Each morning and evening young women hear the cry of the goblin men, who encourage the women to “come buy” their fruit. The goblins sell a variety of exotic, luscious-sounding fruits that they describe in sensuous terms, including “plump unpeck’d cherries,” “bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,” “wild free-born cranberries,” and “figs to fill your mouth.” The goblins boast of the sweetness and beauty of their offerings, which they encourage women to “taste.”
Where the goblins come from and why they target women is never explained. They are simply a fixture of the unidentified, idyllic, rural environment in which the poem is set, and seem to exist only in order to tempt young women into buying and eating their fruit. The way the goblins describe their fruit is pointedly sexual and suggestive of ripeness and voluptuousness. The goblins’ evocative language is intended to seduce women by encouraging them to imagine the pleasures of eating their fruit.
One evening, two young sisters, Laura and Lizzie, hear the goblins’ call as they are collecting water from a brook. Laura bows her head to better hear their call and Lizzie blushes, although she tries to hide it. With “tingling cheeks and finger tips,” they crouch close together for protection and clasp arms. Laura urges Lizzie to “lie close,” and warns her that they “must not look at goblin men” and “must not buy their fruits” because they do not know in what foreign regions the fruit has grown. Yet, hearing the goblins’ call, Laura “pricks” up her “golden head.”
At this point in the poem, it is unclear exactly why the goblins are so dangerous, but both sisters seem instinctively to recognize that the goblins pose a sexual threat. Rossetti’s language in this passage emphasizes the sisters’ bodily response to the goblins. Lizzie’s desire to hide her head and conceal her blushes and the sisters’ “tingling cheeks and fingertips” suggest that they are titillated or sexually aroused by contact with the goblins. They are fearful, but also curious, and sexual curiosity was believed by many Victorians to be dangerous to women.
Lizzie cries out, warning her sister not to “peep” and covering her own eyes “lest they should look,” but Laura rears “her glossy head” and continues to gaze at the goblin men as they tramp and hobble down the glen toward the sisters. Transfixed, Laura encourages Lizzie to open her eyes and watch the goblins proceed. She begins to describe their movements and the dishes, baskets, and plates they are carrying, and to speculate—now longingly rather than fearfully—on the environment in which the “luscious” fruit was grown, imagining “How warm the wind must blow / Thro’ those fruit bushes.”
Lizzie tries to prevent her sister from endangering herself by looking at the goblins. However, Laura’s curiosity proves to be too great a temptation, and she not only looks at the goblins but tempts Lizzie to look as well. The exotic nature of the fruit, which initially frightens Laura, now excites her—this plays into European fears of foreigners (particular those from colonized nations) as being primitive, sinful, and overly sexual. By giving in to temptation and satisfying her sexual curiosity, Laura is transgressing the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women at the time.
Lizzie, however, refuses to look. She again warns her sister that they should not allow themselves to be charmed by the goblins’ fruits and wares, which she calls “their evil gifts.” Thrusting a “dimpled finger” in each ear and closing her eyes, Lizzie runs away. The “curious Laura,” however, is transfixed, and makes the decision to linger in the glen with the goblins.
Lizzie is not just fearful of the goblins and the consequences of eating their fruit, but also of the strength of her own sexual desire and curiosity, which is evidenced by her “tingling cheeks and fingertips.” Such feelings were widely considered to be unwomanly and inappropriate. This fear is so strong that Lizzie abandons her own sister.
Laura watches as the goblin men approach her, and takes notice of each goblin’s appearance. Not only do their bodies share characteristics in common with animals, including a cat, a rat, a snail, a wombat, and a ratel (honey badger), but some of the goblins’ voices sound like the cooing of doves: soft, kind, and pleasant.
The goblins’ resemblance to animals suggests that they are wild, untamed, and dangerous. Some of the animals are commonplace but distinctly predatory, like the cat, and may suggest that the goblins intend to take young women for their prey. Interestingly, Holman Hunt’s famous painting of a fallen woman, The Awakening Conscience (1853), includes the image of a cat playing with a bird before killing it, symbolizing the predatory behavior of men who seduce women and then discard them (Hunt was known to Rossetti through his involvement in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, established by her brother).
