The Lesson

Paul Laurence Dunbar

‘The Lesson’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar hones in on the power of empathy to soothe not just the woes of others but also ourselves.


Paul Laurence Dunbar

Nationality: American

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in June 1872.

He is considered one of the most important American poets of his time.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: By comforting others we mollify ourselves

Themes: Beauty, Nature, Recovery

Speaker: A sad person

Emotions Evoked: Compassion, Joyfulness, Sadness

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem is a beautiful expression of the healing effects of art steeped in compassion.

‘The Lesson’ is a poem that conveys a simple truth with profound clarity and emotion. Paul Laurence Dunbar employs a variety of imagery and figurative language to illustrate a familiar scene: an insomnia-afflicted poet stares into the night, consumed by their own sorrows.

What begins as a lamentation is eventually transformed into a beaming celebration of art and the transitive power of empathy. The speaker eventually forgets about their own troubles as they become wrapped up in the task of soothing the melancholy of another person.

The Lesson
Paul Laurence Dunbar

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 woodA 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 soulBy a carol's simple art."

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

So I sang a lay for a brother's earIn 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 woesMine own had passed away.


‘The Lesson’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar involves a speaker who realizes that the quickest way to remedy one’s own melancholy is by attempting to relieve another’s.

‘The Lesson’ begins with a speaker who sits awake at night, staring out their window at a grove of cypress trees. Consumed by their solitude and sadness, they perk up at the sound of a mockingbird singing in the trees surrounding their home. As the music of the bird starts to warm their chilled mood, they have a moment of epiphany: they decide to “cheer some other soul” with music as well.

After all, the speaker ruminates; it’s often through song that “joy and light” find their way into the dark and hapless moments of life. Picking up their instrument, the speaker begins to sing a song to “soothe the bleeding heart” of another.

The effect is instantaneous and elicits a smile from the face of the person they’re singing for. And although the speaker admits their music is a “feeble art,” — its beauty resides in its expression of empathy and compassion. The effect is transitive as well because the speaker begins to share the smile as well and finds themselves rejuvenated in the act of soothing “another’s woes.”

Structure and Form

‘The Lesson’ is composed of six quatrains with a rhyme scheme of ‘ABCB DEFE BGHG IJAJ KGKG LMNM.’ The poem uses both end-stopped lines and enjambment, but each quatrain expresses a contained thought or image, while each successive stanza builds chronologically on the speaker’s thought process. Although the rhyme scheme is not consistent throughout, the presence of sound devices like alliteration lends the poem a lyrical quality that echos the ballad being sung by the speaker (as well as the mockingbird’s own music).

Literary Devices

‘The Lesson’ contains examples of both visual imagery: “My cot was down by a cypress grove” (1); and auditory imagery: “A mocking-bird’s passionate song” (4). Dunbar also uses metaphors: “And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring” (6); “bleeding heart” (18). As well as personification: “Of my heart too sad to sing” (8); “A thought stole into my saddened heart” (10).

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

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.

In the first stanza of ‘The Lesson, ‘ the reader finds the speaker awake at their window, unable to sleep. Although it’s still ambiguous as to the reason why they’re not fast asleep, there are hints of their despondent state of mind, including their insomnia and the diction used to describe the forest as a “deep dark wood” (3). It’s out of this ominous location that a “mocking-bird’s passionate song” bursts out of the bleak night.

Stanza Two

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.

In the second stanza, the speaker delves into their melancholic mood. At first, the song causes them to contemplate their “sad and lone” (5) state. A metaphor compares their life to the seasons and describes being stuck in a “cold winter that knew no spring” (6). But it’s not just chilling isolation and depression that afflicts them — their anguish has also made them somewhat manic: “my mind so weary and sick and wild” (7).

They even admit that their heart is unable to sing in response to the mockingbird’s tune. These last few lines are crucial to the poem’s theme, as it’s important to note that it’s not the song the speaker hears coming from the wood that gladdens their heart.

