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D. H. Lawrence’s "Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

D. H. Lawrence

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Introduction and Text of "Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson”

D. H. Lawrence’s poem, "Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson,” appears in his collection, titled Love Poems. The collection organizes the poems into three sections: Love Poems, Dialect Poems, and The Schoolmaster. This poem, “Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson,” appears in the section, “The Schoolmaster.” This collection was published in New York by Mitchell Kinerley in 1915.

This two-stanza version of the poem is Lawrence’s final revision of the poem. Unfortunately, an earlier draft of this poem featuring six stanzas is widely disseminated on the internet, and that version is inferior to the two-stanza version. I suggest that if you encounter the six-stanza version, please ignore it in favor of the two-stanza version, offered in this article and here in the 1915 publication.

This poem contains some rimes that are scattered throughout the four movements. Likely the rimes occur rather accidentally, and do not, in fact, rise to the level of an actual "scheme." These seemingly haphazard rimes play well in dramatizing the utter boredom of the teacher.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson

When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?
How long have they tugged the leash, and strained apart
My pack of unruly hounds: I cannot start
Them again on a quarry of knowledge they hate to hunt,
I can haul them and urge them no more.
No more can I endure to bear the brunt
Of the books that lie out on the desks: a full three score
Of several insults of blotted pages and scrawl
Of slovenly work that they have offered me.
I am sick, and tired more than any thrall
Upon the woodstacks working weariedly.

And shall I take
The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul
Till I rouse my will like a fire to consume
Their dross of indifference, and burn the scroll
Of their insults in punishment? - I will not!
I will not waste myself to embers for them,
Not all for them shall the fires of my life be hot,
For myself a heap of ashes of weariness, till sleep
Shall have raked the embers clear: I will keep
Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell
It all for them, I should hate them -
- I will sit and wait for the bell.

Reading of "Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson"

Commentary

The teacher in "Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson" is dramatizing the uninspired performance of his lackluster students and then vows to himself to cease torturing his own soul by wasting of his time and effort in trying to instruct them.

First Stanza: Student Dogs

When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?
How long have they tugged the leash, and strained apart
My pack of unruly hounds: I cannot start
Them again on a quarry of knowledge they hate to hunt,
I can haul them and urge them no more.
No more can I endure to bear the brunt
Of the books that lie out on the desks: a full three score
Of several insults of blotted pages and scrawl
Of slovenly work that they have offered me.
I am sick, and tired more than any thrall
Upon the woodstacks working weariedly.

The scenario described in this poem begins and ends with the teacher himself eagerly awaiting the bell that will eventually ring and end a boring, lifeless class.

The speaker compares his uninspired students to dogs that pull on the leash trying to free themselves from his instruction. They do not want to learn, and he does not want to continue trying to teach them. This teacher comes to the conclusion that he can no longer keep up this charade of teaching and learning that is not happening. He desires to free himself from this the same cage that he deems these students so unwillingly occupy.

This teacher does not have the patience or love for the young to teach; he is weary, and he cannot empathize with these students who can muster only a lackluster performance. He loathes facing the many papers with badly written scrawls that disgust him. His sixty charges have handed in to him "slovenly work," and he is bone tired of having to confront it. The speaker asserts that it does him no service, but it also does not serve his students as well. The speaker declares that it does not matter, if they are able to write about what they lack interest in anyway. He finds it all pointless. He bitterly complains repeatedly about the ultimate purpose of all this activity.

Second Stanza: Unjustified Expenditure of Energy

And shall I take
The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul
Till I rouse my will like a fire to consume
Their dross of indifference, and burn the scroll
Of their insults in punishment? - I will not!
I will not waste myself to embers for them,
Not all for them shall the fires of my life be hot,
For myself a heap of ashes of weariness, till sleep
Shall have raked the embers clear: I will keep
Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell
It all for them, I should hate them -
- I will sit and wait for the bell.

The speaker then assumes that even if he commits all of his energy of efforts to these students, he cannot justify to himself the expenditure of that energy. His very soul is being wasted in attempts to teach the unteachable. He senses that he is being insulted by the students’ lack of motivation and desire to achieve.

