Michael Longley: Lost For Words

As our Northern Irish readers will know, stoically eating ice cream in the drizzle is something of a local tradition. If drizzle is not available, then usually a heavy downpour means that ice cream can be consumed in the car. I am privileged that my parents now live within 10 minutes’ drive of a fabled ice cream shop – The Cabin in Donaghadee. It’s a wonderful place to go for a poke (Norn Irish for an ice cream cone) and you should visit it if you’re in the area.

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Whilst being true to my roots by eating ice cream in a car at North Tyneside, England, the convergence of thoughts led me to think of Michael Longley’s great elegy, ‘The Ice Cream Man’, published in 1992 and set in Belfast. I recommend that you look this poem up online to experience the beauty and simplicity which is the hallmark of Longley’s poetry.

Perhaps it would be better not to call this poem a great elegy, but rather a great apology for an elegy. Longley begins by offering the reader a list of ice cream flavours which, as Naomi Marklew has pointed out, are inspired by traditional Christmas ingredients. This compounds the feeling that – as Marklew tells us – we are reading of an ‘idealised past’. We are reminded of childhood flavours and idyllic Christmas mornings unwrapping presents by an open fire.  

The poem has other connotations too. Surely the title alludes to Wallace Stevens’ better known elegy: ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’. The repetition of the title phrase in Stevens’s masterpiece conveys an overriding sense that nothing is stable or certain: everything melts like ice cream on a hot day. The echo of Stevens at the beginning of Longley’s ‘Ice Cream Man’ should prepare the reader (although in my case, it does not) for the contrast between the gentle lilt of Longley’s list of flavours and the stark statement that the ice cream seller has been murdered during the Northern Irish Troubles. In response to this, the speaker cannot find the words either to communicate the information about the event, nor to assuage the grief of those who lost a friend and family member. In place of an elegy, then, the speaker gives his readers a list of healing herbs and plants which echo in the silence of the uncompromising white space surrounding the poem.

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The debate surrounding this poem is whether or not the list of plants is sufficient to signal the regeneration and hope which is a traditional ingredient of the conclusion of an elegy. Is Longley admitting the failure of words to provide comfort? Or does he remake the elegiac genre to fit the demands of a new conflict and communicate hope in new beginnings? I would like to think the latter. 

There is no recipe today because I haven’t been successful in remaking an ice cream cone at home! I don’t think anything would taste the same as an ice cream bought from  a van.

References

Naomi Marklew, Northern Irish Elegy, PhD Thesis (University of Durham, 2011), p. 71.

Michael Longley, Gorse Fires (Cape, 1992).

 

Endlessly Surprising: Spanish Omelette in Louis MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal” (1939)

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To read the poetry of Louis MacNeice is an endlessly rewarding activity. It can be intricately beautiful and philosophically insightful, but politically and culturally astute at the same time. Every time I come to write about MacNeice (which I have done often over the previous eight years), I am surprised again at the deft placement of a word, the freshness of an image, or his mastery over poetic form. (I make no apologies for being traditional in my poetic taste! I am yet to be entirely persuaded that free verse is a good idea!)

Born in Belfast in 1907, educated at Oxford, and later employed by the BBC, MacNeice has often been dismissed as one of the lesser poets of the nineteen thirties. W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot always seemed to stand in his way. In the nineteen seventies (Northern) Irish poets and literary critics began to salvage his reputation, drawn by MacNeice’s conflicted attitude towards his own Protestant Irish/English-educated identity. Since then, MacNeice’s fame has increased, so that Jonathan Allison can justly write that he is ‘increasingly recognised as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century’.

In the autumn of last year, I mentioned MacNeice in Nico and my Literary History of Chocolate. I wrote about the poet’s dislike for the industrialisation of chocolate production – factory produced chocolate becoming a symbol for the reduction of the variety of human existence to a series of identical experiences. In ‘Ode’ MacNeice preferred the continual movement and unpredictability of the open sea to the neat rows of factory chimneys. The most famous poem in MacNeice’s oeuvre is a celebration of the exact opposite: in ‘Snow’ he writes that the world is ‘crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural’. The speaker delights in the surprising, energising richness of the sign of oranges and roses juxtaposed against a snowy day.

