Two very different writers create heroines who face up to goblins

Maurice Sendak is no more. He was the author of “Where the Wild Things Are” and other children’s classics that deserve a far better tribute than two columns of type. Even the obituaries this week have been unforgettable. As a teenager I read “Wild Things” to the little boy I babysat, and after he fell asleep I studied again each bright, dark illustration.

As often happens, I had all this time preserved a detailed but entirely incorrect memory connected with Sendak. I was positive I had read an edition of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” illustrated by him. In fact, Sendak’s book was “Outside Over There”, and he wrote the text and drew the illustrations. It is the story of Ida, who must take care of her baby sister while her father is away at sea. Ida means well, but the goblins kidnap the baby. And brave Ida goes out to bring her home. In a picture that would haunt any teenage babysitter, Ida is playing the horn to amuse her sister, her face fatally turned away from her, and cowled little men clamber out the window with the baby. Worst of all, in her cradle they leave a changeling made of ice. I wonder if there are big sisters anywhere who can see that picture and sleep afterwards.

But Sendak wasn’t writing to lull children to sleep. Neither was Rossetti in “Goblin Market”, her story poem about two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who hear every day the call of goblin men who sell fruit: plump unpecked cherries, bloom-down-cheeked peaches, swart-headed mulberries, wild free-born cranberries, grapes fresh from the vine, pomegranates full and fine, figs to fill your mouth, citrons from the South, sweet to tongue and sound to eye. Lizzie and Laura know they must not eat those fruits. The goblin men always come as darkness falls, and besides, they are sly, leering, queer.

But one day “sweet-tooth Laura” buys their fruit with a lock of her golden hair. Soon, she dwindles and greys, till Lizzie can’t bear to watch her pine. Putting a silver penny in her purse, Lizzie seeks out the goblins to buy fruit for Laura. They insist she eat with them there in the glen, but she won’t. They taunt her, they smear her with fruit, but Lizzie swallows none of it, and she comes home, penny safely in her purse. Scratched, pinched, mauled, breathless and laughing, she calls Laura to come kiss her and devour her. Somehow that kiss heals the wayward sister and Laura recovers her old self, light dancing in her eyes.

The poem, we’ve been told, is an allegory of sacrifice and redemption. It’s a tale of virtue rewarded with domestic bliss. It’s about sexual awakening and repression. Or artistic awakening and ditto. For me, it’s simply the most nakedly sensual writing I have ever read. Rossetti’s lines make me gasp. It’s also a superb summer poem, all about sweet fruit and sisters who stick together whenever things get wild.

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