'Forgetfulness' by Billy Collins

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The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an

Editor 1 Interpretation

Forgetfulness by Billy Collins: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

Excited Introduction

What makes a poem great? Is it the use of vivid imagery, the clever play of language, or the ability to evoke deep emotions from within the reader? For me, all these factors come into play when I read Billy Collins' poem "Forgetfulness." This is a poem that speaks to the human experience of growing old, losing memories, and trying to make sense of the world around us. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will analyze the various literary devices used by Collins in "Forgetfulness," and explore the deeper themes and messages that the poem conveys.

The Poem: An Overview

Before we delve into the nitty-gritty of the poem, let's take a moment to appreciate its structure and form. "Forgetfulness" is a free verse poem, which means that it does not follow any particular rhyme scheme or meter. However, it is divided into three stanzas of varying lengths, which give it a sense of progression and build-up. The first stanza sets the stage by introducing the theme of forgetfulness, the second stanza explores this theme in more detail, and the third stanza provides a resolution of sorts.

The Use of Imagery

One of the most striking things about "Forgetfulness" is the vivid imagery that Collins uses to describe the experience of forgetting. He starts off by comparing forgetfulness to a fish that slips out of our grasp (line 3), and then goes on to use a series of metaphors and similes to describe how memories can slip away from us. For instance, he compares forgetfulness to a "dark room where the negatives are developed" (lines 5-6), a "heap of shoes in the alley" (line 12), and a "bowl of onions" (line 15). These images are both haunting and evocative, and they create a sense of unease and uncertainty in the reader.

The Power of Repetition

Another literary device that Collins employs in "Forgetfulness" is repetition. Throughout the poem, he repeats certain words and phrases to emphasize their significance and to create a sense of rhythm and momentum. For example, the word "forgetfulness" appears four times throughout the poem, and each time it is accompanied by a different image or metaphor. Similarly, the phrase "Something is slipping away" appears twice in the second stanza, and this repetition creates a sense of urgency and inevitability.

The Theme of Mortality

While "Forgetfulness" is primarily about the experience of forgetting, it also touches on a deeper theme of mortality. Collins uses the metaphor of a river to describe the passage of time, and he notes that "Even now, reading this poem, we are in it" (line 22). This line is particularly powerful because it reminds us that we are all a part of this river, and that our lives are constantly moving towards an inevitable end. The poem also highlights the fragility of human memory, and the fact that even the most vivid experiences can be lost to us in the course of time.

The Irony of the Final Stanza

In the final stanza of "Forgetfulness," Collins takes a somewhat ironic turn. He notes that forgetting can sometimes be a blessing, as it allows us to move on from painful memories and experiences. He even goes so far as to suggest that forgetting is "a kind of salvation" (line 28). This is a surprising conclusion, given the sense of loss and anxiety that pervades the rest of the poem. However, it also underscores the complexity of the human experience, and the fact that there are no easy answers or solutions.


In conclusion, "Forgetfulness" is a powerful and evocative poem that explores the human experience of forgetting. Through its use of vivid imagery, repetition, and metaphor, it creates a sense of unease and uncertainty that is both haunting and thought-provoking. At the same time, the poem also touches on deeper themes of mortality and the fragility of human memory, reminding us that we are all a part of the river of time. Whether we see forgetting as a curse or a blessing, "Forgetfulness" reminds us that it is an inescapable part of the human experience, and that we must find a way to make peace with it.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Forgetfulness: A Poem by Billy Collins

Billy Collins is a renowned American poet, known for his witty and accessible style of writing. His poem, Forgetfulness, is a perfect example of his ability to take a complex topic and make it relatable to the average reader. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and language used in Forgetfulness.


The central theme of Forgetfulness is the inevitability of aging and the loss of memory that comes with it. Collins uses vivid imagery to describe the process of forgetting, comparing it to a slow and gradual erasure of the mind. He writes, "The name of the author is the first to go followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of."

Collins also touches on the idea of mortality, as the loss of memory is a reminder of our own mortality. He writes, "But there is no joy in forgetting, no relief that one's body is slowly failing, no sense of accomplishment in becoming less and less." This line highlights the sadness that comes with the realization that we are all slowly fading away.


Forgetfulness is written in free verse, with no set rhyme or meter. This allows Collins to focus on the content of the poem, rather than trying to fit it into a specific structure. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each with a different focus.

The first stanza sets the tone for the poem, describing the process of forgetting in a matter-of-fact way. Collins uses simple language and short sentences to convey the idea that forgetting is a natural part of life.

The second stanza is more introspective, as Collins reflects on the sadness that comes with forgetting. He uses longer sentences and more complex language to convey the depth of emotion that he is feeling.

The third stanza is the most philosophical, as Collins contemplates the meaning of life and the inevitability of death. He uses rhetorical questions to challenge the reader's perspective and encourage them to think deeply about their own mortality.


Collins uses a variety of literary devices in Forgetfulness to convey his message. One of the most prominent is imagery, as he uses vivid descriptions to paint a picture of the process of forgetting. For example, he writes, "It is as if one by one the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones."

Collins also uses repetition to emphasize the idea of forgetting. He repeats the phrase "I remember" several times throughout the poem, each time followed by a memory that is slowly slipping away. This repetition creates a sense of urgency and highlights the inevitability of forgetting.

Another literary device that Collins uses is irony. He writes, "It is not so much that you are less intelligent than you used to be, or even that you are less ambitious, but something more elemental, more basic, than that." This line is ironic because it suggests that forgetting is a natural part of life, even though it is often seen as a sign of decline or weakness.


In conclusion, Forgetfulness is a powerful poem that explores the themes of aging, memory loss, and mortality. Collins uses vivid imagery, repetition, and irony to convey his message in a way that is both relatable and thought-provoking. The poem is a reminder that we are all mortal and that forgetting is a natural part of life. However, it also encourages us to cherish the memories that we do have and to live our lives to the fullest while we still can.

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