D. H. Lawrence’s "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"

Updated on April 25, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

D. H. Lawrence

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Introduction and Text of "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"

D. H. Lawrence’s poem, "Last Lesson of the Afternoon," 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.")

Last Lesson of the Afternoon

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 "Last Lesson of the Afternoon"

Commentary

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.

First Movement: 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.

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 responses that the trainer is trying to instill in them. This teacher comes to the conclusion that he can no longer continue 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.

Second Movement: Lack of Patience and Love for the Young

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.

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 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.

Third Movement: 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!

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.

Fourth Movement: Wasting Away Like Embers

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 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.

Questions & Answers

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    13 months ago from U.S.A.

    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.

  • profile image

    Jack 

    13 months ago

    Here is the version I mentioned. No 'embers' in this one, but much more taut, concentrated and compelling distillation in the poem's second half, I think...

    Last Lesson of the Afternoon

    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 longer now can I endure 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 what on earth is the good of it all?

    What good to them or me, I cannot see!

    So, shall I take

    My last dear fuel of life to heap on my soul

    And kindle my will to a flame that shall consume

    Their dross of indifference; and take the toll

    Of their insults in punishment? – I will not! –

    I will not waste my soul and my strength for this.

    What do I care for all they do amiss!

    What is the point of this teaching of mine, and of this

    Learning of theirs? It all goes down the same abyss.

    What does it matter to me, if they can write

    A description of a dog, or if they can’t?

    What is the point? To us both, it is all my aunt!

    And yet I’m supposed to care, with all my might.

    I do not, and will not; they won’t and they don’t; and that’s all!

    I shall keep my strength for myself; they can keep theirs as well.

    Why should we beat our heads against the wall

    Of each other? I shall sit and wait for the bell.

  • profile image

    Jack 

    13 months ago

    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...

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    23 months ago from U.S.A.

    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!

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 

    23 months ago from Taos, NM

    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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