One of the pieces to attract much attention at the Margaret Rope Retrospective was her stained-glass window-panel depicting a scene from the poem Goblin Market.
It is curious to reflect on the unexpected parallels between the lives of the poem’s author, Christina Rossetti, and Marga herself.
The poem itself, which is a long one at 600 lines, is very strange.
Published in 1862, though written earlier, it is a sort of fable telling of two sisters, Laura & Lizzie, the first of whom goes into the woods tempted to eat of the sinister goblin-animals’ luscious forbidden fruit. She surrenders a lock of her hair to taste the fruit, eats, and as a result begins to die. The only remedy for her is (bizarrely) a second taste of the fruit; so her sister runs the gauntlet of the same aggressive goblins and gains the fruit juices (without being forced into actually eating them, as they are only smeared over her skin), which Laura then “licks hungrily” from her face. All ends happily.
While the poem, by its form and its almost erotic sensuality, begs for some sort of interpretation (the perils of early sex? the sacrifices of saints? the balance of sensousness and spirituality? the love of women for each other?), Rossetti herself claimed it was just a fairy-tale, no more. Few critics believe that though…
The first observation concerning Marga’s interpretation (above) is that she seems to have known the very famous, previous two sets of illustrations of the poem – the first by Christina’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (see below), the second set by Laurence Housman. But, as she was making this panel during her period as a student at Birmingham School of Art in 1908, perhaps her tutors insisted she ‘acknowledge’ the antecedents.
Yet, unlike in the previous illustrators’ work, Marga’s Laura is cool and almost stately, and looks calmly and directly at us from out of the scene. The other two interpretations show later scenes in the poem, where the girls are virtually overwhelmed by the goblins’ seductive belligerence – but Marga prefers the earlier moment, that is, the one of choice, not the ones of distress…
Marga is also unique among them (and probably right) in depicting the figure, who wears a smock, as a teenager, not a woman.
Another point is: it is unusual for a story-poem of this period in that no redeeming male figure appears. The sisters, who appear to be without family, let alone just fatherless, have to sort out their problem for themselves.
Parallel? Marga’s father had died, prematurely, ten years before she made this piece, leaving his family to fend for themselves.
Both Marga and Christina Rossetti were very intense in their religious faith. They both remained unmarried (thus avoiding any compromise of their strict principles); both remained very private. (Curiously also, Christina did service as a volunteer ‘sister’ in a religious institution; Marga became a nun).
Yet, their religion was clearly no bar to their delight in sensuousness – the word-torrents of Christina, the jewelled dense-colour effects of Marga’s windows make them related, passionate minds, whose work betrays the strong emotions that lie beneath the surface:
She gorged on bitterness without a name …
Like the watch-tower of a town / Which an earthquake shatters down,
Like a lightning-stricken mast, / Like a wind-uprooted tree
Spun about, / Like a foam-topped water-spout
Cast down headlong in the sea,/ She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,/ Is it death or is it life ?
(Goblin Market, lines 510-520)
Down in the corner of Marga’s piece (see right) are what appear to be hallucinogenic mushrooms, a common sight in English fields. Did Marga know that Christina relied on laudanum?
It is frustrating to have no letters or diaries written by Margaret. We’ll never know what made her choose Goblin Market for one of her first ‘mature’ pieces. But, working backwards, it seems clear that, right through her career, she chose the subjects of her art most deliberately. So, one can assume that this was no casual choice.
Did Marga see a reflection of The Woman Question in the poem – one that she identified with? Or was it the theme of sacrifice – which she would often come back to in her martyrs windows? Or was it the clash of sensuality and restraint that she so admired?
More to come
Interpretations of the poem have continued of course. It is far too intriguing a text not to attract modern interpreters. Some responses are quite disturbing – one of Arthur Rackham’s 1933 depictions shows what look like a prelude to a rape -, while other, lesbian interpretations are nowadays setting the pace.
And, there is even one interpretation that responds both to the poem and Marga’s picture at the same time!
The Shropshire poet, Kate Innes, visited the Margaret Rope Exhibition last year – and wrote a poem on seeing the Goblin Market panel.
Here is part of it:
But claws protrude / beneath their coats.
Their paws entwine / the lush grape vine,
gloating over / tender cherries
bursting berries / from some unnatural bush.
Kate’s words echo as well as respond to the breathless sensuality of the original.
And – there’s no doubt – the interpretations of this poem will continue … with Marga’s depiction now part of the debate.
(See also: Fallen or Forbidden?)
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