[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Kooistra suggests that the adult aspects of Rossetti's "Goblin Market" enhance its value as children's literature, commenting that the poem's "richness depends upon the tension between its simple language, nursery-rhyme meters, and fairy-tale form, as well as its serious commentary on sexual politics and sacrificial, sisterly love."]
Writing about the Alice books, W. H. Auden articulated a commonly held critical position: "There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children" (Auden 11). This point of view is implicit in our categorization of many "classics" that are cross-audienced either because, like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels, they began as adult books and were later adapted for children; or because, like Alice and The Rose and the Ring (and indeed like many Victorian fantasies), they began as children's books but are now read almost exclusively by adults. The idea seems to be that "classics" are those works that are not only simple enough, adventurous enough, and fantastic enough to appeal to children, but also have an underlying depth of meaning that is satisfying to a mature sensibility. Although cross-audience prose classics may originate in either the adult or the juvenile literary system, this is much less true for poetry. Most anthologies of children's poetry are in fact composed of poems written for adults but later thought suitable for children--such as Scott's "Proud Maisie," Arnold's "The Forsaken Merman," and Yeats's "The Song of Wandering Aengus."1
Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market is one such poem for grown-ups that has been appropriated for a juvenile audience in anthologies, school texts, plays, and picture books. It has also been commandeered for "adults only" in magazines and books, as well as on the stage. For this reason, Goblin Market is not only a cross-audienced poem; it also dramatically enacts the truism that good children's literature has no age restrictions, whereas some adult literature is accessible only to mature readers. In the course of Goblin Market's long history of production, the children's fairy tale has remained open to dual readerships, but the textual boundaries of the erotic adult fantasy have been actively policed. Thus a typical blurb on a juvenile picture book claims that "Christina Rossetti's narrative poem can be read with pleasure by youngsters and adults alike" (Goblin Market, 1981). On the other hand, the poster advertising a recent Battersea Arts Center production of Goblin Market describes the work as "an erotic, adult fairytale" and warns: "This performance contains nudity and is unsuitable for children"2.
As both a children's fairy tale and an adult erotic fantasy, Goblin Market has managed to invoke particularly polarized audiences. Yet there are perhaps more similarities between juvenile literature and sexual fantasy than there might at first appear. Both rely on contextual constraints--modes of production and distribution as well as nonverbal visual signs--to construct their implied audiences. And each takes its definition from implicit...