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Poetry: "The Lesson" by Edward Lucie-Smith

21 February, 2009

[Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/jul/21/poetry.featuresreviews]

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

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 that particular question is left up to you, the reader. I automatically say yes, but there is part of me that says no, there is natural grief but he should not feel more than that.

The natural grief enters the picture in the second half of the poem. But along with that grief comes another cruel truth. Like any child of ten, the poet desires attention – and when he gets it, he feels that pang of pride.

The way “goldfish” are used in the second stanza particularly interested me. In their first usage, the goldfish are indifferent to the boy’s grief. In their second usage, however, he compares the pride he feels to a goldfish. Why? Usually, the repeated usage of an object or an animal is easily understood. Here it is more nuanced. Personally, I think it is because the boy and the goldfish are the only things in the assembly hall that are isolated. Everyone else is looking at him, a mass blur of faces. The goldfish does not care, and it is set aside from the crowd. In a way, he and the goldfish are in the same position. The “shining prison” can also be taken as a metaphor for boarding school as a whole, further solidifying the connection between the boy and the goldfish.

This poem remains one of my favourites. I feel this is one of those poems that can be interpreted in many ways, so I would love to hear what you think of it. Leave a comment.

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56 Comments leave one →
  1. Jazzy_Fizzle permalink
    24 February, 2009 11:35 am

    This is a great post, Kumar. I’ve never read this poem before (or any of Edward Lucie-Smith’s work for that matter), and I really appreciated being exposed to something new (and well-done). I liked how you were able to get so many shades of meaning out of such a short work, but still kept your writing fairly short and concise, allowing the readers to come up with their own meanings. Definitely keep up with this new series, it’s fantastic.

    [maybe you should start a new podcast in the vein of Books You Should Read… Poems You Should Hear or something to that effect 🙂 ]

  2. 1 April, 2009 6:32 pm

    I think that the boy is confused, he knows that with his father being dead, he should feel very sad, but his childish feelings is looking at the glass half full by seeing his father’s dead as an advantage to gain pity from the bullies. He’s ashamed that at a time like this he’s looking at the advantages instead of griefing for the loss of his father. This shows us that the boy didn’t have a great relationship with his father. He compares himself with a goldfish “pride, like a goldfish”.. which to tell you the truth I don’t quite get why. The boy has mixed feelings of grief and shame. He has a disconflict of emotions because he’s upset that his father’s gone but still he’s relieved that the bullying will stop at least for 2 weeks. By this, we can see how sad the bullying makes this boy.

    This is something I came up with while studying for my English Exam. I’m just a 16year old so this is as far as I can go to explaining the poem.

    • 3 April, 2009 2:53 pm

      I’m not to sure about the goldfish thing myself. I think it might have something to do with the fact that goldfish have a very short-term memory, but I don’t seem to be able to link it somehow.

      And don’t worry about being 16, I’m only 15 😀

      • Zehra permalink
        20 April, 2012 6:12 am

        A goldfish in a bowl is vulnerable, every one can watch its movements. Similarly the boy is left vulnerable when he is told about his father’s death and like a goldfish doesn’t care about the people watching it he decides not to care about what the others think about him.

        • 6 June, 2013 10:18 pm

          I feel that he felt that slight moment of pride when everyone was staring at him. A goldfish in a bowl is just not something you notice in the everyday rush of life. He felt the same way I guess. Being noticed by no one until the moment when everyone was staring at him, sort of like a goldfish before the moment that you stare at it for a couple of seconds.

  3. Miz. P permalink
    2 April, 2009 12:04 pm

    It’s my first time reading this poem as well and I really enjoy it. It goes to show that a poem does not have to be long and riddled with figurative language to be deep.

    I think that the boy did not feel any connection with his father. In fact , I don’t think he felt any grief at his passing whatsoever. The grief he felt was knowing that he should be sad but isn’t. This knowledge saddens him.

    He uses the grief that others expect him to have to his own advantage: being exempted from bullying and gaining everyone’s attention.

    It’s really a great poem!

  4. 4 May, 2009 12:02 am

    i luved the poem the 1st tym i read it in school it is an amazing experience reading the analysis kumar u have done a wonderful job i also loved the way u personified the boy’s grief n i got alot of info frm this site thnx kumar

  5. 4 May, 2009 12:09 am

    I think that the boy was nt close enough to his father to actually feel the grief for his death.
    The boy actually uses his fathers’s grief as an excuse as he would escape being bullied by the boys.

