Illustrations in Rossetti’s Goblin Market

A battle ferments in the Library stacks, as the legacy of John Ruskin combats the power of fruit-foisting goblins imagined by British poet Christina Rossetti and illustrated by her artistic, pre-Raphaelite brother, Dante Gabriel.  

…Morns that pass by, 
Fair eves that fly; 
Come buy, come buy: 
Our grapes fresh from the vine, 
Pomegranates full and fine, 
Dates and sharp bullaces, 
Rare pears and greengages, 
Damsons and bilberries, 
Taste them and try: 
Currants and gooseberries, 
Bright-fire-like barberries, 
Figs to fill your mouth, 
Citrons from the South, 
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye; 
Come buy, come buy…”

Ruskin decried ‘irregular measures’ in Christina’s Goblin Market (HNT 130573), published in 1862, as a ‘calamity of modern poetry,”  perhaps referencing the few verses below (which preface the passage above):

Apples and quinces, 
Lemons and oranges, 
Plump unpeck’d cherries, 
Melons and raspberries, 
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches, 
Swart-headed mulberries, 
Wild free-born cranberries, 
Crab-apples, dewberries, 
Pine-apples, blackberries, 
Apricots, strawberries;— 
All ripe together 
In summer weather,

I find the sequence delightful, having aged well over the decades. Perhaps Ruskin’s critique was over-ripe, it’s a spritely section. Honestly though, he might have directed some scorn to the story itself.

It was not unusual at all in the 19th century (and previous epochs) for someone to compose a poem or spin a tale that engages imagery of fruit; fecund associations abound in older literature and art works that lean on fruit as desirable, beautiful, and universally celebrated symbols. You’d almost imagine the possibilities totally plundered, and yet Rossetti created a fresh tale in the market segment of allusions in the realm of forbidden fruit and poison apples  What is it about fruit that generated centuries of rhyme and rumination?  Why was fruit so prevalent in our consciousness, and why has that imagery gone away?

Carved detail of pineapple, orange, grape, and acorn – selected as symbols for Mr. Huntington’s tomb, in the Huntington Mausoleum.

By gone, I mean out of currency. Flowers and trees persist as powerful symbols, but I sense fruit has lost some of its impact on our imaginations, one of many cultural calamities of the modern world. 

My thesis is not simply an observation that fruit imagery has waned, but also an explanation. We no longer value fruit because we are spoiled through abundance masquerading as richness. Fruit is industrially-produced, readily available, and amazingly inexpensive (in the US, at least). But abundant, low cost fruit is not comparable to what you might taste in other, differently-privileged circumstances.

A carefully-cultivated, perfectly selected and prized gift melon in Japan

Having grown up in a family shaped by the Depression, I knew the importance of vegetable gardening, of being assured you could feed yourself. I grew up on fruit and vegetables harvested daily. Still, it seemed unremarkable; I only came to appreciate the multi-dimensional authority of fruit in 2012. 

The original home site overlooking Boyce Thompson Arboretum (Arizona State Park properties).
View from the Boyce Thompson home site, Arizona

A Huntington study team visited Arizona’s public gardens in May of that year, investigating the character of rockeries and topography that could work into the landscape surround for a new Desert Garden Conservatory.  Walking up the remarkable Boyce Thompson Arboretum canyon in Superior, we quickly made our way to a dilapidated house the state of Arizona had recently acquired, in reality the main house with the commanding view, originally part of the arboretum site.  Now, on a hot spring day, our group realized we had ventured farther from the visitors’ center than planned, without packing water.  Though far from perishing, we were hot and thirsty. 

Latter-day additions to the eventually-abandoned Boyce Thompson home site

Remnant landscape around the house included a parched but still productive orange tree.  Our host picked and peeled a couple of fruit, which we all shared.  At that moment, perhaps for the first time in my life, I understood how precious simple fruit must have been for millennia of human civilization.  The shared gift of that sweet, succulent, and ultimately-fresh orange was a revelatory culinary experience.  

Lacking industrial refrigeration, packing and bottling plants, facile shipping for produce, and ready access to sugar, human cultures must have treasured sparse and seasonal fruit beyond our experience, luscious moments of rare luxury.  What pleasure it would have been to walk from a dark, dusty, and hot dwelling into a garden oasis, pluck, and eat a ripe plum or other refreshing morsels. 

Images of grape harvest from Nakht tomb, Thebes (scanned from Hagen, 2002)

Archaeological finds from Egypt to Central and South America document the life and pleasure-giving importance of fruit.  Asian and European literature and art reflect the glorious bounty.  Even lacking material symbols, the legacies from ancient civilizations persist as selected forms that remain the basis for agricultural lineages of row crops like tomatoes, pumpkins, corn, wheat, rice, and beans, as well as orchard, vineyard, and grove pickings like apples, oranges, olives, grapes, and dates.

Exploring literature and art from the past brings new opportunity to appreciate the importance of fruit that contemporary life blinds us to take for granted.  Records of past appreciation remind us what many gardeners and gourmands still recognize – fresh and seasonal fruit unsuited to mass production and long-distance shipping hold delights to savor, products of natural and human selection reaching back generations in human experience, somehow touching primal cravings.

As botanical treasure, we should give a moment to the biology. Fruit are final stages in life cycles, from seed to flower with its production of seed anew. Through that cycle, the terminologies they are a-changing as buds progress to flowers which yield to fruit, specifically to the fully-developed pistil now ripe and ready for dispersal. 

People who study fruit structure call themselves carpologists because we interpret each segment of a fruit as a special leaf called a carpel (follow this link to Carpology).  Some fruit, peas and beans, develop from simple pistils, each a single carpel.  Many common fruit, like oranges and tomatoes, are segmented, therefore multi-carpellate.  

Opening a single pea pod (a legume) helps students appreciate the reason botanists think of a carpel as a fertile leaf.
Oranges, mature and still developing, are perfect examples of multi-carpellate fruit that form as a single pistil in the flower (see photo below).
Close-up photo of an orange blossom, showing the entire pistil – with its green, basal ovary that will develop into the orange, stalk-like style, and club-shaped stigma (where pollen must land.

Matters get more complex when you consider there are over 300,000 naturally-occurring kinds of flowering plants, each making fruit in its own way.  Flowers of some kinds of plants produce one pistil made of one carpel – the peas and beans just mentioned.  A single flower of other kinds of plants (roses, strawberries, magnolias) will make more than one pistil, each representing a single carpel.  In this case, as single flower can produce more than one fruit. Then we come to oranges, tomatoes, and so very many other kinds of plants that produce segmented fruit, each one the single pistil in the flower, but revealed (through dissection) as made of more than one carpel.  

To get this sorted out in your mind, take a moment to cut up and examine fruit as you prepare meals.  Doing this makes everyday flowers and fruit more intelligible, and helps you figure out the ways of plants.  By their fruit, ye shall know them.

A Children’s Garden bench by sculptor Peter Wuytuk, featuring ravens and an apple – one fruit that hasn’t lost its currency.

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