- Christina Rossetti: New Selected Poems, edited by Rachel Mann. Carcanet. $28.
No selection of Christina Rossetti's verse could omit "Goblin Market" (1862), surely one of the strangest, most imaginative English Victorian poems. A modern epyllion, it follows sisters Laura and Lizzie, tempted by goblin men into tasting their enchanted wares. Paying with a lock of her hair, Laura succumbs and gorges on fruit that proves "like honey to the throat / But poison in the blood". When later she discovers that she cannot eat it twice and starts to wither away, her sister sets out to rescue her by obtaining the fruit's juices without drinking a single drop herself.
Written while Rosetti was in her 20s, the poem begins with a lavish list of fruits that are clearly supposed to tempt the reader as well. The story is punctuated by idealised descriptions of sisterly love - which remind us that it was conceived as a children's poem - around which all kinds of other more unsettling meanings swell.
While the sheer lusciousness of the goblins' "sugar-baited words" undercuts the moral, the strange contradictions of the story itself repel any easy allegorical readings. That open-endedness has led scholars to a wide array of interpretations: it has been read as a fairy tale, a feminist critique of marriage or capitalism, a piece of lesbian erotica, a contribution to, or repudiation of, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (of which Rossetti's painter-poet brother Dante was a founder), and all and none of those things.
What is clear about "Goblin Market", however, is its narrative and visceral power - and its singularity in Rossetti's oeuvre. Most of her other verses are devotional or romantic, and while the more famous among them strike tender and mournful notes, some can start to look a little conventionally Victorian.
Still, a quiet longing descends on most, and there's usually at least one golden phrase. "A Birthday" for example would be mawkish if not for the simplicity of the penultimate line: "Because the birthday of my life / Is come, my love is come to me". The birthday of my life - what a way to describe love!
Then you come across something like "Dirge", which begins:
Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo's calling,
Or when the grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
For their far off flying
From summer dying.
This spare threnody is perfectly balanced in both the semantic and metrical sense. (Rossetti somehow manages to rhyme 'cluster' with 'muster' in a six-line stanza and make it look like the most natural thing in the world.) This speaker's grief at an untimely death is expressed in two questions; she goes on to write: '"Why did you die when the lambs were cropping? / You should have died at the apples' dropping". The narrowing stanzas give a sense of time slipping through the poet's fingers; it is a revelation of her own mortality, too, and evokes the kind of temporal elasticity that loss and severed love can bring.
Rachel Mann - the feminist theologian, priest and editor of Carcanet's New Selected Poems - notes that John Keble's work on the Christian liturgical year captivated Rossetti, which lends a new dimension to "Dirge" with its sense of temporal (or seasonal) disturbance. Mann seeks to place Rossetti's entire corpus within the context of her "religious seriousness" and makes an illuminating connection between her faith and the intimations of confession in her poems. "The notion of confessional ... has both a religious and a poetic connotation," Mann reminds us, before pointing out that her "confessional remains always slightly out of sight".
That helps to explain the curious opacity that can be found in almost all of Rossetti's speakers. Does she want readers to think of her real audience as God? Are even her more secular poems to be understood as prayers or sacraments?
That may be going a little too far. Mann describes a coy, 'teasing, tempting playfulness' in Rossetti where she 'eludes as she reveals, teasing her reader with promise and promise spurned.' In "Winter: My Secret" the speaker writes: 'I tell my secret? No indeed, not I: / Perhaps some day, who knows?' Underneath Rossetti's poetics there does seem to lie the sublimation of erotic energy into religious belief common to devotional poets: one of the few things that links other poems with the resplendence of "Goblin Market" and imbues her work with unmistakable fire.
You could argue however that the elaborate interpretations Rossetti inspires jar with the sheer simplicity and elegance of her poems - and yet, is any other poet indeterminate in such meticulous and cunning ways? One certain achievement of her poetry is that it has preserved its mysteries and kept us wondering. As the speaker of "Winter: My Secret" goes on to suggest: "Suppose there is no secret after all".