18 pages 36 minutes read

Maya Angelou

The Lesson

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1978

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Poem Analysis

Analysis: “The Lesson”

The poem opens like a Christian prayer of supplication: “I keep on dying” (Line 1), the speaker proclaims in the opening line, implying that this death comes again and again. “The Lesson” begins in the mood and tone of an old-school jeremiad, echoing the plaint of centuries of Christians laid low by suffering who inevitably turn their eyes upward and embrace the sturdy faith that promises the reward of the radiant afterlife when this life of tears and suffering ends. We are, the logic follows, sinners in the hands of a wrathful, righteous God. Living in the wreckage of Eden, we are pilgrims journeying in prayerful hope toward the spacious grace of heaven.

In this feeling of despair, the poem at least initially echoes a passage from the Bible that Angelou often quoted in her public appearances and interviews: “Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow, which is done to me by the Lord who has afflicted me in the day of his wrath” (Lamentations 1:12). This dramatic posture is suggested by the elegant lamentation of the opening four lines.