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.
How many different synonyms for "death" can you think of?
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.
- The title: "Afterwards" refers to the speaker's death – an event that, at the time of writing, obviously hadn't happened yet (since the poem wasn't written by a zombie Hardy). There's also a possible pun here: the speaker is thinking about what will happen "after words." What will happen to his memory as a poet? Will people remember his words after he's dead?
- Line 1: Here's the first extended metaphor describing death. Death is when the "Present" moment closes, or "latches" the "postern" (back door) on the speaker's "tremulous stay," or "trembling life." The "postern" is an old-fashioned word, even for Hardy's time – it usually refers to the back door of a big castle or fortress. Using that word, instead of "front door," suggests that the poet might be afraid that no one will notice his death – it'll be like slipping quietly out a back door.
- Line 5: The simile in this line ("like an eyelid's soundless blink") refers to the flight of the "dewfall-hawk" of line 6, but it could also make the reader think of the poet's death. Like the "postern" of line 1, this image could reflect the poet's anxiety that he won't be remembered when he dies – he'll just die quietly, "like an eyelid's soundless blink."
- Line 12: Here's a common euphemism for death: the neighbors say, "now he is gone" instead of "now he is dead." The word "gone" suggests that the speaker has moved on to something else; it doesn't suggest the kind of finality that "dead" does.
- Line 14: Here's another euphemism: the speaker says, "stilled" instead of "dead." Sounds kind of peaceful, doesn't it?
- Line 15: The speaker uses synecdoche when he says that his neighbors "will meet my face no more": he writes "face" as a stand-in for the whole person.
- Line 17: The "bell of quittance," or the bell that tolls when a person dies, metonymically refers to the speaker's death through association.
Nature and Renewal
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.
- Line 2: The alliteration of "May month" and "glad green" draws attention to the natural images of spring in this stanza, creating almost a skipping rhythm in this line. The simile at the end of the line compares the "green leaves" to birds' "wings."
- Line 3, 5, 6, 14, 18: The poet sure likes making up compound words to describe beautiful images in nature, doesn't he? Why are there so many compound words here? It's as though common English words are inadequate to describe the beauty he wanted to convey, so he comes up with his own words to do the job. Words like "delicate-filmed" (3) and "full-starred" (14) don't seem quite so unusual, but "dewfall-hawk" (6)? That's not a real kind of hawk! But there are hawks that come out at dusk, or "dewfall." "Dewfall" also contains the word "fall" in it, which is appropriate, given the downward, sorrowful pull of this poem.
- Line 10: The cute little "hedgehog" of this stanza could be read as a stand-in for all of the things that the poet feels he hasn't been able to accomplish in his life. It's an "innocent creature" that he has tried to protect, but "he could do little for them."
- Line 19: This is probably the most hopeful line in the poem, with the words "rise again" and "new bell" suggesting the possibility of life after death and renewal.
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.
- Line 2: The poet describes the month of May as though it were a bird "flapping" its "wings." This is kind of like personification, only the poet is giving the month of May the attributes of a bird, rather than of a person. We'll call it "birdification."
- Line 14: He personifies winter when he says that it "sees" the starry skies.
The Passage of Time
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.
- Line 1: The "Present" moment of time is personified in the very first line – the "Present" is kind of like the grim reaper. It's the guy who shuts the door on the speaker's life.
- Line 1: "Postern" could also be read as a pun on the word "posterity," which means the future generations that live after you.
- Line 15: The "bell of quittance," or the church bell that gets rung when a person dies, is actually the same bell that gets rung in the church tower every hour, anyway, so the ringing of the "bell of quittance," which marks the passing of a person's life, could just sound like the bell marking the passage of another hour.