The Poet has been defined, redefined, self-defined, countless times in its history; his entire anatomy deconstructed and each piece - the full spectrum from biography and performativity, to form and rhythm, to the abstract presences of 'truth' or 'purity' - individually sold, at different times, as the most valuable. His function, for lack of a better word, is one of these perennial conversations. Whether the poet is or should be the unheralded catalyst of social change, or a hermetic seer for the soul, or a Foucault-inspired ghost, or all, or somewhere in-between? The titular assertion seems to imply these questions in the context of a Victorian tension between introspection and interaction, the subjective and objective poetic impulses, that both afflicted and benefited the poetry of the time. In comparing Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark1 Tower Came with Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market2 I hope, not for pretence to certainty or resolution concerning the preceding questions, but to simply illustrate the differences and similarities between the poetics of melancholy and that of 'topical issues', and to explore the problems involved with such a categorisation.
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Despite the general Victorian distaste for the condition of melancholy as one of self-indulgence, fallibility curable by self-abnegation - or as John Stuart Mill recommended for Browning, "a hearty hatred of his selfishness"3 - melancholy remained both "the spirit of modern poetry"4 and inevitable to those poets with that desire for the infinite, a 'reach beyond their grasp'5, that often only resulted in a reminding of temporal and physiological confinements. Matthew Arnold exemplifies the opposing sentiment in his lament of modern-poetry wherein "the calm, the cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity have disappeared; the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced", "we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and Faust"6. Robert Browning's Childe Roland might be seen to offer this discussion a comprehensive insight into the poetics of melancholy; and supplemented by two of his other poems, Saul7 and Cleon8, the reader is submerged in a timeless nightmare of melancholy-introspection that suspends itself between a deviant rendition of Carl Jung's 'Nekyia' and narcissistic solipsism. Conversely, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market stands in opposition; a poem that, despite its author's denial of any symbolic depth, has been interpreted as vastly multivalent in its engagement with topical issues. Ranging from Christian allegory, the redemptive power of love and sorority, and patriarchal domination, to a criticism of male-capitalist economy, self-realisation and sexual-temptation, Rossetti's poem has been interpretively stretched to the socio-political and topical brink - and as such, in its extreme iconoclastic involvement with Victorian discourses, presents a distinct shift away from the inertia of Childe Roland's externalized psyche.
Like Goblin Market, Browning's poem makes use of a dialogue between reality and Victorian fantasy, a conception of an almost Freudian-'Uncanny'9 world that is both familiar and unsettlingly not. But while Rossetti does so in her anthropomorphic "parrot-voiced" and "rat-paced"2 goblins, Browning's vehicle is that of characterization and location, wherein physiologically relatable characters are faced with increasingly personified landscapes like those expressly seen in Childe Roland's 'peevish' Nature and "river which had done them all wrong"1. But while the setting and climate belong to dreams, fantasy, and myth, Childe Roland's perception and declared reality - whether reliable or not - is that of humanity, the use of the relative for access to some sort of Absolute or universal. In using such a device, Browning sustains empathy and readies us for the active-readership required to navigate this landscape-of-ruin, readies us for the search for meaning or non-meaning to follow. Remaining in the vein of imagery, Childe Roland's deadened panorama of "starved ignoble nature"1 might be interpreted as an externalisation of Roland's own melancholic mind, as Carl Jung's Nekyia10. As in extreme melancholy, Roland's imagination is inhibited, crippled like the "hoary cripple"1 projection of himself and the barren toxic land he travels, his reality is that of 'Saul', "far away from his kind" and "caught in his pangs"7 of inertia and depression. This journey, however, does not seem to follow the script of heroic knightly mythos, and rather is bound by its own inescapable circularity, the imagery of inertia, and of its language (Roland's own reality and imaginings and projections, the very poem) as unreliable.
