In ‘Death of a Teacher,’ the speaker outlines her experiences with a teacher who helped transform her as a writer. The speaker, who could very well be Duffy herself, creates various allusions to her past and all that she learned at this instructor’s side. The world continues to move on around her, just as it does around ever earth-shattering loss, but she still manages to stop and consider what she received from this person and what is now gone forever.
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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 a poker player’s hands. The world is in action. The leaves are falling from the trees and being swept up by the wind, which references 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 and provided her with the drive to take on a teaching career.
She suddenly saw the true worth and beauty in teaching due to this one instructor who has now passed away.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Death of a Teacher
The most important themes in this poem are memory, loss, and learning/education. The speaker spends the poem meditating on the world around her and what it means to walk through it now that her instructor died. This person, who is never named, holds an important place in this speaker’s memories. When she looks back on her education, she holds this person responsible for the love she now holds for Keats and Yeats. This is a wonderful example of a poem that’s about learning to write. The speaker, who is likely Duffy, would not have become the person she is or the writer she is without the teacher’s help. Now, just as the poem displays, she sees poetry everywhere.
Structure and Form of Death of a Teacher
‘Death of a Teacher’ by Carol Ann Duffy is an eighteen-line poem structured into sets of couplets and does not follow a specific rhyme scheme. The poem has been written as a frame story, with the speaker’s beginning 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 and basking in the beautiful memories and emotions she provided.
Literary Devices in Death of a Teacher
Duffy makes use of several literary devices in ‘Death of a Teacher.’ These include but are not limited to personification, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, personification, appears in the poem’s first lines when Duffy’s speaker describes the trees as playing poker “again.” This is a beautiful metaphor used to describe how their leaves are shuffling over one another.
Alliteration and enjambment are formal devices. The first is concerned with using and reusing the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “drifting down” in line three and “decades” and “desk” in line seven. Enjambment is another important part of ‘Death of a Teacher.’ It is seen in the transitions between lines. For example, between lines two and three as well as between lines eight and nine.
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 justify 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 wind motions 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 poem’s text 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 her teacher’s death, 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 she returns is “three decades back,” when she was still a student. She was only “thirteen” and told 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 the speaker, something to be cherished and longed for. They call to her. Their pages are “waiting to be turned.”
Readers who enjoyed ‘Death of a Teacher’ should also read some of Duffy’s other best-known poems. These include ‘Nostalgia,‘ ‘Mrs. Midas,‘ and ‘Elegy.’ The first is all about the importance of language and the meaning, and origins, of the word “nostalgia.” ‘Mrs. Midas is one of Duffy’s pieces from her collection, The World’s Wife. In it, she recreates the lives and experiences of women sidelined in history and myth.