The Afterlife Summary
by Billy Collins

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(Poetry for Students)

“The Afterlife” was first published in Poetry magazine and is included in Billy Collins’s 1991 collection Questions about Angels, where it appears midway through the second section just before “The Dead.” It also appears in Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001) and is on Collins’s compact disc recording, The Best Cigarette (1997). The poem describes the speaker’s fantasies of what would happen if everyone, when they died, experienced the afterlife they believed in when they were alive. Like many of Collins’s poems, “The Afterlife” is rife with humor and a wry sense of the unusual. Life after death is a serious subject and one widely addressed in poetry, perhaps most famously in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Here, Collins deflates the gravity of the subject by poking fun at the ways in which people have imagined the afterlife. In nine free-verse stanzas, the speaker describes what comes after death for various types of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and the agnostic. Collins draws on religious stereotypes and figures from popular culture for his imagery, creating a kind of “cartoonish” feel in the poem. This style fits the context, however, as the descriptions have the feel of a daydream and are interspersed with the images of a person preparing for bed and waking in the morning.


(Poetry for Students)

Stanza 1
In the opening stanza of “The Afterlife,” the speaker addresses readers as “you,” observing that, as they prepare for sleep, others are dying and “setting out on their journey.” Journey, in this sense, refers to the experience of the soul after it leaves the body. Collins is drawing on various religious traditions that claim the physical body holds the essence of a person which is released upon death.

Stanza 2
The speaker sets up the frame for his depictions of the afterlife in the first sentence with the claim, “They are moving off in all imaginable directions.” The remainder of the poem charts those directions. The “silent Lazarus” the speaker refers to is from the New Testament. In the Book of John, Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, but Lazarus does not speak of his experience. The narrator suggests that Lazarus knew that the afterlife was different for everyone but kept it a secret. The “alcove in your head” mentioned in the stanza’s last line is a metaphor for the imagination, that faculty of the mind that can re-arrange perceptions and ideas.

Stanza 3
This stanza describes two popular views of the experience people have immediately following death. The first view comes from those who have literally died and have come back to life, via cardiopulmonary resuscitation or natural means. Such people frequently describe seeing a blinding white light and passing through a tunnel or tunnel-like shape. The second view is more explicitly Judeo-Christian in its imagery and involves a God who judges people by the life they have led, assigning them a place in heaven, which they reach via “a golden ladder,” or hell, which they reach via “a coal chute.”

Stanza 4
This stanza’s descriptions more explicitly evoke certain people by virtue of what they believe they deserve in the afterlife. The first two lines describe sanctimonious and self-righteous people who believe they have led a good and just life (by Christian standards). The third and fourth lines describe people who have lived lives pursuing material pleasures, as suggested by their fantasies of “a big air-conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.” The speaker refers to these people as “the less inventive,” showing his own bias.

Stanza 5
This stanza evokes a stereotype of a feminist who asserts that God is a woman. In describing a middle-aged woman...

(The entire section is 915 words.)