A classic Hardy poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Afterwards’ is one of Thomas Hardy’s most famous and widely anthologised poems. The poem was published in Hardy’s 1917 volume Moments of Vision. Like many of Hardy’s poems, it has received relatively little critical analysis – little when we consider that Hardy is thought of as one of the major writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?
If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
‘To him this must have been a familiar sight.’
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’
If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
‘He was one who had an eye for such mysteries’?
And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
‘He hears it not now, but used to notice such things?’
Many of us have probably wondered, at some point, what our posthumous reputation will be. What if we died tomorrow – what, then, would our legacy be? What would people remember or say about us? It’s a curious thing because it’s something that we can imagine, but that we will never experience. One cannot be present at one’s own funeral eulogy, and one can but speculate on what will be said ‘afterwards’.
This is what Thomas Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’ ponders, speculating on how Hardy might be remembered by those who knew him, after his death, at various times of the year. Although best-known nowadays as a novelist, Hardy’s first love was poetry and he supposedly went on composing poetry right until the end of his life, dictating his last poem while on his deathbed in 1928. But ‘Afterwards’ concerns itself with what happens after death.
In summary, Hardy wonders what the neighbours will say, when the present moment has passed and Hardy’s own life has ended. (He uses the idea of a postern, or back gate being closed, or latched, behind him – suggesting the ‘close’ or end of his life.) When the month of May arrives and the landscape is green with new flowers, will the neighbours remember that Hardy was a man who used to notice such things? The same with the nightjar (a bird which Hardy refers to as the ‘dewfall-hawk’): it moves so silently and so quickly, it’s easily missed (blink and you’ll miss it), but Hardy notices such a thing, and he hopes and trusts that someone who knows him will recall that he used to watch the movement of the bird as it comes to rest on a thorn.
Hardy didn’t merely observe nature: he strove to help animals and be kind to them, though he acknowledges that he hasn’t been able to prevent acts of blind cruelty taking place (and he knew, having read the work of Charles Darwin, that they were a fact of nature). Hardy uses the example of the humble hedgehog as a shorthand for this helpless creature of nature which the poet strove to look after (as his great successor Philip Larkin later would). What’s more, Hardy didn’t merely observe nature or strive to help animals, but contemplated the heavens and more metaphysical questions concerning life, death, and the afterlife, ‘such mysteries’. Hardy beautifully captures his own – and all of mankind’s – inability to find the answer to such mysteries with his reference to ‘the full-starred heavens that winter sees’. Winter cannot see anything; but then neither can Hardy, once dead, so it makes as much sense to talk about the abstract entity that is the winter season ‘seeing’ the stars in the heavens as it does to talk about the dead Hardy seeing them.
Nowhere in ‘Afterwards’ does Hardy mention death. The title of poem opts for the euphemistic ‘Afterwards’ rather than ‘After Death’. Hardy instead has been ‘stilled at last’ (i.e. made still), and his ‘bell of quittance’ has sounded (he has merely ‘quit’ this life, not died). Is this because he finds it difficult to contemplate the idea of life going on when he is not there to enjoy it? Perhaps. What we can be certain of is that ‘Afterwards’ is one of Hardy’s finest poems because it articulates something which we have all thought, but ne’er so well expressed.
To go in search of more of Hardy’s poetry, we recommend The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Wordsworth Poetry Library), which is excellent value for money and contains nearly 1,000 pages of Hardy’s poems. For more discussion of Hardy’s work, see our analysis of his heartfelt poem about the death of his first wife, our thoughts on his classic poem about the self and the past, and our pick of his best novels.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.