This complementary clash of opposites got me thinking about how variousness of experience – culinary and otherwise – is found most clearly in MacNeice’s travel writing. As many people have pointed out, MacNeice struggled to stay at home. Paris, Iceland, England, the USA, Scotland, Spain, Ireland north and south… In the late nineteen thirties MacNeice was one of the many left-wing Brits who travelled to Spain to fight, report on, or write about the Spanish Civil War. It was certainly the fashionable thing to do: as historian Paul Laity comments, left-wing books and ideas then had a ‘radical chic’. Socialist fever gripped many in the UK, who were terrified of the rising strength of Fascist powers in Spain, Japan, and Germany.

In the midst of all this, MacNeice famously remained rather politically uncommitted. He was vaguely ‘of the left’, but travelled to Spain to observe rather than actively help in the fight against Franco (as did Orwell and many others).

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All this seems to be getting rather far from the general theme of this blog. I promise I am coming to the point, albeit by a circuitous route! MacNeice recorded his experiences in Spain in his masterpiece – a long journalistic poem entitled Autumn Journal – and in his unfinished autobiography – The Strings are False. In the former, MacNeice indulges in many lists of compatible, contrasting, startling, heterogeneous things. At times it seems as if listing is the only way to capture the endless variety and surprise of life in words. One of these lists comes at the beginning of section VI of the poem and describes the food MacNeice ate in Spain on the eve of the civil war. There are plentiful supplies of coffee, sherry, shellfish, and omelette. However, this list contrasts starkly with the lack of food during the war itself.

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I find MacNeice’s descriptions of the conditions in which civilians found themselves more emotive than the propaganda images and texts of the time. This is partly because MacNeice was not writing to persuade others to weigh in to help; he was writing an honest, perceptive, and personal record. So if you choose to make the recipe for Spanish omelette below, remember the other side of the story that MacNeice tells too.

Spanish Omelette
Ingredients
400g potatoes
1 onion
6 eggs
A handful of parsley
Salt and pepper
Directions
1.      Peel the potatoes and slice thinly. Dice the onion.
2.      Fry the potatoes and onion for about 10 minutes, or until soft.
3.      Beat the eggs in a bowl and season with salt, pepper and parsley.
4.      Add to the pan and cook over a medium heat until the top of the omelette is no longer really runny.
5.      If you are brave, flip the omelette. Or, you could prepare another frying pan and turn the omelette over into it. Cook for a few minutes. Personally, I take the easy route and grill it for a few minutes until golden brown.

 

Jonathan Allison, abstract for The Letters of Louis MacNeice, http://www.academia.edu/232531/Letters_of_Louis_MacNeice

Paul Laity, ‘Introduction’, in Left Book Club Anthology, ed. by Paul Laity (London: Gollancz, 2001) pp. ix-xxxi, (p. ix).

 

The Flavour of Scotland: Haggis, neeps & tatties, and Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ (1786)

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Edinburgh Castle

It is Monday, 25 January, and the weather is not the greatest in Edinburgh, Scotland: it is all one grey air, the colour of the houses running out to the sky, and becoming one with it. And yet, one can feel a vague excitement around town. Today, in Scotland (in fact, all around the U.K.) people are celebrating the 257th anniversary of a rather special poet—Robert Burns, the national Scottish bard. In a few hours’ time, these will be congregating around a wine- and whisky-infused meal of haggis, neeps & tatties (the latter Scottish terms for swede and potatoes), traditionally introduced by a music of bagpipes, and potentially followed by a cranachan (a Scottish pudding made of oats, raspberries, honey, whiskey and cream—there are some variants to this). According to the legend (or better the official Scotland website), the tradition of Burns Night (or Burns Supper) originated in 1801 when some of Burns’ acquaintances and appraisers of his poetry met to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his death, and decided to meet again to celebrate his birthday on 25 January. Suddenly, more and more started organizing Burns’ Suppers over the years (even Sir Walter Scott organized one in 1815), and Burns Night became a real social and cultural phenomenon, spreading well beyond the Scottish border.

