In Billy Collins’s ‘Aimless Love,’ the speaker’s daily encounters with ordinary creatures and objects reveals a profound love for the world. Collins creates isolated images that capture the simple beauty and fragility of life, contrasting them with the painful complexities that characterize human relationships. Shifting through space and time, the speaker hones in on a dead mouse, whose loss inspires him to more deeply appreciate life.
Explore Aimless Love
In ‘Aimless Love,’ the speaker describes falling in love with ordinary creatures and objects, beginning with a wren he saw along a walk on the lakeshore. He shifts between different memories, recalling his love for a hardworking seamstress he saw through a window, a bowl of broth, a clean white shirt, and even a Florida highway, although the most enduring image is that of a dead mouse.
Throughout his recollections, the speaker compares his love for ordinary things with the problems that plague human romance, including lust and cruelty. As he meditates on how he carefully disposed of the mouse, the speaker subtly suggests that part of the beauty of life is its fragility, something that people often forget in their relationships with each other.
Structure and Form
‘Aimless Love’ is a free verse poem composed of 37 lines and 10 stanzas of an inconsistent length. There is no regular meter or rhyme scheme, although Collins uses lyrical repetition to structure the poem throughout.
- Repetition: Collins uses a variation of “I fell” throughout the poem to emphasize the speaker’s love for the world, including lines 2 and 6. He also uses repetition to create a rhythm in lines 11-12 and lines 16 and 20.
- Imagery: The poem is composed of vivid images, each of which inspires love in the speaker. These include a steamy bowl of broth, a wren’s nest and a dead mouse dressed in its “light brown suit.” Collins’ strong use of imagery allows the reader to better understand the speaker’s viewpoint.
- Enjambment: Collins makes occasional use of enjambment to pull the readers into the next line, including lines 3 and 6.
This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.
The speaker recalls a morning walk along the lakeshore, during which he “fell in love” with a wren, before shifting to later that day, when he fell in love with a dead mouse. Initially, the speaker does not explain why he felt love for these animals, who are both small, meek and ordinary. Collins uses simple language to describe the speaker’s encounters, emphasizing the mundane settings.
He does not state, but only implies, that the mouse is dead after the cat “dropped” it “under the dining room table.” That the cat leaves its meal under where its owners eat adds some subtle humor, while the speaker’s appreciation of it suggests he sees value in what others might find repulsive. The poem begins on a shore, and similarly, the speaker seems to appreciate things that lie on a border between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the beautiful and the repulsive.
In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.
In the second stanza, the speaker’s memories abruptly shift in time and place, moving to the “shadows of a late autumn evening.” The atmospheric setting again suggests a border since late autumn is on the verge of turning into winter.
On this occasion, the speaker falls for a glimpse of a seamstress “still at her machine,” appreciating a “window” into her quiet labor. He then falls for a “bowl of broth,” which is also humble but similarly useful — both clothes and food are warming and necessary. In his description of its “steam rising like smoke from a naval battle,” the speaker finds something grand in something ordinary. “Smoke,” “steam,” and “shadows” are all insubstantial and quickly passing, as are the moments the speaker recalls, but he nonetheless finds lasting beauty in them.
This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.
The speaker contrasts the love he feels for ordinary things with the love between people, which is much more complicated. He elaborates on the ways people create expectations of gifts or favors in their relationships and shows how love can become warped when people grow cruel or distant.
The description of “silence on the telephone” is particularly expressive of love that feels painful. In the following stanza, the speaker joyfully returns to images that express simplicity, like a chestnut, and careless freedom, like “one hand on the wheel.” He revels in the simple pleasures of the world, which ask for nothing in return.
No lust, no slam of the door –
the love of the miniature orange tree,
No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then
In the fifth and sixth stanzas, the speaker repeatedly begins the phrases with “no,” proclaiming his rejection of messy human love. The images of things he has fallen in love with grow wider, ranging from a “miniature orange tree” to a “highway that cuts across Florida.”
The speaker’s love is not bound by space or time but encompasses everything. Even a “clean white shirt” or a “hot evening shower,” both of which could be a part of a daily routine, earn a place in the speaker’s heart. He further suggests that human feelings, like lust or anger, are part of the source of our unhappiness rather than the world itself.
for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
ready for the next arrow.
The speaker returns to the first stanza, revisiting both the wren and the dead mouse. He fills in the details, revealing that he fell in love with the precariousness of the wren’s nest, which threatens to drop into the water at any moment. He also describes the dead mouse “dressed in its light brown suit,” which imbues the left-behind vermin with a kind of dignity. The speaker explains that his heart is always prepared for these moments, imagining it as “propped up… on its tripod/ready” to be pierced with “the next arrow.”
This is the “twinge” he mentions in the sixth stanza. Although the speaker initially frames his love as “aimless” and random, he reveals that he has intentionally opened his heart to experience the beauty and fragility of life.
After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.
In the last lines of the poem, the speaker focuses on the dead mouse he found in the first stanza. He narrates how he disposed of the mouse “by the tail” in “a pile of leaves in the woods.” These serve as the mouse’s grave, which the speaker again imbues with quiet dignity. In the next line, he has “found [him]self” standing over the sink, which suggests that he was in a daze when returning home from the woods. As he washes his hands, the speaker finds comfort in the soap, which cleanses him of the previous task. He meditates on the soap’s qualities, how it is “patient and soluble,” and finds himself falling in love with another object.
The speaker’s love for the soap, as well as his love for everything else in the poem, lies in how it does exactly what it is intended to do and nothing more. The soap and the speaker are both “at home” in themselves because they are not aiming to be more than they are—in fact, the speaker is intentionally “aim-less.” Furthermore, the speaker’s interest in the quiet death of a mouse suggests that when people get caught up in their squabbles and problems, they forget about a fundamental truth: everything is part of the cycle of life and death. In embracing life’s fragility and simplicity, the speaker can momentarily escape the complexities of human existence.
The title refers to the speaker’s habit of falling in love with seemingly random moments and objects. However, as the poem progresses, the speaker reveals that is love is not aimless, but rather a profound way of embracing the world’s beauty.
In ‘Aimless Love,’ the speaker values the wonder of everyday life, encouraging the reader to do so as well by highlighting specific moments. He particularly values usefulness over surface-level beauty, as exemplified by the broth, the Florida highway or the seamstress.
‘Aimless Love’ is about the inherent beauty that can be found in all aspects of life—and death. It contains themes of beauty, death, and the importance of appreciating the moment.
Here are a couple more Billy Collins poems that you might be interested in:
- ‘Afternoon with Irish Cows’— follows the speaker’s musings on cows as he, similar to ‘Aimless Love,‘ comes to appreciate them for more than their ordinary appearance.
- ‘Today’ — also has a euphoric quality as the speaker rhapsodizes about a beautiful spring day.
Another related poem is: