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Rossetti was interested in figures locked in e...

Rossetti was interested in figures locked in embrace; cf. the embracing figures at the bottom of the Mystical Nativity (Photo credit: Wikipedia) The figures in the little cloud at the top left are the goblins, and Lizzie and Laura are sleeping in bed.

I thought after that reblog connecting fairy tales to slave narratives, I’d like to take a look at some other stories- those that were once children’s literature and are no longer, and those that are and were never meant to be. Or those that could be both.

First of all, a quick thing on poetry. Yeah, yeah, Poetry’s not my favourite thing either- but knowing rhythm really helps. Basically, a little crash course in scansion could help. “When in doubt, Clap it out!” is my motto when dealing with scansion.

if MU/sic BE/ the FOOD /of LOVE/ play ON

Unstressed stressed-iambic, good old Shakespeare- Twelfth Night first line of the first scene. Clap it out, and it sounds like a song! It’s a pattern, a rhythm- it’s a meter! It’s *gasp!* SCANSION?  Basic understanding (I highly encourage you to look here) would work well for you if reading this post; since I’m going to be talking about poetry and the sound and sense.

“Cinderella and the prince/ lived, they say, happily ever after,/like two dolls in a museum case/ never bothered by diapers or dust/ never arguing over the timing of an egg/ never telling the same story twice/ never getting a middle aged spread/ their darling smiles pasted on for eternity/ Regular Bobbsey Twins/ That Story.” This quote is taken from Cinderella– not the story by the Grimm Brothers, or the usual fairy tale versions of the story. This is from a collection of poems by Anne Sexton. This collection takes several fairy tales and reworks them through poetry. It sounds quite nice:

CINder|elLA |and the| PRINCE
LIVED, they| SAY, HAPP|ily| EVer AFTer,
like TWO |DOLLS in |a MU|SEum |CASE
NEver |BOTHered| BY dia|PERS or |DUST,
NEver |ARgu|ing OV|er the |TIMing |of an |EGG,
NEver |TELLing |the SAME| STORy| TWICE,
NEver |GETTing |a mid|dle-aged |spread,
their DARL|ing SMILES |PASTed| ON for| eTERN|ITy.
Regu|lar BOBB|sey Twins.

Wrong. They’re not happy. The smiles are “pasted on”. I think she’s unable to have a baby. “Never bothered by diapers or dust/ Never arguing over the timing of an egg/ Never telling the same story twice.” The poem is written in trochaic meter-it’s fun, and sounds childish.

Or how about this excerpt from Briar Rose also by Sexton, if you are unsure of where to place the poems she writes in the domain of children’s literature or adult.

IN due| TIME
a HUN|dred years |PASSED
The BRI|ars PART|ed as| IF for |MOses
and the| PRINCE FOUND| the ta|BLEAU in|TACT.
and SHE |woke UP |CRYing:
DADdy!| DADdy!
Presto!| SHE’S out| of PRI|son!
She MARR|ied the |PRINCE
and ALL |went WELL
exCEPT| for the |FEAR –
the FEAR| of SLEEP.

Innocent enough- the prince comes and awakens Briar Rose. She’s out of prison- out of her castle and the sleep that she was cursed with. However, read the next part I’ve written out: it tells a different story- Wait- why does she call for Daddy? Is it an innocent girl wanting her father after being woken up by a stranger and being scared? Maybe wants something familiar? Let’s look further.

That MUCH|I am |TOLD.
I WAS |aBAN|doned.
That MUCH| i KNOW.
I WAS |forced BACK|ward.
I WAS| forced FOR|ward.
I WAS |passed HAND |to HAND
like a |BOWL of |FRUIT.
and for|GET WHO |i AM.
That’s a|NOTHer| KIND of |PRIson.
It’s NOT |the PRINCE |at ALL,
BUT my |FAther
DRUNKen|ingly| BENDS OV|er my |BED,
CIRCLing| the a|BYSS like| a SHARK,
my FA|ther THICK |uPON| me
like SOME |SLEEPing |jelly|FISH.
What VOY|age is |THIS, LIT|tle GIRL?
this COM|ing OUT |of PRI|son?
this LIFE| AFTer |DEATH?

Prison now refers not to the castle of Briar Rose and the curse put upon her by the fairy, but it refers to night time. Instead of a princess being trapped into a spell where she has to sleep for a hundred years, it is a girl experiencing her father being in her bed. The rhythm of the poem- as a light, rhythmic almost sing-songy poem has not changed, but the words have. The sound and the sense do not match up. The sound is innocent, the sense is not. This fairy-tale is shattered by the clarification that there is something awful going on. Innocent stories can have horrible things in them- It simultaneously shows innocence and experience.

William Blake's frontispiece for Songs of Inno...