So why do we eat precisely haggis to celebrate Burns Night? It is correct to suppose that in order to celebrate one’s birthday it is only fair that one should pick that person’s favourite dish, and we have reason to believe that Burns might have been partial to haggis—for its taste, but also because of its political, nationalistic connotations. In 1786, Burns wrote a poem, ‘Address to a Haggis’, in Scots, celebrating it as the ‘great chieftain of the sausage race!’. Haggis is (our vegetarian and vegan friends should stop reading here) a sort of sausage made with oatmeal, sheep’s lungs, liver, and heart, spices and beef fat, and is generally associated with Scotland, although variants of it were said to be found in Greece, France, and England. To celebrate the anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth at the Literary Kitchen, not only have we prepared haggis, but we have also interviewed Dr Vivien Williams, from Glasgow University, where she works for the project ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’ to produce a multi-volume edition of the Works of Robert Burns, on the significance of “haggis” for Burns.

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Left to right: neeps, haggis, tatties

  1. Why does Burns decide to write a poem on haggis? What is the significance of haggis to him?

Haggis can be found easily and cheaply in pretty much all Scottish supermarkets and butchers’ shops today, but it was considered to be a luxury food in Robert Burns’ time. One wouldn’t have it every day: it was a dish for celebrations, and special events. It was very much a Scottish dish, but not everyone could afford it. It is therefore entirely possible that we should interpret Burns’ poem not so much as an ‘ode’ to this speciality of Scottish cuisine, but as an ironic take on those who would revere it!

 

  1. Why does Burns mention other cuisines in ‘Address to a Haggis’?

Robert Burns does sometimes use a critical contrast between Scottish and foreign traditions as a literary topos in his poems and songs. One occasion is that of the song ‘A Fiddler in the North’, also known as ‘Amang the Trees’. In this work Burns contrasts at the “foreign squeels”, “capon craws an’ queer ‘ha ha’s’” of Italian castrati, so popular on British stages at the time, with the true, authentic sounds of ‘Caledon’ who played ‘pibroch, sang, strathspey, or reels’. The same thing happens in Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’. The “French ragout”, “olio”, and “fricassee” in his poem symbolise refined food – and yet none who eat them would ever look down on haggis “wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view”.

 

  1. Can you tell us a little bit about the connection between haggis and the bagpipe for Burns/in Scotland?

As emerges from the two poems mentioned above, Robert Burns himself attributed national value to bagpipes and haggis alike – respectively the sound, and the flavour of Scotland.

Today Burns Suppers aren’t Burns Suppers without haggis and a bagpipe. And of course the ‘presence’ of Robert Burns! which is conveyed through the ‘Address to a Haggis’, and the Immortal Memory speech. Haggis, with its neeps and tatties, is the Scottish national dish; bagpipes are the Scottish national instrument: what better way to celebrate the Scottish national poet?

 

Recipe: How to Cook Haggis, and Make “Neeps & Tatties” plus a Whiskey Sauce

Ingredients

1 haggis (in Scotland, you can buy it at the butcher’s, in most supermarkets and tourist shops—for this blog post, I preferred getting it from a local Edinburgh butcher suggested by our lovely friend Natalie; this was about 500gr and enough for two people)

1 swede (neeps)

5 medium-sized potatoes

Butter

Milk

Salt & Pepper

100ml whiskey

100ml double cream

 

