Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything


In the past few days I’ve been contacted by quite a number of students from Texas, who told me that my poem ‘Five Lemons’ was set as an essay subject for their IB exam (I’m guessing that’s International Baccalaureate?). They mostly seem to have liked the poem but they also ask for interpretations of it. Since it isn’t possible for me to discuss the poem with everyone individually, I’m writing this to tell the story of the poem and offer a few comments. I hope they’re helpful!

Free stock photo of food, healthy, nature, water

But first, here’s the poem for those who don’t know it:


Here are five lemons from the poet’s garden,

the colour of white gold and icy sunshine,

flooded with green around the pointed nipples.

My younger daughter cuts one into quarters,

careful of fingers, bites the white-furred pith out,

devours the quartz-white segments with her eyes shut,

sighing and swaying in the sharp enjoyment.


Here are four lemons from the poet’s garden:

one perched on three, a perfect tetrahedron.

The poet’s widow showed me where to pick them,

kindly and shrewd, helping me find the best ones,

holding the branch down while I snapped the stalks off,

the cold breeze in our faces from the mountain.

We’ll halve this one and squeeze it over couscous.


Here are three lemons from the poet’s garden

still in the bowl, turned in a neat triangle,

yellower now. My elder daughter chooses,

after long thought, one for her still-life painting,

the twisted leaves like green airplane-propellers

with a Cezanne pear and a Braque violin,

fractured into art-deco Cubist slices.


Here are two lemons from the poet’s garden

below his tall house on the terraced hillside,

red earth black-pitted with his fallen olives

between the gnarled trunks trailing silver foliage,

beside the boulders of the dusty torrent

rainless above that sea of sparkling turquoise.

The juice is perfect for a tuna salad.


Here is a lemon from the poet’s garden,

the last of them. Long is the poet gone,

silent his grave on the hilltop under the cypress,

long the shadows drawn by moon and sun

out from the low walls and high gate of the graveyard.

I press the waxy peel to my face and breathe it.

There are no words for what the fragrance tells me.


So here’s the story. In 1997 I was asked to edit The White Goddess, Robert Graves’s wonderful book about myth and poetic inspiration, for a new collected edition of Graves’s writings. Graves (1895-1985) had died twelve years earlier, and though he was an English poet and novelist (best known probably for I Claudius), he had lived in the village of Deya in Majorca. His son William invited me over there, to see Graves’s own copy of the book, which had many corrections and alterations that needed to be put into the new edition.

I was hugely excited because it was reading Graves’s work that had first turned me on to poetry, something which changed my life and has dominated it happily ever since.

La Casa de Robert Graves

So I went to Deya. Robert Graves’s house, where his widow Beryl still lived, was on the hillside just outside the village. It had a sloping garden with fruit trees and olive trees. Beryl welcomed me into the house, where nothing had changed since Robert Graves’s death. His hats were still on the hatpegs, his coats were in the closet in the entrance hall. Beryl said ‘You’d better work in here!’ and took me into Graves’s study.

Everything was just as he’d left it: his pens and pencils, coins and little pebbles and other trinkets were on the desk, his books were on the shelves, there was an unfinished letter which he’d never signed lying on one of the surfaces. The atmosphere was electric: completely magical. So I sat in Robert Graves’s chair, at his desk, surrounded by his books and possessions, and Beryl brought me his copy of The White Goddess with all his markings in it, and I began work.

Each day Beryl would give me lunch. Although she was living out in the Majorcan mountains, her household was completely English. She had two cats and a little dog, she had the Times Literary Supplement delivered every week, she had an ‘Aga’ stove, and for lunch she made things like scrambled eggs on toast, and bananas and custard. She was delightful.

At the end of the week I had finished my work on the book, but before I left Beryl took me down into the orchard below the house and helped me to pick the lemons, just as I’ve described in the poem. (The ‘dusty torrent’ is one of the ‘torrents’ or watercourses which run down the parched Majorcan hillsides between the olive groves; they fill up with water at certain times of year, or in summer at certain hours when the limited water supply is opened up to flow in that direction – the neighbours take turns to have the water, because it’s so scarce – so the ‘torrent’ is really more of a ‘channel’.)

I took the lemons home, and the poem describes what happened to them.

Now, about interpretation. Some people have asked me what the poem means, or to give them an interpretation, or to explain it to them. I don’t think that is really possible, because a poem doesn’t have just one meaning. It means different things to different people. Obviously we can all agree that a lemon is a lemon, and that turquoise is a colour we recognise; but once the poem is written it becomes an object, a thing that people can look at from different angles and turn over in their minds and reflect on. And everyone will come up with a different interpretation. There’s no single ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation, and I love it when people see things in my poems that I didn’t know were there!

That’s as it should be. A poem isn’t a riddle that has a single correct answer. It’s more like a painting: everyone can look at it, and each person can find something different there. And as long as what you find fits with the words, then it’s right. The more meanings the better!

I can add few details. Obviously the poet’s garden – for me – is Robert Graves’s garden. (But maybe it could be any poet’s garden!) The grave is his (sorry about the repetition of the word ‘grave’, it can’t be helped!) – a very simple village grave in the small churchyard at Deya on the hilltop, which does have a low stone wall and then a tall gate which sticks up. But again it could be any poet who has died.