  6. Alice permalink
    15 May, 2009 1:26 am

    I think the boy was actually very sad when he heard that his dad was dead at first because the poem said
    ‘I cried for knowledge which was bitterer
    Than any grief.’ which means what he felt was beyond grief. But then the cruel reality comes along, there is an advantage brought by this piece of sad news: he won’t be bullied for a while. Then he is glad for that, but when he noticed himself has this thought, he cried for shame. Then the relief after the shame is actually talking about he is relief because he can be free from bully for a while.

    I’m going to have my public exam the day after tomorrow and this poem is in my syllabus. I think your sharing really helps me a lot so thanks=]

  7. Peter permalink
    14 October, 2009 12:19 pm

    I DONT GET THE FISH THING…….?

  8. Fezzlo permalink
    21 October, 2009 8:19 pm

    Awesome!! ur soooooo clever i don no how u do it! I thot dis powem was jus crzy nosence and WTF has a fish got to do wit pride (o_0)? u ansered all mi Q’s i had bout dis powem <33333333 (:
    i now see its pretty good an fairly deep. won of the best powems ive ever red.

  9. Ryan permalink
    21 October, 2009 8:24 pm

    I agree with you Fezzlo but you really have to lean to spell. Cheers to you Kumar, Brilliant analysis! Helped me understand the poem greatly.

  10. Jon permalink
    21 October, 2009 8:40 pm

    accidentally stumbled onto this site. i think the poems pretty good and ur post is really great, but i believe the second stanza ruins it. it just becomes a little bit too odd. pride, like a goldfish???? WHAT!?! fish get eaten, i see no pride in that. My fish eat their own poop! i suppose them not caring what others think is a kind of pride.

  11. Harry permalink
    21 October, 2009 8:57 pm

    LOL :-D, my friend is doing an essay in English about this poem and he just copy and pasted your post word for word LOL.

    • Yui permalink
      21 October, 2009 9:00 pm

      HARRY! i told u not to use my email

  12. Yui permalink
    21 October, 2009 8:58 pm

    i (L) it

  13. Harry permalink
    21 October, 2009 9:01 pm

    yeah well i dont have an email yet an i wanted to comment on this jeez ur so selfish!

  14. Yui permalink
    21 October, 2009 9:02 pm

    well at least ask next time. sorry Kumar these posts are just a waste of space.

  15. Bruce permalink
    21 October, 2009 9:05 pm

    I don’t get poems. Poets seem to be disturbed people that try to kill themselves. they should just play some Xbox, COD 4 the win!! Can’t wait for Modern Warfare 2.

    • Trent permalink
      21 October, 2009 9:07 pm

      Whats ur gamertag

    • Bruce permalink
      29 October, 2009 2:54 pm

      my gamertag is 123DoucheLOL

  16. Hayley permalink
    21 October, 2009 9:10 pm

    Luv u Kumar u saved me, im not gonna fail my english assignment thanks to u! ❤ xoxoxoxoxoxoxox

  17. Ben_Hammer permalink
    21 October, 2009 9:29 pm

    Wish i understood poems as well as u did. GIVE ME YOUR POWERS!! >:-(

  18. Mastur Cheif permalink
    21 October, 2009 9:32 pm

    Hello i am mastur chief lollollollollollollollollllollololoolololollol!!

    my rofl knife goes slice slice slice slice slice!!

    😀

  19. Douchebag permalink
    29 October, 2009 2:48 pm

    my rofl knife goes slice slice slice slice slice!!

  20. Douchebag permalink
    29 October, 2009 2:49 pm

    Retard write comments about the poem master cheif douchebag

  21. Bruce permalink
    29 October, 2009 2:55 pm

    I DONT GET THE FISH THING x2

  22. eman permalink
    9 January, 2010 4:39 am

    its great poem , but when have it as assignment its not . lol
    thanks a lot for great efforts

  23. John permalink
    7 February, 2010 1:00 am

    You’re a retard… made up symbolism… awful nonsense… get a life

  24. chloe permalink
    8 February, 2010 1:17 am

    My interpretation is that the boy feels he is not grieving, however his emotions are all over the place, which is part of the greiving process. So he is really, but simply does not realise.