Directions

  1. Most haggis packages will tell you how to cook it, but I followed again Natalie and her husband’s recommendations to cook it in the oven in a water bath, and it turned out quite well! Prick the packaging with forks before putting it into the oven or it might explode (note, that happened to me…). Place haggis in a tray with about 2cm of water and cook in oven for 180°C for 50 minutes.
  2. Boil swede and potatoes in two separate pans, in salted water.
  3. Drain swede, add butter and make mash with masher – season with salt and pepper.
  4. Drain potatoes, add butter and repeat procedure as with swede, add a little milk too if you like your mashed potatoes to be super creamy.
  5. When haggis is ready, take out of its packaging and it is ready to serve!
  6. If you have a whiskey bottle flying around (it has to be Scottish of course!), then you can make a nice whiskey sauce to go with haggis: now, in order to make this you have to set the whiskey on fire, so I will report recipe as I have seen it being made by our friend Gašper, but I didn’t make this myself as I (Nico, as you’ll know) am one of the clumsiest people on the planet and was scared to death I would set my kitchen on fire.
  7. Place about 100ml whiskey in a small saucepan and set fire to it with a match. This will make sure the sauce is not too bitter (as the alcohol will burn out). Wait until the flames die out, or put the lid back on the saucepan after about 30 seconds to stop the burning process. Then add cream, salt and peper, and stir with a whisk until the sauce thickens, and is ready to go on your haggis, neeps and tatties

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    Haggis with whiskey sauce

 

When you miss home: saltless Tuscan bread in Dante’s Paradiso (La Divina Commedia, c. 1304-1321)

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As I (Nico, clearly) am about to leave Italy once again, and as migrants and refugees from North Africa and the Middle East sadly gallop through Southern Europe to reach the better-off North, the Literary Kitchen today will offer you something from a most famous Italian writer who went through political exile: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Dante was, of course, a privileged exile: being already a famous individual at the time, when he was forced to go on exile in 1302 by the opposite political party (the Black Guelphs) coming to power, he was welcomed and hosted by several important Italian families and courts of the time, amongst whom the Malaspinas in Romagna, the Scalas in Verona and finally at Guido Novello da Polenta’s in Ravenna, where he died in 1321.

Dante’s masterpiece, La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), is, to an extent, a reflection on the theme of exile. In this epic poem Dante imagines to be undertaking a journey through Hell, Purgatory (at the time, a rather new “invention”), and Heaven. The whole journey takes place in the days around Easter in 1300, and the poem is filled with prophecies of things that will happen to Florence and the Florentines, relations to specific souls from the three otherworldly kingdoms, and of course Dante himself. Throughout this journey, various souls interrogate him on the state of things on Earth (mainly Florence/Italy) and give him advice and foresee his future (although what Dante is told is effectively not much of a prediction, after all, as he already knows what is going to happen to him when he is writing, as he writes years after 1300): one of these “predictions” is naturally his exile from beloved Florence.

Dante receives confirmation of his exile precisely from the soul of his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida degli Elisei, in Paradiso XVII. Blood of his own blood, Cacciaguida cannot obviously lie to Dante and so he “foretells” his exile: ‘tal di Fiorenza partir ti convene’ (Pd XVII, l. 48, ‘such must thou depart from Florence.’). Cacciaguida particularly lingers on the suffering Dante will have to go through during his exile:

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta

più caramente; e questo è quello strale

che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale

lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle

lo scendere e’l salir per l’altrui scale.

(ll. 55-60)

(‘Thou shalt leave each thing beloved most dearly: this is the first shaft shot from the bow of exile. Thou shalt prove how salt the savour is of other’s bread; how hard the passage, to descend and climb by other’s stairs.’)

Many are the things Cacciaguida lists as terrible in Dante’s future exile: he will leave every beloved thing, he will see Florence fall in the violent hands of the wicked Black Guelphs, but especially he will have to beg – and, incidentally, eat a type of bread which is not the one from his country. He shall try how salty other people’s bread is: ‘salt’ in Italian is of course the ingredient itself, but the adjective ‘salato’ (salty) is also used to indicate something expensive, or hard to come by. And so, most commentators and scholars of Dante have glossed this line pronounced by Cacciaguida as the exile’s bread being expensive, and also bitter, because one has to beg for it in order to obtain it. But that is just one side of it: Dante’s great-great-grandfather is also warning him that the bread he will find outside Florence, and Tuscany, is indeed different, as it does contain salt. Tuscan bread even today is hard to find outside the region of Tuscany, mainly because of its complete lack of salt, which gives it a quite unusual taste. This type of bread (‘pane sciocco’, in Italian silly bread, or saltless bread) is indeed ideal to be eaten with a sprinkle of olive oil on top, to accompany dishes with a strong flavour, or even just to be enjoyed by itself, once one gets adjusted to its distinct neutral flavour, porous texture and crusty top.

