18 pages 36 minutes read

Maya Angelou

The Lesson

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1978

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Lesson” is a lyric poem written by acclaimed fin-de-millennium American poet Maya Angelou. The brief poem first appeared in Angelou’s landmark collection And Still I Rise (1978).

Few American poets enjoyed the same celebrity as Angelou. In the closing decades of the 20th century, Angelou inspired an international audience through her collections of poetry, more than 20 (all bestsellers), which included verses that were deceptively simple and accessible and yet subtle and layered. Drawing on her own life-narrative as an African American raised in the poverty and racism of the Jim Crow Deep South, Angelou used the vehicle of her poetry to affirm the joy of living because of, not despite, the inevitable suffering, indignities, and sorrows life brings. Something of a Renaissance figure, Angelou found success early on as a torch singer and then on stage before committing her considerable energies to the emerging Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and then in the late 1960s to teaching and writing, establishing her reputation with the 1969 publication of her controversial autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

In “The Lesson,” Angelou acknowledges the pain of living and yet celebrates how a soul, weary and tasked by the agonies and ironies of life, yearns nevertheless to live. The poem, then, is a sweeping offer of hope, an affirmation not just of grim endurance but of glorious survival with grace, dignity, and faith.

Poet Biography

Content Warning: This section of the guide discusses sexual assault of a minor.

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in Long Beach, outside St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928. After her parents divorced, Angelou spent much of her childhood with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, a rural town in southeast Arkansas. She had few friends and endured the daily indignities of racism. When she was seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend during a visit to St. Louis. Her uncles, in retaliation, killed the boyfriend. Traumatized, Angelou would not speak for more than six years. She became a voracious reader, enthralled by the poetry of, among others, Langston Hughes and Edgar Allan Poe, and by the compassionate realism of Charles Dickens.

As a teenager, returning to the care of her mother, who had moved to Oakland, California, Angelou discovered a penchant for singing and a flair for dancing. Offered a scholarship to study dance at San Francisco’s California Labor School, an experimental school supported by labor organizations that helped promising underprivileged students, she found success in musical theater and in recordings, most notably as part of the calypso craze of post-war America. She married (briefly) Tosh Angelos, a career sailor, in 1950, whose last name she adapted as her own.

In the 1960s, Angelou became a prominent advocate in the Civil Rights Movement, using her theater background to sponsor events for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She never abandoned her theater career, earning a Tony nomination in 1973 for her performance in the historical drama Look Away. Set in a psychiatric hospital just after the Civil War, Angelou starred as the longsuffering maid of Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Oscar-winner Geraldine Page).

In 1969, Angelou completed her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In it, Angelou shared the difficult story of her traumatic childhood in Stamps. It was an immediate bestseller, critically acclaimed for its lyrical prose and its honesty about racism, sexual abuse, and violence, although that content led to frequent efforts to ban the book from high school curricula. Over the next decades, Angelou would return to her life-narrative, her autobiography eventually including six additional titles, each a bestseller.

Seeing poetry as a vehicle for addressing her commitment to civil rights, women’s empowerment, and the dignity of Black culture, Angelou began publishing verse in the late 1970s. Her eventual poetry catalogue, more than 20 titles, found international appreciation. She was twice shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. In the early 1990s, her place as the preeminent poetic voice of her generation was recognized when President-Elect Bill Clinton invited Angelou to recite an original poem at his 1993 presidential inauguration. Only Robert Frost had ever been similarly honored.

In her seventies, Angelou continued to publish, expanding her range to inspirational motivational nonfiction and to children’s literature. Her iconic place in American culture was recognized by President Barack Obama in 2010 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At her death at age 86 in 2014, eulogists at her memorial service on the campus of Wake Forest University, where she taught for more than 30 years, included Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Michelle Obama. Her cremains were scattered in the North Carolina hills she had come to love.

Poem text

I keep on dying again.

Veins collapse, opening like the

Small fists of sleeping


Memory of old tombs,

Rotting flesh and worms do

Not convince me against

The challenge. The years

And cold defeat live deep in

Lines along my face.

They dull my eyes, yet

I keep on dying,

Because I love to live.

Angelou, Maya. “The Lesson.” 1994. Famous Poets and Poems.


The poem begins with a stunning, unsettling declaration: “I keep on dying again” (Line 1). The statement, given the present tense and the adverb “again” (Line 1), makes clear that the speaker cannot be referring to actual, physical death, which comes only once. There are other kinds of death—emotional experiences that can decimate the spirit, break the heart, and register on the physical level—and while the speaker does not inventory these specific kinds of traumatic experiences, the adverb suggests the experiences are ongoing.

The speaker tries to describe the impact of such traumas by expanding on the metaphor of death. The experience of these traumatic moments suggests the elements of physical death: “Veins collapse, opening like the / Small fists of sleeping / Children” (Lines 2-4).

The speaker then dwells on thoughts of the dead, the “[m]emory of old tombs” (Line 5), but does not dwell on the peace of the grave. Rather, the speaker recounts the chilling reality of decomposition: “[r]otting flesh and worms” (Line 6).

Ironically, that realization of death’s absoluteness drives the speaker to embrace the experience of living. Images of decomposing flesh being consumed patiently, methodically by worms convince the speaker to accept the “challenge” (Line 8)—that is, the challenge to live despite the indignities and the agonies and the inevitability of death.

The poet refuses to soften the reality of a life of sorrows. Rather, those many painful experiences (“The years / And cold defeat” [Lines 8-9]) are recorded, the speaker admits, in the very “[l]ines along [their] face” (Line 10). The deep lines “dull [the speaker’s] eyes” (Line 11), highlighting a moment when the speaker teeters toward surrender to pessimism, to despair.

The poem turns on the word “yet” in Line 11. Yes, life is difficult. Yes, the suffering of the soul and the tribulations of the spirit are real—but “I keep on dying” (Line 12), the speaker affirms in the poem’s close. The speaker then embraces the traumas of the daily emotional devastations because “[they] love to live” (Line 13).

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