Stanza Three

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.”

The third stanza of ‘The Lesson’ sees the speaker ruminate about the effects of such music on the soul. Listening to the mockingbird’s song leads them to an epiphany — “A thought stole into my saddened heart” (10) — about how they might remedy their current mood.

The speaker finds themselves inspired by the twittering music heard from within the forest and resolves to “cheer some other soul / By a carol’s simple art” (11). This is part of the poem’s central theme: that sharing the joy of art with other people is an antidote for one’s own melancholy.

Stanza Four

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.

In stanza four, the speaker waxes philosophically about the benefits of spreading art and music. They use another metaphor to describe how it brings “joy and light” (14) to the “darkness of hearts and lives” (13). Comparing it to the mockingbird song that they themselves just heard, which might not have entirely lifted their spirits, but did so enough to inspire them to do the same for another.

Stanza Five

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.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker begins to sing a “lay for a brother’s ear” (17). This ballad is offered as a means of soothing their “bleeding heart” (18) and succeeds in eliciting a smile from the other person. The speaker confesses that their skill is not exceptional in any way, calling modestly a “feeble art” (20).

Yet the effect is lucidly profound all the same — the point being that it doesn’t take great artistic skill to move someone or communicate one’s empathy. The stranger is appreciative of the speaker’s “voice and lyre” (19), which parallels their own gratitude for the mockingbird’s song.

Stanza Six

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.

In the final stanza of ‘The Lesson,‘ the speaker returns to their inward contemplation after seemingly forgetting about their previously gloomy mood. Seeing the smile of the stranger causes them to begin smiling as well — illustrating the change through the continued motif of light. “And into my soul there came a ray” (22), the speaker declares.

This exchange parallels the speaker’s interaction with the mockingbird’s song as well, as both interactions lead to a kind of epiphany. In bringing joy to another person (or at least attempting to), they’ve kindled the very same emotion in themselves. The final two lines sum up the poem’s theme perfectly: “In trying to soothe another’s woes / Mine own had passed away” (23-24).


What is the theme of ‘The Lesson?

The poem’s theme centers on the speaker’s belief that by soothing the emotional distress of another person, you might just do the same for yourself. It’s not the mockingbird’s song that changes the speaker’s temperament but rather the response of the stranger. Knowing that they’ve moved another person from despair to happiness is what warms their own sad heart.

What is the meaning of the title ‘The Lesson?

The title could be interpreted as referencing the two epiphanies the speaker experiences within the poem. From the mockingbird, they get the idea to try and sing to another sad soul like themselves; the experience teaches them that providing comfort to someone else is a sure way to nullify one’s own problems. The lesson is that empathy has the effect of also diminishing our own woes.

Why did Paul Laurence Dunbar write ‘The Lesson?

Dunbar wrote the poem as an ode to the transformative nature of art. The speaker might be referring to music and song, but it’s clear that their views extend to poetry as well.

What is the symbolism of the mockingbird in the poem?

Mockingbirds have long been a subject of symbolism throughout various famous poems. Dunbar uses the song of one in his poem to inspire move his speaker to create their own moving piece of music, making the bird a symbol of the small joys that stir us out of our gloom.

Similar Poems

If you enjoyed this poem, here are a few other poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar:

  • ‘The Poet’ – this poem sees the poet examining the discrepancies between the goals of their verse and how they were received by the public.
  • ‘Beyond the Years’ – this poem focuses on the speculation of what happens after death.
  • ‘Disappointed’ – this poem is a brutally emotional telling of a man who loses everything.