And so Cacciaguida is also warning Dante that not just politics, customs, and climate are different outside Florence, but even bread – indeed, the simplest food – is, and that will make his exile even more painful, despite his hosts’ generosity. No matter our situation, it is those small, silly things from our own home country we end up missing the most when we are abroad. I still remember how I was once stopped at the security in an Italian airport, and asked to open my carry-on. This was filled with Italian goodies, which made the security guy laugh heartily, and add jokingly: ‘You don’t need to show me your boarding card, Miss.’ He glanced at the departures board and exclaimed: ‘For sure you’re flying to Edinburgh, and not Madrid or Paris!’. I smiled of course, and when he continued with a question on British food, whether it was really bad as it was perceived all over Europe, he was a little surprised by my reply: ‘No it is not bad at all, but one cannot help missing food from home. Food you are used to. Food you were given as a child…’ It does not matter what it is: it can be a particular spice from India which you can’t find anywhere else, a type of Italian biscuits, a strong French cheese, or difficult-to-check-in German sausages and Greek olive oil. It can also be a bread without salt, which perhaps only real Tuscans can appreciate, and you my dear readers will find tasteless; but, if you cared to make it, here is how, and you will not regret experiencing a very simple flavour from medieval Italy, spiced with an exile’s nostalgia for home…

Recipe (makes one big loaf or two small ones)

Ingredients

500gr white flour

1 sachet dry yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar

2 cups warm water

Directions

  1. Dissolve one sachet of dry yeast in a cup of warm water.
  2. Pour the mixture of yeast and water over the white flour (previously placed in a large bowl).
  3. Stir the mixture and start kneading.
  4. Dissolve a teaspoonful of sugar in a cup of warm water, and pour over the dough and knead for about 10 minutes.
  5. Leave dough in the bowl and cover with a plastic film and leave in warm place to rise for a couple of hours (but the more the better really!).
  6. Remove dough from the bowl and knead it onto a surface with your hands dusted in flour – the dough will have to be a bit sticky, so do not add to much extra flour to it.
  7. After kneading it for a couple of minutes, shape it into whatever form you prefer for your bread and place it onto a greased baking tray.
  8. It is ready to be baked in the oven at 200°C for 40 minutes!
  9. When the crust has become all golden, take it out of the oven and place it onto a grill to cool.

References

Dante Alighieri. La Divina Commedia: Paradiso. Ed. Umberto Bosco and Giovanni Reggio. Florence: Le Monnier, 2002. (English translation used: Harvard Classics available online).

Holes and histories: baguettes in Ciaran Carson’s ‘For All We Know’ (2008)

Belfast-born poet Ciaran Carson is one of the most accomplished wordsmiths to be found amongst the current generation of writers. Born in 1948, he has published over 29 volumes of poetry, prose and translations from Irish. Carson’s indefatigable flair for witty, convoluted, memorable story-telling is cemented in his 2008 volume, For All We Know. This is an absolutely beautiful and emotive novelistic sequence of not-quite-sonnets which retell the lives – and losses – of two lovers who meet just after a bomb goes off in 1970s Belfast. The sequence is narrated by one of the lovers, a Northern Irish writer who is recalling significant points in his relationship with the French woman (Nina).

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The first poem is called ‘The Second Time Round’ and is a retelling of the lovers’ anniversary. Food is at the centre of their celebration. The poem’s opening lines describe the ‘stretch’ and ‘elasticity’ of baguettes and the crack as a baton is broken. The bread is described with a few, deftly-chosen and alliterative words which convey the sensory detail of the moment. When you eat or make a fresh baguette (the recipe is below), take a pause to crack it open so that you can indulge in the warm, freshly-baked scent of homemade bread. I absolutely love that moment.

