‘The Breather’ by Billy Collins is a six stanza poem that is separated out into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme but that doesn’t mean there are moments of rhyme within the text. This includes full and half end rhymes, as well as rhymes within the text itself. For example, the endings of lines two and three of the fourth stanza rhyme perfectly.
Half rhyme, which is also known as slant rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. Only the corresponding sections of the words rhyme, making them incomplete/half/slant rhymes. For example, “time” and “rides” in the fifth stanza. These two words are connected due to a similarly in the long “i” vowel sound.
The poem begins with the speaker comparing his internal relationship to the revelation in When a Stranger Calls that the call was emanating from within the house. He expands on what he means, stating that he had been under the impression that he was deep within an emotional and fulfilling relationship. Now though, he knows this wasn’t the case. It was all within his mind.
Imagery and Allusions
One of the most interesting and surprising allusions Collins makes use of in this piece us that to the famous line from When A Stranger Calls in which the main character realizes that the “call is coming from inside the house”. Just as this revelation changes the entire nature of the movie, Billy Collin, who also wrote the poem On Turning Ten too, uses it to describe a revelation about love. It is only “inside me,” his speaker states. He realizes, quite painfully that “All that sweetness, the love and desire— / it’s just been me dialling myself”. The two telephones belong to him, and he is the only one on the other line.
This allusion is directly related to the most prominent image of ‘The Breather’, the telephone. It is at the center of the poem, acting as a conduit through which the speaker relays and receives love. Then, once he realizes what’s going on, it becomes a symbol of solitude and loneliness.
Analysis of The Breather
Stanzas One and Two
In the first stanza of ‘The Breather’ the speaker references the horror movie When a Stranger Calls. The most famous part of the movie is the moment Collins is interested in. He refers to a scene that has now become synonymous with B horror films when the main character realizes that the “call is coming from inside the house”. Previous to figuring this out, it seemed the house was a safe place, somewhere the characters could shelter from whatever was going on outside the walls. When that fantasy is ruined, the drama reaches a new level and that which they thought they were hiding from, is at their back.
While Collins is not interested in writing a horror film-like poem, he did want to establish the connection in order to better describe the cyclical nature of the speaker’s love and communication. The speaker compares the discovery of the call coming from inside the house to his own realization that “our” conversation was not really two-way. It was only occurring “inside” of the speaker. It felt to him, at the time, that the conversation was a “tender overlapping” of voices. Instead, “that sweetness” was not real.
Stanzas Three and Four
In the third stanza of ‘The Breather’ the speaker is resigned to the fact that the relationship he thought he was in, or at least the continual exchange of emotions, was single-sided. The sweetness he enjoyed, as well as the “love and desire” was only originating from inside the speaker himself. He would “dial” the number (aka he’d imagine the relationship he’d like to have). Then, rather than admitting no one was going to pick up, he’d go into the other room. Once there, he’d answer his second phone himself.
When he answered this second phone, there was of course “no one on the line”. The only thing he’d ever really hear is “a little breathing” This is where the title comes in. This breathing was likely in his imagination. Or, was ambient on the phone, something he interrupted as breathing. It represents his desire for connection and company, if only through the phone.
Stanza Five and Six
In the fifth stanza, the speaker describes how strange it seems now to think back on the past. He was engaged in a mental relationship with a nonexistent human being and lived an entire life with them. They did things normal couples would. This included taking “boat rides” and embracing when they were about to part in an airport. The fourth line of ‘The Breather’ drifts off as the speaker considers the way he used to live. He thinks about what he has lost and that his fantasy world is shattered.
The final stanza summarizes what the speaker has learned about himself and his fantastical relationship. The complexities of his imagined love have vanished. He’s left with the simple dynamic between himself and the “two telephones”. Rather than sweetness and desire, he has one phone in the kitchen and another in the “guest room upstairs”.