘’-‘
Still the seasons go and come:” ‘-‘-‘-‘
(From the Antique 9-10)
Lines 9 and 10 from From the Antique contain eight syllables and seven syllables each, respectively. This syllabic misalignment creates an interesting conflict between what is being said and what is being heard, especially in combination with how every line opens and closes with a strong beat. Between the lines there is a long pause that contradicts the idea of a “world wag[ging] on the same”. The pause between the lines seems to imply otherwise: that something is happening between these cycles of seasons and that is disruptive and different. But the disruption does not seem to be negative or destructive. The strong beats at the beginning and close of each line give the aural impression of something chugging on, gaining new steam each line and not stopping.
The first line’s alliteration of the ‘w’-sound (“world would wag”) is both playful and tiring, as is the word “wag”. “Wag” implies endless repetition, mimicked by the alliteration, and “wag on the same” sounds potentially cheerful (like a puppy’s wagging tail) but also wearying.
The speaker’s weariness is also emphasized by the world “Still” which opens two contiguous lines. “Still” has multiple meanings: still can mean not moving; it can mean persistent or persevering; to halt something’s movement or make something quiet. “Still” in these lines, then, could be positive or negative. Is it that the weary “wag[ing] “world” persists in going on, that the seasons persist to keep go around in circles? Or, is it that the world would persevere and, despite it all, would manage to “wag” happily on, and the seasons would manage to always cycle back to spring after winter?
The voice in these seems simple. It is not using difficult language; the diction is almost colloquial with words like “wag” and “go and come” (an inversion of the typical ‘come and go’). Every word, except the easily accessible word “seasons”, is monosyllabic. But, the voice is not so simple. It is simultaneously happy about the world ability to carry on, using the positive, blossoming language of spring, and yet depressed about the static repetition of the same old cycle time and time again. It is making dual, yet contradicting assertions, in a manner characteristic, and defining, of Christina Rossetti’s poetry.
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Christina Rossetti’s poems were viewed as moral pieces, especially in comparison to her brother Dante’s sensual and even sexual poetry. However, Rossetti’s poetry is demonstrative of the Victorian mindset in […]