A Summary and Analysis of Mary Oliver’s ‘Music Lessons’

‘Music Lessons’ is a 1979 poem by the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), first published in her collection Twelve Moons. Mary Oliver is a poet who has perhaps not received as much attention from critics as she deserves. It’s been estimated that she was the bestselling poet in the United States at the time of her death, so a few words of analysis about some of her work seem appropriate.

In ‘Music Lessons’, a speaker describes how her music teacher takes charge of the piano and starts playing music, which mentally transports the teacher to other places and allows her temporarily to forget the more mundane domestic realities of her life.

‘Music Lessons’: summary

The poem is divided into four stanzas. The speaker tells us that sometimes, in the middle of her music lesson, her piano teacher would swap places with her. After gazing at her own hands hovering over the keys for a moment, the teacher would begin playing the piano, and her small, stuffy house with its shut windows and the woman’s various possessions (including photographs of her husband and sons), would seem to melt away and disappear.

Instead, the speaker tells us that ‘new shapes’ were formed in the place of the ordinary room they inhabited: mere sound was transformed into something higher – beautiful music – and the music was like the white side of a hillside which the listener could climb and ascend to higher levels on their own.

The speaker describes this feeling of being carried away by the music in terms which remind her of rock-climbing: she felt as though she were leaping over rocks to the top of the hill or cliff, and when she got to the peak, she found herself already there, but a ‘transformed’ version of herself, waiting for the other ‘her’ to arrive.

As the teacher continues to play the music, her eyes are bright and her hair, which is usually pinned down, falls free. She is clearly also being carried away by the power of music, forgetting her student, and the house in which she lives with its neat garden. She is described as freeing herself of all of the ‘tedious bonds’ or restraints which serve to make her life so mundane and strait-laced: the need to cook supper for her family, and the various duties she has as a wife and mother.

‘Music Lessons’: analysis

Music has the power to take us outside of ourselves, as the third stanza of ‘Music Lessons’ makes clear with its image of the poem’s speaker arriving at the top of the rock only to find herself already waiting there for her. Music can inspire feelings of ‘ecstasy’: literally, ‘to stand outside oneself’, because we feel transported out of ourselves when we experience something ecstatic.

But if this tells part of the story of ‘Music Lessons’, it is only one half of it. For whilst listening to music is figured as something solitary and Mary Oliver Selected Poems Coverimaginative – the speaker talks of a solitary ‘listener’ climbing that rock-face ‘alone’ – it is also something which brings both music teacher and student together through a shared act of transformation.

Note how the speaker of the poem imaginatively enters into the inner life of the teacher as she observes her playing the piece of music: if she is herself transported to that hillside, part of her is still able to watch the teacher with her ‘luminous and wilful’ eyes and her hair falling free of its bonds (a nod to the old idiom about ‘letting one’s hair down’, or forgetting the everyday social or cultural restraints which govern our lives).

But in ‘Music Lessons’, Mary Oliver does not shy away from mentioning the stultifying and even damaging and violent impact that a life of stern, oppressive domesticity has on women like the piano teacher. That memorable final line of the poem, with its menacing reference to a knife put to the throat, is meant to stay with us as the abiding image from the whole poem. A life like the one the piano teacher lives is a threat to life itself, because it prevents us from truly living. Only through music can the teacher reconnect with the freedom and creativity she felt as a young, unmarried woman before she met her ‘serious husband’.

Similarly, the fact that the metronome – a device for keeping time in music – contains ‘death’ is a reminder that our daily lives represent a gradual death of sorts, not simply because with each passing day we are getting closer to our eventual deaths, but because the clocklike rigidity (and conformity) encoded within the metronome is the death of freedom. It is a symbol of the oppressive routine of the woman’s life.

The violence in the poem’s closing line is a signature feature of Mary Oliver’s poetry: ‘signature’ not just because it defines and distinguishes her work but because it literally comes at the end of the poem, like an artist signing her canvas. Here, we might compare the reference to the ‘whip-crack’ of the mortgage at the end of another of Oliver’s poems, ‘The Black Walnut Tree’.

‘Music Lessons’: form

‘Music Lessons’ is written in free verse, the form Oliver preferred to write in. This means that the poem contains no rhyme scheme and no regular metre or rhythm. The line lengths are also uneven. The poem is an example of a lyric poem, because it describes the thoughts and feelings of an individual speaker.

Oliver’s poetry often uses enjambment, a device whereby a sentence or phrase continues past the end of a particular verse line and into the next. In ‘Music Lessons’, we can observe this at several points: note how at the end of the second line, ‘hands’ marks the end of the line and we have to read on to the third line to discover what the teacher’s hands are doing. Similarly, note how ‘Sound / became music’, with the slight pause occasioned by the end of the verse line making us wonder what the sound will become: the process is gradual but also surprising, as ordinary notes become transformed into art.

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