The speaker has determined that there is no value in struggling to impart knowledge to a bunch of seemingly braindead urchins who possess not a shred of desire to acquire an education. This teacher proclaims his intention to stop using up his soul power in vain attempts to teach these recalcitrant unteachables. He looks fate in the eye and finds that no matter what he does, no matter what they do, it all goes down to the same nothingness. Whether he teachers or not, it does not matter. Whether they learn or not, it does not matter.

The bored teacher likens his life to "embers" of a fire that is slowly burning out. And he insists that he will not allow himself to become a simple ash heap from burning himself out while attempting to accomplish the impossible. If sleep will rake the embers clear, he will, instead, save his energy for more worthwhile activities that will actually enhance his life, instead of draining it of vitality. The speaker implies that as a teacher, he is obligated to assume responsibly with all his strength, but by doing so, he wastes himself on a futile mission. Thus, he makes a vow to himself to cease this purposeless activity. Nothing he does can influence these poor souls, so why, he asks himself, should he continue to do it? Why torture himself as he tortures the undeliverable?

The speaker/teacher can no longer care, if, in fact, he ever did. He feels that the effort is not worth it. He must move on. Vaguely, he implies that teachers are born, not made. The disgruntled teacher has landed on his perfect thought. Like the students who resist learning, he has become the teacher who will resist teaching. He will "sit and wait for the bell," just as his students are doing. If they do not want to learn, then he concludes, why should he want to teach? He is tried of wasting his efforts on a futile activity. The battle between unwilling student and unenthusiastic teacher ends in a stalemate. The image of them both sitting and waiting for the bell to ring signals a rather sad scenario of futility.

Alliteration in Lawrence's "Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson"

In the first stanza of D. H. Lawrence's "Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson," the following lines contain what upon first impression might be considered "alliteration." The initial consonants are capitalized, bolded, and italicized for easy recognition:

Line 1: When Will the bell ring, and end this Weariness?
Lines 4 and 5: they Hate to Hunt, / I can Haul them
Lines 6 and 7: to Bear the Brunt / Of the Books
Lines 7, 8, and 9: Score / Of Several insults of blotted pages and Scrawl / Of Slovenly
Line 11: Woodstacks Working Weariedly

Despite the obvious repetition of initial consonantal sound, the poetic purpose for the use of alliteration is not fulfilled in any of those consonant groups, and therefore I suggest that true poetic alliteration is not actually employed in this poem.

Poets/writers employ "Alliteration" in both poetry and prose in order to create a musically rhythmic sound. Alliterative sound renders to the flow of words a beauty which attracts the auditory nerves making the language both more enjoyable and more easily remembered. None of this is happening in Lawrence's lines with the supposed alliteration, especially lines 4-5, 6-7, and 7-8-9, which spill over onto the next line, thus separating the alliterative group.

Illustration from Anne of Green Gables

Questions & Answers

Question: Which idea does D.H. Lawrence's poem, "Last Lesson" begin and end with?

Answer: Waiting for the bell to ring.

Question: Can you give two examples of the use of metaphors in D.H. Lawrence's poem, "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: 1. "pack of unruly hounds."

2. "till sleep / Shall have raked the embers clear."

Question: What is D.H. Lawrence's final decision or resolve in "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: The speaker of the poem, who is a bored and disappointed teacher, decides to just sit and wait for the bell to ring, the same as his lazy, dull-witted students. Likely, he will quit his teaching job because he feels that it is causing him to waste his time trying to teach the unteachable.

Question: Lawrence seems angry in this poem. why?

Answer: The speaker of the poem is not angry; he is weary as he announces in the opening line. He is tired of trying to teach students who lack the interest to appreciate the subject matter.

Question: In D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon," what is the poet's final decision or resolve?

Answer: The speaker/teacher in the little drama decides to just sit and wait for the bell to ring.

Question: The speaker of this poem shows his feelings in the poem. Is he sad?

Answer: The speaker is not "sad"; he is annoyed, bored, and becoming bitter about trying to teach students who are not interested in learning.

