Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thomas Hardy: "Afterwards"

Here is another gem of Thomas Hardy's that I just discovered recently while browsing through the collection of his poems. 


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 through 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 is outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's  boom,  
     "He hears it not now, but used to notice such things."?

-- Thomas Hardy --
from The Works of Thomas Hardy

This, at first, struck me as an unusual poem for Hardy, but, of course, I'm familiar with so few of his thousand or so poems that this may not be that unusual.   When I first read it, I immediately thought of Emily Dickinson, who has a number of poems supposedly expressing ideas after having died.  She also has a large number of poems, over seven hundred I think, so I'm familiar with only a relatively few of them.

That was my first impression, but after rereading it, it became clear that the narrator was only speculating on how he might be remembered after death, not that he had actually died and was now wondering about how others would remember him.  What the poem does give us is a picture of the concerns of the narrator while he was alive, and those concerns are not, to me anyway, the expected ones.  If Dickinson, however, expresses the narrator's concerns in a poem of hers, I'm not aware of it. 

I see no concern here for his "place" in history or his "place" in literature.  Instead of a concern for an intellectual understanding of him, it focuses on his absorption in the real world about him.   I wonder what those who insist that art is, along with children, a symptom of the artists' or the parents' hope for immortality will think of the narrator of this poem.

The poem does reflect, also, one of Hardy's strengths as a novelist and a poet--his sense of place and the creatures that inhabit it.  His concerns are for those natural elements that we all see and experience, but we are so used to them that they are invisible.  But this is clearly not true for Hardy, for the natural world is so important in his poetry and in his fictions, that to remove them would leave a large gap in his poetry or his fictions.

In addition, I find his language to be straightforward and almost blunt.  And as always, there is that sense of honesty in that he simply says what he believes.

The narrator here asks a question that most of us, at one time or another, have asked, but he adds a unique qualification, "Do they remember the right things about me?" 


  1. aside from the post - death musings, the language reminds a bit of John Clare, with it's absorption in natural surmisings... a nice change from his usual topic of the trials of young love...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I know nothing of John Clare.

      "the trials of young love..." I overdosed on that topic so common in songs of the '50s and early '60s. As a result, I usually move on as soon as I realize it's the topic of the poem.

  2. Poets and death musings have long been married couples! And I sense that some bloggers lately (myself included) have been preoccupied with the subject. Hardy, of course, focused on poetry when he became disgusted with writing prose fiction (i.e., disgusted with readers, markets, and critics); perhaps his preoccupation is related to the time in life when he made the transition from prose to poetry. "The Convergence of the Twain" is Hardy's masterpiece! Again, death figures prominently, but -- as suggested in the poem -- an individual's death matters little in the cosmos. That kind of existential depression is (for some readers but not me) depressing!

  3. R.T.,

    Those are highly complex issues requiring a book length response. Hardy here is concerned with a form of immortality, but it's different than many have strived for it.

  4. In the introduction to his book "The Redress of Poetry" Seamus Heaney offers keen insight into Hardy's poem "Afterwards."

  5. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the information. I'll search around for it.