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Besides the lack of geographical progress in Childe Roland, the fact that his journey is paradoxically an almost static and timeless one, the return to the poem's title as its echoing non-conclusion is perhaps most significant in its circularity. In a poem that at once encourages and stubbornly-resists the search for meaning, or a metaphorical Dark Tower, the ending is both provocatively open and asphyxiatingly-closed - it both incites an active-readership into re-beginning the journey, perhaps our own journeys, endlessly like Sisyphus, while also paralyzing us in meaninglessness and inertia at a time when we expect closure or moral resolution. The rhetorical strategy employed here might also be seen as similar, in style not effect, to that of Goblin Market's concluding re-telling, one which leaves Rossetti's poem open to the mutability and oral power of myth or fairytale.
The sheer unreliability of language also plays a seminal role in Browning's poem; namely its radical self-orientation as a soliloquy/dramatic-monologue void of traditional auditor; where as opposed to the social interaction of conventional monologues, Rossetti's Market, or un-melancholic personalities, Roland deals only with itself and the maze within himself. He allows for no other reality, influence, or material witness excepting the reader's judgement of mere rationalisations (his inability to comprehend the in-medias-res "cripple" as himself, or see mountains as if "blind as the fool's heart"1) and semantic-surfaces. This arguably allows for Roland's own melancholic "malicious eye"1 to fill an essentially empty-page/empty-landscape with projections and displaced anger, and in doing so returning us back to the very unreliability of language and of interpretation (Roland's and our own of the poem) as a function of the identity. All in all, the resulting impact is one that mirrors the often-mentioned wordlessness of melancholy, a different strand to "dumb" Saul's 'groan'7, but nevertheless of the same origins. Comparable is the poem's preoccupations with death and temporality, implicit in Roland's obsessing over destination and the illusion of progress, a popular characteristic of melancholic-poetry that is reminiscent of Cleon's anxious existentialist-questioning - "for where had been a progress, otherwise?"8 - and suggestive in a reflection on the lifespan and progress of poetry at large.
The problem that arises in a poem which is both a hollow landscape and simultaneously a blank-canvas, is that polysemia is abound - and through it and alternative interpretations there begins a blurring of the line separating the titular categories of poetics. For example, Browning's sensory setting in Childe Roland might understood as "an entirely new and curious type of poetry" wherein "that sense of scrubbiness in nature, as of a man unshaved, had never been conveyed with this enthusiasm and primeval gusto"11, as an overture for the modernist odes to wastelands and ruin. For that reason, the poem announces itself as topically engaged by literary novelty, as maintaining Browning's assertion that "I am inclined to think that we want new forms, as well as thoughts"12. Furthermore, Isobel Armstrong has helpfully critiqued the poem as a foresight to the Crimean-War. Armstrong aligns the "images of atrocity, torture and sadism" with "the destructive effect of the coercive ideology of heroism, the black mythos which was to cause such carnage"13 in the war. Through her filter, the poem's poignant lack of life but remains of struggle - "stark black dearth" without a "footprint"1 - "starved"1 even of bodies or humanity, reflects topically on a Victorian age of savage-industry and deindividuation and depersonalisation wherein propaganda of 'progress' veiled tragic underlying truths.
Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market has been described as "one of those works which are said to "defy criticism""14. It is, like Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, contextless - and moreover, is saturated with images so "enigmatically precise that they are open-endedly generalisable"15. A fantasy-fairytale viewed as so intensely diverse in engagement with topical issues that it has been able to sustain arguments in everything from pious Pre-Raphaelitism to masturbation. With that said, the glue, I would like to argue, that binds this accessible thematic-continuum is that of an iconoclastic feminine-discourse. The symbol of woman that overarches the poem and any extracted interpretation, "morning and evening"2. By being so, both exclusively involved with feminine-discourse and yet also vastly concerned with the entire topical vista surrounding it, it is at once particular and universal in a strangely-similar way to Browning's belief in the Relative as instrumental. As a Christian allegory, Rossetti's Market deals extensively in the iconography of Genesis and Revelation, of prelapsarian innocence and The Fall into sin; Lizzie as Christ the martyr who closed both eyes and "uttered not a word" to "the evil people"2, and Laura as the hybrid Adam/Eve. Accordingly, Laura is tempted and cast out of innocence by the notorious forbidden fruit and secular desires of "a crown", "the golden weight", and a hedonistic "feast"2. But the sin-redemption parable is nothing new or particularly topical to Victorianism, what might be, however, is its juxtaposition with Rossetti's anthropomorphic goblin-men - with the "cat", "rat", and "wombat"2 that might imply the presence of Darwin's agnosticism. Or instead, the inherent discussion of desire, human and theological, so central to the poem and, concurrently, to masculine Victorian ideology and the legions of women elaborately constrained within it - for example, the "forbidden fruit" Laura desires could be taken to represent sexual-desire "sucked and sucked and sucked2", or alternatively, that of equal-education for Victorian women from 'the Tree of Knowledge', either way both were in the hands of patriarchal domination and required a confrontation more deliberate than anything seen in Childe Roland's melancholy.
