Department of English

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University


My Number


Billy Collins

(1941 )


Is Death miles away from this house,

reaching for a widow in Cincinnati
or breathing down the neck of a lost hiker
in British Columbia?
Is he too busy making arrangements, 5
tampering with air brakes,
scattering cancer cells like seeds,
loosening the wooden beams of roller coasters
to bother with my hidden cottage
that visitors find so hard to find? 10
Or is he stepping from a black car
parked at the dark end of the lane,
shaking open the familiar cloak,
its hood raised like the head of a crow,
and removing the scythe from the trunk? 15
Did you have any trouble with the directions?
I will ask, as I start talking my way out of this.




Sample Student Reading Responses to Billy Collins’s poem “My Number

Response 1:






Renu Panya

2202242 Introduction to the Study of English Poetry

Acharn Puckpan Tipayamontri

July 3, 2008

Reading Response


The Life of Death: Personification in Billy Collins’s “My Number”


Billy Collins’s poem “My Number” presents death in action.  Death’s description is suggestive of personification, where an inanimate thing, an animal, or an abstract idea “is made human or is given human qualities” (Coursebook 28).  He breathes (l. 3).  He reaches for (l. 2), tampers with (l. 6), scatters (l. 7), and loosens (l. 8) things.  But how human are these “human qualities”?  How human-like is it to kill a woman who has already lost her husband, or to snatch away a person who wants to find his way home, or to give disease for which there is no cure?  The token gesture to humanize death is doubly undermined by the hypotheticality of the questions in which the personification is couched and by the inhumanity of Death’s supposedly human actions.

What human can have a reach that is limitless in space (can be everywhere from Cincinnati to British Columbia to roller coasters and dark lanes) and time (is never too busy)?  What person can find every life no matter how hidden?  What person has breath that ends life rather than begins it?

It seems the speaker’s questions try to humanize death so he can deal with him as a person who can be persuaded, who will “find it hard to find” his house (l. 10, 1), and who has ears and can hear him talk.  The speaker is not brave in talking to death, but afraid.  If personification humanizes death and gives it life, perhaps taking away personification can end its life?  The personifying imagery makes death more clearly person-like (having a car, “stepping from a…car” l.11), bringing him closer and closer in space and the tense shift from “Is something so?” (first three stanzas) to “I will” (l. 17) to “I start talking” bring death closer and closer in time.  The hypothetical becomes a definite future, and finally an ongoing present.  At the end, the actions cease, personification of death stops.  Death is no longer a person who can make arrangements (l. 5) or park a car (l. 12).  The pronoun for death is no longer a “he” but a “this” (l. 17), a definite vagueness that is here.  The sense of doom throughout the poem forebodes the failure to make death human, and this last word speaks of the more important failure: after personification, death’s life continues.










Billy Collins



Death's personification: What human qualities are given to death?  What inhuman qualities?  What implications does death personified have on our conceptions about dying and how we die?

Yet, how does Collins use the familiar personification of death as the grim reaper?  Does he use personification to show how human death is?  We've seen the series of questions technique used before (in "What Has Happened to Lulu?," "Harlem," and "Question").  Perhaps in the first two cases the questions evoke guilt, and in "Question" they express apprehension.  What function do questions have in this poem?  There seems to be two types of questions: one, directed at an unknown listener, asking about the activities of Death, and in effect, questioning the identity of Death itself/himself, and the other, directed at Death baldly, but ironically, as an evasion.  In the end, how does death come off?  Answering the poem's questions: Is death the human-like cloaked and hooded figure with a scythe who is always busy plotting accidents and spreading disease that the speaker would like him to be?


Poem Notes

From Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems.  New York: Random House, 2002.


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Last updated October 3, 2009