A teacher instils a love of poetry in a young student, transforming their worldview forever
‘Death of a Teacher’ – Carol Ann Duffy
The big trees outside are into their poker game again,
shuffling and dealing, turning, folding, their leaves
drifting down to the lawn, floating away, ace high,
on a breeze. You died yesterday.
When I heard the hour – home time, last bell,
late afternoon – I closed my eyes. English, of course,
three decades back, and me thirteen. You sat on your desk,
swinging your legs, reading a poem by Yeats
to the bored girls, except my heart stumbled and blushed
as it fell in love with the words and I saw the tree
in the scratched old desk under my hands, heard the bird
in the oak outside scribble itself on the air. We were truly there,
present, Miss, or later the smoke from your black cigarette
braided itself with lines from Keats. Teaching
is endless love; the poems by heart, spells, the lists
lovely on the learning tongue, the lessons, just as you said,
for life. Under the gambling trees, the gold light thins and burns,
the edge of a page of a book, precious, waiting to be turned.
‘Death of a Teacher’ – Analysis
In the poem’s striking opening, Duffy demonstrates – rather than simply explaining – her main idea: the transformative and captivating potential of poetry. ‘Big trees’ is a very simple, child-like description. Yet the poet can transform these trees into poker players, ‘shuffling and dealing, turning, folding, their leaves / drifting down to the lawn’.
Similarly, the ‘scratched old desk’ is a mundane and damaged object. Yet the power of poetry transforms the way in which the young girl sees the world as she beings to ‘[fall] in love with the words’ of the poet Yeats. She sees the story behind the object, ‘the tree // in the scratched old desk under [her] hands’, and begins to appreciate the life and the beauty in everyday objects around her.
Her perception of her surroundings also change. Nature has become art: she hears a bird ‘scribble itself on the air’ as if it is a pen writing or drawing on the canvas of the sky.
The title ‘Death of a Teacher’ sets up the expectation that the poem will be sad. Yet for a poem supposedly about death and loss, the ending is optimistic. The speaker anticipates the continued opportunities of reading, ‘the edge of a page of a book, precious, waiting to be turned’. The focus isn’t on the teacher’s death but on the excitement for literature they have instilled, the worldview they have inspired. After all, ‘teaching is endless love’.