Tears and Grief

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The Lesson
“Your father’s gone,” my bald headmaster said.
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 the bully’s fist a week or two;
And then I cried for shame, then for relief.
I was a month past ten when I learnt this:
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.
Edward Lucie-Smith

Poem notes

The reason I love this poem so much is that every time you read it you can find something else in it. While it is indeed a poem about grief, at second glance it is also a poem about the loss of innocence, the cruelty of children, and the desire for pride and attention. I love the way grief is personified. First, we see him ashamed for not grieving; his first thought is that he will be exempt from bullying for a few weeks. In the second paragraph, he explains how his “grief came in”, almost as if it had walked into the assembly hall like a person. Once again, grief is overshadowed, but this time by pride. Lucie-Smith shows us in this poem how the truth of our own thoughts are sometimes more nasty and unnerving than we give them credit for. When he first learns of his father’s death, the boy cries – one would assume it is for grief and sadness, but this is masked by a layer of shame. But what is he ashamed of? Nothing more than the truth. He is a young boy, only ten years old, and is at a boarding school – he probably never got to know his father very well. And yet we feel, or we are conditioned towards, the need for grief at the death of a relative. Should he be ashamed? The answer to...
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