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Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The 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.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Introduction and Text of "The Lesson"

In Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Lesson," the speaker is dramatizing a little "lesson" he learned about turning sorrow into joy. At first, he felt that he could not compose a little song, even as he listened intently to the beauty of the mocking bird's warbles.

But while listening, the speaker discovers that joy seems to be coming out of gloom of night through the song of the bird. As the bird-song has cheered the speaker, he becomes aware that he can cheer others with his own compositions. Thus, he is motivated to compose his cheerful little tune in order to cheer others.

The Lesson

My cot was down by a cypress grove,
And I sat by my window the whole night long,
And heard well up from the deep dark wood
A mocking-bird's passionate song.

And I thought of myself so sad and lone,
And my life's cold winter that knew no spring;
Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,
Of my heart too sad to sing.

But e'en as I listened the mock-bird's song,
A thought stole into my saddened heart,
And I said, "I can cheer some other soul
By a carol's simple art."

For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives
Come songs that brim with joy and light,
As out of the gloom of the cypress grove
The mocking-bird sings at night.

So I sang a lay for a brother's ear
In a strain to soothe his bleeding heart,
And he smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre,
Though mine was a feeble art.

But at his smile I smiled in turn,
And into my soul there came a ray:
In trying to soothe another's woes
Mine own had passed away.

Reading of "The Lesson"

Commentary

Despite his humble appraisal of his own ability to create his art, the speaker in Dunbar's "The Lesson" learns that by creating some beauty in a little song he can relieve the pain in the heart of a fellow human being.

First Stanza: Listening in Melancholy

My cot was down by a cypress grove,
And I sat by my window the whole night long,
And heard well up from the deep dark wood
A mocking-bird's passionate song.

The speaker in Dunbar's "The Lesson" begins by describing his location: he is sitting in his little cottage which is situated down by a cypress grove. Unable to sleep, he remains by his window the whole night long. As he sits with his melancholy, he listens to the passionate song of a mockingbird.

Second Stanza: Self-Pity

And I thought of myself so sad and lone,
And my life's cold winter that knew no spring;
Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,
Of my heart too sad to sing.

The speaker reports that he is feeling quite sorry for himself: he is sad and lonely. His life is like one long winter that never changes into spring. His mind races, becoming "weary and sick and wild."

Emotionally, the speaker is distraught with a heart too sad to sing. He intimates that even though he is a poet, the inspiration of hearing the mockingbird is not enough to elicit from him a few strains.

Third Stanza: Bringing Cheer to Others

But e'en as I listened the mock-bird's song,
A thought stole into my saddened heart,
And I said, "I can cheer some other soul
By a carol's simple art."

As the speaker continues to listen to the song of the mockingbird, the notion that if he just composed some little tune, he might be able to cheer someone else, who is feeling as depressed as he has felt.

The speaker, therefore, determines, "I can cheer some other soul / By a carol's simple art." The pain of his own heart and its reaction to the joyful bird sound combined to produce a creative urge in the suffering speaker.

Fourth Stanza: Joy Born of Darkness

For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives
Come songs that brim with joy and light,
As out of the gloom of the cypress grove
The mocking-bird sings at night.

The speaker surmises that joy can be born of "darkness of hearts and lives." When sorrow and pain are fashioned into some art form, they may produce beauty that brings joy.

The speaker conceives this notion after listening to the joyful sound of the mockingbird which is coming out of the gloom of the cypress grove. Although it is night, dark and cheerless, the merry sound of the bird reminds the speaker that joy can come from that darkness. A bird singing at night makes the night luminous with delight.

Fifth Stanza: Singing for One's Fellows

So I sang a lay for a brother's ear
In a strain to soothe his bleeding heart,
And he smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre,
Though mine was a feeble art.

With this thought of joy coming from sorrow, the speaker then composes his little song for a brother's ear. Just as the speaker/poet had hoped to soothe his bleeding heart, so his hope is realized when his brother smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre.

And even though the speaker describes his art as "feeble," it worked to bring a smile to his fellow human's face. He is functioning as the mockingbird had done: out of his gloom and darkness comes his little cheerful song, and his art brings a smile to his brother.

Sixth Stanza: Joy Through Cheering Others

But at his smile I smiled in turn,
And into my soul there came a ray:
In trying to soothe another's woes
Mine own had passed away.

The speaker is further rewarded by his own change of heart; by turning his fellow's gloom to sunshine, he brings joy back into his own life: "In trying to soothe another's woes / Mine own had passed away."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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