    Im probably wrong, but that’s how I took it.

    XXXXX

  25. 4 March, 2010 5:38 am

    i truly enjoy your posting way, very remarkable,
    don’t quit and also keep penning as it simply just truly worth to look through it,
    excited to see even more of your own content pieces, enjoy your day 😉

  26. teddy permalink
    8 March, 2010 11:56 pm

    hey!! i have done this in class with my teacher and i did not really get the goldfish thing myself but then she explained it to us, i am doing hw on it so my being on the computer should not get me into trouble should it? at first i thought that he is comparing to a gold fish because he felt all the eyes watching him in the assembly when his grief came in but my teacher thought otherwise:

    goldfish are indifferent to the world as they live in glass bowl, they do not feel any emotions (that is the persona”s emotions) the have a different world from us, so the persona is feeling closed, by grief and disconnected from his surroundings he can only feel and register his own grief and nothing else. he wishes to be alone so he can cry without having the many eyes of the children in the assembly watching him, this is where his pride comes in., he may also be liking the attention that he is getting, as he is a loser bullied from other children so he wont’ show that he is anything less by crying .the fin comes in like this.
    flashed = it is unexpected

    so he had an unexpected emotions in him, pride – he does not want to show the others he is weak, grief for his lose

    hope this helps!!

    i really do not feel like doing hw right now 😦

    x teddy x

  27. unknown permalink
    14 May, 2010 5:36 pm

    this poem is great !!!

  28. 30 October, 2010 12:47 am

    I think that the goldfish thing, is a metaphor. A comparison to his life at school, repetitive and boring. I don’t know…I’m not as smart as you Kumar…You’re very bright for a fifteen year old. I’m the same age. 😀

  29. hahahha permalink
    17 April, 2011 4:26 pm

    Well, actually, this is what i understand.
    The boy at first, cries for ”knowledge”
    Knowledge of the fact that his dad died so he wont be bullied and will be pitied by others. But then he cried for shame . Shame here because he feels ashamed at the fact he was thinking of being a ”martyr” – ”taking advantage of his fathers death” . Then relief. It is ironical that in this poem a ten year old realizes something many of us as adults still cant. The thing is he cries for relief because he realized what he was doing was wrong. he will not take any advantage of his father’s death. he feels ashamed to even have thought that way. making the world feel pity on you is, well, stupid ( it shows your weakness, baseness of character). And that, precisely, is ”THE LESSON” 🙂
    And the fish part . A Goldfish in its bowl is exposed to the world as it is, and it is indifferent to being so exposed. The boy is also being indifferent to all the eyes staring at him, when he’s crying. He’s indifferent, because he’s crying for a purpose. His father has died and he’s sad AND he’s learned an important life lesson. never to go about the world expecting people to pity you your entire life. And PRIDE, cuz he just discovered a lesson, a truth. 🙂
    Tell me what you all think?? 🙂

  30. zee permalink
    29 May, 2011 2:35 am

    plzz cn u tell mee watzz da metaphorr, personification and simile of dis poem nd hw da simile is effective…urgentlyy…plz

    • Wazeefa Barakat permalink
      14 March, 2012 6:47 am

      personification in dis poem is-my grief came in.-dis is what our teacher told us…SORRY IDK D REST!!

  31. Wazeefa Barakat permalink
    14 March, 2012 6:44 am

    to tel d truth i don’t undastand this poem….plez help me out someone..i have a test next week and this poem will be coming, but not on the paper we have to memorize it…we will get questions to answer about this poem…
    QUESTIONS LIKE-what the poem is about
    -list the theme and explain.eg. sadness
    -devices used in the poem and explain.eg..personsification
    -explain the GOLDFISH part.
    -and maybe explain the difficult lines like-
    “Your father’s gone,” my bald headmaster said.
    His shiny dome and brown tobacco jar
    Splintered at once in tears.
    AND
    that a father dead
    Could bind the bully’s fist a week or two;
    And then I cried for shame, then for relief.
    AND
    Somewhere in myself
    Pride, like a goldfish, flashed a sudden fin.
    PLEASE HELP ME!!!