With his usual attention to minute detail, Carson homes in on the air-holes within the baguette. Metaphorically, these are also the holes within the book’s disjointed storyline. These gaps and silences are as essential to the structure of the book as air-holes are to the structure of the perfect loaf of bread. At first, the reason for the elegiac undertone of ‘The Second Time Round’ is unclear. The identity of the lovers, the importance of the French words, and the significance of the patchwork quilt are equally inexplicable on a first reading of the sequence’s opening poem. These holes provide the narrative drive, as curiosity spurs the reader to piece together this splintered story and to find the most elusive of things – the truth which the narrator (and poet) is trying to communicate. For the protagonist, words are deceptive and truth resides only in what is known by the immediate experience of the senses. This is, perhaps, the reason for the intense description of the baguette at the very beginning of this story.

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Half a century of violence lies behind the narrator’s inability to believe in anything beyond his own senses. The Second World War and the ‘Troubles’ (the euphemistic name for a period of sectarian violence in late twentieth-century Northern Ireland) loom large over the book. The breaking of the baguette in the opening poem delicately foreshadows the broken histories which unfold as the patchwork narrative progresses.

The appearance of a French baguette in a Northern Irish poem is indicative of a major theme in the work of Carson and many of his contemporary poets: the points of connection (or divergence) between cultures. Contemporary Irish poets have placed literary stepping stones across the world: one can travel to France with Derek Mahon, then to Russia with Tom Paulin, and on to China and Japan in the pages of Sinead Morrissey. These poets often seem to seek new and liberating perspectives by looking beyond the disputed borders of Ireland/Northern Ireland/Ulster/the UK and the tangled history of their own land. Such globe-trotting is indeed refreshing after decades of Irish and Northern Irish poems focussed mainly on home and the matter of Ireland.

To summarise: Carson is an amazing poet and this book comes with my (Amy’s) passionate recommendation. His narratives are compelling and his control of poetic form is consummate. And if you wish to recreate Carson’s emphasis on the senses in your own kitchen, have a go at making the recipe below. If you haven’t made bread before, it might take a few times to get it right. I certainly had a few disasters at the start! (And I still do.)

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Recipe

Ingredients

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 350ml warm water
  • 1 tsp/7g instant dried yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • A couple of tablespoons oil OR about 25g butter

 

Directions

  1. Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Rub in the butter or stir in the oil.
  2. Add 300ml water and mix until the mixture starts to come together.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Add the remaining water as you knead the bread. It is quite a wet dough, so you may want to do this for 5 minutes if you have a dough hook and an electric mixer.
  4. Return the dough to the bowl and leave to rise for about an hour (or until doubled in size) in a warm place. Cover it with a wet teatowel or clingfilm. I sometimes turn the oven on for a few minutes (and then turn it off!!) and put the dough in there.
  5. Turn the dough out on your kneading surface and knock the air out. Knead for a few minutes.
  6. Shape the dough into 2-4 baguettes (depending on your desired size) and put them on a greased baking tray. Cover again and leave for a further hour, or until doubled in size.
  7. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade and put a dish full of water in the oven (the resultant steam will help the bread form a good crust).
  8. Uncover the baguettes and, using a pair of scissors or a sharp knife, carefully slash the top of each three times.
  9. Put in the oven for 25-30 minutes (depending on the size). They are best eaten immediately, but can be kept until the next day or frozen.

 

Kneading bread: temptation in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ (1862)

The nursery rhyme sounds of Christina Rossetti’s most famous poem, ‘Goblin Market’, chimed through my childhood and were probably among the earliest sources of my interest in poetry. Yet this ambivalent tale is underpinned by darkness, rhythmic instability, and contradictory interpretations. The narrative is simple: two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, hear goblins calling them to buy mysterious fruit. But they know they shouldn’t eat it. Laura’s willpower breaks and she consumes the fruit, leaving Lizzie to rescue her fallen sister. This tale of transgressive consumption has fascinated readers since the poem’s initial publication in 1862. Is it a straightforward morality tale? What is the meaning of the Biblical echoes of the book of Genesis? Does Laura represent Eve who plucked the fruit in the Garden of Eden? Does Lizzie redeem Laura in a Christ-like fashion by resisting the goblins? Is the poem about the dangers of sex? Does Rossetti wish to warn female readers about the dangers of art (words and food are linked throughout the poem)? Should the poem be interpreted as feminist or antifeminist? More recently, there have been Marxist interpretations based on Rossetti’s use of the word ‘market’.

