‘The Afterlife’ by Billy Collins is a ten stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The longest stanza stretches for six lines, and the shortest is only one line long. Collins did not choose to make use of a specific rhyme scheme in this poem. But, there is a great deal of repetition in how the lines are structured. This is especially prominent in the central four stanzas of the poem that described the various ways the recently deceased are going to spend the rest of their lives.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that the recently dead are setting out on their journeys at the end of the day. In a twist on traditional poems about life and death, this piece asserts that the deceased end up exactly where they thought they would. Collins accounts for all manner of ideas and predictions about the afterlife. He is at his best as his speaker describes fantastical and amusing worlds the dead end up joining. They spend their lives as bundles of energy, in rooms with unlimited food, and even climbing in and out of animal suits, experiencing reincarnation.
As the poem concludes the speaker tells the reader that some do not find peace or joy in death. Instead, they long for life and for the simple things the living can do. These include looking out a window and preparing for bed.
You can read the full poem here.
Collins makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Afterlife’ these include alliteration, juxtaposition, enjambment, metaphor and simile. All of these will be noted in the text, but it is important to have a full understanding of what the more complicated terms refer to. Alliteration is one poetic technique that is quite easy to spot. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “dead” and “day” in the first stanza, “coal chute” in the third and “full” and “food” in the fourth stanza.
Juxtaposition is a technique that is used throughout the entirety of ‘The Afterlife’. This is when two contrasting things are placed near one another to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this to emphasize a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. Every version of the afterlife Collins’ speaker puts forward is compared and contrasted with the others around it.
Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the third stanza. A reader has to move to the fourth line to find out how and where the divine judge sits.
Analysis of The Afterlife
While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.
In the first stanza of ‘The Afterlife,’ the speaker begins by presenting a scenario that should be familiar to the vast majority of readers. He prompts the reader to consider the moments when “you are preparing for sleep”. You might be “brushing your teeth” or, he adds, “rifling through a magazine in bed”.
These are common end of the day activities and things that the average person does not think twice about. Collins juxtaposes these simple occurrences with the journey the recently departed are embarking on. He asks the reader to think about how the “dead of the day” is just setting out on their journey.
They’re moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.
In the second stanza, Collins, or the persona through which he is speaking, makes clear his vision of the afterlife. He imagines that everyone who has died on a single day does not go to one place or a good or bad version of the same place. Instead, they depart in “all imaginable directions”. He describes them as moving off “according to” their “own private belief”.
Collins speaker does relate his text to the Christian tradition, by referencing the biblical story of Lazarus who died and was brought back to life by Christ. This famous resurrection is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. Utilizing its popularity and widespread presence in the media, Collins’ speaker states that “silent Lazarus would not reveal” the secret. As someone who saw the other side of death, he would have known that no single religion is correct, but instead “everyone is right”.
Collin’s speaker describes this quite simply. He does not make a big deal of the fact that all the world’s religions are at once proven wrong and proven right.
There is something undeniably comforting about these lines, as Collin’s speaker very plainly states that “you go to the place you always thought you would go”. There are no terrors or horrors after death, just the “alcove in your head” that you “kept lit” throughout life. Collins presents the afterlife in a very peaceful and meditative way. This is bolstered by the utilization of the metaphor of a little alcove that’s lit by a single light. It’s a place of refuge in the dark.
A reader should also take note of the instances of alliteration Collins uses in these lines to help create a feeling of rhythm in a text. For example, “secret” and “silent”.
Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.
In the third stanza, Collins goes over some of the many that those departing this world are entering into the next. Some parts of these lines might be familiar, but most are a vibrant combination of absurd, magical, and outlandish adventures and meetings. Once again utilizing alliteration, Collins describes how some of the people who are entering into the afterlife are being shot “into a funnel of flashing colours”. Some, are entering into a light that is “white as a January sun”. This is a simple yet lovely simile that connects to the image of the light in the second stanza.
He goes on, describing how “others” find themselves standing in front of a “forbidding judge”. This person is surrounded by symbolic objects that speak to these beliefs.
Some have already joined the celestial choir
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.
The fourth stanza is structured in much the same way as the third. Collins describes how some people have “joined the celestial choir” and are participating in the group song “as if they have been doing this forever”. This again speaks to the comfort and pleasure that some intend to experience in the afterlife.
In the second half of the stanza, it becomes clear that one’s experience in the afterlife depends very much on their own imaginative qualities. If while living, someone did not envision a good afterlife for themselves, they might get “stuck / in a big air-conditioned room full of food and chorus girls”.
Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.
In the fifth stanza, the pattern continues. These lines are meant to be humorous, but also touching as the reader might recognize something of their belief system within these fantastical experiences. In this stanza, god is defined as a “female” who is in her “40s with short wiry hair / and glasses”. This amusing and very real-seeming description contrasts pleasingly with the traditional booming, shining, and overwhelming presence of a male god figure.
The scene with the female god becomes even more interesting in the last line as Collins’ speaker describes her as regarding the dead “through a hold on her door”.
A reader might find it interesting to consider if this belief, or others included in this poem, have precedents in the ancient or contemporary world. Or, if Collins was simply exercising his creative powers and crafting endearing and eye-catching images of death.
Stanza Six and Seven
There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,
while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.
The sixth stanza is once again four lines. This time it describes reincarnation in a very simple and witty language. The speaker states that those who believe in such an occurrence are “squeezing into the body/of animals”. These include “eagles and leopards”. They’re trying on different outfits, trying to find the right way to “begin another life”.
The seventh stanza is only two lines. It includes those who had less of a structural belief in an afterlife. They instead put their faith in their re-utilization as energy in the universe. They “float off into benign vagueness”. Rather than becoming a new person, or entering into a new world, they transform into “units of energy”.
There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.
Collins’ speaker describes how, even though it’s rare, there are “a few classicists being led to an underworld”. He speaks on a mythological creature, a furious cave, and a “three-headed dog”. One of the most interesting aspects of this stanza is the reference to Edith Hamilton. She was an American educator and a renowned classicist. She is often credited with the re-popularization of classical mythologies and histories.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.
(And some just smile, forever on)
The ninth stanza returns to the sestet or six-line format. It speaks to all those who did not have a comprehensive understanding of the afterlife. They “just lie on their backs in their coffins”. The rest of eternity is filled with a desire to return to the living world. Once there, they could “learn Italian” or travel to “see the pyramids”. These are simple pleasures and are meant to relate to a wide audience.
There is something of a turn in the last three lines of ‘The Afterlife’ as the speaker re-orients the poem towards the reader. He describes how this segment of the dead population wishes that they could, as “you” do. They want to wake up and “stand at a window examining the winter trees”. This final message is meant as a reminder for all those reading to take pleasure in these moments.
The tenth stanza of the poem is only one line and serves more of an addendum than a final stanza. It adds that there are “some” who “just smile, forever on”. Collins’ speaker gives no further description of who these people are, or why they’re smiling. But, they are perhaps the luckiest. They may embody an eternal realm of peace and pleasure.