The History Teacher

The History Teacher

By Billy Collins

Trying to protect his students’ 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.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

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 War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

Summary of The History Teacher

  • Popularity of “The History Teacher”: The poem, ‘The History Teacher’ is a remarkable poem, written by Billy Collins, one of the prestigious American poets. This poem first appeared in 1991 in his poetry collection, Questions about Angles. It presents an extraordinary role of a teacher who strives to exhibit a sugar-coated version of the cruel and rigid historic events. It illustrates how his efforts do not bring him the desired results as his students exhibit the same stupidity that he has filled them with. Although the poem is grand in terms of its style and diction, the depiction of the fictitious version of reality is what makes this poetic piece interesting.
  • “The History Teacher” A Depiction of Fictitious World: The poem centers on a history teacher who intends to present a better and positive version of cruel history to his students, intending to keep them away from barbarism and savagery of the events. The poem begins with the depiction of the Ice Age, which to him, was just a chilly period when everyone simply wore warm clothes. Next, he talks about the Stone Age, considering it the Gravel age. It was the time when people used to have long driveways.
    Then, he talks about the Spanish Inquisition in a very light way, presenting it as a time when people loved to ask questions. To preserve his student’s innocence, he introduces them to a soft image of the war of roses, saying it was fought in a garden. Despite all his efforts, his students end up showing aggressive, cruel, and negative behavior once they are out of this fantasy world. Ironically, the teacher remains unaware of the damaging impact of the idyllic spectrum he has created for his students. Indirectly, the poem encourages teachers to teach history with facts without erasing the past.
  • Major Themes in “The History Teacher”: Appearance versus reality, dangers of ignorance, and negative human instincts are the major themes of this poem. The poem highlights the teacher who wants to keep his pupils away from the realistic and gruesome background of major historic events. To preserve their innocence, he creates soft and positive images of the events that are the epitome of suffering and hardships. He refers to the actual historic events but stirs and swaps the bitter reality with fictitious details. The poem takes an ironic turn when the same innocent students come out of his glorious world and show their negative sides. It is through this simple text, the poet explains that keeping learners away from the truth is dangerous.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in “The History Teacher”

literary devices are tools to convey emotions, feelings, and ideas to the readers. They can also make the poems lifelike and connects the readers with the real or hidden messages of their pieces. Billy Collins has also used some literary devices in this poem. The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem is given below.

  1. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line in quick succession. For example, the sound of /ea/ in “when everyone had to wear sweaters” and the sound of /i/ in “How far is it from here to Madrid?”.
  2. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick succession. For example, the sound of /t/ in “for the playground to torment the weak.”
  3. Allusion: Allusion is a belief and an indirect reference to a person, place, thing, or idea of a historical, cultural, political, or literary significance. The poet alludes to the historic events at several places in the poem such as; “he told them the Ice Age was really just the Chilly Age”, “The War of the Roses took place in a garden” and “Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.”
  4. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought in verse that does not come to an end at a line break; instead, it rolls over to the next line. For example,

Trying to protect his students’ 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.”

  1. Irony: Irony is a figure of speech in which words are used in such a way that their intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. Although the intention of the teacher seems unquestionable, yet her different approach in detailing the major events to the students is ironic as well as satiric.
  2. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “when everyone had to wear sweaters”, “mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses” and “while he gathered up his notes and walked home.”
  3. Rhetorical Question: Rhetorical question is a question that is not asked to receive an answer; it is just posed to make the point clear. The poet has posed rhetorical questions at many places in the second stanza of the poem to put emphasize his point such as;

How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in “The History Teacher”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Free Verse: Free-verse is a type of poetry that does not contain patterns of rhyme or meter. This is a free-verse poem with no strict rhyme or metrical pattern.
  2. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are six stanzas in this poem with each comprising different numbers of verses.

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below are useful to describe any bad incident that could happen at a school.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses.”