Aeneid by Virgil
We think of Heaven as up above, but, for the Greeks and Romans, only the gods preside on high. The best that humans can hope for is Elysium, the nicest section of the Underworld. Here Aeneas finds that the heroic dead have a grassy gymnasium: some “compete in sports and wrestle on the yellow sand: / others tread out the steps of a dance, and sing songs”.
Paradiso by Dante
After his tours of Hell and Purgatory, the poet has earned his trip upstairs. Guided by Beatrice, he ascends to the abode of angels, from where he can see the whole celestial mechanism of the nine heavenly spheres. Reaching the Empyrean, he sees “a light flowing like a river / Glowing with amber waves between two banks / Brilliantly painted by spellbinding spring”.
Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer
After the ecstasy of requited love, and the agony of his beloved’s betrayal, Troilus becomes a kamikaze warrior and is duly dispatched before the walls of his native Troy. His departed spirit ascends to some Platonic Heaven, from where he looks down somewhat disdainfully on the little passions of living men and women.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The fallen angels wallow in darkness, and God watches from “the pure empyrean” while “ambrosial fragrance filled / All heaven”. Milton imagines it as a place of divine choral music, “blest voices, uttering joy”. The angels twang their harps “with preamble sweet / Of charming symphony”.
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
After many a vicissitude, Christian and Hopeful arrive at the Heavenly City and are greeted by trumpeters “clothed in white and shining raiment”. “The City shone like gold, the streets also were paved with gold”; the populace have harps and sing plenty of praises.
“The Flesh and the Spirit” by Anne Bradstreet
Flesh and Spirit have a debate, in which Flesh’s account of all the world’s delights is outdone by Spirit’s description of Heaven. “The stately Walls both high and strong / Are made of precious Jasper stone”. There are, naturally enough, “Gates of Pearl”, streets of transparent gold and a “Crystal River”.
“I Went to Heaven” by Emily Dickinson
Dickinson’s paradise is just a bit eccentric. “‘Twas a small town / Lit with a ruby / Lathed with down. / Stiller than the fields / At the full dew”. Its inhabitants have “Duties of gossamer, / And eider names”. Even the professionally discontented poet confesses she would be “Almost contented” to belong to “such unique / Society”.
Liliom by Ferenc Molnár
In Molnár’s play (the source for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel) fairground worker Liliom kills himself after taking part in a botched robbery. The scene changes to “the Beyond”, where he finds himself in a Heavenly courtroom and is required by a divine magistrate to return to earth to help out his daughter.
The Last Battle by CS Lewis
At the end of the last Narnia novel, Peter, Lucy and Edmund realise they were killed in the train crash at the beginning of the book and witness the end of Narnia. The Pevensie kids get into Heaven, where you can run as fast as you like without getting tired and “there were forests and green slopes and sweet orchards and flashing waterfalls, one above the other, going on for ever”. “The holidays have begun.”
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Having been raped and murdered by a neighbour, teenager Susie Salmon watches from Heaven as the investigation into her death unfolds. Susie’s Heaven is like high school, but without any compulsory lessons except Art.