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April is National Poetry Month so I have been trying to think of how best to celebrate an art which is at least as old as writing and as broad as humankind. Should I return to the epic beginnings and feature a Sumerian ode of ziggurats, abzus, and strange gods? Should we fly through time and space to a mountain village of the Sung dynasty and listen to the thoughts of a bearded sage drinking rice wine? We can visit a Greek battlefield, a Roman brothel, a Spanish galleon to watch history unfold–or alternately we could look at ourselves through the mirror of poetry by visiting a contemporary journal to read the works of poets who are still alive and trying to make sense of the turmoil which is the present. Historians record the basic plot of humankind’s doings over the long strange centuries, but poetry provides the life, the character, and the essence of what it is to live.
But to return to the conundrum of which poem to feature for Poetry month, I have decided to look back to my tempestuous teenage years by featuring my first girlfriend’s favorite poem, Goblin Market, written by Christina Rossetti and published in 1862. The work is outwardly a gothic fairy tale about two sisters who are continuously tempted by the sumptuous otherworldly fruit peddled by bestial & obscene goblin-men. What the poem is really about has been a hot topic of debate since it was written. Paradoxically the work is nakedly and explicitly erotic while also completely chaste. It is beautiful while also shockingly ugly. It is sad and troubling with an ending of golden transcendent joy. Before we get into any more spoilers, here are the first two stanzas (which will immediately reveal why any lover of gardens or gothic imagery likes this poem). I am including these lines because it would be a cruel jape to write a post about poetry which featured no actual poetry, but I cannot exhort you strongly enough to read the entire poem here.
MORNING and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather–
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy.”
Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bowed her head to hear,
Lizzie veiled her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger-tips.
“Lie close,” Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
“Come buy,” call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.
“O! cried Lizzie, Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.”
Lizzie covered up her eyes
Covered close lest they should look;
Laura reared her glossy head,
And whispered like the restless brook:
“Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen tramp little men.
One hauls a basket,
One bears a plate,
One lugs a golden dish
Of many pounds’ weight.
How fair the vine must grow
Whose grapes are so luscious;
How warm the wind must blow
Through those fruit bushes.”
“No,” said Lizzie, “no, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.”
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat’s face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.
Lizzie heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.
Hopefully you read the entire poem (or re-read it if you are familiar with it). Critics continue to debate what it is about. Most contemporary scholars tend to view the work as some sort of feminist allegory concerning the unfair treatment women were subjected to in Victorian (and subsequent) society. Other modern critics read it as a (barely) disguised defense of homosexuality. Still other groups of readers have interpreted the poem as a critique of consumer culture and the ubiquity of advertisement, or a story about drug addiction, or an allegory of religious indoctrination. Perhaps it was a work by Rossetti about art itself which, evermore, seems to consist of pursuing sensuous ghosts into a pauper’s grave. All of those ideas are valid and correct, yet there is even more to the poem. As I mentioned, it was the favorite work of my (anguished) first lover back when I was a jejune teenager. When reading the poem it is hard for me not to think of her and her beautiful sister and wonder which was Laura and which was Lizzie. Yet beyond aching personal feelings (which a good poem should stir up) there is an overarching tale about humankind in this poem which is bigger than the individual strands of desire and gender and subversion.
The Goblin Market after all mirrors the story of the fall from Eden. There is tempting fruit and the (near fatal) consumption of the same. It is a shocking tale of being cursed by one’s own desires and appetites and then redeemed by love.
The world is a marketplace. There are always a troop of goblins trying to sell us something which is bad for us–whether it is toxic gender stereotypes, or poisonous religious doctrine, or addictive narcotics, or endless shoddy consumer goods. Celebrate National Poetry month by discarding some of the poisonous habits of thought you have picked up from the disfigured little merchants. Don’t accept fallacious ideas about yourself or what you want! If by some dread mischance you are languishing under someone else’s ideas or impositions you may need a dear friend to break the curse. That person might be a family member or a lover or a close friend, or it might be a strange unmarried Victorian poet who has been dead for more than a century but whose words live on as a glowing antidote to life’s poisoned fruit.