As this debate has been going on for upwards of a hundred years, I am not even going to try to attempt to resolve it here. Instead, I am interested in the neglected foodstuff of the poem: the ‘kneaded cakes of whitest wheat, / Cakes for dainty mouths to eat’. (This most likely refers to a kind of sweetened bread which uses yeast as the rising agent.) In a poem composed of pairings and opposites (innocence and experience, two sisters, life and death, light and dark, inside and outside) the cakes are contrasted with the succulent fruits on offer on the goblins’ platters. Lizzie and Laura make the cakes indoors as part of their domestic duties, whilst the fruits are sold outside. The cakes are an innocent white, the fruits are sensual red and purple. The cakes are produced by human effort (kneading), whilst the fruit is lifted all too easily from the hands of the deceptive goblins. White bread is emblematic of the Eucharist, whilst the fruit is reminiscent of the tree in the Garden of Eden. In Christianity, the former is linked with redemption and the latter with the fall from perfection.

So Rossetti seems to present us with a simple black and white parable: reject the sensual attractions of the material world in favour of virtuousness and innocence. However, Rossetti blurs the lines between these categories by emphasising the whiteness of the flour used by Lizzie and Laura. Other white objects in the poem include lilies, flowers which symbolise chastity but are also connected with funerals. Also note that the word ‘dainty’ is used twice in the poem. The first time it describes the mouths which will consume the cakes, whilst the second time it denotes the supernatural fruit. On a historical note, Susan Honeyman points out that the white flour is bleached and processed, ‘which is an important contrast to the otherwise natural fruits’ offered by the goblins. A whole gamut of industrial processes were being developed during the Victorian period in order to rid flour of its impurities – and, consequently, of much of its nutritional value. The pastoral space occupied by the sisters is not under threat just from goblins, but from the factories which were creeping into rural spaces. So Rossetti introduces a conflict between nature (goblins, desire and fruit) and technology (white flour). Furthermore, for the contemporary reader, the mention of white cakes would have conjured up ideas of elegance and expense: these were a foodstuff produced mainly for the elite. Lizzie and Laura do not appear to be virtuous in their spending.

The cakes introduce troubling ideas into a poem which is already ambivalent in its attitude to femininity, marriage, material pleasures, and nature. But I hope they won’t introduce trouble into your kitchens! The recipe below is adapted from Mrs Beeton’s ‘Common Cake’ and is for a simple enriched bread. Slice and serve with butter when warm from the oven, or toast for breakfast with a dash of marmalade for a hint of goblin-esque luxury.

 


Recipe
Ingredients

500g strong white bread flour
1 tsp or 7g dried active yeast
60 butter
125g caster sugar
250g currants
280ml milk (very gently warmed – not fridge temperature)
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice as you prefer)
½ tsp salt

Directions
1. Rub the butter into the flour
2. Add the dry ingredients and mix well
3. Add the milk and bring the ingredients together into a rough dough
4. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes (or 5
minutes in a machine with a dough hook)
5. Return to the mixing bowl and leave for 1 hour in a warm place until doubled in
size (ideally between 18 and 21 degrees centigrade – I turned my oven on for a couple of minutes and then put the bread in). Don’t forget to cover with a damp teatowel or clingfilm
6. Turn the dough out and knead for a few minutes
7. Put the dough in a greased tin and cover
8. Leave for about an hour or until doubled in size
9. Bake for 35 minutes in an oven preheated to 180 degrees centigrade
Enjoy!

References:
Susan Honeyman, ‘Gingerbread Wishes and Candy(Land) Dreams: The Lure of Food in
Cautionary Tales of Consumption’, Marvels and Tales, 21.2 (2007), pp. 195-215, p. 205

Christina Rossetti, Poems, ed. by Jan Marsh (London: J.M. Dent, 1996)