The Rossetti Siblings and Troubling Sexuality

My Victorian lit class provided me with an interesting poetic juxtaposition: reading Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Christian Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” side by side. As a poet, I think, Christina is more well-known. I like her work better than her brother’s, but I also think they illuminate each other to a great degree.

Illustration for the cover of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

To me, “Jenny” and “Goblin Market” are both about the commodification of sexuality in the Victorian marketplace, and the ways that it can twist male desires and harm women. They’re also tremendously weird poems with fraught sexual expressions. “Jenny” features the age-old client-who-thinks-he-treats-his-prostitute-right trope; “Goblin Market” is a fairytale mixed up with lesbian incest that posits the protective quality of radically homosocial female relationships.

In other words, this is stuff I really love.

The radical possibilities Christina provides for the redemption of the fallen woman at the end of “Goblin Market” struck me perhaps most of all. The idea that a fallen woman could be saved is pretty much unheard of in Victorian literature.

Because this was classwork, I also read a few assigned critical essays on the poems, and unfortunately, I thought some of them missed the mark pretty seriously. Your argument will never win me over by removing sex from the discussion, especially not when dealing with poems like these. (And articles about the “World Wide Web” written in 1998 are just embarrassing to read now.)

This is not to say that I fault the professor for picking bad secondary materials. Quite the contrary, I think reading articles one vehemently disagrees with can be both exhilarating and thought-provoking. My theories about the poems are stronger because I have negative examples against which to structure my thoughts.

I also got to write about the poems for class, which gave me an unexpected chance to put my love of the archives to use. I wrote about the shared use of the term “goblin” in the poems, the evolution of the word’s use in various drafts of “Jenny,” and how the word links the poems thematically.

This is all a little more academic than I usually get on this blog, but I’m interested to hear what others think about the Rossetti siblings as poets. Who is your favorite? What are your thoughts on the poems?

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