Analysis of The Lanyard by Billy Collins

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


On one, really general level this poem is about how the mind works. Our minds kind of ricochet around a good bit of the time until they seized upon something that focuses the attention. And that is reflected in the opening of the poem.
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the 'L' section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard
And isn't that the way the mind works. Maybe it's a word in a dictionary. Maybe it's a piece of music that we haven't heard in a long time. Maybe it's a smell maybe it's a phrase somebody utters that we haven't heard in a Coon's age. But different things spark our memories. And for this speaker, it is running across the word Lanyard in the dictionary.

Now I can explain the next two lines. People sometimes ask me what it's like to have a doctoral degree in English. I say it's great my head is full of useless information. I can explain illusions in poetry that nobody cares about. Well, I don't exactly say that but I can explain the next two lines.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
When I was in graduate school. I took a seminar in European modernist fiction don't ask me why. Anyway, we read the French novelist Marcel Proust who wrote a three-volume work of fiction called Remembrance of things past.

We didn't read all three volumes but we read the first one. And in a passage of this novel the protagonist is in a shabby french cafe. He nibbles on a cookie. a kind of cookie that he hasn't tasted since he was a kid and the taste of that cookie propels him back into memories of his childhood that go on and on for pages and pages.

It's kind of a famous passage. So there aren't you feeling smarter than you've ever felt before but it's at this point that the poem really settles down to the central subject. So let's read a bit.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that's what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother. 
Well, I never went to camps much when I was a kid. But I always had to go to Bible School in the summer. Among other boring things we had stupid art projects where we made useless things in careless ways. So I can sympathize with this speakers making this lanyard that he cares nothing about for his mother. But then the sauce thickens a bit when he contrasts the gift of this lanyard with the gifts his mother has given him.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
'Here are thousands of meals' she said,
'and here is clothing and a good education.'
'And here is your lanyard,' I replied,
'which I made with a little help from a counselor.'
'Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.' she whispered.
'And here,' I said, 'is the lanyard I made at camp.'
So when you put it that way the lanyard seems even more insignificant. There is no gift that could match all the mother's gifts. The gifts a good mother gives us are simply beyond our power to repay but that's not the real point of the poem. The real points surfaces in the last lines.
'And here,' I wish to say to her now,
'is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.' 
Okay, let's get a couple of words straight. Archaic means are very old. It comes from the same root as the word archeology. The other words we may not be familiar with his rueful. Rueful in this context means kind of sheepish a little bit embarrassed or conscious stricken.

So the speaker's main point is not the old truth that you can never repay your mother although that's true. His main point is that loving someone isn't a contest nobody keeps score. All gifts are equal because they are expressions of love. The subject of this poem is the gifts of love.


The Lanyard doesn't mean anything to the boy he was forced to make it at camp. But he still loves his mother and his mother understands that so his gift counts just as much.

There's a biblical story about giving to God. Preachers often use it when they're trying to get you to pledge to the church. Anyway, the story is of a poor poverty-stricken woman who came to church and only gave two mites two pennies and all these other people around her were giving these great lavish gifts.

But the Bible tells us that her gift was just as great. In some ways greater because she gave what she could and she gave it in love. The boy gave what he could a stupid lanyard but he gave it in love. So it counts just as much because in love. There is no scorekeeping. It's a sweet poem. 
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