The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Lesson” is a short narrative poem in free verse, its seventy lines divided into six stanzas of varying lengths. The title suggests that the poem will focus upon an event or series of events from which the poet gained new knowledge. Such events are often characterized by irony, as they tend to overturn one’s comfortable assumptions about the nature of things—sometimes violently, sometimes comically, sometimes, as in “The Lesson,” both.

The poem is written in the first person, which gives the events that it describes the authority of actual experience and the poignance of personal recollection. One is encouraged to assume that the lesson mentioned in the poem’s title was learned by the poet himself. He speaks directly to the reader in a tone both retrospective and confessional. As one reads, one believes that one is being taken into the poet’s confidence and invited to share the knowledge he has gained.

The poem opens with a sudden, ironic revelation as the poet realizes that he has in some way been deluded his entire life, has been “the idiot pupil/ of a practical joker.” The words that the poet chooses to describe his revelation foreshadow the complexity of the narrative he is about to unfold, as they accuse both his own foolishness and the cruelty of his experience for the ignorance which the poem will explain and dispel. Having realized himself to be the victim of a malicious joke, the poet intends to be a victim no...

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As with all of Charles Simic’s best poems, “The Lesson” expertly demonstrates what may be called the art of artlessness. Vivid but spare, direct but unrhetorical, the poem communicates its profoundly dramatic theme with seemingly little need for the traditional devices of poetry. “The Lesson” resonates with the qualities of actual, unrehearsed speech, and those qualities create an immediate trust on the part of the reader for what the poet recounts.

Yet there is an art to what “The Lesson” achieves, and this consists of a number of devices employed in their purest forms. Chief among these is the irony already discovered in the poem’s title. From thence onward through every stanza, ironic reversals provide the literal energy for Simic’s meaning. What was taken for knowledge turns out to be ignorance. What was revered as wisdom turns out to be folly. The implacable reality of human progress turns out to be a vain dream, as nightmare images (starkly recalled from Simic’s own memories of his childhood in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia) come to represent the sole and unprogressive reality of “The Lesson.”

The poem concludes upon the richest and most disturbing of its ironies: The poet’s own laughter at his “long and terrifying” delusion. In a situation where one might more reasonably expect to witness gestures of outrage or tears of shame, the reader is surprised by laughter, an irony which allows Simic to make the depth of...

(The entire section is 479 words.)