The Lesson by Maya Angelou

The title to this poem, ‘The Lesson’, is particularly interesting, as it is found nowhere throughout the poem. However, upon reading the title, the reader becomes aware that there is a lesson to be taught. Thus, as one reads the lines of this poem, the lesson becomes clear. The Lesson is about life and death. The speaker begins the poem by claiming that she has died already, more than once, and that she will keep on dying. She describes death and pain in such vivid detail that the readers can sympathize with her. Then, she explains her reason for continuing to live through all the pain that she has endured. At the end of the poem, the reader can remember the title and conclude that The Lesson is to embrace life, even at it’s most bitter moments, and to press on through the hard times to make an opportunity for the good times.

 

The Lesson Analysis

Line 1

I keep on dying again.

The first line of the poem, which can be read in full here, strikes interest in the readers. The speaker makes a bold claim, that she has died more than once and that she continues to do so. This is the first implication that the speaker is not talking about death in the sense that most people think of death. Death, to her, is not something that happens only once. Somehow, she believes that she has experienced death already, even though she is clearly still alive to speak these words.

 

Lines 2-4

These lines create vivid imagery that helps the reader identify with the speaker. She has already said that she died once, and now she describes it in vivid detail. The reader can picture the “veins [as they] collapse”. The metaphor of the opening and closing fists of a sleeping child helps the reader to feel the kind of death the speaker is referring to.

 

Lines 5-11

With line five, the speaker recalls some “old tombs”. These are perhaps the tombs of people she has known that have passed on before her. Any reader who has experienced the loss of a loved one knows that it can feel like death itself. Thus, line five sheds light on why the speaker is claiming that she “keeps on dying”. She thinks about the “rotting flesh and worms”. If these are her friends and family, those she held dear, now rotting in tombs, being eaten by worms, it makes sense that the speaker, upon thinking about these lost ones, would feel as though she keeps on dying. Yet, in all the pain that she has experienced in her life, she is not persuaded to give up. Rather, she presses on. She says that even the thoughts of her dead and decaying loved ones “do not convince [her] against the challenge”. This reveals that she views life as a challenge, and that she is not about to give up on it, no matter how many times she has to face death. No amount of pain or suffering can convince her to give up this challenge. With lines ten and eleven, she describes the physical effect that her suffering has had. She claims that “the years and cold defeat live deep in lines along [her] face”. This helps the readers to put a face to the speaker. The reader can then further understand her. She is an old woman, with lines along her face. Those lines represent the pain and the suffering that she has experienced over the course of her life.

 

Lines 12-13

With these lines, the speaker explains why she will not give up the challenge. Even though the pain and the suffering can be seen in the lines of her face and in the way that her eyes have dulled over time, she claims that she will “keep on dying”. In the final line of The Lesson, she explains that the reason she will continue to die is because she loves to live. This last line brings in an entirely new aspect to this poem. Thus far, it would seem that life has been nothing but misery for this speaker. She has described the way she feels when she loses a loved one. She has claimed to have experienced death over and over again. Yet, she will not give up the fight. One might wonder why. Her life seems to be so full of pain. Why does she continue to press on and rise up against the challenges life presents to her? Her last line offers a reason. She loves to live. This reveals that the joys of life, though she has not mentioned any specifically, are worth going through the pain. She is grateful for every day of her life, and so she is willing to go through the pain and the suffering because she loves life. This is why she submits herself to the reality that she will “keep on dying”. Rather than wanting to put an end to all the suffering she has experienced, she wants to go on experiencing it, because even the suffering produced by the death of a loved one is worth the joy that she gets out of living.

 

Maya Angelou Background

Maya Angelou’s Autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells of her life until she turned seventeen. The content of this book reveals that Angelou did experience immense pain and suffering in her life. It is not surprising that her poetry should talk about pressing on through the difficult times, for she was forced to be strong through the most trying of circumstances. Throughout her life, Angelou was well known for fighting for civil rights. This is yet another reason that life was a challenge to her, as she stated in The Lesson. Life was a challenge, but it was one worth facing.

Angelou faced racism and discrimination and the pain that came from such sentiments toward her race. But she stood up for the people of her race, and she fought vigorously for equal rights for all. Thus, it is easy to see that her feelings portrayed in The Lesson are partially the result of all the racism that she has fought against in her day. Angelou passed away in 2014. The time period in which she lived was not an easy one for an African American Woman. And yet, despite all the struggle and all the pain, she claimed that she loved to live. This is the lesson she wishes to teach with this poem. It is not circumstances in life which make one happy or miserable. If that were the case, Angelou could never have penned the words, “I love to live”. She teaches her readers to rise above their circumstances, to fight for what they believe in, to be willing to suffer but to enjoy the good in life.

Works Cited:

  • Angelou, Maya. The collected autobiographies of Maya Angelou. Modern Library, 2012.
    McGrath, Kim (June 2, 2014). Remembering Dr. Maya Angelou”. News Center. Wake Forest University. Retrieved June 2, 2014.

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