Question: What impressions do you form of the students described in D.H. Lawrence's poem "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: That they are uninterested in learning.

Question: What is the content of the poem "Last Lesson of the Afternoon" by D.H. Lawrence?

Answer: The speaker is a teacher who is expounding on his exasperation at trying to teach students who are too stubborn and lazy to try to learn. He decides he will stop wasting his time bothering with them. He will sit and wait for the bell to ring to end this boring class.

Question: In Lawrence's "The Last Lesson of the Afternoon," why is the teacher reluctant to teach the class that day?

Answer: The teacher in D.H. Lawrence's "The Last Lesson of the Afternoon" has become very tired of trying to teach students who do not want to learn.

Question: Why is the sight of the notebooks unbearable to the teacher in "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: Because of the “slovenly work” within them.

Question: What is meant by the term "weariness" in D.H. Lawrence's poem, "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: It means the teacher is tired, annoyed, and dissatisfied with his job.

Question: What is the tone of D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: The controlling bitterness of the speaker's tone dramatizes the plight of a weary, disgruntled teacher who begins in weariness and ends in the determination not to let the situation destroy his own soul.

Question: What does the teacher compare his life to in D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: The speaker compares his life to "embers" left by a fire that is slowly burning out.

Question: What does the expression of "dross of indifference" mean?

Answer: "Dross of indifference" means wasted time and effort because of taking a non-attentive attitude.

Question: What is the tone the poet is using in "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: Bitterness.

Question: Is a hound that same as a wolf-hound?

Answer: "Hound" refers to any dog, including the hound-dog breeds, such as Bloodhound, Bluetick Coonhound, Dachshund, Beagle, or Wolfhound. Therefore, a "Wolfhound" is a hound, but a "hound" is not necessarily as Wolfhound.

Question: What is the speaker sick about?

Answer: The speaker is not sick as in ill; he is "sick, and tired" of trying to instruct students who do not want to learn.

Question: What does the speaker of the poem "Last Lesson of the Afternoon" want to do?

Answer: The teacher in "Last Lesson of the Afternoon" is dramatizing the uninspired performance of his lackluster students and then vows to himself to cease torturing his own soul with such a waste of time and effort.

Question: Suggest one reason for the students' behavior in Lawrence's "Last Lesson the Afternoon"?

Answer: The speaker in Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon" believes that the students are not interested in learning; they are indifferent and their indifference is causing them to waste their time and the time of the teacher.

Question: What does the teacher hate in the poem, "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: This teacher does not have the patience and love of the young to teach; he is weary, and he cannot empathize with these students who can muster only a lackluster performance. He loathes facing the many papers with badly written scrawls that disgust him. His sixty charges have handed into him "slovenly work," and he is bone tired of having to confront it. The speaker asserts that it does him no service, but it also does not serve his students as well. The speaker declares that it does not matter, if they are able to write about what they lack interest in anyway. He finds it all pointless. He bitterly complains repeatedly about the ultimate purpose of all this activity

Question: Why did D. H. Lawrence talk about "embers" in this draft of the poem?

Answer: The term "embers" expresses his feeling of his slow-dying inspiration brought on by the boredom he is enduring trying to teach the lackadaisical students.

Question: Where is the setting of the poem "Last Lesson of the Afternoon" by D. H. Lawrence?

Answer: A classroom

Question: To what weariness does the poet refer in stanza 1 of the poem "Last Lesson of the Afternoon" by D.H. Lawrence?

Answer: The speaker's weariness is caused by his boredom and disappointment because of the uncooperative attitudes of his students.

Question: Why is the speaker of D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon" irritated?

Answer: The speaker is annoyed that he has to try to teach pupils who do not want to learn.

Question: What time of day is described in the poem "Lat Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: Afternoon.

Question: Some versions of this poem have 6 stanzas, why does this one have only two?

Answer: The six-version poem is likely an earlier draft. Lawrence revised his poem, eliminating some clichés, adding the useful metaphor of the "embers," and tightening the structure; thus, his best version resulted in only two stanzas instead of the original six.

Question: Does this poem have any metaphors?