Laura stretches her “gleaming neck” towards the goblin men, like a swan or “a vessel at the launch / When its last restraint is gone.”
Meanwhile, the goblins are tramping backwards up the glen, continuing to call out, “Come buy, Come buy.” Their cries have become intensified and urgent, and instead of sounding like cooing doves, they are “shrill.” Upon reaching Laura, they leer and slyly signal to one another. The goblins set out their wares before Laura. One weaves a crown of exotic tendrils, nuts, and leaves (“Men sell not such in any town”), while another heaves a heavy golden dish laden with fruit to offer her. Still, they continue to cry out “come buy, come buy.”
The goblins’ slyness suggests that they intend to trick or deceive Laura in some way, while the word “leer,” meaning to look at in an unpleasant and lascivious way, emphasizes that their trick has a sexual element. Essentially, the goblins conspire together to tempt Laura, laying out their luscious fruit on a golden dish and weaving her a crown as a gift. They understand that, in choosing to linger, Laura is interested in them and their fruit and will be receptive to their persuasions.
Laura stares, but does not move. She desires the fruit but has no money to offer in exchange. Nevertheless, the goblin merchants continue to try to tempt her to sample their fruit without paying. One speaks in “tones as smooth as honey,” while others purr, speak to her in a friendly way, and jollily call out like a parrot “Pretty Goblin” instead of “Pretty Polly.”
The goblins attempt to delight, persuade, and flatter Laura into accepting their fruit. Laura’s scruples about not being able to pay for it are significant. She does not want to be in their debt, perhaps because of the goblins’ reputations or because there is something unseemly about accepting a present from dangerous (goblin) men. She is also generally presented as an innocent and honorable woman, and finds it dishonest to take the fruit without paying.
Laura knows that she ought not to accept the fruit without being able to pay. She hastily explains this to the goblins, regretting that she has no coin to offer in exchange and that to accept their fruit under these conditions would be to steal or to purloin it. As she explains, the only “gold” she has is “on the furze,” in the natural world.
Laura explains that she cannot pay because all her “gold is on the furze,” another name for gorse: a yellow, floral shrub. This statement emphasizes Laura’s relationship to the natural world, which, like other sources of wealth, keeps her fed and sustained. It is also suggestive of her rural innocence and inexperience.
The goblins, however, point to Laura’s golden hair as an adequate payment and urge her to clip one of her curls to offer in exchange for the fruit. Laura agrees and clips the desired lock of hair, dropping “a tear more rare than pearl.”
Refusing to accept Laura’s reasons for not taking the fruit, the goblins persuade her to cut a lock of her hair to offer in exchange. In doing so, the goblins symbolically transform Laura’s hair into a commodity with commercial value. She symbolically sells herself for the forbidden fruit, and this act strongly aligns her with the fallen woman in Victorian culture.
Laura immediately begins to suck the fruit that is presented to her. The fruits’ flavor is unlike anything she has ever tasted, “Sweeter than honey from the rock, / Stronger than man-rejoicing wine.” No matter how much she eats, she does not grow tired of its flavor. It does not satisfy her hunger either. She continues to suck at the fruit until her lips are sore and she is in a state of total bewilderment.
Laura’s sensual enjoyment of the fruit—which she “sucked until her lips were sore”—is juxtaposed with biblical references. The phrases “honey from the rock” and “man-rejoicing wine” allude to God’s provision of good things for his faithful followers. That the goblin fruit seems sweeter than that honey and stronger than that wine suggests that its goodness is only an illusion and that in accepting and preferring it, Laura is being led away from God.
When she finishes gorging on the fruit, Laura flings the rinds away and gathers up a kernel stone or fruit pit to bring home with her. Unaware of her surroundings and whether it is night or day, Laura makes her way home alone. When she arrives, Lizzie is waiting for her at the garden gate, and proceeds to scold her with “wise upbraidings.”
