The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Linda Pastan’s “An Early Afterlife” is a free-verse poem consisting of two twelve-line stanzas. The poem is preceded by an epigraph from Horace, stating that “a wise man in time of peace, shall make the necessary preparations for war.” In the poem itself, Pastan transposes the peace-war opposition into an opposition between life and “afterlife,” that part of life that occurs—in Pastan’s special definition—between official leave-taking and death. In Pastan’s analogy, in good years (the time of peace) one should make oneself ready for the bad years of decline and death (war).

The poem begins by asking, “Why don’t we say goodbye right now,” while life, presumably, is still good. There follow three sentences beginning with the phrase “We could. . . .” Each succeeding sentence describes something advantageous the subject could do if he or she were to say good-bye right now. Point by point, the speaker argues that the good-byes said now could be expressed at leisure, more perfectly, more elegantly, than if they were to occur under forced circumstances.

Yet, in what seems at first like a contradiction, Pastan cites an example of forced good-byes as the example of what she wants. She alludes to the characters in Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach and its 1959 film adaptation, who, on the shores of Australia, await the arrival of a radiation cloud from the hydrogen bombs that have wiped out the rest of the...

(The entire section is 466 words.)