Answer: The lines, "How long have they tugged the leash, and strained apart / My pack of unruly hounds," features a metaphor of dogs that are straining against a leash.

Question: In stanza 4, the poet (remember he is a teacher) uses the word "abyss." What does he want to show about his own situation through the use of this word?

Answer: Please notice that there is no "stanza 4, nor does the term "abyss" appear in the version of the poem I use. I highly recommend that you study the version offered in my commentary; it is an improved revision and is likely the one that the poet hoped his readers would focus on.

Therefore, it is not appropriate for a commentary writer to focus on terms and issues that were filtered out of earlier drafts of the poet's work.

Question: What is the insult that the speaker refers to in stanza three?

Answer: The speaker is insulted by the sloppy work that the lazy, stubborn students hand in for homework.

Question: In stanza five, Lawrence says "And yet I'm supposed to care, with all my might." With reference to the notes for the poem, what does this mean?

Answer: You are referring to an earlier draft of Lawrence's poem, which he likely did not intend for publication and scrutiny. Noice that there is no "stanza 5" nor the line, "And yet I'm supposed to care, with all my might" in the version of the poem on which I commented. Nor are there any notes attached to this draft.

Therefore, I cannot address your question because it is inappropriate for commenters to focus on earlier drafts of poems that poets had improved and polished for publication.

Question: In D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon," what is the speaker sick about?

Answer: The speaker is only "sick" as in the expression "sick and tired." He even says so in the line, "I am sick, and tired more than any thrall." He simply resents having to teach students whom he deems incapable of learning.

Question: In what sense is "toll" applicable to the speaker's situation?

Answer: Only that the speaker/teacher is awaiting the tolling of the bell to end class. He is wary of the students he disdains; thus he very much wants to hear that toll of the bell.

While the word "toll" does appear in an earlier draft of this poem, the poet's final draft eliminated it along with several other issues that diminished the poem's effectiveness. I recommend that you study the final version used in my commentary; it is the one the poet finally recognized as his best draft.

Question: Why does the poet think of his pupils as a pack of unruly hounds?

Answer: The students defy the teacher's attempt to teach them as "unruly hounds" defy their traitors' efforts to teach them or take them for walks. As dogs tug at their leashes, the students tug at the restraints imposed by a teacher trying to teach.

Question: In D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon," what metaphor does the speaker use in the opening lines of the poem? With which words is this metaphor sustained?

Answer: The speaker metaphorically compares his stubborn students to dogs that "have they tugged the leash, and strained apart / My pack of unruly hounds."

Question: Why are there only two stanzas in "Last Lesson of the Afternoon" when the one I read had six?

Answer: You have been directed to an inferior, earlier version of Lawrence's poem. The draft I use is his improved, polished, final draft.

Question: A comparison is made in the first stanza of "Last Lesson of the Afternoon". What two things are compared?

Answer: First of all, please note that the draft of this poem that I used is not sectioned into stanzas. In lines 2 and 3, the speaker metaphorically compares his students to dogs.

Question: Which idea does D.H. Lawrence's poem, "Last Lesson of the Afternoon," begin and end with?

Answer: The poem begins with the teacher anticipating the bell ringing--this is the end of class. It ends the same way-- the teacher sitting and waiting for the bell to ring. The beginning idea and ending idea are the same, anticipating of the bell ringing signaling the end of the wearisome class.

Question: In stanza 3 of the poem " Last Lesson of the Afternoon" the speaker seems angry; why?

Answer: The speaker/teacher is not angry; he is tired of teaching students who do not want to learn. Also note that you are studying an earlier draft of the poem. The improved version that I use has only 2 stanzas.

Question: What is the "it" referred to in the second stanza?

Answer: The "it" in the line, "The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul," refers to "last dear fuel." And in the lines, "Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell / It all for them," "it" refers to strength.

Question: What are synonyms for "amiss," "hounds," "weariness," and "abyss"?

Answer: Please realize that the draft of the poem that I use only contains 2 terms from your list, "hounds" and "weariness." A synonym for "hounds" is "dogs." For "weariness" "tiredness."

If you are studying this poem, I recommend that you focus on the more poetic version that I use for my commentary.

