18 pages 36 minutes read

Maya Angelou

The Lesson

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1978

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Literary Devices


The poem is told ostensibly in the first person, that is, limited to convey the experiences and the perception of the poet or a persona, a character created within the context of the poem. In this case, drawing on the considerable tragedies, agonies, and indignities of her own life-narrative, Angelou testifies to her own triumphant survival.

Angelou, however, provides her speaker with no context, personal or otherwise. There is no setting, no specific conflict, no action, no other characters that might give the speaker an identity. There is something larger going on. In this, Angelou uses the first-person “I” (Lines 1, 12, 13) to create immediacy and urgency to a poem that, in turn, speaks for a broad reach of humanity, a choral I that crosses ethnic, religious, economic, and sociopolitical boundaries. In this, Angelou uses what could be called the first-person collective or the first-person plural. Recalling the narrative voice of the Old Testament Psalms or the soaring transcendental “I” who declaims in Walt Whitman’s spiritual poetry or the heroic voice heard in narratives of the enslaved and in gospel lyrics, Angelou’s “I” speaks for all those who endure pain and who are tested by suffering and who, in the end, affirm the grandness of living.