The first time we encounter the parenthetical “(Men sell not such in any town),” we might want to hear the stress on “men” as if Rossetti were seeking to distinguish the Goblin men from humankind, but then on several occasions they are called simply “men” and so when the parentheses is repeated in the poem’s final verse-paragraph, the stress must fall on “town.” With the repetition, too, comes a sense that this is a second, latent moral: that town is safer. But such a moral would make no sense since town presumably has dangers of its own. The parentheses only add to the strangeness, insisting on a distinction that is not taken up elsewhere, insisting on a presence that cannot be justified by any easy harmony with the poem’s other parts. The point seems must be to insist on a limit, such that the limit marks both a limit of the poem’s world and also a limit of what the poem will or can include. The poem’s most startling line, “She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more| Fruits which that unknown orchard bore” must have made the contemporary critics uneasy: how to comment without revealing themselves to be either prurient or naïve? But as unsettling perhaps is asking what difference it makes if the poem is about sex or fruit: she’s crossed some line, she’s indulged in a sensual gratification of appetite, she’s bought pleasure at the cost of her hair, which really seems no cost at all, and the punishment is not being allowed more. That is perhaps what ought to strike us most: the punishment is being given just so much and then hearing nothing else, being afforded no other opportunity to buy or taste, and so to waste away, pining. Would more have kept her alive? We are confronted again with a poem about limits, about being denied something, and when the limits are breached by Lizzie returning smeared with the juice of the fruit, Laura suffers and is restored; along the way back, Laura is pleased to hear the coin in her pocket jingling still, as if it mattered that she had the money still. But maybe it does. A third way of hearing the parentheses is with stress on “sell”: “Men sell not such in any town.” The poem can be heard as a criticism of buying and selling, of a market, but if the stress is on “sell” then there would be a worse implication: men in a town do not sell such fruit but do something worse than sell. The poem has a pastoral setting, and in that setting the exchange of coin might feel a disruption of a natural order of things; but the exchange of a golden lock suggests that the market is open, primitive, and that it is not the selling and buying that is its aim; those are bad for what they are, but things are worse in towns.
There is no need to decide between the three possible readings; one might respond that it is still “men” which ought to take the stress, since the poem depends on a difference that suggests, but does not insist, on similarities between human and goblins; one might insist that the poem is a pastoral, and that the mention of “town” is again to imply difference as well as similarity; or one might hear the menace of “sell,” with the intimation of naturalism. What matters is that the warning can be heard in all three registers, and that the three speak to the three kinds of poem this is, all at once: fairy-tale, pastoral, and naturalism. Each is associated with registers and meters in the poem. Fairy-tale notably with the repeated measure of: “One hauls a basket | One bears a plate | One lugs a golden dish | Of many pounds weight.” Pastoral in the “Fetch’d in honey, milk’d the cow” passage, and especially the account of the crown “Of tendrils, leaves, and rough nuts brown.” Most subtly, but distinctly, is what I’m calling the naturalist touch, evident in the colloquial language of “I toss’d you for a fee” and “cross-grain’d, uncivil.” And with that in mind, it is worth drawing attention to a fourth word in the parentheses that carries weight: “such.” Because with that word we are led to ask what kind of fruits are these, a question that jars because of the sensual specificity of the fruits themselves, enumerated in the Goblin’s cries (seedless grapes, I am surprised to learn, though perhaps rare, had been around for a long time). The species of the fruits is perhaps not so interesting, but what is interesting is the notion of species in the poem at all: what kind is poem is this? What kind of temptation? What kind of man? What kind of indulgence? What kind of pleasure? What kind of violence? These are the questions that the poem invites, and answers in several ways at once. But also, at the end, “what kind of moral is this”? It is a poem about kindness and kindred, too, which is not irrelevant, since it invites us to consider what belongs together and what is natural, where nature is an accord and order. And the question raised about the fruit itself touches here too: “Who knows upon what soil they fed | Their hungry thirsty roots,” since it is a question about origins and how sources of nourishment are sources of identity.
But a crucial kind of register and rhetoric, a crucial kind of poetry, is missing from the account so far. It’s heard in:
Laura stretch’d her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.
White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood,—
Like a rock of blue-vein’d stone
Lash’d by tides obstreperously,—
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire,—
Like a fruit-crown’d orange-tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee,—
Like a royal virgin town
Topp’d with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguer’d by a fleet
Mad to tug her standard down.
Her locks stream’d like the torch
Borne by a racer at full speed,
Or like the mane of horses in their flight,
Or like an eagle when she stems the light
Straight toward the sun,
Or like a caged thing freed,
Or like a flying flag when armies run.
These lines sing in a higher style. If they are captured in the parenthetical, “Men sell not such in any town,” it is in the word “any,” which asks us to consider all towns, encompassing and rejecting all of them. What is peculiar is not just that these moments rear up with a grandeur that suggests a myth or epic rather than a fairy-tale, but that in these moments, Rossetti does not deploy a single extended simile, but assembles instead a succession of similes, increasing in stature; it is parallelism of a sort, but the “or” suggests that any might do and that none quite do capture the subject at these moments of climactic action. At these moments, the poem itself seems to be daunted and asking what kind of thing it is describing, and the heroism is so described because it is a heroism that exceeds whatever limits have been placed on it, even when Laura first approaches the goblin men “like a vessel at the launch | when its last restraint is gone.”