Poetry+ Review Corner

The Lesson

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

This poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a beautiful ode to the way art can move us to empathy, which in turn often cures our own depression. The poet paints a poignant scene of loneliness that is transformed into one of earnest compassion. It is an uplifting piece written to soothe the heart and remind us that in difficult moments sometimes the best thing we can do is help another.
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19th Century

'The Lesson,' although written in the 19th century, remains relevant in its exploration of the transformative power of music and the human capacity to find solace in sharing our struggles. The poem reflects the emotional challenges and longing for hope that were pervasive during that time period. Its themes of empathy and the healing power of art resonate across time, making it a timeless and relevant piece of poetry from the 19th century.
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Much of Dunbar's most influential and impactful poetry dealt with the realities of Black Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This poem, though, conveys a theme that is adjacent to those pursuits, one that is founded in the poet's altruistic spirit and advocating for empathy sustained by art. This makes it an important contribution to American literature because of its timelessness.
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Beauty in the poem is expressed in a variety of ways: from the mockingbird's song to the speaker's views on art's purpose. Dunbar's poem reveals the beatific nature of creating art for the purpose of assuaging another's troubles. It also affirms the sentiment that doing so can help relieve one's own depression and loneliness.
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Nature is also a core theme of the poem, and one of its more compelling pieces of imagery is also derived from it. As the poem opens, we're told the speaker's bed sits inside a cypress grove, implying this image of a lone cot in the middle of the trees. Nature is also the source of the speaker's inspiration to create their own song, as it's through the mockingbird they are moved to compose something.
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From the moment the poem begins to the moment it ends, the speaker undergoes a dramatic change in their mood. At first, they are sad and lonely, lying awake at night. But by the poem's end, they've recovered from this gloom by attempting to heal (through song) another person's woes. Dunbar emphasizes that personal healing is achieved through compassion.
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Compassion is one of the more powerful emotions generated in this poem by Dunbar. The speaker eventually realizes that it is their own compassion for another that helps alleviate their own sorrows. But the poem also comments on the larger effects and purposes of art as a means of transferring our empathy and exchanging healing.
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The speaker ends the poem having forgotten about their own prior sadness. This is mostly owed to themselves getting lost in the joy of composing a song to cure the depression of someone else. But that bliss also gets into them as well and suddenly they are no longer afflicted by the loneliness that plagued them previously.
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Sadness is also inspired and expressed within the poem, as the speaker opens by describing their current morose mood. Their sadness is rooted in their isolation and loneliness, which is at first broken by the mockingbird and then by their decision to compose a song. Dunbar's portrayal of the speaker's depression is exceptionally relatable to the reader.
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Art is a major topic in Dunbar's poem as he devotes a number of lines to the speaker gushing praise over its ability to make life a little more bearable in times of sadness. The poet also has a wide-ranging perception of what should be considered art, whether it is the song of a mockingbird or a humble ballad composed by a human.
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Birds often appear as symbols in poetry, and Dunbar's poem is no different, using a mockingbird's song to stir the speaker out of their depression. The bird could be seen as symbolic, but it is also just as effective to the poem's meaning to view it as just a bird singing a song. Such simple art has immense power, according to the speaker.
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Hard Times

Dunbar's poem is extremely suitable for moments of difficulty and life's sorrows. It very emotionally depicts the speaker's loneliness and depression, which can be exceptionally cathartic. But it also offers no small amount of hope in the belief that by seeking to alleviate the sorrows of other people, we get a little closer to resolving our own troubles.
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Loneliness is one of the emotions the speaker is afflicted by at the beginning of the poem. But in composing a song for another, they establish a connection with a complete stranger through their empathy. In doing so, they alleviate their sadness but also their loneliness. Dunbar's poem reveals the way art can help us feel more interconnected with one another.
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Dunbar's use of quatrains allows him to develop each scene within the poem fully: from its detailed opening that sets the scene for the speaker's depressed state to the different exchanges of music and song that occur between the speaker, mockingbird, and stranger. Its structure makes it relatively easy to follow what's being described and conveyed to the reader.
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Dunbar's poem is a great example of lyric poetry, both when it comes to its rhyme scheme and its use of the quatrain form. There is also a number of examples of alliteration that add to the poem's lyrical cadence, which can be seen as mimicking both the mockingbird's and the speaker's song. Reading the poem aloud allows the reader to truly hear its lilting quality.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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