Blog # 62: A Goblin Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf and Christina Rossetti

White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood,—
Like a rock of blue-vein’d stone
Lash’d by tides obstreperously,—
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire,—
Like a fruit-crown’d orange-tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee,—
Like a royal virgin town
Topp’d with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguer’d by a fleet
Mad to tug her standard down.

“Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti

From her early teens onward, Virginia read, thought and wrote about Christina Rossetti, and Christina Rossetti’s lighthouse casts all kinds of goblin lights on Virginia’s lighthouse. In those lights, the “lily in a flood” image suggests Lily Briscoe resisting Mr Ramsay’s “flood of grief”. The image connects to the passage where Lily tries to resist Mr. Ramsay’s emotional demands:

They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at their feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet. In complete silence she stood there, grasping her paint brush.

The “lily in a flood” image from “Goblin Market” deepens the various pools in To the Lighthouse, the pools of thought, water, light, sympathy, and of Time. To read To the Lighthouse against “Goblin Market” is also to think of how some of the roots of Lily’s strength might lie in Christina’s feminism and in Lizzie’s resistance to the demands of the male goblins. Seeing Christina Rossetti elements in To the Lighthouse may even lead to thoughts of how the “miserable sinner” reference can be taken as a comment on the Catholic streak which Virginia found so bewildering and enraging in Christina.

When, in “I Am Christina Rossetti,” a 1930 essay later revised for the Common Reader 2,”Virginia praises Christina’s complex song, the way “many strings sounded together,” she is commenting on her own creative technique. Making many strings sound together is one of the skills she learned from Christina. The buried, lesbian sexuality, the inversion of patriarchal myths and models, and the lush sensual imagery of “Goblin Market” all provide additional strings for Virginia to play with. She shares Christina’s “keen sense of the visual beauty to the world,” and her writings, too, are full of “gold dust and poppies and ‘sweet geraniums’ varied brightness.” Her writings consciously invoke “the dark wave” of “death and oblivion and rest,” “the sound of scurrying and laughter,” and “the odd guttural notes of rooks and the snufflings of obtuse furry animals” that she found in Christina.

Christina’s lighthouse, just like Marie Carmichael Stopes’ lighthouse, also leads to reading of A Room of One’ Own (1929) as an essayistic amplification of some of the elements in To the Lighthouse. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia openly introduced Christina, along with Tennyson, to represent the Victorian age, and to comment on the way in which the relationship between the sexes had subsequently been profoundly changed. The comments and her use of Christina’s poetry in the essay help explain the origins of Lily’s attitude towards Mr. Ramsay, help explain Lily’s determination to resist the seduction of marriage and of traditional female roles.

More subtly the Rossetti passage in A Room of One’s Own also suggests Rossetti origins for the “Beauf en Daube” passage of To the Lighthouse. The Rossetti Tennyson connects the two meal descriptions in A Room, along with Virginia’s comment on the failure of novelists to do justice to meals, and once Christina is associated with meals in this way, it becomes very difficult to read the rich sensual imagery of the “Beauf en Daube” passage in To the Lighthouse without thinking about the rich sensual fruit and food images in “Goblin Market.”

One further thought. The fairy tale element of “Goblin Market” connects to the “Tale of the Fisherman and his Wife.” Juxtaposing tale and poem can generate new insights. For instance, “Goblin Market” in part can be read as a warning against commercialism, marketing and greed. While Virginia has removed much of that theme from her novel, it is still present in the “Tale of the Fisherman and his Wife,” and in the Army and Navy catalogue from which James cuts out pictures.

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