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Analysis of Poem 'Forgetfulness' by Billy Collins

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

'Forgetfulness' by Billy Collins Analysis

'Forgetfulness' is a deceptively innocent-looking poem that explores the consequences of gradual memory loss. It builds up through a series of examples of things that a human might forget, from an author's name to riding a bicycle.

The basic theme is forgetfulness, plain and simple, but the underlying issues are many and include that of identity versus time, tragedy versus comedy and life story versus trivial detail.

  • All of us face memory loss sooner or later so the poem deals with the universal as well as the personal. The speaker is someone likely to be experiencing this slightly disturbing phenomenon: forgetting things for no good reason, trying to resist this by learning new facts whilst simultaneously losing old ones.

'Forgetfulness' was first published in the magazine Poetry in January 1990 and is also in the book Questions About Angels, 1999. Since publication, it has grown in stature and is one of Billy Collins's most popular poems.

This poem has all the hallmarks of a classic Billy Collins poem: it starts off in a simple fashion and is approachable, yet as it develops comic elements come into play as well as classical allusions and much figurative language.

Eventually, the reader gets through the first few readings and thinks, well, that was thoroughly enjoyable and cleverly put together BUT....there are questions I need to ask concerning the nature of memory and Greek mythology. I need to do some research. I need to read this poem again. And again.


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Overview of the Poem

'Forgetfulness' is a well-crafted poem that is conversational in certain aspects yet offers much more in the way of figurative language, mythological allusion and good old folk wisdom.

The single sentence which covers the first two stanzas immediately introduces the reader to the central theme: forgetfulness. It's typical of Billy Collins to suggest, tongue in cheek, that the first memory to be lost is that of the author's name.

What then follows is the logical flow of all things that constitute a novel. The adverb obediently does change the understanding a little, as if all these memories are following one another like sheep, or military marchers.

And that word suddenly alters the reader's mindset by implying that memories can go just like that, in the blink of an eye.

  • So there is already set up the idea of something unpredictable yet inevitable about memory loss and this energy between the two remains throughout.

By using the metaphor of retirees for memories this idea is reinforced. Each memory has gone south to this fishing village where phones don't exist. That's a revelation, a dark revelation because it's the wiring of the brain that sees to our memories, our communication of memory, and in that village, there are no wires, no communication.

More agony and irony follow as another single sentence stretches over the next two stanzas. Kissing goodbye to something is dramatic especially if they're connected to the arts. The nine muses originate in Greek mythology and are the daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of... memory. Ironic.

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The quadratic equation is a random fact that is personified packing its bag (heading for the same fishing village by my calculation) and perhaps won't be missed that much.

All this memory loss doesn't mean that forgetfulness cannot be resisted. It can - why not try to store to memory the order of the planets? OK, but the deal is that as you gain planetary knowledge you lose other things, like a state flower, an uncle's address and Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.

This suggests that the memory has finite limits and that inevitably some of them you will not be able to recall for they have simply gone. They're not hiding, your body cannot keep memories, only your brain and that is subject to the vagaries of time.

The allusion to Greek myth continues as the river Lethe takes away your memories (the L stands for Lethe, the underworld river that flowed around the cave of Hypnos. Those who drank its waters experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe is also the name of the Greek god of Oblivion and Forgetfulness).

On and on the memories flow away from consciousness...taking even you yourself to a place where others congregate in a state of utter forgetfulness.

The conclusion seems to be that this is some kind of nightmare scenario. We're wired to remember, wired for instant recall of fact, yet the truth is that someday our memories will simply not be there. That's a poignant thought.

Temporary lapses can be dealt with but as we all get older our memory will falter, that is a universal truth that can be devastating on a personal level. So the final image, of the drifting romantic moon in a night sky, comes with melancholy and irony - it's a love poem that has been forgotten - and yet the comic element endures. Perhaps the speaker turns away with a wry grin and a shake of the head.

Literary/Poetic Devices Used

'Forgetfulness' is a free verse poem, it has no set rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) varies from line to line. Eight stanzas add up to a total of 23 lines.


This poem is matter-of-fact in tone to begin with, somewhat droll as the memories inevitably start to leave. Behind the light-heartedness however is a darker undercurrent which brings a slight tragic feel to proceedings, tinged with mystery.


There are several examples of alliteration, which helps with sound texture and interest:

Line 8 : names of the nine

Line 11 : something else is slipping away, a state

Line 14 : tip of your tongue

Line 16 : down a dark

Line 18 : well on your own way to oblivion where you will

Line 21 : battle in a book


Repeated words and phrases are used a little ironically because repeating something makes it easier to remember. It is a method used to retain information. Note:

Line 4 : never read, never even

Line 5 : one by one

Lines 13/14 : Whatever it is

Line 19 : how to swim and how to ride

Lines 20/22 : No wonder....No wonder


With the central theme being forgetfulness there are expectedly words and phrases relating:

Line 1 : first to go

Line 6 : to retire

Line 8 : kissed...goodbye

Line 9 : pack its bag

Line 11 : slipping away

Line 16 : floated away

Line 18 : your own to oblivion

Line 19 : have even forgotten

Lines 22/23 : drifted/out of

Figurative Language in the Poem

Forgetfulness has several examples of figurative language in its eight stanzas. These include:


In the second stanza, memories become the retired, one by one moving to the southern hemisphere.


In the third stanza the quadratic equation is personified (given a human action) - it can pack its bag.


Stanza six suggests that the memory has floated away down a dark mythological river, quite an exaggeration.


The moon in the final stanza is a symbol of time and in this specific case a time of romance and love.


© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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