Billy Collins

The History Teacher by Billy Collins

‘The History Teacher’ was first published in Collins’s 1991 collection, Questions About Angels. It was with this collection that his star began to rise. It is generally cited as his best-known volume. Like the majority of Collins’s poems, he uses humor and a satirical outlook on the world in order to make a larger point about a specific topic. The teacher in this poem ignores the negative impact of the revised history lessons that he’s giving. The lessons of history were not passed down to the next generation.

The History Teacher by Billy Collins


Summary of The History Teacher 

The History Teacher’ by Billy Collins is a clever, humorous, and thoughtful poem that considers the implications of altering the past.

In the first lines of this poem, the reader is introduced to a teacher who, out of fear of upsetting his students, decides to simplify history. He takes scary events and makes them lighter and easier to understand. The Stone Age becomes the Gravel Age and the Spanish Inquisition a period in which people couldn’t stop asking questions. 

But, this choice on the teacher’s part has an impact on the students that he didn’t expect. Since they aren’t taught about history’s mistakes they repeat those same mistakes in the form of cruelty and bullying outside the school. Yet, the teacher continues in the same mindset, contemplating changing the Boer War to a war of boring stories. 

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of The History Teacher 

The History Teacher’ by Billy Collins is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of either two, three, four, or five lines. These stanzas vary in length, as do the length of the individual lines. There are several, such as line three of stanza four and line three of stanza six that are markedly shorter than those around them. This is a feature of Collins choosing the structure of these stanzas as sentences. 

Collins does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or meter in ‘The History Teacher’ (a technique known as free verse). But, that does not mean that the poem is entirely without rhyme. There are several examples of half-rhyme within the text. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-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. For example, “leave” and “weak” in stanza five and “Chilly” and “million” in line three of stanza one. “Boer War” in the sixth stanza is another good example. 


Literary Devices in The History Teacher 

Collins makes use of several literary devices in ‘The History Teacher’. These include but are not limited to allusion, enjambmentand alliteration. The latter, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Madrid” and “Matador” in stanza three and “flower” and “fences” in stanza six.

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines one, two, and three of stanza four.


Analysis of The History Teacher 

Stanza One 

Trying to protect his students’ innocence


when everyone had to wear sweaters.

In the first stanza of this ‘The History Teacher,’ the speaker begins by explaining the thought process of a history teacher. This history teacher, worried that the true history of the world is going to upset his students decides to make history more palatable. Rather than explain what the Ice Age really was, he decides to tell his students that it was just a period in which everyone wore sweaters.

A reader should take note of the use of enjambment in the stanza. All three first lines are enjambed, making up one long sentence. This makes a great deal of sense for this particular palm as the narrator is telling a story of the speaker and his teaching methods.


Stanza Two 

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,


The second stanza is similar to the first. Rather than explain the Stone Age, its complexities, and its hardships, the teacher refers to it as the “Gravel Age”. This is a very funny twist in which people supposedly had “long driveways”. At this point, the true implications of transforming history are not clear. 


Stanza Three 

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more


“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

In the third and fourth stanza of ‘The History Teacher,’ the speaker makes allusions to several other historical events. He mentions the Spanish Inquisition, a period of religious persecution and torture, and refers to it as an age in which everyone asked questions. Again, humorous at first but more problematic when the implications become clear.


Stanza Four 

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,


The same can be said of the fourth stanza in which he talks about the war of the roses and Enola Gay the B-29 bomber plane that dropped an atomic bomb, Little Boy, on Hiroshima. Rather than one atomic bomb, the teacher tells them that the plane dropped one atom.

The line breaks in the fourth stands are quite effective. Specifically between the second and third lines. The transformation of history in this example is emphasizing through the transition between “Adam“ and “on Japan“.


Stanza Five 

The children would leave his classroom


mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

The fifth stanza of ‘The History Teacher’ is the only one in which the reader is exposed to the consequences of altering history. The old saying that “if one does not learn from history is doomed to repeat itself” is playing out in the schoolyard. The students, unaware of these tragic mistakes and circumstances of their own pasts, “torment the week” and bully those they can.


Stanza Six 

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
designed to make the enemy nod off.

In the final stanza of ‘The History Teacher,’ the teacher, either unaware or unwilling to address, the effects of his teaching method is on his way home. He makes one final consideration in this poem about the Boer War. This is an allusion to a war fought between the British Empire and two independent Boer states. During this terrible period, 26,000 civilians died of disease in concentration camps set up in South Africa. The British lost a total of 28,000 men and the Boer, 4,000.

Rather than have to confront their past the teacher contemplates whether it would be possible to convince his students that the war was in fact about soldiers exchanging boring stories. The poem concludes without a clear resolution very much suggesting that the practice of altering the past is going to continue, as are the implications of not learning from it. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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