Afterwards by Thomas Hardy

Afterwards Thomas Hardy: In this economic poem of reflection, Hardy muses upon the transience of life, writing movingly on his own mortality.

The very title alludes to his demise, although Hardy chooses never to use the word ‘Death’, instead replacing it with euphemisms such as ‘stilled at last’. Humbled by his impending death, Hardy fills the poem with melancholy and bittersweet imagery.

In each of his five four-line stanzas, characterized by his flowing lyricism, Hardy considers his death at different times of the year and imagines how he would wish to be remembered by his contemporaries.

The poem opens with the personification of the Present closing its back gate (‘postern’) on his ‘tremulous stay’: his own death and the use of the adjective ‘tremulous’ suggests the fleeting frailty of life.

However, he imagines it as a gentle passing, and never mentions any notion of a violent death throughout the poem. He then proceeds to consider what his neighbors would think if he died in May.

Thomas Hardy

He represents May as a butterfly, flapping its ‘glad green leaves like wings’, which are ‘delicate-filmed as new-spun silk’.

The rhythm of ‘new-spun silk’ and smooth flow of ‘delicate-filmed’ are redolent of the content that they describe. Furthermore, ‘glad, green leaves’ has connotations of a verdant spring day, adding to the contrast between this fresh, new season, and Hardy’s death. Nature progresses without him, and he wonders whether his neighbors would comment on his vivid appreciation of the world.

In the second verse, he imagines his death on a dusky autumnal evening. In an indication of his fondness for making up words, he uses the invented ‘dewfall-hawk’ as a bird that flies through the twilight (Hardy’s ‘dewfall-hawk’ represents a nightjar).

The phrase ‘an eyelid’s soundless blink’, describing the bird’s flight, conveys a sense of mystical stillness and re-enforces the silence, as a blink makes no noise anyway, while the use of the metaphysical word ‘shades’ subtly expresses the different lights of the barren landscape. In the alliterative phrase, ‘wind-warped upland thorn’, Hardy suggests that the wind there has bent the bushes, and again concludes by considering what might be said of him.

In many ways, this verse is reminiscent of another of Hardy’s poems, ‘A Darkling Thrush’. Both contain images of nature and bleak moors, refer to Hardy’s habit of walking along heathland, and ‘wind-warped upland thorn’ echoes lines such as ‘tangled bine-stems scored the sky’.

In the third stanza, Hardy muses on the thoughts of his friends if he were to die at night. The evocative description ‘mothy and warm’ encapsulates a summer’s furry darkness exactly, and his death is again contrasted against a backdrop of vitality and energy.

This is heightened when he describes a hedgehog’s crossing of the lawn: the animal ‘travels furtively’, the word ‘travels’ implying that it is a long journey, and ‘furtively’ indicating that it must be made under the cover of darkness, which hints at the hedgehog’s vulnerability. While he lives, Hardy is determined to help these ‘innocent creatures’, but in a regretful last line, he wonders if his neighbors will remember his deeds.

In the penultimate verse, the reader is again introduced to the possibility of death at night, but Hardy is dealing with winter now.

His friends are ‘watching the full-starred heavens’, and winter is personified as seeing these stars as well. By choosing the verb ‘rise’, a subtle indication of thought rising like the moon is created.

In the closing stanza of ‘Afterwards’, Hardy leaves the field of seasons and envisages his own funeral.

The opening to the conclusion, ‘my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom’ is an effective auditory–image, and resonates strongly with the beginning of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard’: ‘The curfew tolls the knell of the parting day’.

Once a breeze has briefly interrupted the ‘out rolling’ of his funeral bell, it continues, heard more loudly than before like a ‘new bell’s boom’.

This alliterative phrase clearly conveys the sound of the ringing and is again made to subtly juxtapose the death of Hardy with the rebirth and renewal of another thing.

 Each quatrain in the poem follows a clear A B A B rhyme pattern, but due to the unpredictable amount of syllables in each line, there is no rigid rhythm.

A lyrical ambiance is maintained throughout the poem, but Hardy, an unsurpassed master of rhythm, is not to be underestimated.

The very absence of an obvious meter leads to the lines being stretched out, infusing the poem with a solemn, funereal mood.

He uses alliteration effectively, such as ‘comes crossing’ and ‘glad green’, and employs several hyphenated adjectives: ‘delicate-filmed’, ‘full-starred’ and ‘wind-warped’. By narrating the poem from the first-person, he achieves a close intimacy with the reader.

Hardy was a man imbued with nostalgia. This elegiac poem confirms my previous view of him as a ‘time-torn man’ (the apt description used by his biographer, Claire Tomalin), as he is again reflecting upon his death. To use his own words, ‘poetry is emotion caught in measure’, and he certainly captures this in ‘Afterwards’.

However, in the face of his own demise, he expresses no wish for comfort, nor desire for immortality: only a hope that he will be remembered for his observation of the natural world.

Hardy deeply regretted the passing of Time, and this is communicated in many of his poems. For example, in ‘The House of Hospitalities’, he commences with a richly positive vignette of his past, which is starkly contrasted to his depiction of his dark, lonely existence as an old man.

In ‘Afterwards’, I hear this regretful, voice of longing again, and see death as a release from his sorrowful old age. This is confirmed by the closing lines of ‘The House of Hospitalities’, which read ‘I see forms of old friends talking, Who smile on me’.

In this ethereal, bittersweet expression, we see that he has no living friends anymore, and so death to him may be liberating. It is certainly not a thing to fear, for in ‘Afterwards’, he never speaks with the horror of his own death, instead choosing to muse calmly on it, as for him, it seems ‘a thing for weeping, that Now, not Then, held reign’.
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