‘Death of a Teacher’ by Carol Ann Duffy is an eighteen line poem which is structured into sets of couplets and does not follow a specific rhyme scheme. The poem has been written as a frame story, with the beginning told by the speaker in the present day, while the middle is constructed of the speaker’s memories of her, now passed on, teacher. The speaker’s tone throughout this work is one of quiet wonder and sadness. She is mourning for the passing of this person she cared so much about but is also basking in the beautiful memories and emotions she provided. You can read the full poem Death of a Teacher here.
Summary of Death of a Teacher
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is looking around her, in the present-day, and seeing the trees moving like the hands of a poker player. The world is in action. The leaves are falling from the trees and being swept up by the wind, a reference to the endless progression of time and how everyone gets caught up in it.
The speaker has suffered a loss, that of an old teacher. She spends the next section of the poem recalling the meaningful moments of her education in which this person imbued her with a true love of Yeats and Keats. These poets opened up her experience of the world as well as providing her with the drive to take on a teaching career.
She suddenly saw the true worth and beauty in teaching, all due to this one instructor who has now passed away.
Analysis of Death of a Teacher
In the first section of this poem, the speaker begins by describing her present-day surroundings. The bulk of this poem is told through a memory of an important moment in the speaker’s past, but first, she must set the scene and provide the justification for delving into her own history.
The first line describes how the speaker understands her surroundings. She sees the “big trees” and observes how their leaves “fold” and “turn” in the wind. They fly from the branches and “drift down to the lawn.” All of these actions are seen to be reminiscent of the actions of a “poker game.” The motions of the wind cause the branches and leaves of the trees to act as the hands of a dealer and mimic the movements of the cards.
This whole piece is written with a sadly reminiscent tone that helps to craft scenes that are both beautiful and sad. The leaves fall from their trees, come close to the ground, and then “float away.” These actions represent the progression of time and how there is no steady moment in history. It is described as a prelude to the next line in which the speaker relays the fact that someone, “You,” died the day before.
While the text of the poem does not yet provide enough context to understand who this person is if a reader refers to the title they will immediately understand the loss that has been suffered. A teacher, who was of some importance to the speaker, has passed away.
The poem continues with the memory through which the majority of the eulogy is told. The poet has decided to ease the reader into this memory by having her speaker hear a sound, the “last bell” of a school day, and allowing that to cast her back into her own past. She has been meditating on the death of her teacher and when she hears the bell ring out she is brought back to an integral moment in her education. She closes her eyes and remembers.
The memory to which she returns is “three decades back,” when she was still a student. She was only “thirteen” at the time and tells of the events surrounding this moment from that perspective. It is interesting in this piece to hear this memory retold from the aged speaker but through the lens of a thirteen-year-old girl.
The memory beings with the speaker seeing her teacher, the one who has passed away, sitting on her desk, “swinging [her] legs.” She is recalling these images and directing them to the teacher. She uses the second-person pronoun, “you,” to speak towards the instructor.
At this moment the teacher is reading aloud “a poem by Yeats.” The classroom is filled with other girls and all of them are “bored,” all except for the speaker, that is.
The speaker is deeply moved by the verses she hears. It is like her “heart stumbled and blushed.” She was instantly drawn to the poet’s work and felt as if she was “fall[ing] in love” with the words themselves. This moment takes her out of her body, and away from the mundane world she is living in. Yeats’ poetry makes her re-see, and reanalyze, all the everyday objects around her. These include the wood of her desk. It appears to her now as the tree from which is to come. She can feel the “scratch[es]” and know where it came from.
At the same time, she hears the bird outside and imagines how it “scribble[s]” and moves, “itself in the air.”
By the time this experience starts to come to its conclusion, she has been completely grounded. She is fully living the here and now: the “present.” She again addresses these words to the teacher, explaining that this is the moment that she, “Miss,” created for her.
She recalls the words of poetry she heard, and the revelation she had later, whenever she sees the “smoke from [her] black cigarette.” It is intertwined with the “lines,” from not only Yeats but from other poets as well, such as “Keats.”
The final four lines of this poem bring to a conclusion the experiences of the speaker’s youth. From these moments that she learned to love poetry, she also came to love teaching. She speaks of “Teaching” as being “endless love.” It involves learning “poems by heart” which act like “spells.” The lessons that one learns, and then teaches, are things that stick with one for life.
In the last two lines, she returns to the moments of appreciation for the natural environment and how in her present life, the love that her teacher imbued her with, burns like “gold light.” It emanates from the pages of a book and speaks to her of its preciousness. Books became to the speaker something to be cherished and longed for. They call to her, their pages are “waiting to be turned.”