Try reading the poem out loud. It's just a series of five questions, so how hard can it be? The answer: pretty hard. The lines are so long that it's easy to lose track of where you are, and each stanza is its own sentence, so the whacky sentence structure isn't much of a help, either. But don't worry – part of the fun of this poem is getting lost in the evocative images of each stanza. It's so easy to get caught up in the imagery that the move from the poetic descriptions of nature in the first three lines of each stanza to the quotation of what the neighbors will say can feel almost jarring. Compare the sound of "He was a man who used to notice such things" (4) to:
[…] like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn […] (5-7)
It's almost as though you check out of the poetry-world for the last line of each stanza; the neighbors don't seem to live in the same plane as the speaker. But if you're not all that comfortable with reading the poem out loud, the breaks in the meter and poetic language that come with the neighbors' dialogue can feel like a welcome break.
The poem is full of alliteration and assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds) that make you slow down as you read it out loud. Some of the lines are a real mouthful – look at line 2, especially: "And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings." It's like a tongue-twister. But the final line of each stanza, when the speaker imagines what the neighbors will say, is much more like prose. The parts in quotation marks don't sound like poetry at all! These more conversational lines come almost as a relief after the tongue-twisting lines that trip you up and slow you down earlier in each stanza.
"Afterwards" seems like a fairly easy title – it is, after all, only one word. But like most of Hardy's poetry, there's more to this deceptively simple title than meets the eye. The word "afterwards" is an adverb – it describes when something happens. So the title suggests the continual forward movement of time, since the poem takes place in the future, after some event that hasn't happened yet at the time it is being written.
But "after" what? What event does the poem refer to in the title? To the death of the speaker: the entire poem is a meditation on what will happen "afterwards" – after he dies. There's also a possible pun in the title – the poet wants to know how he'll be remembered as a writer. Will people remember his words? What will happen "after words"? There's a lot of weird ambiguity having to do with the passage of time all wrapped up in that deceptively simple title.
The setting of the poem is difficult to pin down because it changes with every stanza, depending on where and when the speaker is imagining his death. All of the possible settings suggest the countryside – sometimes in May, sometimes in winter, sometimes at night, sometimes at dusk, but always surrounded by the beauties of nature. The last stanza has a church ringing the "bell of quittance," and the neighbors appear in every stanza, so we're guessing that the poem-world is in a quiet, English country village – not unlike the village of Stinsford, where Hardy spent most of his adult life.
The speaker of "Afterwards" is an older man – someone who feels that his own death is near at hand. Makes sense – after all, Hardy wrote it when he was 77 years old. Hardy has a reputation for being dark and melancholy, but even though this is a poem about death, it's surprisingly un-depressing. The tone of the poem is more wistful than bitter: the speaker wants to be remembered, but is afraid that he'll be forgotten entirely. More specifically, he wants to be remembered as someone sensitive to the subtle beauties in nature.
There's a lot going on in this poem as far as poetic diction and figurative language, but once you get past the tough vocabulary words like "postern," it's a pretty accessible poem. You don't need to be a critical genius to get a lot out of it – just a careful and attentive reader.
If you're reading a poem with a lot of bird imagery that could be interpreted as a symbol for death, you've probably got your hands on a Hardy poem. One of his other well-known poems, "The Darkling Thrush," describes a bird that sings hopefully despite its gloomy surroundings. Hardy's poetry is often described briefly as dark, depressing, or morbidly obsessed with failure and disappointment. But we all like a little angst in our reading material to pull on the old heartstrings, don't we?
The poem is divided into five 4-line stanzas, called quatrains. Each quatrain has an ABAB rhyme pattern (look at the first quatrain: "stay" rhymes with "say," and "wings" rhymes with "things").
The meter is a little bit tougher: there isn't a rigidly set number of syllables per line, like you'd find in a sonnet. Notice how long all the lines are – in some editions of the poem, there isn't even enough space to fit all the words in each line, so they spill over into the next (if you thought your edition was numbering the lines wrong, that's what's going on). It's as though the speaker wants to stretch out each line as long as possible – and for a poem about the passage of time and the inevitability of death, we can't really blame him for wanting to drag his feet a little.
The lines that are in quotation marks – the last line or two of each stanza – are hardly in verse at all. Because the poet is imagining what his neighbors would say, those lines almost read like prose, or regular, conversational dialogue.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The poem is a meditation on death, but the speaker never once uses the words "death" or "die." How does he manage that? By using a slew of euphemisms to describe death, and by employing a lot of figurative language. Why doesn't he use the word "death"? Why not be more explicit, since that's what the poem is pretty obviously getting at? Maybe because he doesn't want "death" to sound so final. In this poem, people continue to exist after they die, if only in the memories of their friends and neighbors.
For all the euphemisms and metaphors describing death in this poem, there are a lot of more upbeat images of nature, life, and renewal, too. Thank goodness, or this poem would be depressing as heck. As it is, the natural images balance out some of the more melancholy bits that we pointed out above.
Each of the stanzas takes place during a different season. The poet can't seem to make up his mind what as to what season he'll end up dying in, so he hedges his bets and imagines all the possibilities. In the first stanza, he imagines dying during spring; the third is summer; and the fourth is winter. Strangely, winter isn't the bad guy here – in most poems about death, you'd expect winter, or at least autumn, to play a big role in setting the mood, but that's not necessarily the case here.
If each stanza takes place during a different season and the whole poem is a meditation on death, you better believe that the passage of time is an important category here. Even the title of the poem plays with the idea of time: "Afterwards?" After…what? When? Check out the "What's Up with the Title?" section of this module, and then come back for more examples of symbols, imagery, and wordplay having to do with the passage of time.
There's no sex in this poem. After all, it's about dying, and as a rule, it's best not to mix the two. It's not that Hardy had nothing to say about sex (just flip over to Tess of the D'Urbervilles if you don't believe us), but he generally left it out of his poetry.