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Christina Rossetti's poems, together, constitute a world of opposites - of the duality of human experience and the everyday battles between innocence and experience, good and evil, life and death, man and woman, individual and communal, time and infinity. And in a Victorian age of preconceived social-roles and rigid dominant paradigms, the tensions among Rossetti's themes boldly partake in contemporary discourses and often serve to undermine ideological rigidity or certainty. Goblin Market is no exception; this active movement and interaction in topical thought is even paralleled by the poem's own metaphorical language of current and flow - of "a caged thing freed", "a flying flag", of "running, leaping, puffing and blowing"2 that differs drastically from the inertia of Childe Roland - and a, to my knowledge, novel structural-blend between fairytale and moral-fable, between subversion and morality. In Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, a meditation on the relationship between Man and Woman is disintegrated into relevant and influencing constituents; those of economics and consumer-culture, power in language and sexuality, heroism, brotherhood and sorority.
All of the preceding seem viable and extractable conversations in Rossetti's tale. An economic reading, for example, might point to Rossetti's volunteering at the St. Mary Magdalene Home and her resulting experience in nursing "fallen women"16. We might interpret that through her familiarity with prostitutes she also gained a distinctly feminist insight into the exploitative capacity of the patriarchal marketplace, a marketplace derivative of the same dogma driving Childe Roland's black mythos of masculine heroism. Here the female-body is subjugated into currency for maintenance of hierarchy - into losing integrity, a "precious golden curl"2, at every purchase otherwise risking near-total consumption, a 'mauling' and 'mocking', a rape-scene analogous to Lizzie's encounter with market-exchange. In a different direction, we might look to Herbert Tucker's interpretation involving a capitalist Victorian economy and its attending advertising. An advertising involved in "Victorian styles of market penetration that, inasmuch as they ventured to influence behaviour by reorienting desire through language, had every claim on the attention of contemporary poets"17. By combining Tucker's assessment with an understanding of Goblin Market as fundamentally oral in tradition, clued in by Laura's concluding telling and re-telling of the story, the "iterated jingle" of "Come buy, come buy"2 takes on new meaning due to its aural similarity to 'Come by'. But Laura and Lizzie, only "modest maidens"2, understand without hesitation the rhetoric as a sales-pitch and not a warm invitation - "as sure a sign as any in the poem that they are conscious denizens of a market economy", an "older order of invitation and gift which mercantilism has superseded"17.
In response to the title's assertion of the categories of Victorian poetry, I would not wholly disagree, but would encourage perhaps a slackening of the finiteness inherent to its categorisation. In conjoining the contradicting topical engagement of Browning's Childe Roland with its also being a poem that immerses us in immeasurable melancholy and frustrating inertia, language might finally be too imperfect or imprecise for such restricting distinctions. As to do so may in essence be to embark on our own hopeless search for "the Dark Tower"1 and to thus ignore the shades of grey stretched between the two poles, to ignore the ever-pervading conflict between Victorian notions of duty and rational morality, and the lingering romanticism of the poetic Self as inextricable from melancholy of one kind or another.