In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T. S. Eliot states that "the poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together" (19). Hardy's elegiac "Afterwards" exemplifies this contention about the poet's mind, as Hardy has concreted numerous sensory impressions and linguistic intricacies into this one short poem.
The poem opens with an architectural image with the personification of the "Present" as it "latches" or irrevocably closes the back door behind the speaker. In "When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay" (1), Hardy naturalizes the archaism "postern, " denoting the rear gate of the castle, often an emergency escape route of some sort such as a secret tunnel (Allingham, 3414 class notes, with reference to the Oxford English Dictionary). Further, Hardy may even be punning on "posterity" in the sense of "the succeeding generations" or "the descendants of a person" (Allingham, 3414 class notes). The latching of the postern locks us out of the Castle of Life, leaving us, as Edgar would say in King Lear, "darkling" (Allingham) or stranded in "nocturnal blackness" (9). As Hardy's "brief visit" on this earth he poetically describes as a "tremulous stay" (1), connotations of "tremble," "tremendous," and "tremor" come to the reader's mind (Allingham, 3414 class notes). The association of "tremor" not only implies that the poem is "drawn by a tremulous hand" (OED), alluding to the poet's age of 77 when Hardy composed the poem, but also draws on the poet's apprehension "about the public's reception of his work" (Allingham, 3414 class notes).
The poem's vegetation imagery can also be connected to "tremulous" in the tremor or trembling of the new, "glad green leaves" in the month of May, these being "delicate-filmed as new-spun silk" (3) as they vibrate in the breeze. As a result of Hardy's use of this simile, the reader may associate the new leaves with a fledgling's wings, suggesting the innocence, youth, and naiveté that the poet lost a lifetime ago. The "new-spun silk" can be further associated with the silk of a cocoon, within which the process of metamorphosis occurs. As the personified image of the Present latches the "postern," then, we are ironically given a promise of spring and the renewal of life. Within the first three lines of the poem, then, we are asked if the poet will be remembered as "a man who used to notice" such minute natural details in the changing of the seasons, dismissed as "such things" (4) by the living watchers who are themselves watched and overheard by the passing spirit.
The poem then descends into a dark psychological landscape as the speaker queries whether or not he will be remembered. The setting is specifically "dusk" (5), and one is reminded of Hardy's connecting the beloved's dying smile with an "ominous bird awing" in "Neutral Tones" with another harbinger of death in this poem, the "dewfall-hawk" that crosses "the shades to alight / upon the wind-warped upland thorn" (6-7). In Hardy's use of an "ominous bird a-wing" in "Neutral Tones" (line 12), the poet injects an almost supernatural element into the setting with the second verse of the poem. In "Afterwards," this supernatural element is much more explicit, in that, in the third verse the speaker is querying whether his spirit may remain amidst these humble scenes that he so loved in life: "If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm" (9). An allusion to the grave may be involved in the "nocturnal blackness" (1). Although one would expect the soil to be moist and cold, rather than "mothy and warm" (1), here one encounters a sense of muskiness. Hardy deploys dramatic irony as he juxtaposes this descent into "nocturnal blackness" against the furtiveness of nocturnal animal life: as the hedgehog "travels furtively over the lawn" (10) so will his spirit, he speculates. The speaker then muses upon whether or not he will be remembered as one who "strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm" (11).
As is the case in many other Hardy poems, here winter is archetypally associated with death in "Afterwards." However, the fourth verse is more positive about this season of death and desiccation as the "nocturnal darkness" is transformed into the mystery of the "full-starred heavens" (14). As "they rise again" (19), we encounter a paradox. "They" grammatically should refer to the momentarily interrupted boomings of the bell, but seems to offer a biblical allusion to the resurrection of all mankind on Judgment Day. Here, we may take "they" to mean also both ancestors and posterity who have heard and will hear the bell throughout history. With Hardy's persona looking on after death, we are left with those who will come after Hardy, standing at "the door" (13), gazing upwards to the night skies and remembering the poet, "the door" (13) recalling the image of the latched "postern" (1) that opens the poem. The speaker again queries whether or not he will be remembered as one who had "an eye for such mysteries" (16). Ironically, the listeners will think that, in the grave and shut off from their reality, Hardy cannot hear the bell (stanza 4) and relish the beauty of the night skies (stanza 3), when in fact (or rather, in the poet's speculation about the possibility of an existence for himself after death) he is present, observing and listening to both them and these natural aspects of Wessex life.
With the poem's conclusion, as the church-bell's tolling is "heard in the gloom" (17), a sense of the ebb and flow of life permeates the "crossing breeze [that] cuts a pause in its out-rollings" (18). The bell, emblematic of the comforting message of Christianity and the traditional faith of Hardy's forefathers, is momentarily interrupted, again suggesting the ebbing of faith and the discomfiting "truths" of modern science. With the "new bell's boom" (19) we are left resigned to the fact that we are all born to die, the consolation within the poem being that we may be remembered affectionately by the living. The poem, then, becomes Hardy's bell of quittance, a song celebrating not merely his life but all life in the face of death.
In conclusion, the poem possesses an "eulogistic" as well as an "elegiac" quality (class notes). Although "excited by the ideas of his age, " and caught up with the clash between Christian faith and modern science, Hardy would have wanted to be remembered as a "lover of a nature" (Allingham). Hardy wrote this poem near the end of his life, wishing to be remembered by this poem (Allingham). The numerous sensory impressions of the poem, coupled with the conflict of faith and doubt that characterized the age in which Hardy lived and the informing details of Hardy's life as a "man of Wessex," are all present in this eulogistic poem.
Allingham, Philip V. "Lecture on Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy: 'Afterwards'." English 3414 WA. Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. 4 April 2005.
_____. "Lecture on Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy: 'Neutral Tones'." English 3414 WA. Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. 6 April 2005.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. "Tradition and Individual Talent." Selected Essays. London: Faber & Faber, 1932.
Last modified 7 May 2005