This is a poem about murder. A man is telling us about an incident when someone, possibly a relative or friend, came to stay unexpectedly. The man who comes to stay, who is never named, is having a mental breakdown. Then he starts to annoy his host (the narrator of the poem).
Unnamed man gives a recipe for gooseberry sorbet, unaware that he himself has become a 'gooseberry' in the family. Therefore, the host decides to drown him in the bath, take the body and bury it.
At the end of the poem, the host tells us, he still makes the recipe for gooseberry sorbet. And sets out an extra glass, for the murdered man. Yum!
This is an analysis I wrote to help my student with the MOST EVIL exam question we could find. This is an actual OCR GCSE English Lit question. Et voila!
How does Armitage make the theme of destruction so memorable in this poem?
In Gooseberry Season, Armitage dramatises a murder in a cool, calm way which leaves an eerie aftertaste. The narrator’s detached tone and unbroken narrative slides over the murder too easily and the disconnection between emotion and action is part of what gives this poem its power.
The poem begins with the chatty, colloquial expression ‘Which reminds me’, and feels as if the poet, or character is talking to us. It’s unclear at first whether this is a dramatic monologue, as it feels quite intimate and reasonable at first. It’s unclear who ‘he’ is, which adds to the feeling we’re part way through a conversation. This is both intriguing and disorienting. The enjambement (run on lines) give a strong flow to the story and we’re caught on the tide. Structurally, the poem seems regular - at first. It’s divided into stanzas of five, though the odd number has a disconcerting irregularity to its regularity. On the other hand, the line lengths are wildly irregular, as if there’s no underlying logic, perhaps echoing the underlying madness of the narrator.
The victim is never named and is alsways called ‘he’, which creates mystery. His situation, coolly described - having ‘walked from town after losing his job’ with the odd detail of him ‘locking his dog in the coal bunker’ is also intriguing, as well as disturbing. Like the narrator’s later behaviour - which he attempts to justify - there’s no comfortable explanation. The narrator’s further explanations of the man’s behaviour seem to flow, but are also disjointed. More oddly specific details like ‘he hung up his coat’ and ‘he mentioned a recipe’ are disturbingly nonsensical. It’s unclear why the narrator is fixing on these details.
The poem hardly seems like a poem at all: it’s unrhymed, irregular, and where it is cut into stanzas, seems utterly random. It lacks imagery, emotive language, description, sensory language except for the very centre of the poem where we encounter a bizarrely out of place sensory description of the gooseberry ‘sorbet’ flowing over sensual sibilants: ‘smooth, seedless’. The title is ‘Gooseberry Season’ so we could expect this to be significant. Culturally a ‘gooseberry’ is someone who’s not wanted. Certainly the victim could fit this role. The narrator says ‘I was tired of him’ ‘sucking up to my wife’ ‘sizing up my daughter’.
In the centre, we also have a seemingly out of place metaphysical meditation: ‘Where does the hand become the wrist?’ This is about connections, which is ironic in a poem which seems so disconnected, with an emotionally disconnected narrator. It’s as if he’s justifying himself. He uses colloquial language ‘tips us over that razor’s edge’ which has a violent, brutal edge, and tips quickly through ‘I could have told him this but didn’t bother’, into violence. ‘Didn’t bother’ is brutally casual. What’s stranger still is the use of the inclusive ‘we ran him a bath’ ‘we drove’: as if the whole family’s in this together. It’s hard to believe the entire family could be complicit and it is this last image that is so disturbing and gives this poem its disturbing power.
In conclusion, the final stanza gives an inadequate summary: drawing together the image of the ‘gooseberry season’ with that of the family ‘five equal portions’ including the dead man. It gives no explanation, no justification - though it ends, with vile irony, with the words ‘I mention this for a good reason’. There is no good reason, and that’s the point. The word ‘hell’ in the penultimate line is not accidental.
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