"The School of Life" by Irving Sydney Dix

Life is a school, and all that tread the earth
Are pupils in it. Its lessons all should learn,
And few there be who escape them — and they
are fools.

At birth this school begins, at death it ends,
And many terms there be, — and faithful teachers
Not a few. Necessity is one;
For e’en the babe when first it feels the cool
And earthly air, and sees the light of day,
Shrinks from their touch, and cries aloud — herewith
It doth begin to learn the alphabet
Of life. Then hunger comes; and so to ease
Itself the babe doth learn to love the things
That give it life. Thus hour by hour, and day
By day it gathers knowledge at the school
But knows it not — even as wiser men,
Of knowledge full, know scarcely what they do.

And months pass by — the babe becomes a child,
Eager to learn, to imitate, to know,
Lisping the lessons of a higher grade,
Repeating words of wisdom, gems of truth
That others think the little thing should know;
Until at length in childish innocence
It leaves the kindergarten of the world,
And knocks upon the door of adult life,
And enters there, flushed with the lulling sense
Of something new. The playthings are forgot;
The little bells no longer please the ear,
The little books no longer feed the mind,
The little seats no longer suit the child,
The little friends no longer stir the soul,
For it hath learned the alphabet of life,
And put aside the primer once for all.
There is a longing now for deeper life
That fills the heart to overflow — there is
A tumult now within the swollen veins,
When, for the first, they feel a larger life
In unison close beating to its own —
There is a hatred of authority
And of restraint — a satisfaction now
As of a soul enamored with itself,
A soul insolvent on the rising tide
Of pure existence, with such a stubbornness
As mocks advice and takes a happy pace,
Securer of its own security.

And like the waters of a swollen stream,
That leaves its early channels far behind,
Youth ventures into unknown paths, full fed
By surging hopes, by sudden, deep desires,
By wild ambitions and a thousand things,
Unnamed and nameless — rivulets of life
That ever empty in this stirring stream.
Now would the student leave his school, and play
Among the hills, or in the valley’s shade, —
Now would the scholar chafe at books
And knowledge and authority — rough banks
That, like a dyke, hold in life’s mighty stream
Until the floods of Springtime can abate,
And in a clearer, safer channel course again.

So, with life’s lessons still unlearned
Full many a scholar e’en would graduate
With highest honors, and in his pride
And surety of knowledge be a god
To give advice to those who should advise;
Forth full of wisdom would he quickly go,
And even issue take with all the world,
But when this truant-fever runs its course,
This hey-day of existence has its turn,
Back to the school the skulking scholar comes,
Like a whipped cur, and willing to be taught
By those same teachers he so lately spurn’d,
And left for larger things.
For manhood now
Is here — the errors and the follies, everyone,
By the wise student surely now are seen,
And in the book of life he reads with ready eye
The rules and lessons, and considers well
His bold instructors, — Want, — Adversity, —
And Disappointment, with her heavy hand;
The whip of Scorn, and Sorrow’s bitter book,
And Sickness’ long and tedious term,
And all the various teachers of the school.
And if perchance these lessons be forgot,
These, his instructors, will rehearse him well,
Lest he forget in later life these things,
And be a dullard in the school of schools,
A freshman wise in his own foolishness.

So manhood comes — and so it surely goes,
From grade to grade and term to term,
With all the questions and perplexing rules,
And devious methods of the Master-mind,
Who holds the key to all the questionings,
Yet leaves the student to himself alone,
Half puzzled by the figures on the dial
That tell the hour when he shall graduate
Above earth’s petty problems, and shall hold
A clearance to that life which is to come,
And whereunto he graduates, perchance,
A better man.
A better man — if not,
So shall he go again in that same grade
Where like a laggard half-asleep in school,
He wakes to find himself a scholar still,
With all the vexing problems yet unsolved,
Which, in his idleness and lust of life,
Were left until the morrow, and the sun
To usher in another dreamless day.
So manhood comes — and so it surely goes,
Till those who here have studied to become
Proficient in the lessons of this life,
Shall be excused from school, and left to play
By running brooks and hills that shout for joy,
And living waters wild in their delight.

So is it meet that all should labor now
To learn these lessons well, so, when the day
Of graduation comes, a Voice will say: —
Well-done; perfect in life, perfect in death;
Receive thy rich reward, for thou hast found —
Perfection is the only key to Heaven.

The Calendar and Other Verses (1913) | Irving Sydney Dix (1880–1948)

Online Poetry Anthology


  • Choose a form of narrating the poem.
  • Explain in your own words the meaning of the poem or the point the author is making.
  • Identify the lines and stanzas.
  • Which lines rhyme?
  • Identify the Bible verse referred to in the last stanza.


Additional Resources

14 Forms of Writing for the Older Student: Poetry14 Forms of Writing for the Older Student: Poetry
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