[A Side Note: Rossetti’s religious poetry won her high esteem from the Church of England. She is enshrined in the Episcopalian liturgical calendar with a feast day—today in fact, April 27th.]
The story of Cupid and Psyche is a breathless tale of hidden identity, subservience, misplaced trust, and true love. It is a favorite theme for western artists, particularly since it features Cupid (the capricious god of love who wreaks so much chaos in mortal life) emotionally caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Each of these three paintings by Edward Burne-Jones depicts the moment, late in the story when Cupid finally forgives Psyche (who has suffered endless woe, pain, and setbacks). Psyche has visited the underworld and returned with a box containing divine beauty. Warned not to open the box, she has decided to steal a pinch so that Cupid will love her despite her mortality. Unsurprisingly the otherworldly box contains poison of infernal sleep. Cupid then intervenes directly and utilizes his divinity to rescue her from the curse.
As a young man Edward Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford and was anticipating a career as a minister–until his spirit was seduced by ancient poetry (really!). He left the university without a degree and joined a brotherhood of artists and poets. He painted three nearly identical versions of this dramatic scene over the course of several years. The first and finest from around 1867 is a gouache portrait of Maria Zambaco, a Greco-English beauty. In 1866, Maria’s mother had commissioned Burne-Jones to paint Maria (as Psyche no less) for an entirely different picture, and the (married) Burne-Jones fell in love with the (married) Zambaco. Their tempestuous affair destroyed both marriages and nearly led them to suicide before ending in 1869 (although it resulted in a number of gorgeous paintings—which were pilloried by the Victorian art world for portraying female sexual assertiveness in a positive light).
Although outwardly the same, these three paintings are also subtly different. In the last painting, from 1872, Cupid is not red and radiant but gray and diffuse (and he has lost his ever-changing wreath). Psyche’s hair has changed color and her features have been altered. Additionally, the sheer repetition of this same moment of divine intervention suggests that romance is a figure eight: our arguments and passions keep repeating themselves (which is in fact what happens in the tale of Cupid and Psyche). Lovers relive the same moments of longing, confusion, and passion again and again and again even as the world changes like water and our lives wear out.
Philoctetes is one of the great missing heroes of the classical world. Not only was there was an entire epic poem from the Homeric era about the quest to find him Aeschylus and Euripides are both known to have written entire plays about him, and the great Sophocles wrote two. Only one of the plays by Sophocles now survives.
Philoctetes was a great archer and a “companion” of Heracles. When through the treachery of Nessus, Heracles was poisoned with blood of the hydra, only Philoctetes has the courage to light his funeral pyre. This earned him tremendous esteem from the dying hero, who presented Philoctetes with his bow and poisoned arrows.
Philoctetes unsuccessfully sought the hand of Helen of Troy which meant that he was “called up” by Menelaus to win her back from Paris after she was abducted. It would seem Philoctetes also made some powerful enemies during his time with Heracles because as he hastened to the war he was stung by a poison snake while on the Island of Chryse. The wound suppurated and produced such a foul odor that Odysseus tricked the unhappy archer into being left behind in agony.
This proved to be a mistake. After years of war, an oracle (being tortured by the Greeks) revealed that the Greeks could not prevail in the Trojan War without the bow of Heracles. Odysseus and a group of soldiers including the hero Diomedes were dispatched to find the weapon. In doing so they found the still injured (still reeking) Philoctetes, and, only through intervention from the deified Heracles, were the angry group of men able to come to a satisfactory resolution.
For some reason, Philoctetes remained a favorite subject of painters for a long time. Something about the beautiful warrior’s agony, and the dramatic wound (to say nothing of the divinely sent snake which alternately came from Apollo, Hera, or the nymph Chryse) has kept artists from different eras returning to the story—even if the poetry, plays, and epics which truly explain the drama have vanished.