We might think that the effect of such a combination of registers and genres would be irony of some sort, juxtaposition that contrasts. But Rossetti unites them, or, more properly, they are united by her poem, the greatest revelation of which is perhaps the unity of these ways of narrating, and ways of being: life can be all at once, and especially the life of the young, the “not-returning time” that the final verse-paragraph mentions. “Not-returning” might seem superfluous: what time does return? Well, the time of adulthood, perhaps, where things are more routine, where convention is less settled; and so this is a poem that is an homage to childhood, less sentimental than other Victorian works. The final verse-paragraph can itself feel like a contraction—and inevitably so: they grow up, and what they grow up into are Victorian adults who teach lessons to their children, using the stuff of the poem but not, we must believe, repeating its words, reducing it somehow to something else, something that cannot be the same as the lived experience was to them, and as that experience as registered by the poem’s variety of conventions, registers, and rhythms. The first line of the final verse-paragraph is one of only two enjambments in the poem. The first is “ ‘To-morrow night I will | Buy more;’ and kiss’d her.” This one, at the poem’s end: “Days, weeks, months, years | Afterwards, when both were wives” But this one is different too, since the “afterwards” is not required strictly to complete the thought of the first line; the stanza might simply have read
afterwards.” And the strangeness of the first line is felt in the rapid leaping of time-units, as if we were fast-forwarding through frames. It might have just as easily been “Years afterwards, when both were wives,” which would have made for a tidy tetrameter. But that would have felt too settled, and what Rossetti wants to do in this race to retrospection is to dramatize not only time’s passing, but a particular attitude to time’s passing, wherein the days, weeks, months, and years that led to marriage are easily discounted, treated as a path to the inevitable end of matrimony. It might as well have been “days afterwards, when both were wives,” since whether years or days, that interim counts for little; this was the adventure of their lives. The disappointment of the ending is in the wording.
But something else happens at the very end of the poem that is stranger still. Laura speaks to Lizzie’s children, who we assume—but are not told—to be daughters. Since it was Laura who was saved by Lizzie, the advice she gives them on the value of sisterly affection and support naturally aligns with her experience, until, that is, the last line of the poem:
Would tell them how her sister stood
In deadly peril to do her good,
And win the fiery antidote:
Then joining hands to little hands
Would bid them cling together,
“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.”
It was Lizzie who “stood | In deadly peril to do her good,” and it was Lizzie who, in a sense, fetched her when she went astray (though in fact she left her by the river and went home), and lifted her when she tottered down; but it was not Lizzie who strengthened her while she stood. To make sense of the last line, we need to imagine Laura considers the situation from Lizzie’s perspective, imagining Lizzie to have said, in effect “There’s no better person to strengthen while I stand than my sister Laura.” The last line moves from a message of gratitude and dependency to one of charity. But this message would have been more persuasive coming from Laura if she’d been the bestower rather than the beneficiary of charity, and since in the prior three lines she is the “one,” it seems like she should be the “one” here too. Is she suggesting that she strengthened her sister, or that she was strengthened by her sister while she herself stood (or even withstood, from an abbreviated “withstands,” which would be no less inaccurate)? The wording opens a possibility that cannot be ignored, if we take the wording seriously: it attributes strength to Laura and Lizzie alike, suggesting that Laura at her moment of temptation was no less strong than Lizzie in her resistance, and it allows that Lizzie’s own heroism depended on rising to a sister’s plight brought on by resolution and not passivity. We can push on the word “stands” and return to the moment of Laura’s succumbing to the song of the goblins:
Lizzie cover’d up her eyes,
Cover’d close lest they should look;
Laura rear’d her glossy head,
And whisper’d like the restless brook:
Rearing her head is not standing, but it is raising and rising to the occasion, looking straight the goblins straight on and meeting what they offer. Temptation? Yes, but one that she actively chose:
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
Laura is “curious” because eager to know more, but she is also strange herself, willing to wonder, and choosing to linger. The poem is entirely free of blame here, and elsewhere. And we might return to the ending to notice that, despite the moralism of the cramped middle class married life to which Lizzie and Laura succumb, the message they deliver the children is of “pleasant days long gone,” evidently not marred by what befell, and nowhere about the risks of giving into temptation or listening to goblins. The error is beside the point, and strength instead is celebrated, whether the strength of Lizzie alone, or of, inadvertently or not, Laura also, for rearing her head, and her willpower, the force of which breaks through the line-ending in the earlier enjambment: “I will | buy”
I’ve used the word “moral” to describe the end of the poem, but it is not really a lesson at all, but a truth that Laura’s last words acknowledge: a truth of a strength that they, and all sisters, possess, perhaps without realizing it. Return again, a last time, to the parentheses: “(Men sell not such in any town)”. Hear it now as a dismissal, as a prophylactic, its lunulae bracketing not only the words but insisting that the story has no bearing on the children to whom it is told: they need not fear such fruits or such temptations, since this sort of thing could only happen in a “not-returning time.” They need not draw a moral from the circumstances since they cannot come back. Romance poetry won’t help them live their lives in the world they know. The line has been drawn separating the adventure of childhood from the advice of parenting. But what is being denied is larger than that; Rossetti is shutting off a vantage point for assessing and adjudicating between the genres and registers of the poem, and she is denying also the perspective that would insist on incongruities among them, that would say it really must be one kind or another kind of thing, one kind of desire or another kind of desire, one kind of strength or another kind of strength, or that the enumerated possibilities could not be reconciled to experience. In so far as it is a poem about innocence and experience, the experience of adulthood is simpler than that of childhood, less tolerant of indefinite, undefinable kinds—and, as a consequence, forecloses the possibilities of what appetite and strength might be.