The goblins’ fruit has a mind-altering effect on Laura. Her bewilderment and lack of awareness of her surroundings foreshadows the anxiety, sorrow, and absentmindedness she will experience due to her fixation on the deadly fruit (already indicated by her removal of the fruit pit). Lizzie’s scolding is useless because the fruit has already poisoned Laura’s mind and destroyed her peace.
Lizzie again warns Laura of the dangers of loitering in the glen at midnight because it is haunted by goblin men. Lizzie asks Laura if she remembers the fate of Jeanie, who met the goblins in the moonlight, accepted their gifts, ate their fruit, and wore their flowers, but then pined away when the goblins abandoned her. Jeanie’s hair grew grey before she died in her prime. No grass will grow upon Jeanie’s grave, nor will the daisies that Lizzie planted there a year ago. Lizzie finishes her lesson by reiterating that Laura should not loiter in the dark glen with the dangerous goblin men.
Lizzie’s scolding is useless to Laura, who has already succumbed to temptation and eaten the fruit. This is, however, the first time the reader is presented with evidence of the goblins’ dangerous effects on women. Lizzie’s cautionary tale about Jeanie, who ate their fruit, was abandoned, and died in her prime, foreshadows a probable fate for Laura. Jeanie’s story might also be read metaphorically; it reflects a common trajectory for fallen women in Victorian literature and art, one in which they experience a sexual “fall,” are abandoned by their seducers, and eventually die. The barrenness of Jeanie’s grave, on which no vegetation will grow, symbolizes the way that the goblins have robbed her of opportunities for marriage and motherhood—which the Victorians viewed as the ideal state for women.
Laura, however, dismisses her sister’s concerns, telling her to “hush.” Laura explains that although she ate her fill of goblin fruit, her mouth still waters for it, and so she has resolved to meet the goblins on the following night in order to purchase more. Laura tries to reassure her sister of the fruit’s goodness. Kissing Lizzie, she describes with rapture the delicious and varied fruit she sampled: plums, cherries, figs, melons, peaches, and grapes, and she speculates about their growing conditions. She offers to bring them home to her sister on the following night.
Laura does not yet realize the danger she is in, but her admission that she still hungers for the fruit despite eating a great deal of it alerts the reader to this danger. The sensuous language Laura uses to describe the fruit to Lizzie is also significant. As if adopting the goblins’ way of speaking, Laura tries to tempt Lizzie with the offer of fruit.
The two sisters then retire to sleep in the same bed, “Golden head by golden head,” and with their arms enfolding one another. They are lulled to sleep by the wind and their peaceful slumber is undisturbed by the sound of owls and bats. They sleep “Cheek to cheek and breast to breast.”
The profound peacefulness of the sisters’ slumber is the calm before the storm. Shortly thereafter, Laura will become obsessed with the goblin fruit that she can no longer buy. Lying together in the same bed, the sisters are described interchangeably with imagery that emphasizes their purity, innocence, and inherent worth. This is important because, according to nineteenth-century beliefs, so-called fallen women were often considered to be impure and contaminated. Rossetti rejects such a view.
The following morning, Laura and Lizzie awaken to the sound of a cock crowing. Immediately, they begin their usual chores: fetching honey, milking cows and feeding livestock, cleaning and airing their home, preparing food, and sewing. While their talk appears to be typical of “modest maidens,” Lizzie is content while Laura is absent-minded and sick with longing for the goblin fruit.
The sisters are presented as model homemakers in the style of the so-called “Angel in the House,” an important Victorian cultural figure created and popularized by Coventry Patmore. According to nineteenth-century mores, ideal women were supposed to be meticulous household managers who were committed to making their homes as comfortable as possible for their families. That Laura is absentmindedly fulfilling these duties shows the reader that something is wrong.
Finally, evening arrives and Laura and Lizzie set out with their pitchers to draw water from the brook. While Lizzie is calm and untroubled, Laura is eager for another encounter with the goblins. Lizzie initially occupies herself by picking purple and golden “flags,” but as the sun sets, she encourages Laura to return home with her, noting that “not another maiden lags,” and observing that the animals are all at rest.
