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Education for Leisure
This powerful poem explores the mind of a disturbed person, who is planning murder. We
do not know if the speaker is male or female, though this barely seems to matter. What we
do know is that he (or she) has a powerful sense of his own importance, and a greater sense
of grievance that no one else notices him. The poem contrasts the speaker's deluded belief in
his own abilities with the real genius that is creative. We do not know if the poem is based
on any real person, though it has echoes of the true story of the young American woman
who shot dead several of her classmates, and when asked about her reasons answered, "I
don't like Mondays" (an episode that inspired the Boomtown Rats' rock song with this title).
There may be an allusion to this in the first stanza, where the wouldbe killer says the day is
"ordinary" and "a sort of grey with boredom stirring..."
The speaker informs us that he is going to kill "something. Anything" who or what seems
irrelevant, so long as the gesture is dramatic enough and gains the world's attention, because
the speaker wishes not to be "ignored" any longer, and would like to "play God".
As he kills a fly casually, he recalls doing "that at school. Shakespeare". What he recalls,
vaguely, is Gloucester's speech in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear.
Gloucester, blinded by his enemies, is thinking of his son (who at this moment stands before
him, pretending to be a madman and beggar). He says: "As flies to wanton boys are we to
the gods/They kill us for their sport..." Gloucester takes the killing of flies as a metaphor for
casual suffering that falls on men. The speaker here does it literally, but he also thinks of
killing people literally. Gloucester's speech is a protest against cruelty, not a commendation
of it and the speaker in the poem seems to have missed the point of King Lear, which
commends humanity and rebukes cruelty and violence. He thinks Shakespeare's play is not
in the language he speaks, and notes that the fly is also now "in another language" at least
no longer in the world of the living. His comment on Shakespeare is true but not in the way
he intends of course King Lear is written in English, but its values are wholly alien to him.
He commits the common error of stupid people in supposing that an author approves of the
things his characters do. In reading the poem, we should not fall into the same error Carol
Ann Duffy does not want us to admire this speaker.
Mention of Shakespeare prompts the boast that he is a "genius" who could "be anything at
all, with half the chance". But we see that he has no idea of real creativity. As soon as he
claims that he can "change the world" he limits this to "something's world". He kills the
goldfish and notes that the budgie is frightened (how does a budgerigar panic?) while the cat,
supposedly as a recognition of his "genius" has "hidden itself". Almost as an aside the
speaker tells us that he is unemployed, and goes into town "for signing on".
Finally, as there "is nothing left to kill", he phones a radio talk show to assert his genius but
is cut off by the presenter. So he goes out with a bread knife. The poem has been presented
as a firstperson monologue throughout, but ends by addressing the reader as if he or she
were the first human victim "I touch your arm".
The poem's title seems ironic we see that the speaker's education has done him little good.
It has not enabled him to find work, nor to cope with the boredom of enforced "leisure". But
this may not be the fault of the school and teachers if the response to King Lear is
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The poem is in five stanzas, each of four lines (quatrains). They are unrhymed and the
metre is not regular, though many lines are in the form known as Alexandrine (six iambic
feet). The lines are mostly end stopped, and every stanza concludes with a full stop.…read more
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What strikes you about the use of pronouns in this poem? (Words like "I" and "me"
and "you".…read more