In the poem I think I’m a bit sad at the end as I smell the fragrance of the last lemon. It’s my final contact with the place and the experience, and with Beryl, and it’s like a gift from the poet himself; but there are some things you can’t put into words, so the poem ends maybe with a touch of sadness, a memory that’s valuable but also admitting that even in a poem you can’t say everything.

So my warmest thanks to all the people who wrote to me, for your generous appreciation of the poem. I hope you really enjoyed it even though it came to you as part of a test – maybe not the best way to meet a poem! I hope it left some happy pictures in your minds, and also a pleasant scent of lemons!

If you ever want to visit the the house – La Casa de Robert Graves – the website is here:

In the garden at Deya – with some more lemons!


19 comments to “A STORY OF FIVE LEMONS”

  • Earl Livings


    Dear Grevel
    What a wonderful description of the genesis of the poem and of your work at La Casa de Robert Graves. I like your statement about what a poem is–like a painting in which viewers can find their own meaning, as long as it is supported by the words in the poem itself. Too many students are forced to find ‘the meaning’ of a poem (probably because many English teachers were taught the same way), so your analysis should give them the freedom to find what works for them.
    All the best.

  • Grace


    IB student here! My friends and I loved your poem. Unsurprisingly, we all had different interpretations of it. I think you’d like IB’s philosophy of grading this test– as long as you can back up your interpretation with textual evidence, anything goes!

    I agree that a test is probably not the best way to meet a poem, but I like that it forces you to read closely and appreciate the author’s choices. I think good poetry lends itself to repeated readings, and your poem definitely stood up to the dozen or so times I read it in those two hours!

  • Grevel


    Hi Grace, Many thanks for your comment! So glad you liked the poem and good luck with your exams! – Grevel

  • Liza


    I enjoyed this poem, and I liked how descriptive it was. This piece of writing really made me see pictures in my head. As I reread this poem, I started understanding this poem more, and I’ve even tried to interpret it in a way. At the last stanza, I thought that the lemon that was described was as a tribute to Robert Graves.

  • Martin


    Thank you so much for your poem! I read it today with my 8th grade (year 9) class and it was interesting to hear their interpretations. One student noticed the movement from young to old, and some thought there was some pain in the poem. The tetrahedron shape caused more confusion than expected, but couscous was familiar (we are in Italy, after all!). It was clarifying to be able to read the story of how it came into existed, and exciting to see that beautiful desk. The “no words” things has really challenged us in our poetry classes. It’s great to have a poet express that problem out loud.

  • Hamthan


    Hi Grevel Lindop

    I like this first part of the poem that
    says: Here are five lemons from the poets garden
    the colour of white gold and icy sunshine. It reminds me of
    when i look the sunset color and to the lemons color.

    All the best Grevel!

  • Carlotta


    This poem for me means memories, something calm, something that refresh. There are some sentences that make me feel this: “The cold breeze in our faces from the mountain” because make me think about a peaceful moment during which you can make reflections and “Sea of sparkling turquoise” I associated the observation of the sunshine that makes the sea “sparkling” with a moment during which you can see the infinity in front of you and the perfect connection between the sunshine and the sea.

  • beatrice


    Hello, I am an eighth-grade student and I wanted to tell you that I liked your poem a lot. I think that it is very interesting to see how you related memory to our senses and I also think it is very true. Your senses bring you back many memories to your mind.

  • Isabela


    Dear Mr.Lindop,
    I find very inspiring the way you look at poetry and how you think everyone has their own way of interpreting something. This poem made me reflect on memories I have from my past that I really appreciate looking back at, but that make me miss such a happy and joyful moment in my life, which honestly makes this poem very relatable. Thank you for sharing one memorable event of your life.

  • Sarah Reynierson


    Thank you for telling the back story of the poem. My students are discussing it today in class. I think you would be pleased with the range of interpretations. And I think that’s a gutsy last line for a poem to say there are no words. We love that ending.

  • Grevel


    Thanks Sarah: I’m so glad you liked the poem!

  • Grevel


    Thank you Isabela: I’m glad you were so able to relate to this!

  • Grevel


    Thank you Beatrice: these comments really mean a lot to me!

  • Grevel


    A lovely and very pereceptive comment, Carlotta. Thank you!

  • Grevel


    Thanks Hamthan: I had fun writing those lines too – I’m very fond of colour!

  • Grevel


    Thanks Martin: I’ve had so many interesting and thoughtful responses from students; it’s a real delight. And I appreciate your taking the trouble to write!

  • Grevel


    I’m so glad the poem helped you to see mental pictures, Liza: that’s always a thing I aim for in my writing. Thanks for responding!

  • Makyla Boddie


    This was on my English 11 exam and I loved the poem. I couldn’t take the time to enjoy it while reading it, but after looked it up and found this. I feel this piece should come with the poem, this is just as well written. Everyone should get a chance to read this. Well done 🙂

  • Grevel


    Dear Makyla, So glad you liked the poem – and the information on my website. I hope all’s well with you, and thanks for writing!

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