Lizzie’s contentment is contrasted with her sister’s worried, intense desire for the goblin fruit; this shows that it has already poisoned Laura’s mind and destroyed her inner peace. Lizzie’s gathering of flags, or irises, might also be an allusion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to floriology, or the symbolic language of flowers, irises are symbols of the Virgin Mary. Once commonly called “sword lilies,” the iris is associated with the pain that pierced Mary when Jesus was crucified. In Lizzie’s hand, irises seem to foreshadow her act of self-sacrifice for her sister.
Laura refuses to come away, loitering among the rushes in hope that the goblins will return. She tells Lizzie that it is still early and the dew has not yet fallen. Although she listens for the goblins’ cry, she never hears them. Lizzie, however, becomes alarmed when she hears the goblins, and again urges Laura to come home with her: “I hear the fruit-call but I dare not look.” Laura, on hearing this, turns “cold as stone.” Realizing that she cannot buy the fruit she so desperately craves distresses her, but she does not reveal her sorrow to her sister. She trudges home with Lizzie and goes to bed. Waiting until Lizzie is asleep, Laura weeps and gnashes her teeth in despair.
Laura is heartbroken at discovering that she cannot hear the call of the goblin men and, therefore, cannot buy their fruit. Like Jeanie before her, the goblins have abandoned Laura after giving her a tantalizing taste of their forbidden fruit. Laura conceals her despair from Lizzie, perhaps because Lizzie has already warned her about the goblins, but perhaps also because Laura feels ashamed of the strength of her desire. Again, Laura is aligned with the figure of the fallen woman in Victorian culture, who is often represented as consumed with regret and despair, especially after she has been forsaken by her seducer.
For several days and nights, Laura silently keeps watch in hope that the goblins will reappear, but she never sees or hears them again. In her sorrow and anxiety, Laura becomes decrepit and her hair turns thin and gray. One day, she remembers the kernel stone that she brought back with her from her first meeting with the goblins. She plants it in a sunny spot and waters it with her tears, but it will not grow fruit. As Laura becomes weaker and older looking, she dreams of the fruit in the way that a traveler in the desert dreams of an oasis and becomes thirstier. After this, Laura neglects the household tasks that she previously shared with her sister, no longer cleaning, tending to the livestock, cooking, or even drawing water from the brook. Instead, she sits, “listless in the chimney-nook,” and does not eat.
Without the goblin fruit, Laura is overcome with grief. Her once golden hair is transformed, becoming thin and gray like an old woman’s—just as Jeanie’s did. Laura’s hair is an extension of herself and a reflection of her spiritual, emotional, and physical health—or unwellness in this instance. Furthermore, Laura’s inability to grow more fruit suggests that she has become, in some sense, barren and unable to support life. If the goblins’ exotic fruit represents a desire for forbidden things that were deemed unacceptable for women at the time, the fruit also makes it impossible for Laura to survive in her once accustomed role as a domestic woman.
Lizzie, full of tenderness for her sister, can no longer bear to see Laura suffering. Unlike Laura, Lizzie continues to hear the goblins’ cry each night and morning. Lizzie longs to buy the goblins’ fruit to comfort Laura but fears the consequences of this. She remembers the fate of Jeanie, who “should have been a bride;/ But who for joys brides hope to have/ Fell sick and died” in the prime of her life. Eventually, Laura’s health deteriorates so dramatically that she seems to be on the verge of death. Lizzie then stops deliberating. She puts a silver penny in her purse, kisses Laura goodbye, crosses the heath at twilight, and goes in search of the goblin men at the brook. For the first time in her life, she listens and looks around her.
Laura’s overwhelming desire for the goblin fruit causes her to age prematurely. She refuses food, begins to waste away, and is brought to the brink of death. At this point, cautious Lizzie overcomes her fear of the goblin men and of the consequences of interacting them and decides to meet the goblins at nightfall to purchase fruit for Laura. Lizzie prepares for this act of sisterly self-sacrifice by putting a silver penny in her purse to use as payment, showing that she is more cautious and aware of the goblins’ threat than Laura was.
