‘Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson’ was published in Lawrence’s Love Poems. It is in one of the three sections in the volume titled, “The Schoolmaster”. This analysis is concerned with the definitive two stanza version of ‘Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson’. There is a longer six stanza version, later revised by Lawrence, as well.
Lawrence creates a pessimistic and drained mood in ‘Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson’ as the teacher/speaker contends with a class of careless students. Lawrence’s tone as he addresses themes of education, mental/emotional wellness, and duty is reflective, yet determined. He crafted a speaker that is aware of his duties to his school and his students but has come to a clear conclusion that it is beyond him to educate them.
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The poem expresses a teacher’s exhaustion over the 60 students he’s supposed to be in charge of. Despite his best efforts, he has come to the conclusion that there’s nothing he can do to teach students who don’t want to learn. They do lazy work, ignore his instruction, and he’s tired of it. The speaker determines that the last “embers” of his life are not going to be wasted on these students as that would only make him hate them more. Rather, he’s going to save some strength for himself and sit and wait for the bell to ring.
‘Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson’ by D.H. Lawrence is a two stanza poem that’s divided into one set of eleven lines and another set of twelve. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme but there are scattered instances of full rhyme and half-rhyme throughout the text. For example, full or perfect rhyme can be seen at the endings of lines two and three of the first stanza with “apart” and “start” as well as at the end of lines four and six with “hunt” and “brunt”.
Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For instance, “endure” and “urge” in lines five and six of the first stanza and “slovenly,” “me,” and “weariedly” in lines nine and eleven of the same stanza.
Lawrence makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson’. These include alliteration, enjambment, anaphora, and caesura. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. This is one of the most prominent and important techniques in the piece. There are examples throughout the two stanzas, such as “bear” and “brunt” in line six of the first stanza and “Some,” “strength,” and “sell” in line ten of the second stanza.
Anaphora is a kind of repetition, seen through the reuse of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For instance, “Of” which starts lines seven, eight, and nine of the first stanza.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line three of the first stanza: “My pack of unruly hounds: I cannot start” and in line five of the second stanza: “Of their insults in punishment? – I will not!”
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples of enjambment within ‘Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson’ including the transitions between lines two and three of the first stanza and nine and ten of the second.
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.
In the first lines of ‘Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson,’ the speaker begins by asking the reader a rhetorical question. He wants to know when the “bell” will ring and his “weariness” will come to an end. Since the reader does have the title available it is easy to work out that this bell is connected to the end of a school day. Rather than what one might initially assume, it is not a student willing the end of class but the teacher.
In lines two and three, Lawrence uses a metaphor to compare the teacher’s students to a “pack of unruly hounds”. They “tugged the leash” he tried to keep them on and pushed back against all his attempts to bring them to “knowledge”.
The teacher expresses his exasperation in the next lines over his student’s unwillingness to “hunt” for knowledge. Despite his best efforts, it appears the students have won and he is exhausted. He declares that he can “haul them,” as one would pull a dog, “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
slovenly work that they have offered me.
I am sick, and tired more than any thrall
Upon the woodstacks working weariedly.
In the next lines of Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson,” the teacher resigns himself to the inevitable. He knows that his endurance is shot. He can no longer “bear the brunt” his students inflict on him. The teacher looks around his room and sees the “book that lie out on the desks”. Within them, there are “several insults of blotted pages and scrawl” The sixty students he’s in charge of only do meager, lazy work.
In these lines, there is a repetition of words associated with the speaker’s worn out, tired mental state. He is “sick, and tired,” even more so, he says than a “thrall,” or servant who is made to work “Upon the woodstacks”. The alliteration in this final line is powerful, leading the reader to the beginning of the next stanza.
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 first part of the second stanza of ‘Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson’ begins with the speaker asking if its right of him to “take / The last dear fuel,” meaning, his energy, and use it to rouse his own soul to the task. He knows that if he does so then nothing will change. It is not worth his effort to destroy himself in order to help those who do not want to be helped.
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.
In the final lines of ‘Afternoon in School: The Last Lesson,’ the speaker concludes by saying that he’s not going to waste the last of his motivation and strength on these students he’s supposed to be in charge of. His life is compared to the “embers” of a fire that’s slowly burning out, he’s going to utilize what’s left of himself for something he actually wants to do. He’s going to “keep / Some of [his] strength” for himself.
The speaker concludes by declaring that if he did waste the last of himself on these terrible students then he would “hate them”. Rather than trying, he’s going to “sit and wait for the bell” just as they are.