The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
do you have to read these comments
In the first stanza, the speaker, an almost-ten-year-old child, informs the reader that he feels sick when thinking of turning ten. The sickness is worse than any other childhood ailment: worse than a stomachache, headaches, or even the chicken pox. In fact, in lines six and seven, he calls the illness “a mumps of the psyche” and “a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.” This is not an illness that only affects one part of the speaker, nor is it something that will eventually go away. It has touched him so deeply that his entire soul feels sick—he has permanently changed. It is important to note Collins’ diction throughout the poem, but particularly in this first stanza. Words such as “disfiguring” highlight the magnitude in which turning ten has affected the speaker. He will forever be wounded from this milestone.
In the second stanza, the speaker talks directly to someone else in the poem, and it seems as though it is an adult or authority figure who has already crossed this threshold. The speaker says, “You tell me it is too early to be looking back.” The speaker reasons that this is due to the fact that the adult has forgotten what it is like to be a small child.
Collins sets up a dichotomy between being one and two to further his point that a grown-up cannot possibly understand what the poem’s speaker is experiencing; the adult is simply far too old. The speaker argues that there is a simplicity of being one, but that simplicity changes to “beautiful complexity” when the child turns to: he or she is able to comprehend more. The speaker then reflects back on his own childhood, saying that because it was not long ago, he remembers everything.
Collins sweetly shows the complexity of a child’s mind and imagination. The speaker remembers not how he pretended to be a wizard or soldier or prince, but how he actually was those things at the ages of four and seven, and nine. It is also interesting that Collins includes the fantasies of the child when he was nine, just one year earlier. There is something about turning ten that means these dreams must—and will—come to an end.
The third stanza is in stark contrast to the second, and the Collins signifies this change by starting the first line with “but.” He writes, “But now I am mostly at the window…” The speaker takes us back to the present and how he is feeling on the cusp of ten. He seems to see only the negative: the way the light on his tree house looks so serious, and the way his bicycle leans against the garage with all of its speed pizazz gone. The speaker is also watching all of this occur from inside, as opposed to outside where the light and his bicycle are.
The speaker realizes that his days as an innocent child are over: all that lies ahead is sadness. He will have to “walk through the universe” in his sneakers and say goodbye to all of his childish fantasies. Ten is the first big number a person turns, and it is time to cross that threshold.
The fifth and final stanza is also bleak and melancholy.
In this stanza, the speaker juxtaposes his old self with the new. No longer does he believe that he is different and extraordinary on the inside. He now knows that if he were to fall, he would bleed, not shine. Collins also uses a metaphor here, comparing life to a sidewalk. Sidewalks are hard and dull, and they will cut someone if they fall. The speaker has fallen, has skinned his knees, and he is bleeding.
The tone of the poem is sad, due to the word choice which Collins chose “dark blue speed drained out of it” The color blue is a melancholic color which gives a feeling of sadness and drained is a very rough and harsh word for a ten year old to use.
Billy Collins’ audience is anyone who is willing to look back into their childhood. It is for people who want to remember their childhood and who lived through the same as Collins did. He lets the audience close into the poem by using imagery which reminds the reader of their own childhood. Such as the blue bike, the tree house, wanting to be a wizard or pirate, these are all memories from many childhoods. Giving examples of all of the different magical and heroic figures that he wanted to be, lets the reader connect because many of the readers have had the same dreams and beliefs as children.
Collins starts the poem with stating what he is feeling to let the audience be touched. He uses images like “reading in bad light” and “measles” which are things which happen during the childhood and mixes these with words which are developed and don’t really fit into this childhood theme. “a kind of measles of the spirit” or “a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul”. Also that he uses images as chickenpox, which usually only happen once in a childhood, can be linked to starting to grow up. If the chicken pox has come, children think that they are turning older and maturing. On one hand he is very unhappy that he has to grow up “it is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends” but on the other hand he seems to be a bit happy about finally growing up “the beautiful complexity introduced by two”.
Just by reading the poem, it seems as if the child has already matured a lot. Because he is thinking about all of these things, whereas he could just be playing with friends. But he is sitting in bed and thinking about something very important to him. “But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit” He does things which are actually very grown up, like “But now I am mostly at the window watching the late afternoon light”. He does not need to change anything anymore because the way that he acts he is already very mature, that is one of the messages that the author wants to bring in this poem.
Collins wants to say with this poem that it is hard leaving childhood behind and starting to mature. However since he was not turning ten years old as he was writing this poem, there is a certain irony to it. It shows that even at any age it is possible to feel like having to leave the childhood behind. Or an aspect of life, because there is more responsibility which to be taken, when having a family for example.
This poem deals with the realities of growing up, as he refers to turning ten as a disease, similar to chicken pox, because sooner or later, we all get it. We all must grow up, leave our simple and happy lives behind and accept the real world and it’s burdens that follow coming of age.
The last line of this poem alludes to Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind and in the poem Collins is mocking Shelley. It is not about the complexity of becoming older but saying that Shelley was not old enough to look back it is just as insane as a 10 year old looking back on their life when the majority want to be older.
This poem shows the reality of becoming older. it is not as exciting as it may seem because it is quite depressing to think that you cannot be a child anymore. not only do others expect more of you because you are now “mature”, but you expect more of yourself too. it is no longer okay to have an imaginary friend when you are ten. oh no, that is no longer “cool”. In addition your imagination starts to escape you and you no longer find the fun of playing with action heroes or Barbie and Ken. soon enough people expect you to have a boyfriend or girlfriend (you’re eleven years old!!!)and you start to give into peer pressure. now you hardly recognize your childhood. it is gone from your grasp and can no longer be retrieved from the depths of your soul. Billy Collins truly portrays this sadness and great loss terrifically with his amazing poetic abilities.
how long did that take you to type…
I heard your poem on NPR today as part of a book review. Actually, they read an excerpt form your poem, but the image of light (..if you cut me I would shine…) struck me as very profound wisdom from one so young. Then I remembered writing a poem of my own just before graduating eighth grade, realizing the imminent loss of childhood.
Children offer their own insights and discoveries that we adults too often ignore, having forsaken the simple wonder of the world. Thank you for sharing and reminding us.
Hey Billy Collins — do you actually read these comments? You won’t remember me, but you’ll remember a friend of mine from Alabama — she kissed you at the Sigma Tau Delta convention. Write me back.