The goblins laugh to find Lizzie looking for them. They hobble, run, and fly toward her, noisy and grimacing. They hug, kiss, squeeze, and caress her, stretching out dishes and plates and inviting her to look at and taste their luscious fruits. They seductively invite Lizzie to “Bob at our cherries” and “Bite at our peaches,” urging her to “Pluck them and suck them,” but Lizzie, remembering the fate of Jeanie, does not eat. Instead, she holds out her apron and asks them to fill it with fruit, then tosses them a penny with which to pay.
The goblins mistakenly believe that Lizzie is susceptible to their seductive sales pitch. They try to tempt her, describing their fruit in a deliberately sexual way and urging Lizzie to imagine its taste and the feel of the fruit in her mouth. Lizzie refuses their offers, however, and instead attempts to purchase the fruit, tossing them a silver penny as payment.
The goblins try to persuade Lizzie to sit and eat with them, protesting that their feast has just started and reassuring her that the night is early and warm. They warn Lizzie that the fruit will lose its juiciness and flavor if it is transported from the glen. Lizzie continues to refuse, however, explaining that Laura is waiting at home for her, and she tells the goblins to toss her back her penny if they will not sell her the fruit. The goblins, confused and angry, begin to insult her and accuse her of pride and incivility. Their once sweet toned voices become loud and their looks become “evil.” Their anger escalates and they begin to attack Lizzie, pulling out her hair by the roots, clawing at her body, stamping on her feet, ripping her gown, and attempting to force their fruit into her mouth to make her eat.
Lizzie’s determination to pay for the fruit with money, rather than offering a lock of her hair as payment (like Laura) or accepting the fruit as a gift or debt (like Jeanie) is significant. If read symbolically through the lens of nineteenth-century anxieties about women’s sexuality, Lizzie refuses to become “fallen,” even though she risks much for her sister’s sake simply by meeting and talking to the dangerous goblin men at nightfall. When the goblins realize they cannot seduce or persuade Lizzie to eat of her own free will, they change tactics, becoming violent and brutal. Their attack, during which they batter Lizzie’s body and attempt to cram food into her mouth, strongly evokes a sexual assault or attempted rape.
Lizzie resists their attack, like “a beacon left alone/ In a hoary roaring sea,/ Sending up a golden fire,” or “Like a royal virgin town/ Topped with gilded dome and spire/ Close beleaguered by a fleet/ Mad to tug her standard down.” Though the goblins try various tactics to make her eat, pinching, scratching, coaxing and mocking her, Lizzie withstands their attack, refusing to open her mouth and eat: she “Would not open lip from lip/ Lest they should cram a mouthful in.” Instead, she internally laughs to feel the fruit juices covering her face and neck. Finally, the goblins are worn out by Lizzie’s resistance. They fling back her penny, kick their fruit home and disappear, leaving Lizzie victorious.
Lizzie is described at length using imagery that symbolizes strength, purity, and moral uprightness in the midst of trouble and danger. She is compared to “a royal virgin town” with a “gilded dome and spire,” an allusion to her white skin, golden hair, and innate purity and which also seems to align her with Christian cities under siege by invading forces. Try as they might, the goblins cannot “tug her standard down” or force her to debase herself by eating their fruit. Importantly, despite the fact that she is physically violated by the goblins, who scratch her flesh and tear her gown—an image of sexual violence—they cannot defile her purity or force her to “open lip from lip” to eat their fruit.
With an aching body and in a mental daze, Lizzie runs home. She is no longer afraid of the goblins but pleased to have escaped with her coin. Her kind intentions to help Laura cause her to quicken her pace. When she reaches the garden, she cries out to Laura: “Did you miss me?/ Come and kiss me./ Never mind my bruises,/ Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices.” She explains that for Laura’s sake, she has braved an encounter with the dangerous goblin men and invites her sister to “Eat me, drink me, love me.”
