Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The "Plump unpeck'd cherries" of Slavery

Unlike the other posts in this blog which focus on the comfort of food or toil of the absence of food, this post looks at how food is used to represent the discomfort of history and slavery which preceded the Victorian era.

“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together


"Goblin Market" is one of my favourite poems. The beautiful descriptions of the fleshy, vivid and juicy fruits are extremely enticing and Christina Rossetti incorporates a sense of danger into the poem, arguably making the fruits even more attractive. Much of the poem's criticism that has emerged focuses largely on the sexualization of Lizzie, a transgressive female figure. Alternatively, I want to concentrate more on the fruit and veer fully away from women and sex:
In his CityOfGod blog, Ian Clary draws attention to how Rossetti, "though not a Nonconformist (she was affiliated with the Tractarians) ... was opposed to militarism. She also spoke strongly against the slave trade and animal abuse." (5) This will form the basis of my post, blending the fruit of the poem with a colonial reading, involving the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Initially, I suggest that the fruit of the market stalls is, in a metaphorical sense, the "fruits" of labour of the African slaves. We are therefore immediately set up with a structuralist binary opposition of black vs. white, creating a tension between the "white man" figure of Laura and Lizzie, and the goblin men who are described as "racialized" by Lise Sanders (765). This racialization of the goblin men mean they bear an otherness, and this is something which emerges in the second stanza when Laura warns Lizzie, "We must not look at goblin men,/We must not buy their fruits:/Who knows upon what soil they fed/Their hungry thirsty roots?” The language is extremely suggestive of an unfamiliar land; one from which the goblin men are from and also a land of a racial disgust to a white man, which both the white sisters cannot and do not want to face. 
In addition to this, the goblin men are dehumanized in much the same way that white men dehumanized the slaves. With animalistic descriptions, like "cat's faces," "whisk'd tails" and "tramp's like rats" (3) there is a parallel drawn between the slaves and the trope of a "work mule." In the picture below, the representation of the goblin men are animal like creatures with dark skin.


The easy availability of slaves to both middle and upper classes, and Lizzie, is shown by the simple cutting of a lock of her hair in exchange for the "fruits" of their labour. This loss-of-self is a portrayal of the damaged conscience the white man should arguably feel when part of the trade of slaves. 
It is at this point which the reading of the poem transforms from colonial to post-colonial: Lizzie "suck'd and suck'd and suck'd more/Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;/She suck'd until her lips were sore." (9) As a pivotal point in the shift between critical approaches, this bodily pain can be read as the guilt of the white man's slave abuse epitomizing itself upon her lips; the mouth can be seen as the most tender and vulnerable constituent  of the body, as it is a gateway for healthy life and sustenance. Again, fruit has been used as a vessel for the consequences of slave labour. When Lizzie and Laurie return the next day there is a clear change in roles of the two parties, where they daren't face the product of the trade in which they have been indulging (the slaves), and so the goblin men have an authority over them:

"I hear the fruit call but I dare not look/You should not loiter longer at this brook" (13)


The fruits of labour are growing rotten...

This point in the poem marks the introduction of the Abolition of Slave Trade (in 1807) and note how true to history, it is not the labour that is absolved here, but only the trade, for Laura "never caught the goblin cry:/"Come buy, come buy" (15). But still, the goblins (slaves) overlooked upon them, laughing as an outside force, and rejoicing in their freedom that is soon to come in the final emancipation act in 1833. The trade has dissolved, but the slaves themselves have not.

In the final stanzas of the poem when both sisters are wives, Laura describes to her children the "The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,/Their fruits like honey to the throat/But poison in the blood" (24) The retaliation of the goblin men should be the burden of the white man as it is shown here, due to the colonisation and domination of the black slaves. Post colonially, the fruits which seemed so attractive at the time have become a bitter stain in history, such as the slave trade in the history of England and Africa. 

Finally, I would like to draw attention to a last line, "For there is no friend like a sister" (24) and the undeniable echoes it brings to the anti-slavery logo "Am I not a man and a brother?" The two sisters have unconditional love, and this anti-slavery caption asks for a sympathetic and condition love between the two races; to see them as equal and to dispel the domination of one over the other. 


The fruit in "Goblin Market" is used as a tool relevant to the slaves and their workload they can provide to the white man. Simultaneously, the same fruit is later representative of the same workload, but becomes sour and hurtful when attitudes change and abolition laws are introduced, in the shift from a colonial to post-colonial attitude.
The reason I have decided to include "Goblin Market" into my blog was because of how beautifully tasty the fruits appear to look, but only visually. We know that Lizzie's lips were scorched and she was almost irreversibly corrupted. 
Looking at the tasty food in Rossetti's poem as a discomfort, it only seems fitting to apply a discomforting topic of the slave trade as a critical reading. In addition to this, motivation for writing this post was Rossetti's own interests in the politics and the fact that I have never stumbled across such an interpretation before.


Shapiro Sanders, Lise. "Come Buy, Come Buy: Shopping and the Culture of Consumption in Victorian Women's Writing." Victorian Studies 51.4 (2009): 765-766. Print.

Clary, Ian. "Christina Rossetti and Women's Suffrage"cityofgodblog. City Of God, 8 March 2013. Web. 25 March 2014.

Rossetti, Christina. Goblin Market. Online: Poetry Foundation, 1862. Print.

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