Question: In D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon," what comparison is suggested in the line, "My pack of unruly hounds"?

Answer: The teacher is metaphorically comparing his students to ungovernable dogs.

Question: What does "dross of indifference" mean in D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: In British English, the term "dross" refers to a type of coal that won't burn well. Thus it is considered waste or refuses material.

Let's place the phrase "dross of indifference" in context, which is a question spanning the following five lines:

1 And shall I take

2 The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul

3 Till I rouse my will like a fire to consume

4 Their dross of indifference, and burn the scroll

5 Of their insults in punishment?

Notice that the speaker begins a metaphor of burning fuel to rouse his will. He is asking if he should bother burning the fuel, using his energy, to eliminate the waste of those student's "indifference" and then insult them by punishing them. He considers this act one that would take too much of his energy, "the last dear fuel," that he possesses. And he feels that it is not worth his time and energy.

Question: Which metaphor is used in the first movement of D. H. Lawrence’s "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"?

Answer: Dogs: "My pack of unruly hounds"

Question: What is an example of the extended metaphor?

Answer: The second stanza employs an extended metaphor beginning with "And shall I take / The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul . . . "

Question: Why does the speaker of D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson" describe his learners as a "pack of unruly hounds"?

Answer: Because they are undisciplined and uninterested in learning. They lack control and it is difficult for this teacher to give them direction. They are likely a normal bunch of students that a master teacher would likely find a fascinating challenge. But this teacher is not really interested in teaching and feels that he is wasting his time trying to train bunch of mad dogs.

Question: What is this poem, "Last Lesson of the Afternoon," about?

Answer: A teacher who is bored with his lackadaisical students.

Question: In D.H. Lawrence's "Last Lesson of the Afternoon," why does the poet think of his pupils as a pack of unruly hounds?

Answer: The speaker/teacher likens his students to undisciplined dogs because like dogs the students pull on the leash of his teaching trying to free themselves from his instruction. They do not want to learn, and they do not respond appropriately to the lessons he is trying to instill in them.

Question: In D.H. Lawrence's, "Last Lesson of the Afternoon," with which idea does the poem begin and end?

Answer: The idea that the bored teacher will simply sit and wait for the bell to ring to end the wearisome class.

Question: Is “pack of unruly hounds” a metaphor ?

Answer: Yes, it is.

Question: Which idea does the poem "Last Lesson of the Afternoon" by D.H. Lawrence begin and end with?

Answer: Sitting and waiting for the bell to ring.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on July 24, 2017:

Jack, your claims do not hold up. The version most widely published, the one I used, is more "concentrated" possessing 5 fewer lines. That version eliminates the cliche, "it's all my aunt!" It also tightens the text by eliminating repetitive language.

The poet added "embers" for a good reason! The term expresses his feeling of a slow-dying inspiration brought on by the boredom he is absorbing from the bored students. The term "embers" actually adds polish and distillation to the verse. Not likely that the poet would have made such a grievous error as to remove it for a final draft.

The version you offer is likely an earlier version, not the final one.

Jack on July 24, 2017:

I'm pretty sure the text of the poem you have there is not Lawrence's final version of this poem. It certainly isn't the most polished. The version I am familiar with is from The New Dragon Book of Verse...

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 26, 2016:

Suzette, congratulations on such a long career as a teacher. And thank you for your service. I also taught for a number of years in junior high, high school, and at university, but I never felt that that profession really had my heart. I taught about 20 years but not all consecutively.

I also identified with Lawrence's poem, perhaps, more than you did. I especially feel the line, "I will not waste my soul and strength for this"--that was my feeling as I retired early from the profession.

But admire your attitude greatly and think I could have achieved it if I had tried harder. Thanks for you comment. Have a great day!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 26, 2016:

I enjoyed this poem and your analysis very much. I am a retired teacher and I can relate to how he feels. But, I must say that every time I felt this way, the next day, or a particular student, would "get it" and inspire me to continue teaching. I kept teaching for 3o years and the advantages out weighed the disadvantages and I found more inspirational students than I did the lazy hounds.

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