“Your father’s gone”, my bald headmaster said.‘Splintered’ describing the bald head and tobacco jar from the point of view of eyes blurring with tears, is too brittle a word; and—though I hate to nitpick—the young lad can hardly have known ‘there and then’ what will by the poem’s own admission take ‘a week or two’ to learn (that the bullies will take pity on his bereavement and leave him alone, temporarily). But the poem isn’t really about bereavement, or even about this childhood recollection, as the second and final stanza makes plain:
His shiny dome and brown tobacco jar
Splintered at once in tears. It wasn’t grief.
I cried for knowledge which was bitterer
Than any grief. For there and then I knew
That grief has uses—that a father dead
Could bind a bully’s fist a week or two;
And then I cried for shame, then for relief. [‘The Lesson’, 1961]
I was a month past ten when I learnt this:That visual image of pride, as a goldfish, has a positively Martian affect. I like it; and I like the waythe headmaster’s bald skull and bowl of tobacco is picked up and refracted by the goldfishes ‘sculling’ around their bowl. Well-played.
I still remember how the noise was stilled
In school-assembly when my grief came in.
Some goldfish in a bowl quietly sculled
Around their shining prison on its shelf.
They were indifferent. All the other eyes
Were turned towards me. Somewhere in myself
Pride, like a goldfish, flashed a sudden fin.