“Goblin Market” is a difficult poem to read, but it is an even more difficult poem to scan. As such, a database [follow link for database] that attempts to undertake this enormous project must naturally be complicated enough to match the complexity of the poem itself. The raw numbers are useful, but staring at the spreadsheet doesn’t exactly make clear what they tell us. A word about the technical aspects of the database is necessary.

My primary goal in scanning “Goblin Market” was to dispel the notion that the meter of the poem is written in irregular meter. The meter is certainly not regular, but I don’t believe that it’s irregular. Although it is tempting to read the poem side by side with a poem like John Skelton’s “The Tunning of Elinor Rumming,” the fact is that the two have much less in common than it initially appears in terms of meter and rhyme. The lines in “Goblin Market” are not “skeltonic,” if our definition of the term follows the Encyclopedia Britannica’s: “short verses of irregular metre.”1 Aside from the fact that most of the lines in the poem are not short (53% of the poem is in either pentameter or tetrameter), they are also not crafted haphazardly. It is my contention that “Goblin Market” is just in line with the Victorians’ devotion to form as anything by Tennyson or Swinburne. Seeing that is difficult at first, and the aim of my project is to make it easier.

Though Rossetti’s poem is often thought to be metrically random, the majority of the poem falls into what I have termed “clusters.” Clusters are collections of recurring metrical patterns: Cluster 1 includes all of the lines in the poem that are in pure iambic dimeter, Cluster 2 contains all of the lines that are in pure iambic pentameter, later clusters are defined by specific metrical substitutions and other variants, etc. This allows us to see the poem for what it truly is: a poem that uses the three of the most common metrical forms (iambic tetrameter, iambic pentameter, and iambic trimeter) in 77% of its lines.

The trouble with scanning “Goblin Market” is that these metrical forms (in addition to the other five that are employed: iambic dimeter, trochaic dimeter, trochaic trimeter, trochaic tetrameter, and one line of spondaic dimeter) are scattered throughout the poem. Even more problematic, there are what seem to be an endless variety of variations, many of them tremendously challenging for the hopeful prosodist. But, of course, that variety is not endless. In fact, there are only 39 different types of lines in “Goblin Market,” and 82% of them fall into some variation of one of the four most common metrical forms (iambic pentameter, iambic tetrameter, iambic trimeter, and trochaic tetrameter). This, then, is the point of the cluster-system that I have devised. By identifying how often each variation occurs, we can begin to unravel the complex metrics of “Goblin Market,” to see them as carefully and meaningfully employed.

Roughly half of the poem falls within one of four clusters. There are only 20 lines in the 567-line poem that have no exact metrical companions; quite a small number for a poem that is supposed to be as wildly irregular as Rossetti’s. This cannot be anything but an act of conscious repetition on Rossetti’s part. These clusters are not scattered throughout the poem at random either; most lines find a cluster-mate only a few a lines away, if not directly above or below them. Aside from providing clear evidence that Rossetti was fully aware of the metrics of her poem, which is ultimately the goal of my work, these clusters also allow us to collect other interesting data regarding the poem’s construction, which otherwise appears impenetrable.

The database that I have created marks the variations in the poem, meticulously noting the substitutions, catalexes, hypersyllables, and elisions of every line. The most important findings of my research involve the unforeseen regularity of the poem. As I have said, the poem’s standard meter is iambic tetrameter, and, though “Goblin Market” deviates from this meter much more frequently than is normal (particularly for the period), it always comes back to it. The poem’s conclusion, the “moral” of the work and a seeming return to stability and social normality for the sisters, is an eighteen-line interchange of iambic tetrameter and trimeter, the poem’s two most popular (and perhaps most regular) forms.

I will not, however, allow myself to venture into “critical” analysis just yet. To remark the poem is more metrically regular than it appears will have to suffice for now. My work will, I am confident, allow many capable scholars of Rossetti to approach “Goblin Market” in a significantly novel way, and I eagerly await a series of fresh readings of this poem that take into account this data. For now, my findings merely confirm in a more concrete what has always been known: that “Goblin Market” is one of the truly unique works in the history of English verse, a poem that is, at least in this regard, unlike any other in the language.

Last modified 27 June 2014