Here is an analysis of a poem by American poet Billy Collins called ‘On Turning Ten’. This is a coming-of-age poem in which the speaker, a child who is turning ten, is realizing that he is no longer a young child, and he is beginning to comprehend that life is filled with heartache and sorrow, from which up to this point he has been somewhat shielded. Billy Collins served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and he holds several impressive professor positions at various colleges in the United States. While much of his poetry is known for its humor, Collins’ poetry, such as ‘On Turning Ten’, also tackles serious themes. His work is read around the world, but he is most beloved in his home country and his home state of New York, where he served as poet laureate from 2004 until 2006.
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Summary of On Turning Ten
‘On Turning Ten’ by Billy Collins is a very melancholy poem. The speaker, a child who is turning ten soon, discusses his feelings on going from being in the single digits to double. He feels as if he has a sickness of his soul when thinking about turning ten, and he realizes the pain and heartache that surely awaits him now that he is mature. An adult to whom the speaker is close, presumably his parent, tells the speaker that he is too young to be so retrospective, that he should enjoy his childhood still. However, the speaker confesses that this is impossible: he now sees the world differently than he once did in his younger years.
‘On Turning Ten’ by Billy Collins presents an interesting title, to begin with. The poem’s title is especially important to this poem, as the reader would have no idea about which the speaker was talking. It has a feel of opening in medias res, where the action of the poem has already started to occur before the speaker started to describe the situation. The opening two lines say, “The whole idea of it makes me feel/like I’m coming down with something…” The poem is broken into five stanzas of varying length, and Collins utilizes free verse in his poetry. It is written in the style of stream of consciousness, where the speaker’s thoughts, while united in the theme of turning ten, seem to flow from one to the next.
The beauty of this poem is in the imagery Collins so beautifully writes. For anyone who has reached a particular age in their lives, it is very easy to empathize with the speaker, and the poem forces the reader to take an introspective look at his or her own life and memories of growing up.
‘On Turning Ten’ by Billy Collins features different literary devices to make poetic feelings more touching and vibrant to the readers. The poem begins with a simile. The poet compares himself burdened with weight to the feelings after turning ten years old. The poet uses metaphors in the following phrases, “measles of the spirit”, “mumps of the psyche”, and “chickenpox of the soul”. By using these metaphors, he illustrates the physical change as well as the mental change in adolescence. The poet uses an oxymoron in “beautiful complexity” and “two” refers to the poet’s real self and the imaginary self metaphorically.
In the following stanza, there is a personification and the poet uses it to infuse life into his bicycle. In “the dark blue speed”, there is a metaphor of childhood’s spontaneity and enjoyment. The line, “as I walk through the universe in my sneakers” seems hyperbolic as well as ironic. This line refers to the hormonal change inside his body and its impacts on his mind and body. There is also an innuendo in this line. The last two lines are paradoxical. They reveal an astonishing and harsh truth of the adolescent years. However, the poet makes use of enjambment for maintaining the flow of the poem.
‘On Turning Ten’ by Billy Collins uniquely presents the theme of adolescence. It is also a “coming of age” poem that talks about the mental and physical changes during the juncture between childhood and teenage. When the poet turned ten, things started to change around him. His childhood world seemed to fall apart in a flash of a second. The enthusiasm and spontaneity of imagination faded away from the ten-year-old Billy Collins. He can remember how everything was wonderful and had a radiance of heavenly light. The poet thought he had inside his mortal skin, except light. It is a metaphorical reference to the spiritual aura inside a child’s soul. In this way, the poet illustrates the themes of adolescence and “coming of age” in his poem.
There are also some important themes like body vs mind and real self vs imaginary self in the poem. These things appear inside a child when he steps into his teenage years. The clash starts when the child starts to discover those subtle changes inside his body.
‘On Turning Ten’ by Billy Collins becomes more interesting for the use of vibrant images. In the first stanza of the poem, the poet uses images of skin diseases to create a disturbing mood in the poem. The poet was disturbed with those things that irritated him during his adolescent years. The homely image of a child lying on his bed, dreaming about the “Arabian wizard” or a “prince” makes an adult reader look back at his childhood days.
In the third stanza, the image of the poet watching out of his window creates an emotional mood in the poem. The image of the bicycle leaning against the garage is important regarding the emotional state of the poet. The poet associates himself with the cycle and presents the lack of spontaneity in his ten-year-old self. At the end of the poem, the image of the bleeding knees evokes physical and fleshy sensation. This sensational image suddenly breaks the internal flow of the poem and brings readers to reality.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
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 chickenpox. 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.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
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 are 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.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
These stanzas is in stark contrast to the second, and 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 often. He seems to see only the negative: the way the light on his treehouse 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.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
time to turn the first big number.
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.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
In the last 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.
Collins included ‘On Turning Ten’ in his book of poetry called The Art of Drowning, which was published in 1995. This collection of poems tends to dwell on the gloomy and seriousness of life, which means ‘On Turning Ten’ fits right in. The book itself got its title from one of the poems included in the book. This poem is about a man reflecting on his life while drowning. For a special treat and to get a better glimpse of Billy Collins, watch his Ted Talk, seen here: