Analysis of The History Teacher by Billy Collins

In this article, we are going to analysis the poem The History Teacher by Billy Collins.

This is another poem with a lot of humor built into it but with a serious point. It is a poem that is full of illusion. To give the humor and understand the underlying point we need to understand the references. Let me rearrange the normal pattern and start with the subject and theme then we'll look at the poem.

The subject is history and the theme is this. Those who don't know the mistakes of the past or doomed to repeat them.

Now let's look at the poem.
Trying to protect his student’s innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.
Okay, this was funny there's nothing much serious about it. A history teacher is trying to water down history to protect his student's innocence.

We don't know a lot about life during the ice age but we know enough to know that the human who lived through it endured brutal condition.

The second little stanza the is equally unserious.
And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.
But in the third stanza, the sauce begins to thick and a little bit.
The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
“How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”
The word inquisition means two different things. Technically and inquisition isn't an extended period of questioning. But the Spanish Inquisition refers to a historical period of religious persecution. When many people have put death for not the hearing to the state-mandated religion that's occurred mostly the fifteenth century I think.

It was a serious ugly business that we can learn a lot of lessons from. But the teacher protects his students by not only telling them the dictionary by only telling them the dictionary definition.

It was an outbreak of questions and note how silly and innocuous the questions are. “How far is it from here to Madrid?” “What do you call the matador’s hat?”

Now the two examples in the next stanza or even more troubling.
The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.
So the war the roses had nothing to do with the rose. It was an English civil war between two branches of the royal family. The war got its name because one brain to the family used the red rose as part of the family emblem and the other branch used the white rose. But the point is that this civil war caused widespread suffering among the English population for years. Then, of course, the Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It wasn't one tiny atom.

Now here is where the sauce thickens even more.
The children would leave his classroom
for the playground and torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,
History is a long story of fighting and discord and the strong dominating the weak. When those children go out to play. They are reenacting history in microcosm. The value of history is helping us to understand the mistakes of the past and the consequences of those mistakes.


To the extent that we understand the mistakes of the past. We have a better chance of avoiding the same mistakes in the future. These children need to be taught the lessons of history. The teacher wants to protect their innocence but we can tell from their behavior they aren't innocent. The teacher is protecting their ignorance not there innocence.

Well, that's a pretty dark serious theme but the poem ends with some more gentle humor.

So all the children are in the playground messing up their hair and breaking their glasses while the history teacher.
while he gathered his notes and walked homepast flower beds and white picket fences,wondering if they would believe that soldiersin the Boer War told long, rambling storiesdesigned to make the enemy nod off.
Well, Boer War occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The boer was in South Africa and they were rebelling against the english rule. It's a footnote in most history books but lots of people died and we're displaced.

The jokes in this stanza are the word Boer. It's pronounced the same as boer B O R E as in boring. That's called a homophone (When two different words with different meanings are pronounced the same).

So the teacher wonders if he could convince his students that Boer war was the Bore War. Where soldiers too long rambling stories designed to put but the enemy to sleep. It a historical joke.

This is an example of  Billy Collins using a lot of humor to make a serious point.

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