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Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Lesson"
Sketch of Paul Laurence Dunbar
The speaker in Dunbar's "The Lesson" learns that by creating some beauty in a little song he can relieve the pain in the heart of a fellow human being.
First Stanza: "My cot was down by a cypress grove"
The speaker in Dunbar's "The Lesson" begins by describing his location: he is sitting in his little cottage which is situated down by a cypress grove. Unable to sleep, he remains by his window the whole night long. As he sits with his melancholy, he listens to the passionate song of a mockingbird.
Second Stanza: "And I thought of myself so sad and lone"
The speaker reports that he is feeling quite sorry for himself: he is sad and lonely. His life is like one long winter that never changes into spring. His mind races, becoming "weary and sick and wild."
Emotionally, he is distraught with a heart too sad to sing. He intimates that even though he is a poet, the inspiration of hearing the mockingbird is not enough to elicit from him a few strains.
Third Stanza: "But e'en as I listened the mock-bird's song"
As the speaker continues to listen to the song of the mockingbird, the notion that if he just composed some little tune, he might be able to cheer someone else, who is feeling as depressed as he has felt.
The speaker, therefore, determines, "I can cheer some other soul / By a carol's simple art." The pain of his own heart and its reaction to the joyful bird sound combined to produce a creative urge in the suffering speaker.
Fourth Stanza: "For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives"
The speaker surmises that joy can be born of "darkness of hearts and lives." When sorrow and pain are fashioned into some art form, they may produce beauty that brings joy.
The speaker conceives this notion after listening to the joyful sound of the mockingbird which is coming out of the gloom of the cypress grove. Although it is night, dark and cheerless, the merry sound of the bird reminds the speaker that joy can come from that darkness. A bird singing at night makes the night luminous with delight.
Fifth Stanza: "So I sang a lay for a brother's ear"
With this thought of joy coming from sorrow, the speaker then composes his little song for a brother's ear. Just as the speaker/poet had hoped to soothe his bleeding heart, so his hope is realized when his brother smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre.
And even though the speaker describes his art as "feeble," it worked to bring a smile to his fellow human's face. He is functioning as the mockingbird had done: out of his gloom and darkness comes his little cheerful song, and his art brings a smile to his brother.
Sixth Stanza: "But at his smile I smiled in turn"
The speaker is further awarded by his own change of heart; by turning his fellow's gloom to sunshine, he brings joy back into his own life: "In trying to soothe another's woes / Mine own had passed away."
Reading of Dunbar's "The Lesson"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes