‘Giuseppe’ is a poem by Roderick Ford which explores the power of language and the ability it has to shape meaning and interpretation, particularly with the confessional tone of this poem and its ability to imply dark ideas. Ford was born in Wales, and throughout his life has been a traveller having grown up in Australia and England, and lived in many cities across the world including in Holland, Italy and Sweden, and has lived in Ireland for the last fifteen years. He is on the autistic spectrum, and this has had a large influence on the subjects he has written on due to his personal experiences of feeling like an outsider. Some readers may interpret the inclusion of the mermaid in ‘Giuseppe’ as linking to this due to the similarities and differences between her and the people.
This poem is part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, meaning that it is important to study, understand and revise this poem. Click here to see all the prescribed poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection.
Interpreture gives ‘Giuseppe’ a difficulty rating of 4, meaning that it is deemed to be a relatively difficult poem. The meaning is likely to be a hard aspect to understand due to the somewhat confusing ‘confessional’ tone, along with the limited language devices which may make it difficult to form a comparison with another poem. That said, there are important structural points and the consideration of the use of imagery and symbolism could work as a good alternative method of forming a comparison.
The title ‘Giuseppe’ is the Italian version of “Joseph”, a familiar and common name to most societies. This helps make a reader understand that the poem is likely to be focussed directly on one person and/or their experiences at a specific time. There is also a slightly impersonal tone for the poem to be titled just ‘Giuseppe’ rather than ‘Uncle Giuseppe’, which could show a distance that the narrator feels between themselves and their uncle. It is important to note however that many readers would not know the translation of this name, and therefore it would provide some ‘distance’ between a reader and the events being described. Other than this, the title is not overly descriptive which forces a reader to look to the poem itself for further detail.
Written in free verse, the structure helps to layer additional meaning into the poem in a story-like way. The lack of specific rhythm or rhyme makes the poem sound more like something that would be naturally spoken aloud in conversation, therefore helping to create a more personal connection to the poem. This aims to make the poem feel more realistic, which is very important so as to ensure a reader considers the dark subject matter as something that could happen, and that a decision of similar weight could also impact them in the future. This could also have the effect of creating a confessional tone to the poem, once again increasing the connection with a reader.
Ford also uses caesura to break up lines by pausing, making it seem as if the narrator is reluctant and worried to continue sharing his story. This is particularly notable for “She, it, had never” at the beginning of the second stanza, as this is when the darker elements of the story begin to unfold. It could also be argued that the pause to describe Giuseppe as “the aquarium keeper” in the final stanza is useful for ensuring a reader can understand that Giuseppe had a direct relationship an impact with the ‘mermaid’, further demonstrating his guilt. A very similar effect is also created through enjambment, with the run on lines such as “in the world // was butchered” showing visual breaks in the story, which could be interpreted as representing the chaotic and confusing thought processes that lead to the killing of the ‘mermaid’ woman.
In a similar way, there are also specific changes in line and sentence length in order to impact the pace of the poem. For example, the entire fifth stanza is one sentence split across five lines, whereas the next stanza only has one sentence on each of the two lines. This mix of pace helps to make the story and meaning become more confusing to a reader, and also allows for greater consideration of points that are within their own line or sentence.
The confessional language and tone of the poem is very important, because it communicates the idea that the narrator’s uncle wanted to share his story with someone in order to remove a burden. Sadness permeates the poem, imparting the idea of longing for the story to be different and have a more positive outcome. There is also a factual tone due to the simplicity of language (there is only one simile in the entire poem) and this removes opportunity for moral judgement to be held by the narrator, instead forcing the reader to make their own judgement.
Using a mermaid is significant in numerous ways. Firstly, in mythology they have unrivalled beauty, but also of their alluring voices which would make anyone who heard it enter a trance. As a result, a silent mermaid would be highly unusual, perhaps representative of the destruction of the irreplaceable as a result of warfare. Another key aspect is that that the mermaid is used to symbolise the atrocities of war, but because there is no single clear interpretation of the mermaid or this poem, it suggests that the reality of war has been so horrific that such symbolism was needed.
“was butchered on the dry and dusty ground”
The idea of the mermaid woman being “butchered” dehumanises the character even further, but also relegates her from being human-like to something consumable and less significant; not befitting of “the only captive mermaid in the world”. In addition, the death on “dry” ground could be likened to how aquatic animals may die if washed up, in much more suffering than if they had been caught at sea, which helps create more sympathy.
“she screamed like a woman in terrible fear”
Being the only simile in the entire poem helps to place lots of emphasis on this one line, which is made more noticeable by the fact that if references the mermaid with “she” with direct comparison to a human, rather than as a fish or mermaid. “Fear” without any further description would already be highly emotive, but with the addition of “terrible” it makes it the most extreme fear possible, encouraging a reader to subconsciously try to relate to this level of fear. The line also highlights the inconsistency of the story, helping a reader understand the darker truth of the killing and indicates an atrocity.
“for which I thank God”
The reintroduction of religion emphasises the inhuman acts that have been described by the narrator, but could also be a criticism of religious wars and violence inspired by religious interpretation and how this has claimed so many lives, often in brutal ways, over the centuries. By ending on this idea, Ford could be seen as suggesting that wars, conflict, and human atrocity are likely to continue into the future.
‘Giuseppe’ Key Themes
- Transgressions: This theme is key to this poem, with dark ideas and suggestions running throughout, which transgress typical human boundaries as a result of the setting and situation of the time.
- Conflict: Several poems from the “Poems of the Decade” collection relate to wars and feature conflict imagery, and this set works quite well together to explore the comparisons in their differing presentations. The way in which the war forces these inhuman acts is quite striking, emphasising the brutality of warfare.
- Power: The men have power over the mermaid, which could symbolise traditional male power over women and also the way society maintains power over those who are different, imparting guilt and shame onto them.
Quick Focus Questions
- What is the significance of there only being one simile in the poem?
- In what ways does the tone of the poem impact the response of a reader?
- Analyse the effect of Ford including description of a “wedding ring” and how this could influence a reader.
‘Giuseppe’ is arguably one of the more striking poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ anthology, and while it can be difficult to try and compare more commonly used techniques such as similes and metaphors due to the lack of them in the poem, the structure, tone and symbolism are great to explore particularly for a more original essay which considers a range of viewpoints and interpretations. ‘The Lammas Hireling’ would work well due to theme of transgression, however there may also be interesting comparative points with ‘A Minor Role’ due to the variations in structure, or ‘Out of the Bag’ with curious descriptions and the idea of hiding the truth.