Historical context for scansion in “Goblin Market”

Cross-posted from FORMALISTA:

Anne Jamison‘s Poetics En Passant: Redefining the Relationship Between Victorian and Modern Poetry (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009) contains a chapter titled “Goblin Metrics.” It looks to be a provocative rereading of Christina Rossetti’s metrical art and technique. I’ve been crashing a couple of other deadlines, but can quote a couple of excerpts worth further discussion:

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When Rossetti wrote bouts-rimes, she copied the given rhyme words in a column down the right-hand side of a page and filled in the resulting (often mournful) verse on the left. She noted the time-to-completion at the bottom. Seven minutes, nine minutes: emotional devastation in ten minutes or less, generated in these cases not by a hidden love or secret sorrow, as generations of readers have suspected, but by a list of end-rhymes and the formal requirements of the sonnet. . . . Rossetti carried over these formal impulses and preoccupations into her poetics more seriously–and nowhere more seriously, or more playfully, than in “Goblin Market.” Antony Harrison has argued that this preoccupation with form aligns Rossetti not only with Pre-Raphaelite poetry and painting but with “new, avant-garde tendencies arising in Victorian poetry during the second half of the century” that rebel “through revisionist reworkings of particular traditions in the artistic and literary past.”

“Goblin Market” certainly engages in such a “revisionist reworking” at multiple levels. Reaching back to Skelton but also “down” to popular, even animal [sic] forms, the goblin chant introduces its aggressive and compelling rhythms and diction–the stuff of street cries, fairy tales, and the London Zoo–to the prosodic and thematic territory of Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Coleridge, and Tennyson. Composed of many prosodic systems interspersed, this collage of structures resolves itself into no single style, system, or story, just as the poem gives the tremendous impression of rhythm and sonority but adheres to no set metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. . . . Through this explicitly violent hybridization, Rossetti calls into question the very poetic and prosodic tradition she also invokes and claims her place in (145-6).

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[Sound familiar? 🙂 ]
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Methodologically speaking, this chapter’s emphasis on historical prosody parallel’s the second chapter’s concern with the nineteenth-century journalism on which Baudelaire’s prose poetry draws: both projects undertake to render the semantic potential of formal choices more visible, particularly to a contemporary readership trained to see such preoccupations as ahistorical or even antihistorical. The area of focus has been influenced by the poets’ choice of material, of course, but also by relative strengths and weaknesses in the scholarly literature. In the case of Baudelaire, the “journalistic” tone of the prose poems has been often commented upon but little studied in its historical context, while for “Goblin Market,” although the poem’s resonance with historical referents like women’ shelters, theological debates, and fruit shortages have been much discussed, the poem to date has benefited from no discussion of the nineteenth-century politics of metrical forms (148).

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She tips her hat to Perloff regarding Modernist collage, then writes:

Rossetti’s poem, however, operates in precisely this way [i.e., like Perloff’s observation of Modernist collage transferring materials between contexts], and if we look to material rather than to narrative or thematic unity as a primary category of poetic coherence, Rossetti’s technique is analogously disruptive. Its emphasis on shifting phonetic, rhythmic, and metrical patterns in fact signals a limitation imposed on poetic collage by an exclusively visual model….if–as poetic theory long asserted–sonic elements such as rhyme, rhythm, and meter are defining constituents of poetry, then these aspects can be abstracted and transferred while trailing traces of their original contexts. Part of the problem we face today, when reading the double collage-effect of Rossetti’s metrical juxtapositions, lies in the fact that the context of such metrical “material” can be, if not wholly erased, at least largely effaced over time. Because its semantic valances are not subject to systematic codification in dictionaries, meter, though palpable, is more subject even than vocabulary to change, shift, and disappearance as trends in use and metrical theory evolve: hence my recourse to Victorian metrists. Thus recontextualized, the poem’s shifting rhythms, meters, and phonetic patterns recombine to interrogate the material status of poetry, its relationship to the physical–the bodily–and to the social and moral, as well as to the possibilities and costs this materiality may afford (150-1).

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[ Jamison spends a little time on /b/, /d/, and /t/ sounds, then gets into the scansion and how it was read by critics at the time: ]

…despite engaging in marked metrical play, “Goblin Market” could not be said to “have” a meter, itself, at all: no system emerges to dominate and unite the whole. Different rhythmic, vocalic, and metrical tones dominate the initial sections devoted to the goblins (the first chant) and then to the “maids” who hear. No sooner are such poetic identities established, however, than they begin to interpenetrate, and the conflict that arises from the ensuing mixing, interacting, and withdrawing provides a near alternative to narration. These identities are far from pure, however; as with the compounds they go on to form, they themselves are formed of amalgams of prior metrical identities, cobbled or gobbled together into recognizable but always multiply sourced forms. “Goblin metrics,” the most strongly marked material identity, itself fuses two potential “alternative” English prosodies–alternative, that is, to the kind of poetic pantheon often traced from Chaucer to Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson.

Accentual prosody characterizes goblin discourse, a set of rhythms and sonorities that begins as seductive and sensual but reveals itself as increasingly violent, satiric, and infectious. . . . While the opening stanza tends strongly toward the dactylic, its strong two-beat structure provides an identifying framework for later, less regular goblin passages. It is well worth noticing that even in this regular portion of the poem, the refrain–structurally geared to establish and maintain a sense of rhythm and regularity–can be scanned multiply (x / | x / ; / x | / x ; / / | / / . . . (155)

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The pulsing dactylic foot–particularly strong in the berry variety passages–also underscores the connection to children’s verse. Often exemplified by the rhyme “Higgledy Piggledy,” the dactyl that dominates the list of goblin wares constitutes a kind of antithesis, in terms of metrical resonance, of the more stately iamb, as Annie Finch has suggested. Period metrical experimentation had led the foot to be employed for more serious aims–as in, for example, Thomas Hood‘s popular “Bridge of Sighs”…(156).

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As much as dactyls and goblins suggest nursery origins, what early critics understood as the poem’s dominant prosody draws on a very different literary heritage. A less obvious resonance for readers today, the short, strongly accented two- and three-beat lines that characterize much of the poem scanned for nineteenth-century metrists like George Saintsbury as Skeltonics.. . . When we look at “Goblin Market,” it is also the only metrical system that might arguably be said to dominate–or at least, given the multiplicity of voices and rhythms, be said to attain a kind of majority. This choice turns out to be at least as charged as that of the nursery rhyme, if less universally recognizable–period writings on meter reveal surprisingly sharp debates on the moral, national, and prosodic identity and merit of the Skeltonic form. . . [she enumerates these] . . . what some saw as a prosodic alternative to Chaucer elsewhere provoked a kind of ireful disdain, making it clear why Rossetti’s apologist Saintsbury would have wished to mitigate the association by specifying her use of the meter as “dedogglerized” [sic] (158-9).

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Jamison concludes that the poem’s metricality is “both material and nonmaterial, palpable and yet ineffable, [as] the bodily language of poetry and its place in the material world represents, for Rossetti, the possibility of having it both–or more–ways” (177). Along the way, you’ll find much more, including several examples of Jamison’s scansion. Suffice to say that the chapter is well worth the trouble of looking up.

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