Image: Mermaid Fabric© fabulessfabrics
‘Giuseppe’ by Roderick Ford blends historical realism with a fairy tale element to explore the darkest corners of human behaviour. It is about the war and how people make excuses for their actions.
The poem explores the idea of what makes us human. Under the pressure of war, is there any innate moral compass that can keep us on the right side of horror? In context, the mermaid can be said to be symbolic of any outsider or enemy. By making her a creature from legend, Ford allows us to look more clearly at the protagonists’ behaviour.
The title – The title of the poem is simply the first name of the speaker’s uncle – Giuseppe – without giving him a title, such as ‘uncle’ or even ‘Mr’. This could suggest that the speaker feels disconnected from his uncle by the story he is telling, as he does not acknowledge their family relationship. This blunt term of address could also suggest anger or bitterness on the part of the speaker upon learning of his uncle’s actions.
- Irregular Structure
- Enjambment and caesura – The use of enjambment (line breaks in the middle of phrases) and caesura (for example, “She, it, had never learned to speak, because she was simple, or so they said.”) creates pauses in the middle of phrases, implying that the speaker’s uncle is reluctant to continue telling his story, perhaps out of guilt, or fear of judgement.
- List – “was butchered…by a doctor, a fishmonger, and certain others” – This list helps to illustrate the confusion over what the mermaid is. They say doctor, but doctors are for humans, so then a fishmonger is mentioned because supposedly that is the alternative for a fish. But the mermaid is neither and this in itself creates problems. It relates to war because sometimes there is not a certain category it can be put in and not a valid excuse that can be made for it – sometimes it is just immoral.
- Pronouns – “She, it” “Said she was only a fish, and fish can’t speak” – DEHUMANISATION – There is a lot of dehumanisation in this poem. One example is the changing of pronouns in the second stanza. She was not a woman in their eyes anymore – she becomes an ‘it’. This is because if she was not a human then it made the uncle feel better about killing her because she was not one of them, this again relates to war and about how if you see the opponent as different to you – not one of us – then killing them doesn’t feel as bad, whereas in reality we are all as human as each other.
- Simile – “But she screamed like a woman in terrible fear” – There is a simile used in the second stanza which provokes a very distressing image for the reader, if the mermaid screamed like a woman in fear then why is she not treated as a woman in fear then why is she not treated as a woman in their eyes. This just reinforces the point about excuses not being consistent and therefore causing great harm.
- Reported speech
- Proper Nouns
- ‘But’ and ‘and’ – making excuses/regret suggests a fairytale (mythical and far away)
- Extended metaphor – as mentioned, the woman killed by the men in the poem is described as being a “mermaid”. This creates a more fairytale-like atmosphere which distances the reader (and the teller) of the story from the reality of the situation it describes, thus making it, in some ways, slightly less shocking, as well as suggesting the guilt felt by the uncle telling the story.
- Contrast – The woman is referred to at one point as “it”, which dehumanises her, and suggests that the men who killed her did not see her as a person whose life they were taking, but simply as “a fish”. However, the line “she screamed like a woman in terrible fear”, as well as the mention of “her wedding ring” remind the reader that she was a human woman, who felt human emotions such as love and fear, and demonstrate that the speaker’s uncle knew that killing her was wrong.
- The men’s strategy is to deny the mermaid any humanity. They talk of ‘proof’, using her physical difference and supposed mental incapacity as an excuse for what they do. In this they recall the arguments set forth by the Nazi regime and other totalitrian authorities throughout history, bent on establishing racial superiority.
- However, the poem undermines their arguments at key points and demonstrates the perpetrators are lying to themselves: the doctor won’t eat the roe offered to him. Most disturbing is the revelation that she was married, that she had crossed into the human world of love and might have expected protection from harm. No one can quite bring themselves to remove her wedding ring, despite the desecration of her body.
- ‘Hands’ – human quality, ‘box for burial’ – human ritual
- Mermaid – beauty, mystical
- The eerie effect of the poem is partly achieved through the contrast between what happens and the tone in which it’s described. The language is deliberately flat and factual, concentrating on actions without comment. Even a word like ‘butchered’, which we might expect to carry a moral judgement, is revealed as being an accurate description of the mermaid’s dismemberment. Figurative language is almost entirely absent: there are only two adjectives (‘golden’ and ‘large’) nd one simile (‘But she screamed like a woman in terrible fear’)
- What the poem demonstrates succinctly is the last effect of atrocity on a community, for this is an event in which an entire village is implicated. While the violence is carried out by key members of the community – most disturbingly, perhaps, the doctor – no one else, including the narrator’s uncle, tried to intervene.
- This collective guilt, the poem implies, is seeping into the next generation: we can sense it in the compulsion of the narrator to tell his uncle’s story and in their inability to look each other in the eye.
- The poem ends on the word ‘God’, reminding us of how far the protagonists have moved outside moral boundaries.
- “But [he] could not look me in the eye, for which I thank God.” Which implies that the speaker recognises his uncle’s remorse for what he has done, and is grateful for this, as it means that he can retain some humanity.
Poems that would be good to link to this would be…
- The Gun – controversial modern issues
- The Deliverer – controversial modern issues
- The War Correspondent – controversial modern issues
- Leisure Centre – describing a woman who is seen as something other than human
- The Map-Woman – women’s body image
By Ella and Beth
(aided by Edexcel notes on the poems ‘Key features/themes’)