In Mrs Tilscher’s Class paints a vivid picture of a young child’s experience in primary school, under the tutelage of the much-loved Mrs Tilscher. The poem also traces the end of the child’s journey from innocence to the tumult of adolescence, signalled by the poem’s last word: ‘thunderstorm’. You can read the whole poem here.
In Mrs Tilscher’s Class Analysis
There is an immediate sense of how Mrs Tilscher holds the children rapt during a geography lesson as she ‘chanted the scenery’. The list which follows: ‘Tana. Ethiopia. Khartoum. Aswan.’ is like an incantation, the full stops after each suggest a pause in which the child can imagine the exotic nature of the place. The image of ‘the chalky pyramids rubbed into dust’ works in two levels as they are, of course, literally rubbed off the blackboard but the children will also be imagining the dryness of the desert. The verse follows the routine of the morning, as the children learn for ‘an hour’ before their ‘skittle of milk’. As the day heats up so the windows are opened ‘with a long pole’. The use of personification in ‘The laugh of a bell’ and the noun ‘skittle’ instead of bottle for the milk inject a playfulness into the poem and captures the feel of childlike wonder and exuberance. The eighth line almost chimes with the assonance of ‘swung’ and ‘running’, as the poet makes effective use of internal rhyme.
This was better than home. Enthralling books.
The classroom glowed like a sweetshop,
Sugar paper. Coloured shapes. Brady and Hindley
Faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.
Duffy continues, as in the first stanza, to include tactile images which recreate a child’s experiences in the classroom. (If they are lucky enough to have a teacher such as Mrs Tilscher!) This verse begins with an affirmation, the full stop after which magnifies her point. Duffy makes good use of simile to liken school to a sweetshop, which suggests that it must have been a magical place indeed. Something of the light assonance of ‘sugar paper’ makes us almost feel the fragile parchment between our fingers. It is thus a shock to the reader to see the names of the notorious Moors murderers juxtaposed alongside the classroom decorations. The joy of Mrs Tilscher’s classroom almost manages to erase the horror of these atrocities, but not quite. Although ‘faint’ the horrors have not receded. The simile employed here effectively conveys the shadow cast and the fractured lives left behind. The choice of the word ‘smudge’ is effective since we can almost imagine the murders as being a blemish on this otherwise joyful, sunny period. The use of alliteration in ‘Faded’ and ‘faint’ combines with the soft assonance of ‘a’ sounds to lengthen out this sentence, almost as though the horror lingers on.
Life the affirmation before, is the simple statement ‘Mrs Tilscher loved you.’ followed by a list of her actions which proved this, such as the gold star and sharpened pencil. This is a poem which embraces all the senses, as though the poet cannily knows that everyone can recall some of the smells of their primary school. Even the ‘xylophone’s nonsense’ is a pleasure to hear.
The tone begins to change in the third stanza. Like the tadpoles, the children are getting bigger and less easy to govern as they follow the frogs ‘jumping and croaking/away from the lunch queue.’ Duffy cleverly uses the classroom vocabulary to describe the tadpoles which are ‘inky’ and progress from ‘commas into exclamation marks’. The sudden change in the wildlife could also symbolise the children who are growing up too, seemingly all of a sudden more aware of their bodies and each other. When the ‘rough boy’ takes it upon himself to explain the facts of life it signals a loss of innocence. The child’s shock is conveyed by her inability to cope with this information as she ‘kicks’ the boy but later looks at their parents ‘appalled’.
In the final stanza the mood changes again to indicate the burgeoning awareness of sexuality that comes with the onset of adolescence. The heat of the summer unsettled the children, as it is clearly not just the July sun which renders them ‘feverish’. The tension in the air is like ‘electricity’ and Duffy piles adjective upon adjective to accentuate the sense of discomfort the pupils feel. It becomes clear that Mrs Tilscher cannot answer all the questions, and although she remains kindly, the children must now ‘go it alone’. The caesura pause reinforces this by adding a sense of finality, as does the short sentence ‘Reports were handed out’. The images in this stanza are in stark contrast to the first, as here they are fraught with nervous energy, danger even, as opposed to the gentle, benevolent images earlier. One cannot imagine these children sitting calmly for an hour, listening to their teacher. The metaphor of ‘running through the gates’ symbolises the leaving behind of childish things, even if this means running headlong into a thunderstorm.
Structure and Form
In Mrs Tilscher’s Class is set out into four clear stanzas, the first two of eight lines and the latter of seven lines each. It is cleverly structured since it builds in momentum. The first two stanzas are slow, almost languorous, describing a lesson and the school day, then it suddenly builds up and before we know it, it is after Easter and the summer is upon the children. By the final stanza they seem almost baffled by the speedy passage of time and the energy is very different as the poem progresses.
The rhythm is loosely iambic pentameter and the poet often uses internal rhyme. The poem begins with the second person ‘You’ and she continues to use the second person throughout, giving the poem a direct and emphatic feel.
About Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy was born in Glasgow in 1955 and she is the current Poet Laureate in the UK. She is a Professor of poetry in Manchester Metropolitan University and has published several anthologies, many of the poems in which deal with issues of gender and sexuality. She is the first openly LGBT person to be Laureate, and she never shies away from contentious political issues. She has written poems on all the recent upheavals in the UK political scene, from unexpected election results to Scotland’s recent bid for independence.