  32. Jovi permalink
    17 August, 2012 11:58 am

    The Metaphor- Around the shining prison on its shelf. (Looks nice on the outside but it is not nice for the fish.)
    Personification- When My grief came in. (The students in the assembly hall see the boy come in who is really upset and see him as the boy whose dad has died.)
    The Simile- Pride, like a goldfish. (He is proud quickly and then it goes.)

  33. 15 April, 2013 7:33 pm

    High-quality article amid a sea of junk! Excellent writing and actually worth reading through.

    Have you contemplated becoming a freelance article writer?

    • we hate bruce permalink
      16 May, 2013 2:54 pm

      shut the fuck up you fuckin faggot

      • ^^ THIS GUY IS FUKING STUPID permalink
        1 June, 2013 3:15 pm

        go be immature somewhere else you peice of useless fuck.

  34. Andrea permalink
    2 June, 2013 7:37 pm

    which year did he write this poem? 🙂

  35. 17 December, 2013 11:54 pm

    what lesson does the title refer to ????

  36. 25 March, 2014 8:16 pm

    well done Kumar for the analysis, its great…..about the goldfish part I think that smith was saying that the boy was feeling proud and attracts attention just like the goldfish does because it knows its nice, and about the shining prison, I think that its comparing it to the boarding school and he is not happy and for him its like a prison and so is the goldfish inn the fish bowl , it has nowhere to go …..thanks for the analysis 🙂

  37. 30 June, 2014 6:03 pm

    You are amazing at analyzing and should really consider a career in writing. I am in high school and was given an assignment based on this poem. I frequently referenced to your blog while writing and found it a great source of creative opinions and helped allow me to think deeper into the poem. Here is the draft for my assignment:

    The reason I chose Edward Lucie Smith’s poem ‘The Lesson’ is because the more you read it, the more you understand. Just reading this poem once will make you think that the poem is simply about the grief of a boy losing his father. However, re-reading the poem gives you the understanding that the poem is actually about the boy’s innocence being stolen from him in his shame for attention. At the news of his father dead, the boy cries. Not because of grief, but for attention. He is confused and knows that he should be devastated because his father has passed but he can’t help but view the situation as a glass half full. He realizes that with his father dead, there is the advantage that the bullies will leave alone him. It is then in the second paragraph that he reveals the guilt he feels for the pride he felt from his father’s death. He then cries not because of sadness but because of the layer of shame for his pride in the attention gained.

    Poets have many purposes for writing a poem. Many write to express feelings and emotions as poetry allows this in the simplest of words. Edward Lucie Smith has done exactly that. He writes the poem to express the emotions and thoughts of the character. He is not arguing nor critiquing, but describing. He shows a different side to the typical story of death by writing a more realistic version of confusion and lack of understanding. As an audience, we sympathise for the boys mixed interpretations. However, the poet writes as if we should feel bad about feeling this. The boy in the poem wants this type of attention and replaces his grief of his father’s death for the pride in the pity he receives. Edward Smith has skilfully done this to make the audience question their feelings towards the boy. Should they feel apologetic or should they feel that the boy has done wrong? Making the audience question their feelings towards a poem is an excellent way of making a poem more interesting.

    Poetic techniques are devices to create effects in a poem that not only add dimension but also helps an audience understand the poem. For example, Edward Lucie Smith uses the poetic technique ‘symbolism’ by referring to a goldfish to express emotions felt. The goldfish symbolises the way the boy felt sitting in assembly on the day his father’s death was announced. From the poem we can predict that the boy does not have any friends and not a close relationship with his family and hence feels alone and isolated. This can be symbolised through a goldfish. A goldfish in its bowl is exposed but in the rush of everyday life is not often noticed. Then on assembly, when all eyes were staring towards him, he felt vulnerable. Edward Lucie Smith has also used the poetic techniques metaphor, simile and personification. A metaphor can be found in stanza two when it says ‘Around their shining prison on its shelf.’ This is once again referring to a goldfish but this time it is referring to the environment with the prison being the boarding school he attends. He finds it boring, repetitive and trapped with nowhere else to go, like a goldfish’s life in a bowl. Personification is also used in the second stanza when it says “When my grief comes in.” The poet gives the emotion grief human qualities of being able to enter a room. Lastly, simile is used in the second stanza, “Pride, like a goldfish, flashed a sudden fin.” This once again refers to a goldfish. The boy is proud but it quickly passes like a goldfish’s memory. Using these various poetic techniques helped the audience understand the poem by relating the certain aspects and emotions with familiar circumstances. The devices helped reach Edward Lucie’s purpose for writing the poem as it helped describe the feelings and emotions of a character experiencing the reactions of death but also to affect the feelings towards the poem of the audience.

