In the poem "The Lanyard" by Billy Collins, the poet has a flashback when he comes across the word "lanyard" in a dictionary. He recalls how he once made a red and white lanyard for his mother while at summer camp. He considers what a pathetically small gift it was compared to everything his mother had given him, but at the time that he gave it as a boy, he thought that it was equivalent to all he had received from his mother.
This poem goes far beyond humorous irony, and it is also not primarily about any regret that the author might have felt as he looks back on the incident in retrospect. Instead, it is a profound analysis of the human condition. There are two main themes. One is the nature of parental love: the devotion to offspring that keeps giving and giving without a thought of reward or remuneration. The other is the nature of self-centered youthful naiveté. Children are typically oblivious to the sacrifices that their parents make for them. They only understand and appreciate the gifts of life, health, nurturing, food, clothing, training, and education long afterwards, as the poet is doing in this poem.
The poet's statement that "you can never repay your mother" in the last stanza is not an expression of regret. Instead, it is a simple statement of fact. As he says, it is "a worn truth" that everyone is aware of. Mothers do not expect repayment; they give out of unselfish love. What the poet says in the last lines is also, in a sense, true. Mothers are sincerely grateful for any expressions of love from their children, even lanyards that they have hand-crafted in summer camp.
The theme is, as others have said, the belated recognition by a son of the boundless love a mother has for her child.
Looking up the word "lanyard" triggers a childhood memory as powerful in the speaker as the memories famously triggered by the madeline, a kind of French cookie, in Proust, as the speaker explains below:
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly
When he sees the word lanyard, the speaker is transported back to summer camp, where he painstakingly, with the help of a counselor, made a lanyard for his mother. He ruefully compares the tiny gift of the lanyard to all his mother did for him:
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
She also cared for him when he was sick, and taught him to "walk and swim."
As we can see, a lanyard seems a wholly inadequate repayment.
Yet in the last lines, we also see that the young child is so secure in his mother's love and in his love for her, that he is "sure"
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
This is a wry look back at the innocence of childhood and at the child's naive reduction of love to a transaction, for, of course, such love can never be paid back, only paid forward. The theme is not regret for what can't be paid back, but recognition of the love that was bestowed.
I think this poem is certainly intended to be gently humorous, but, at the same time, it's an expression of gratitude from the poet to his mother, whom, he recognizes, he can never repay for everything she has done for him. The theme of the poem is the sacrifice that is motherhood, and the fact that, as children, we don't quite appreciate it. The poet remembers making a lanyard and believing, as a small child, that this was sufficient to "repay" his mother's gift of "a breathing body and a beating heart." As an adult, he recognizes that he "can never repay [his] mother." Our mothers provide us with life, with meals, with clothing and education; they feed us, they nurse us, and they look after us until we are able to look after ourselves. As adults, it can feel overwhelming to realize that there is no "smaller gift" we can give to our mothers which will ever be equal to what they have made for us. Does the poet regret this, though? Or is he simply acknowledging that this is a fact of life? After all, it is true of everyone; the poet is only thinking now, as the lanyard reminds him many years later, that he wishes he had expressed this gratitude more overtly to his mother.
A theme found in "The Lanyard" is the realization and deep appreciation that a man feels for his mother when he reflects on the many gifts she has given him. The speaker in the poem remembers a thoughtlessly constructed gift that he gave his mother when he was a boy and how he wishes he could admit to her now that he once considered it commensurate with what she had given him. From his adult perspective, he knows there is no gift a child can give a parent that would ever come close to acknowledging the gift of life and care that a parent gives their child, and he wishes to communicate that realization to her.
The tone of the poem isn't necessarily regretful; it is lighter than that. Collins is utilizing a humorous, wry tone to communicate that the thoughtlessness of youth has been replaced by a knowing perspective as an adult.
Love your mother! In Billy Collins' poem "The Lanyard," the speaker reflects on being a boy at camp and making a lanyard for his mother. The lanyard is key chain of sorts, made from simply braiding thin long strips of colored vinyl. The speaker recalls being proud of his efforts, but now, as an adult, he realizes how idiotic he was in feeling as though the simple craft could adequately thank his mother for all of her sacrifices: keeping him healthy, giving him an education, etc. The poem is a humorous look at how we all take our parents for granted.