The Lesson by Charles Simic Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In keeping with the artful artlessness of “The Lesson,” the themes of the poem are virtually identical with its techniques and the narrative it tells. What happens in the poem—the ironic transpositions of ignorance and knowledge—is the poem’s meaning. “The Lesson” participates in the traditional expression of Western culture’s most fundamental theme: the journey from innocence to experience.

The greater part of this theme hinges upon the identity of the “practical joker” of stanza 1. He can be God, history, society, or any source of ideology and idealism that sets itself apart from and above the stubbornly ambiguous realities of any life as it is lived in real time. However one pictures him, this practical joker is the source of the “wise pronouncements” and disembodied generalizations, the myths of progress and predetermined fate that the poet ingenuously parrots in stanzas 2 and 3. Like the tenets of Europe’s Utopian Socialists and of America’s doctrine of Manifest Destiny, these illusory precepts are as insidious as they are charming because they always subordinate historical means to supra-historical ends. They devalue reality in order to inflate the value of the dreams in which they so stridently and, in the case of the poet’s teachers, so convincingly believe.

By countering such abstractions with the vital, animate images of the poem’s latter half, Simic establishes the dignity of objects and of persons,...

(The entire section is 461 words.)