William Blake’s frontispiece for Songs of Innocence and of Experience (Photo credit: Wikipedia) The title says it is “Showing the two contrary states of the human soul. They coexist together. It shouldn’t be separated- It can’t be separated- you need to have them both to gain an understanding of what “innocence” or “experience” mean.

William Blake has two versions of the same poem. The Chimney Sweeper- songs of innocence is focalized through the eyes of a child. The poem largely consists of these stanzas:

And SO he| was QUIet; |and THAT VE|ry NIGHT,
As TOM was| a-SLEEPing, |he HAD such |a SIGHT, –
That THOUSands |of SWEEPers, |Dick, JOE, Ned, |and JACK,
Were ALL of |them LOCKED up |in COFfins| of BLACK.

And BY came |an ANgel |who HAD a |bright KEY,
And he O|pened the COF|fins and SET| them all FREE;
Then DOWN a |green plain LEAP|ing, LAUGHing, |they RUN,
And WASH in |a RIver, |and SHINE in |the SUN.

Then NAked |and WHITE, all |their bags LEFT |beHIND,
They RISE u|PON clouds and| SPORT in the| WIND;
And the AN|gel told TOM,| if he’d BE| a good BOY,
He’d have GOD| for his FA|ther, and NE|ver want JOY.

This is written in anapestic meter. 1-1-2, 1-1-2,1-1-2, 1-2. Very much like an engine of a train. The subject matter is rather serious: it speaks of death, but in a way which is very idyllic. The imagery produced is heavily influenced by the voice of the poem: it does not speak of dying; it almost seems like a joyful event: The coffins set them free- death was an escape from a hard life. There is both innocence and experience in the poem.

In his Songs of Experience poem it is told from the perspective of an adult watching the chimney sweeper. He merely wonders about the boy’s future and his life and questions him- he can’t make judgements about his life because the narrator does not live the life the chimney sweeper does- the child does answer him though:

“BeCAUSE I |was HAppy |uPON the |HEATH,
And TAUGHT me| to SING the| NOTES of WOE.

The lines alternate between anapestic and trochaic meter. The change is also a change of tone, it changes from happy to bleak as the narrator explains that “They clothed /me in /the clothes/ of death/And taught me/ to sing the/ notes of woe.” Rather than making sure that the child was clothed- he was clothed in death. and singing which is meant to be seen as innocent- is no longer so because it is sad. The child grew up too fast. Both the poems protest the conditions of the child labour. They show how work causes not an income for the family which they need- but the harsh struggles of working conditions for children in the Victorian Era. These were not simply “songs” or they were- but they were songs of protest. 

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti is also a poem with a great rhythm to it. The illustration at the top of the post is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and Christina Rossetti’s brother.

and WHIS|per’d LIKE| the REST|less BROOK:
“Look, LIZ|zie, look, |LIZzie,
DOWN the |GLEN tramp| LITtle |MEN.
One HAULS| a BAS|ket,
One LUGS |a GOL|den DISH
How FAIR| the VINE |must GROW
Whose GRAPES |are so |LUSCIOUS;
How WARM|the WIND |must BLOW

The rhythm changes from trochaic to iambic when the goblins are around- and it switches to trochaic when speaking of the girls. That usually means there is a change in either mood or tone. The goblins are obviously threatening why else would Christina Rossetti include this in the first stanza of the poem?:

“LIE CLOSE,”| LAUra |said,
PRICKing |UP her |GOLDen |HEAD:
“we MUST| not LOOK |at GOB|lin MEN,
we MUST| not BUY |their FRUITS:
who KNOWS |uPON |what SOIL |they FED
their HUN|gry THIRS|ty ROOTS?”

Maybe this is the reason why “In the Victorian period a poem… like Goblin Market would have been marketed as a cross-audience poem. It’s one of the works which is said to defy criticism. Is it a fable or a mere fairy story? Or an allegory against the pleasures of sinful love…? So the fact is that they didn’t know it was a sexual poem, and some critics have said it’s not true. Of course they knew it was a sexual poem…. So the idea was that children just [repress] that… That attitude has influenced how Goblin Market has been marketed and read, which is; by the time you get to the twentieth century it’s no longer a poem…for an adult audience. It’s a poem for a child… When criticism starts to change it’s then co-opted as a highly sexual poem.” (Humphreys, lecture) There was a belief that just taken at face value it was a poem for children. Nobody could see how to critically analyze it- there are symbols there however- the fruit have an allusion to sexuality. Even the goblins themselves- why can they not be looked at? And they’re not humans- they are goblins. They are not drawn as people, but monsters. It reminded me of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

I just had to say that the little cloud and what was inside it reminded me so much of this picture in Where the Wild Things are by Maurice Sendak.