Lizzie’s mental daze mirrors Laura’s after meeting the goblins and eating their fruit for the first time. This mirroring or replication of experiences, which might seem like a minor detail, is significant; it suggests that Lizzie’s sacrifice will undo or reverse the damage caused to her sister by eating the fruit, bringing them back to the idyllic, peaceful lives they previously enjoyed. In light of the poem’s many biblical resonances, it is also possible to read this moment of mirroring as alluding to the traditional Christian belief that Mary was the second Eve who reversed the curses brought on humanity by the first Eve’s disobedience to God. Lizzie, aligned with Mary, saves her fallen sister, Laura, who is aligned with Eve. Lizzie’s act of self-sacrifice also aligns her with Christ, who experienced the pain of crucifixion and death in order to save the world from sin. Lizzie’s Christlike nature is emphasized by her instruction to Laura: “Eat me, drink me, love me.” This echoes Christ’s words to his disciples at the Last Supper, during which he told them to eat his body and drink his blood.
On hearing that Lizzie braved a meeting with the goblin men, Laura is distraught, and begins tearing her hair in grief. She fears that Lizzie will become dejected, listless, and withered just as she has become.
Clinging to her sister, Laura begins to kiss Lizzie. With that kiss, tears return to refresh Laura’s once-dry and shrunken eyes. Shaking with pain, Laura continues to kiss Lizzie “with a hungry mouth.” Laura’s lips begin to “scorch” as she sucks the juices from her sister’s face, and the once deliciously sweet fruit becomes bitter and repulsive like “wormwood.” Like someone “possessed,” Laura writhes, leaps, sings, and tears at her clothing. Laura’s “locks streamed like the torch/ Borne by a racer at full speed,” and she now looks “like a caged thing freed.” A “Swift fire spread[s] thro’ her veins” as she continues to gorge on the bitter fruit juice. She then falls down, unconscious, “Like the watch-tower of a town/ Which an earthquake shatters down.” It is not immediately clear if Laura is dead or alive.
Sucking the fruit juices from her sister’s battered body, which she “kissed and kissed” “with a hungry mouth,” Laura begins to revive. This miraculous moment of healing, brought about by Lizzie’s Christ-like act of self-sacrifice, is also sexually charged and homoerotic, indicating that the poem lends itself to more complex readings than just religious allegory or fairytale. When sucked from her sister’s body, the delicious but poisonous fruit is transformed into a bitter but restorative medicine. After Laura drinks it, she seemingly loses control of her body, leaping and writhing like one possessed. In contrast to the erect, upright imagery associated with Lizzie’s ability to withstand the goblin attack, Laura is compared to towers that crumble during an earthquake and a ship’s mast struck by lightning. Like Christ, who withstood crucifixion and death before rising from the dead to eternal life, Laura seems temporarily to succumb to the ordeal and drops down as if dead.
Throughout the night, Lizzie keeps watch over Laura. She takes on the role of a nurse, counting Laura’s pulse and checking her breathing, giving her water and cooling her face with tears. When morning arrives, heralded by the sounds of birds and agricultural workers and the opening of flowers, Laura awakens transformed. She laughs in her old innocent way and embraces Lizzie. Her hair returns to its golden color, showing “not one thread of grey,” and her youthfulness is restored.
Lizzie, who has just withstood a violent physical assault, cares for her sister throughout the night. On waking in the morning, the siblings find that Laura has been restored to health and youth; symbolically, Laura’s life, which seemed to be at risk, has dawned again. Her hair has been restored to its golden color, signifying the return of her health, joy, and peace of mind.
Years pass, during which Laura and Lizzie have become wives and mothers, and they worry about the safety of their children. Laura calls the children to her and tells them pleasant stories of her girlhood. However, she also tells them about her dangerous encounter with the “wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,” whose fruits were “like honey to the throat/ But poison in the blood.” She tells the children about how Lizzie saved her by risking her life and braving an attack from the goblin men. Then Laura, “joining hands to little hands,” tells the children to “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.”
That both Laura and Lizzie become wives and mothers is significant. In many nineteenth-century narratives and works of art, fallen women die, are transported out of England and into the colonies, or are otherwise denied opportunities for marriage and motherhood—which, together, were commonly viewed as the ideal state for women at that time. With Laura and Lizzie, Rossetti seems to counter the pervasive message that fallen women were largely irredeemable. Laura’s instruction to her own and Lizzie’s daughters to support one another and cling together “For there is no friend like a sister,” creates a vision of female solidarity and care to counter the dangers of predatory (goblin) men.