    Reading poetry is a virtue that should be practiced more frequently. I believe that most teenagers try to avoid poetry as it tends to be compact, with meaning to every word, rather than straightforward meanings. It requires thinking and interpretation and in a time conscious generation, is often excluded from teenagers reading pattern. However reading poetry has several key advantages of academic, intellectual, empathetic and emotional benefits according to an American news sit, Global Post (Brittany Howard , 2014). The poem ‘The Lesson’ not only educates an audience of an uncommon reaction towards a death but also demonstrates key poetic techniques being used and showing how they make a situation easier to relate to. Death is not something anyone can avoid. It is important to understand certain feelings and emotions one may encounter and this poem highlights a very realistic emotion felt.

    Overall, Edward Lucie Smith aimed to describe the feelings and emotions of a character experiencing the reactions of death but also to affect the feelings towards the poem of the audience. I believe he has succeeded in meeting the requirements of his purpose. He has done this though using various poetic techniques to help the audience understand by relating to familiar events and has used a realistic story line that is beyond the typical death story. It important to read poems like ‘The Lesson’ due to the extent of advantages and thinking required.

  38. 7 May, 2015 7:46 am

    THIS WAS AWESOME !
    my teacher even used it !
    fun fact: did you know that fc Barcelona beat Bayern munchen today !
    6/05/15

    • Oneilgayle permalink
      9 January, 2017 7:21 am

      Eat shit Bayern for life

  39. Christina permalink
    20 June, 2016 5:00 pm

    i am a 58 year old grandmother now. i first heard this poem when i attended Manor Park Girls School in Aston Birmingham. At the time i was about 13 or 14. It was 1971 and I had lost my father. i don’t remember now which came first, the death of my father or the poem but somehow it stuck with me for years but i could only really remember the first line, your father’s dead, the bald headteacher said. Thank God for the internet to help us recall things in our minds that become so fragmented that we wonder if it ever existed at all. I was delighted when I came across this blog. i have enjoyed all the comments that contributed to the interpretation of the The Lesson.

    When my father died I was fortunate not to have suffered bullying but a small argument between another class mate whom i was not close to blurted out oh and i am glad your father’s dead. I said nothing and considered filling my pen with ink from the inkpot on our desks and making sure it ruined her white shirt. I didn’t. We were so conditioned to restrain ourselves and I wish now over and over again that i had used the opportunity to knock her lights out. On reflection I am sure I would have been given some sympathy from the teachers and escape punishment. I can’t even remember the girl’s name now. She might remember the incident as it strikes me as one of those things that you remain ashamed of for life as you look back at the thoughtless things you might have said or done as a child. The point is, we are always looking for some leverage, advantage or attention. My response would not have been not only for the hurt she had caused me but the fact I could have given her the hiding she richly deserved…. and get away with it. The fact that despite the passage of time my only regret is not taking advantage of the death of my father.

    The other part of the poem that resonated with me was the goldfish sculling around the bowl. It takes me back to the morning of my father’s death. My mother had sent me to the Post Office. That morning it had rained but the sun suddenly came out and I could hear people laughing between themselves. The traffic rattled it’s way along the main road and I felt a sense of indignation as to how the sun was shining, people were happy and world was just churning as it always did. Didn’t they know my dad died this morning? The Goldfish was doing what it always did oblivious to anyone else’s business unless of course something happened to change it’s course. In essence you are always alone despite thinking the rest of the world is watching you.

  40. Oneilgayle permalink
    9 January, 2017 7:15 am

    This poem is shit

  41. Oneilgayle permalink
    9 January, 2017 7:20 am

    What does the author mean by griffin has uses

  42. Deyna Mclawrence permalink
    1 May, 2017 10:27 am

    Pride like a goldfish, flashed a sudden fin. What does this suggest about the speakers response to his grief?

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