Originally, Christina Rossetti wrote Goblin Market for “a large group of illiterate women who were put in Highgate Penitentiary.” (Humphreys, lecture) How did a poem for women turn into one for children?  “It’s marketed at illiterate girls who… turned to prostitution… And there wasn’t a lot of options for women in the 1860’s… Particularly illiterate women. So the idea was to entice these women to learn to read, to become more like middle-class women who could then become marriage material.” (Humphreys, lecture) Illiteracy was something that affected lower-class people in the Victorian period. They didn’t have mandatory schooling, and children usually had to work to help support their families. “Because this audience was largely illiterate the poem had to be repetitive and so the fairy tale themes would appeal. Because the nursery rhymes were very popular but also it was meant to be read to people who can’t read. It encourages rhythm. This is a teaching tool- this is a parable.” (Humphreys, lecture) The population was largely illiterate, both children and adults; so the poem could benefit everybody learning to read.

Symbolism may be present with the way that Lizzie “sucks their fruit til they were dry” but the way that the poem is read makes it easier to dismiss the words. Because of the contradictions of the sound and the sense, people usually need to choose one over the other: and reading it out loud, the sound usually takes over.

Here’s another one of Sexton’s poems; absolutely amazing: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I found it on youtube, so instead of showing you the sound, I’m going to let you hear it for yourselves.

I actually wrote an essay on it two years ago, so if it’s not pretentious, I’m going to share some of it here! In my essay, I wrote about scansion and I also wrote that “The poem is written in a very innocent way, and at first glance it sounds like a simple retelling of the classic Grimm brothers’ Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. However, in between the lines, it is clear that this poem is not for children. From the first line, when it is claimed that “the virgin is a lovely number,” Sexton suggests that it is merely an act, and that Snow White closes her eyes, “O/pen and /shut,|| open /to say /Good day Mama/ and shut/ for the /thrust of/ the uni/corn.” By these lines, Sexton mocks the typical heroine, as they feel that if they do not see something happening, or pretend that they do not see something happening, the heroine can claim that they had no awareness of it.

One common repeated line in the poem is “And she /woke up /mira/culous/ly” This is written in trochaic meter, it depends on rhythm and is very memorable. In this poem the word “miraculous” has a sarcastic tone to it, showing that Snow White was forced into the role of a helpless virgin, and had no choice in the matter as to whether she woke or not. One interpretation I have is that Snow White did not want to wake up. “The dwarfs, those little hot dogs walked three times around Snow White, the sleeping virgin. They were wise and wattled like small czars. Yes. It’s a good omen, they said, and will bring us luck. They stood on tiptoes to watch Snow White wake up.”  The word “good” is unstressed, as the dwarfs, referred to as “little hot dogs” have an entirely different meaning of good because of the way the sound and sense of the poem are not connected. The dwarfs are shown not as friends of Snow White, but as dominating figures, who only want someone to “stay and keep house.”  Read as a fairy tale, this would be just seen as the typical trade-off, Snow White is offered protection, but she has to offer to help around the house, but the context of the poem is that she is trapped.” (Power, Previous essay) (Seriously, I had no idea I’d be doing something like this two years from now and thinking about it even more- but I did.)

These authors use conventions both from adult genres of literature and children’s literature. The content can be both incredibly mature and childish at the same time. If books can do that- can’t people be that fluid too?

Next: Well, that escalated quickly-Prose- I talk about Louisa May Alcott, Robinson Crusoe, and the Wizard of Oz and the guy who completely adulti-fied the story.



IMAGES: (In order of appearance)

  1. http://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rossetti-golden_head.jpg
  2. http://www.blogcdn.com/blog.moviefone.com/media/2009/08/where-the-wild-things-are1.jpg


  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Anne Sexton| Prod. AntiqueThings Youtube.April 16 2011, Web. July 2, 2013 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7LkuGOi63I


  1. Blake, William. “Songs of Innocence- The Chimney Sweeper.” Online Literature. The Literature Network, n.d. Web. 04 July 2013.
  2. Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper” Online Literature. The Literature Network, n.d. Web. 04 July 2013.
  3. Conrey, Sean M. “Ear Training: Sound & Meter.” Purdue OWL: Pattern and Variation: Aural. OWL Purdue, 25 Apr. 2010. Web. 02 July 2013. <http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/570/01/.
  4. Marlovian. “The Bedlam of the Witch Queen.” Web log post. The Old Marlovian. WordPress, 11 May 2013. Web. 9 July 2013.
  5. Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” By Christina Rossetti : The Poetry Foundation. The Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 02 July. 2013.<http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174262/.
  6. Sexton, Anne. “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty).” PoemHunter.com. N.p., 27 June 2006. Web. 2 July 2013. <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/briar-rose-sleeping-beauty/.
  7. Sexton, Anne. “Cinderella.” PoemHunter.com. N.p., 11 July 2006. Web. 2 July 2013. <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/cinderella-10/.


  1. Humphreys, Sara. Class Lecture. Gender and Sexuality. Trent University. Oshawa. Ontario. January 31, 2013. “Girls, goblins, and markets.”
  2. Power, Jennifer. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” Unpublished essay. December 2, 2011.